Wednesday, September 30, 2009

FlashForward and Mystery Plot Arcs; Beginning of the End for the Public Option?; Genes Aren't What They Used to Be

Hey! Hope everyone is doing okay. Two more days until ACL Fest!
Had dinner at Ryan and Jamie's place last night. Jamie made some kind of pasta shells and salad, and the food was muy bueno. Thanks, Jamie!

We also watched the first episode of FlashForward, a new ABC show which seems to be trying to capitalize on the same sort of season-long (or maybe even multiple season) mystery plotline that Lost has employed. The show basically follows an FBI agent and a few other people as they, along with every other person on the planet, experience a six minute long period of sudden unconsciousness. While passed out, everyone has dreams/visions of a moment in time six months into the future. The mystery, of course, comes in the form of questions about who or what might have caused the blackout, and what these visions of the future ultimately mean.
The first episode of the show was okay, but not really great. There seemed to be some stereotypical characters (i.e., the cop with a drinking problem who is beginning to have some problems in his marriage to his successful, beautiful doctor wife), and the plot has already taken a few questionable turns (everyone immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was inflicted upon humanity by someone as opposed to being an accident or a natural phenomenon, and lots of people seemed eager to drive cars, fly helicopters, and otherwise just jump back right into life as usual right after this happened when it seems like they should have been worrying about whether it would happen again- and this doesn't even begin to explore issues of why everyone seems to immediately believe that these visions are foretelling actual reality instead of just being some sort of shared hallucination). Anyway, it's often not a great idea to judge a series off of a pilot or first, but there seem to be a few problems with the show. On the other hand, if the mystery behind the blackouts proves to be something that's actually unique and creative and different, I think the show could still turn out to be entertaining. The problem is, I'm not going to be willing to hang around forever, as it feels like I've been doing with Lost, just to start to get some insights into this mystery. There's a fine line there- I like a good, well developed sort of enigma/puzzle, but when I start to feel like the writer/director/producer is simply stretching the thing out and just using the mystery as a gimmick to keep me on the hook (basically, if I feel like real plot development isn't taking place), I get annoyed pretty quickly and even a little resentful. But it's sort of a tightrope- give too much away too soon and you lose the mystery, but string it out too long and the audience can turn on you.

In other news, the Senate Finance Committee voted yesterday to reject two amendments which would have provided for a government-run public option in health care (the public option, for those who don't know, is essentially a government run health insurance plan which would provide cost-controlled health care coverage for people who choose to use it as their insurance system). This defeat really saddens and annoys me because I pretty much see a public option as the best, most realistic way to keep private industry health care costs in check (since people would always have the option of moving to a public system if the private system became unreasonably expensive). I haven't lost all hope, because it sounds like some Democratic senators are still planning to fight for a public option. Also, I've read about a few countries, the Netherlands being one, which have managed to institute what sounds like meaningful health care reform without the inclusion of a public option (they heavily regulate their health care industry, make insurance coverage mandatory, and help to subsidize insurance for the poor). Still, I think that a public option might have been the best way of making sure that insurance companies and health care providers don't just find loopholes and end runs around any regulations that we put in place (the market itself would keep the health care industry in check if there were a public option). As for arguments that a public option would destroy private health care? I just don't by it. The post office certainly hasn't driven UPS or FedEx out of business, and Medicare hasn't driven out all other forms of competition among the populations in which it's available.
The so-called Blue Dog Democrats still strike me as most culpable in this defeat. They claim to stand on principle, but almost every one of them have taken large donations (which I read as bribes) from the health care industry. They're in the back pocket of the industry, and they're playing at being populists. Drives me a little nuts.
Mostly, though, I'm just annoyed with the segment of the American people who have fought so hard against reform that they genuinely need. Politicians will always be politicians, but if the American people demanded change instead of buying into the rhetoric of propagandists, the politicians would be forced to get on board.
For right now my insurance is pretty good, and I'll probably be one of the last people to have to worry about my health care coverage (at least so long as I remain in my current job, which I have no intention of leaving at the moment), so I guess I can take comfort in that. If we don't get reform passed, though, we'll see fewer and fewer services covered by our insurance plans, and costs will continue to rise (which will initially be passed on to employers, but which will eventually hit us in our paychecks or result in substantially reduced coverage).
Why does it seem like every other advanced, industrialized country can get this right, but the United States just can't get it together? We're kind of idiots.
Politicians and the media will put the blame on other politicians, special interests, etc., but they always avoid blaming the American people to any degree. Both the media and elected officials are much more interested in pandering to the American public (wherein lie the votes and ratings that are the lifeblood of these institutions) as opposed to engaging in an honest, open, critical analysis of the way that the American people think and act.
And some of the actions of the American people are becoming tiresome. Once again, I will concede that there are some legitimate reasons to question the direction that health care reform is likely to take (e.g., issues of fiscal responsibility, the intervention of government in a free market system, skepticism about the government's ability to manage a larger health care system, etc.), but within the debate I've also seen some serious bullsh*t. We're not going to become communists by caring for our sick. We're not going to go bankrupt because all of our money is being spent on health care for illegal aliens. People in other countries aren't less satisfied with their systems than patients are with our system here in the U.S.. There aren't going to be death panels.
Part of what annoys me is the fact that people could find lots of information about cheaper, better systems in other countries by just engaging in a quick search on the internet, but people would rather remain ignorant and fearful (and reinforce the political positions of their parties, right or wrong) instead of educating themselves to any degree. People aren't really fighting about health care reform on the merits. They're adopting the party lines that they've been handed and then just fighting this thing out in terms of making it a win or a loss for "their side", regardless of who benefits or suffers as a result of the actual legislation (which is all kinds of ironic for the people strongly against reform who are poor or unemployed and who would stand to benefit greatly if reform was passed). Oh well. In the end, it looks like reform opponents will get what they deserve (and I mean this literally- of course, the sad part is that a lot of people who actually wanted reform will also get what their neighbors deserve).

In totally different news, Sharon Begley has an article in Newsweek about how environmental conditions can apparently effect the activity (or maybe more appropriately the inactivity) of our genes.
I found the article extremely interesting. When I took biology in high school and in college, I was basically taught that genes were really only altered during mutation (which occurred when there was an error or change in the RNA/DNA replication process when new cells were made) or, of course, when DNA from different individuals combined during reproduction. Once you had your set of genes, I thought the conventional wisdom was that you just had this certain genetic code for the rest of your life, and that living things just sort of operated under this same genetic code throughout an organisms lifetime (living things could change in response to activity or environment or whatever, but only within certain prescribed limits that were initially established through a pre-set genetic code).
Now, apparently, the rising field of epigenetics is showing us that certain genes may be turned on or off in response to certain environmental triggers. At a molecular level, a group of atoms known as a methyl can attach to a gene and silence it. Alternately, methyls can be removed from genes, thereby making them active and causing them to engage in certain activities where they once had been silent. The activation or silencing of these genes can apparently take place in response to certain enviromental stimuli (e.g., genes in certain amphibians can be turned on or off in response to the presence of water, thereby allowing eggs to be laid on either dry land or in the water depending on the particular environmental condition at hand. Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of fate, I think Steanso's genes become switched on and start producing fat whenever he comes within 500 yards of a fast food establishment).
Anyway, I just found this really interesting. As I've gotten older I've come to have a greater understanding of the dynamic nature of science. Old, tried and true concepts continue to be modified or completely overhauled, and our understanding of things just seems to constantly become more and more complex (when I was growing up, genes didn't just switch on and off because they were close to water!). Given the scientific knowledge that we currently have at hand, it would seem like you would have to know an awful lot just to teach high school science classes these days.
And that's about all that I've got. Which is probably way too much.
Hope you guys are having a good one!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Bit on Whip It; The American Economic Landscape

Well, last night was fairly uneventful. I went to Casa Garcia with Ryan and Jamie, and I think Ryan might have sneezed into our basket of chips.

Cassidy and I hung out a bit and watched Heroes while Cassidy chewed on her Kong.
What else? A high school friend of my brother (who he remains in touch with), Shauna Cross, wrote the screenplay for Whip It, a movie being directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page, of Juno fame. The link above will send you to a New York Times article which discusses the movie, interviews Barrymore, and mentions Shauna a couple of times. Pretty cool for Shauna. Good to see a fellow Westwood Warrior finding that kind of success (and the movie looks pretty entertaining, too!).
Fox News, of all media outlets, ran an article today reporting findings related to a recent government study of income levels within American households. The study showed that a significant widening of the income gap between poorer and wealthier Americans has occurred over the last couple of years during the recession, and that the poor have felt some of the greatest impact during America's economic downturn. The median American household income fell from $52,163 to $50,303, reducing it to the lowest level since 1997, and the number of Americans living in poverty jumped to 13.2 %, its highest point in 11 years. Twenty one states had poverty ratings which were higher than the national average, with a significant number of those states being in the South. Income levels at the top of the income range (the top 5 and 10% income earners) were largely unchanged.
So Bush gave tax cuts to businesses and the wealthiest Americans during his 8 years in office, and the income disparity in our country widened. Then the recession hit. The disparity widened even further. The people in Red States, especially in the South, are among the poorest people in the country, meaning they're presumably also among the people most in need of health care reform and other social services, but many of these are the same people who seem the most afraid of our president (and the federal government) and remain interested only in furiously protesting against his Nazi, communist plots. The median income continues to drop, so middle class salaries are continuing to decrease, while the wealthiest Americans continue to enjoy stable income levels. All of this while the poverty level continues to rise (meaning the poorest segment of the American population continues to grow in size).
Add to this the increasing trend toward foreign job outsourcing, the trade disparities between the U.S. and China (and other nations), and the fact that students in the American education system are lagging significantly behind other countries in math, science, and other hard sciences (which help to create higher paying, skilled work positions), and things start to look a little bleak for the middle class American workforce.
So this is part of why Steanso is concerned about the socioeconomic polarization of American society. (I still feel like that if we continue on this trajectory for a few more generations we'll look like any number of developing or third world countries that have a large, poor working class and a small, wealthy governing class. The wealthy will continue to enjoy comfortable, affluent lifestyles, but they'll live in a nation that's otherwise comprised of a poorer, struggling working class).
I'm not a practiced prognosticator, but this is just sort of the direction that I see things going unless some things change. A strong effort to reinvigorate the American education system might help to turn some things around. Finding ways to level the trade disparity with China might help.
Mostly, though, the world economy is simply going through a transition that will make it truly global. America will undoubtedly survive, but the middle class may take a substantial hit(American businesses and the wealthier Americans in their management echelons may do alright as they cash in on overseas markets and take advantage of cheap foreign labor, but American workers will have to compete against skilled foreign workers who are willing to do the same jobs as Americans for smaller salaries). In order to remain at the forefront of the global economy, America has to continue to innovate and lead the way in its development of new products, technologies, and systems. If we don't have skilled workers who can build and support these items, however, only the wealthiest Americans will continue to benefit from technical innovation- the salaries associated with manufacture and support of these products will do elsewhere (to countries with educated, cheap labor) unless American workers are better trained or more capable than workers in other countries.
Too much. I need to stop rambling.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Weekend Update, Obama v. Iran, ACL Fest Draws Near

These are the crape myrtle trees along my driveway. I just took a picture of them because for 90% of the year they just look like nondescript shrub-like trees. Then, just when you've all but forgotten about them, they get these cool flowers like they're doing now....

Cassidy frolicking at the spillover this weekend.

More Cassidy frolicking at the spillover. She got along well with these dogs.

So the weekend was pretty good, but low key. I came home from the beach on Friday evening and sort of stayed in a vacation-ish mindset. The beach conference (Texas District and County Attorney Association) was pretty good. The weather wasn't very beach friendly, but I got to hang out with friends, drink some beer, eat some seafood, and pick up some Continuing Education hours. The weekend was pretty good, too. I went to the creek a few times with Cassidy, played a lot of guitar (and did some music making with Reed), watched the UT game long enough to be certain that UT was beating the tar out of UTEP, and watched a few movies. I watched the Dark Knight again (which is, I've realized, probably the best superhero movie I've ever seen. It manages to take the idea of a superhero seriously- meaning Dark Knight puts Batman into a real world setting without getting super campy or stylized- and still manages to pull off an exciting, entertaining, and meaningful movie. It held up really well.). I also watched Changeling, the movie from last year by Clint Eastwood, starring Angelina Jolie, about a woman who's child is abducted. The police return "her child" to her, but the mother immediately realizes this isn't her son at all, and begins a campaign to force the police to repoen their investigation. LAPD, for their part, declare the woman crazy and try to bury the matter.
Changling was pretty good. It didn't exactly blow me away, but I found it interesting, particularly given the fact that it was based on a true story, and I thought Angelina Jolie did a really good job of portraying Christine Collins, the mother of Walter Collins, the missing boy (it was nice to see her playing someone other than "Angelina Jolie: sexy badass" for a change).
I also went to the theater and saw Pandorum this weekend. It was a movie about some people on a deep space colonization mission who awaken from long term hibernation to find their ship malfunctioning, and strange, scary creatures hunting them aboard their vessel.
It was a pretty lame flick. I had read reviews before going, and I knew that they were mixed, but a few of the reviews said that the movie would only apply to science fiction fans and no one else. Well, being an avowed sci fi geek, I thought this meant that I would enjoy the movie. Wrong.
The special effects were okay, but the plot didn't really have anything original in it. True science fiction fans won't be impressed by Pandorum because it just doesn't really have any new twist to it that we haven't seen before, and the plot, on the whole, lacks originality. The characters are undeveloped, two dimensional, cookie cutter sci fi action widgets (just sort of plugged in so the story can move along), and the movie's scary monsters just aren't very unique (and not really super scary).
So skip Pandorum. Steanso saw it so you don't have to.
(but see District 9 if you still haven't.)
Not much else from the home front.
While at the beach trip down in Corpus I watched a bit of the news coverage surrounding Obama's address to the U.N. and his leadership during the resolution vote on nuclear arms nonproliferation, and I watched a day or so later at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh as Obama, Sarkozy, and Brown threatened increased sanctions and additional measures against Iran in light of news about a newly revealed second uranium enrichment facility in that country. Then, of course, in response, the Iranians test fired some missiles on Sunday, basically giving the Western world the finger in response to the threats of additional sanctions made only days before.
I think Obama is doing a much better job of building an international consensus against Iran's nuclear program than Bush did when he rallied his "coalition of the willing" against Iraq (he supposedly had 49 countries who expressed support for our actions, but in the end, only 4 of those nations provided troops or contributed in a meaningful, practical way. A significant number of countries involved didn't even have standing armies.). Obama's appearance at the U.N. and his ongoing weapons reductions talks with the Russians seem like they may ultimately generate some progress in terms of applying hasher sanctions against Iran (although those Russians may be a tough sell- they, like the Chinese, enjoy that Iranian oil). I also support Obama's conviction that Iran needs to cooperate fully with U.N. weapon inspectors and refrain from developing nuclear weapons. Free inspections are the only way that American allies (Israel chief among them) can retain their security in the region.
Anyway, with all that's going on in terms of the health care debate and our struggling economy, it seems like a bad time for the president to have to deal with significant foreign policy matters, but as I've heard Obama say on a number of occasions, you shouldn't really be president if you can only handle one issue at a time. I think that given the number of large, serious issues that he's faced during his first year in office, the president has performed extremely well. I don't agree with him in every detail, and the work hasn't yet produced results which can yet be easily measured in terms of success or failure, but at least the president seems to be out there working extremely hard every day. He's out there advocating and leading and meeting with foreign dignitaries. It's a nice change from the days when the president would hide from the public and the press at his ranch or at Camp David. It's refreshing to see a president who seems to see his role as that of a problem solver and who appears to be excited about that role. It was never really clear to me exactly how Bush saw himself as president.
That's about all that I have except to say that I'm beginning to feel happy about ACL Fest this weekend. I have to admit that, for me, this probably isn't their most exciting lineup of all time, but I'm still just really happy about the idea of spending a few days outside with sunshine, friends, and live music. I look forward to it every year just like a mini vacation without leaving town. And there will be some good shows. There are always some good shows.

Friday, September 25, 2009

TDCAA '09 Photos

Travis County Attorney Rock Band (Reuben, Laura, Randall)

Beach Party

Lasto, Bill, Afton at beach party

Bill flying a kite on the beach

Finishing beach seminar; rolling back to the ATX

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heroes; Afghanistan

What's up? Not much here. It's raining again in the ATX, so I guess that's good. On the down side, I'm supposed to be going down to Corpus Christi tomorrow for a law conference, but if this rain holds up it's really going to detract from the whole beach experience. Anyway, I'm not sure how much blogging you'll get out of me for the rest of the week after I leave for the conference.

And I don't have a whole lot to report today, either. I had a nice dinner with Ryan and Jamie last night at Hyde Park, and I watched the season premier of Heroes (which was decent, although I'm still not sold on the show- it has had good seasons and bad seasons, and I'm still far from sure that this will be a good one).

There's been a lot of stuff in the media about whether or not we need to be committing more troops in Afghanistan, and I haven't blogged about it all that much because I don't know how to feel about it, really. Afganistan is a mess. We're supposed to be there in order to hunt down and defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but they seem like they're hiding out in Pakistan a lot and/or blending in with the native populations. It's just not clear how much success we can really achieve. There's also talk of nation building- making Afganistan a more economically and politically stable country so that the Taliban or other anti-American groups can't just come back when we leave and reestablish a base of operations (which could be used as a staging area for terrorist attakcs against the U.S.). The problem is that Aghanistan is one of the ten poorest countries in the world, and it's government has always been pretty ineffective and disorganized. To build Afghanistan into a solid, stable environment where terrorist organizations can't find a foothold might just be asking more of the U.S. than we can realistically give (especially in the middle of an economic downturn and while we're still have military involvement in Iraq).

Anyway, I don't have time for much more, but suffice it to say I'm conflicted about Afghanistan. I think we did the right thing by going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban there, but I'm just not sure if we can actually be successful- particularly when our enemies can hide out with relative impunity across the border in Pakistan, a country which is supposed to be our ally (but which has enough internal anti-American sentiment to make its leaders nervous about the idea of American troops operating there).

I gotta run! Later!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Weekend Update; Obama and the Media; Overdraft Fee Reform

Well, the weekend went pretty well. Not especially eventful, but it went pretty well. I got caught up on some TV shows, and I played my guitar a lot. I took my car into the shop to have them look at my brakes, but they said I just had a little bit of rust, and they cleaned them off for me (it was nice to not have a major repair to deal with- [knock on wood]). Yesterday I ran some errands and took Cassidy down to the creek, and then Cassidy and I went with Ryan, Lucy, and Scout to the dog park. I took a picture of Scout and Lucy riding back home after wearing themselves out a bit at the dog park (Cassidy is sitting beside Scout, but I couldn't twist around enough to get her in the picture).

I also watched the UT game with Ryan and Jamie on Saturday (we managed to score a win, but it stayed interesting. UT's defense still feels sort of shakey, in my opinion). Played a bit of music with Reed last night (which I enjoyed a lot).

President Obama has been taking a bit of heat for appearing on so many different talk shows and doing so many interviews (on Friday he taped inteviews for CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, and Univision- Fox News didn't get an interview, but they ran some dancing show instead of the president's address to a joint session of Congress, so screw 'em, and President Obama is scheduled to appear on David Letterman's show tonight) in support of health care reform. There are those who say that he's overexposing himself and diluting the power of presidential speech. Personally, I think he's probably doing the right thing.

With the American media landscape as fractured and divided as it is these days, and with the American audience picking and choosing from among many different outlets, I think the president doesn't have much choice but to spread his message across as many forums as possible. One of the president's essential duties is to actively support key pieces of legislation within his agenda and to go out and explain to the public why such legislation is needed and how it will impact them. In an era when there are many different media sources, a number of which have taken it upon themselves to consciously spin stories in support of different political agendas, I think it's more important than ever for a president to step forward and take a leadership role in helping to convey the message to the public about exactly how and why certain key initiatives are needed. The ability to articulate these thoughts (e.g., the reasons why reform is needed) and the desire to convey their importance in a meaningful way is part of what makes a president more of a leader and not simply a "decider".

I think President Obama is fairly media savvy. He's taken to his weekly YouTube addresses like a duck to water, and he's beginning to understand, I think, that there's just not much to really be gained from cooperating with Fox Media (they don't want to provide coverage of the president when he's giving speeches, and they've made it pretty clear that their primary goal in dealing with the president is just to try to spin whatever he says in order to make him look bad. He's just never going to get anything resembling a fair shake on that network, so why give them the raw material to reshape, twist, and distort?). And he understands that a tightly controlled message spread across as many outlets as possible is the best way to get his message out to the public (one of the few takeaways that Democrats can sort of adopt from the Karl Rove ministry of information). I hope that, ultimately, the use of such talking points doesn't take the place of a more full, open discussion, but in times when the Democrats really need to narrow the focus and stay on message in order to get things done, this might just be the way to go (and right now, most attempts to foster an open discussion about reform seem to have done nothing but provide opportunities for reform opponents to launch attacks- so if they're not listening to anything Democrats say, there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in trying to maintain a dialogue with them. Better to use our efforts to speak to people who are still more neutral).

Anyway, there may come a time when I think Obama really is overexposing himself, but I don't think now is that time. For pundits and people working in the news media (who watch every single piece of video shot of the president) it probably feels like the president is overdoing it. For the average American who only catches a moment or two of one or two of these interviews, I think the president is probably doing just fine.

Also, the Democrats are getting ready to try to pass legislation which would make it more difficult and less profitable for banks to assess overdraft fees when customers make purchases that push them past a zero balance on their accounts. The banking industry has been making big profits off of high interest overdraft loans and penalties in the last year or two (they stand to make about $38.5 billion in profits off of overdrafts in this year alone), and the banks typically make the loans without notifying customers that the loans are being made or without allowing customers to reject the transaction on the basis of having insufficient funds (this is a practice left over from the old days of paper checks when no one was sure what an account balance was at any given time, but it makes considerably less sense in this day of electronic banking, instant account access, and debit/check cards).

I think that customers should probably be responsible for keeping track of how much money they have in their accounts, but it seems crazy that banks, who rely on computer technology to instantly debit your account (and provide many other services) aren't also using that same technology to let you know if you don't actually have the cash available to complete your purchase. It's probably not worth buying that Kanye West CD at Target if you know that you have to pay penalties and really high interest on a loan in order to get it. Better to cancel the transaction and put the CD up on the shelf until later. It also seems kind of twisted that in this down economy (a situation which the banks helped create through bad lending practices) the banks are trying to use overdraft fees (which are occurring at a much higher rate than usual due to the recession) to bolster their profits. I think that, if possible, it would be good to allow customers to know whether they're going to be paying for an overdraft of individual purchases, and if that's not feasible, at least allow people to decide whether they want to set their account to accept or decline overdraft fees when they come up later (many banks, right now, just automatically do an overdraft when a purchase is made with insufficient funds).

Anyway, between this overdraft stuff, and the fact that bankers and other Wall Street muckety mucks are apparently already moving back to collecting their usual salaries (as the rest of the country still struggles with uninflation), it's hard not to be annoyed with big business these days.

That's it for now. Maybe more later. Peace!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fringe, Season 2; Bill Clinton on Health Care Reform; An End to Missile Shield

Konnichiwa, Adventurers! It's Friday. Happy Friday!
So not too much to report.
I watched the season premier of Fringe last night. Fringe is a show about an FBI detective (Olivia Dunham, who's part of a sort of task force) who investigates deaths and other events which seem to defy explanation through normal scientific, forensic, and investigative means. In the course of investigating these events she eventually comes to work with a former Harvard biochemist (Dr.Walter Bishop) who used to do experiments in unorthodox, "fringe" science for the government, and his son (Peter Bishop), who is helping the professor out following his release from a hospital for mental illness.
I was pretty skeptical of the show to start with, thinking that it was just some sort of X-Files knockoff, but the show has really grown on me over time. I mean, it's not flawless, and there are occasionally some moments that seem cheesey and some plot points which seem fairly contrived (there's a lot of deus ex machina, via pseudo-scientific tomfoolery), but the characters have grown on me (they're pretty well written and well acted), and I've come to appreciate the fact that the show seems to be going in a direction that X-Files was never willing to truly follow through with- taking some of these "unexplained" events and dragging them right out into the light where they can be more fully explained and confronted head on.
As it goes into its second season, Fringe has made it clear that it's not afraid to do things that might have been considered "over the top" by X Files standards. In fact, this was always one of my chief complaints with X-Files. It was a show about aliens and the supernatural, but in some ways it always felt like the show was afraid of (or embarrassed by?) its own subject matter (well, I think mostly the creators felt like they might scare away a large part of the relatively manstream audience they had garnered if the show began to feel too much like science fiction or fantasy). X Files featured aliens and all manner of creepy crawly monsters, but we only caught glimpses of them in the shadows or out of the corner of our eye or in a dash of indecipherable movement, and the explanations of what we were seeing could be taken as much for fanciful speculation as credible theory (the audience knew better, cause we trusted Mulder, but he never seemed to really find himself a "smoking gun" when it came to proof of the supernatural). Plus, X-Files just never had a satisfying conclusion, in my opinion. the climax of the show essentially was a lame courtroom drama which provided more anecdotal evidence of the supernatural and the promise of continuing government cover ups. Not much of a payoff after all of those seasons.
Fringe, in its second season, has already begun to move out of the shadows. On the season opener, Agent Dunham appeared out of thin air and crashed head first through the windshield of a vehicle, and this event occurred at a crime scene in front of a dozen or so FBI agents. As the strange events on the show continue to grow stranger, they also seem to be growing more public. There's a suggestion that an invasion may be imminent and that beings from another dimension (aliens, of a sort) are crossing between worlds- and that some of them may be preparing to do some pretty nasty things to the world that we live in.
Anyway, like I said, Fringe doesn't seem to be afraid to go right over the top. It may make the show sound a bit silly, but I think you have to risk a bit of silliness if you want to deal with the fantastic (and, if executed correctly, these same subjects can fill the audience with wonder instead of being problematic). Also, on Fringe, the disbelief of the characters themselves (they see these things, but still have a hard time wrapping their heads around them and/or accepting them) helps to keep the story sort of grounded, and ultimately it could lead to a conclusion that's more satisfying than the one which was evetually offered up by the X-Files. If the ultimate goal of investigation is to be able to offer irrefutable proof of something, it's nice to know that the show's writers and producers may actually allow the characters to reach that end (although, on Fringe, as with X-Files, the ultimate goal will end up being something more of the "save the world" variety as opposed to simple investigation).
Soooo- too much about Fringe. I like the show, though. I like Anna Torv.

And here's Jon Stewart interviewing Bill Clinton about health care reform on yesterday's Daily Show. I know Bill had his hang ups, but I really miss that man.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Bill Clinton Extended Interview Pt. 3
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

It struck me as I was watching this that while Obama and Clinton both have a tremendous sense of optimism and hope, Clinton brings an additional sense of experience to the table and a veteran's sensibility. I like an support Obama, but it times I fear that he's a bit naive. It's good to hear someone who's been through a large number of political battles still expressing confidence that we can get this health care reform thing done, and that we can do it in a way that will insure all Americans. (also interesting to note that Clinton talks about the ability to overcome a Republican fillibuster- a tone that's a little more adversarial than what Obama has typically expressed with his continued preference for bipartisanship.)

Oh yeah. I also think that Obama was probably right to tank that missile shield program. Most of the stuff I've read about it said that it wasn't likely to be that effective, anyway, and it was going to be really expensive. And no, I don't see the move as kowtowing to the Soviets (I actually think the missile shield might have been unneccessarily belligerent on the part of the U.S. in the first place). I just think abandoning the program was a smart move for the U.S. (from the little knowledge I have on the whole thing). And it sounds like we're still going to pursue some kind of missile defense system (focusing on short and medium range missiles) in the region, anyway.

Gotta run. Maybe more later.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Glee; Gale Norton Investigation; Yale Murder Coverage

Not too much to report. I watched the first episode (the pilot) of Glee last night on my DVR, which puts me 2 episodes behind, I believe (I tried to watch this pilot much earlier in the year, but my DVR screwed up and only recorded a small part of it the first time). On it's face, Glee doesn't seem like the kind of thing I should be interested in (a high school story about show choir?). But I do like it. I'm not sure I can put my finger on exactly why. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is because Glee is about a bunch of kids, most of them pretty awkward, who get involved with show choir primarily because they love music. Being a music lover myself, I'm usually a sucker for stories about people who suffer challenges and/or indignities because of a love of music. In addition to being about music, the show actually includes some interesting songs (and how long has it been since we had a scripted comedy/drama that capitalized on music? Anyone remember Cop Rock?). It's entertaining and kind of fun to see the show turn popular music into cheesey show choir numbers. Also, depsite the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously, Glee has some well written characters who manage to be funny while also drawing the audience into some engaging story lines (although, as Roundball has pointed out, it may be hard to keep the show interesting without letting it devolve into a hokey soap opera). The show also has Jane Lynch playing an extremely competitive cheerleading coach, and she just cracks me up.
So, surprisingly enough, Steanso likes Glee (at least so far).

Not too much else going on. My friend, Lee, sent me a link to this LA Times article about a corruption probe which is focusing on former Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Apparently Norton facilitated an extremely favorable negotiation for oil shale leases (on federal land) to Royal Dutch Shell PLC, a company which later hired her following her departure from the Interior Department. Norton is, in particular, being investigated for violating laws which preclude public officials from discussing employment opportunities with companies that are in the process of working out government contracts which might also benefit that firm (meaning, you can't be asking someone whether they can give you a job while you're in the middle of working out deals on behalf of the government which could have either a positive or negative impact on that same firm- and here, Shell stood to gain billions of dollars by gaining the oil shale leases in question). Also, Norton is being looked at for charges of "denial of honest services", an offense which is supposed to prevent government officials from violating the public trust (especially in terms of doing things like awarding government contracts to personally favored friends or firms).
Anyway, the investigation was actually begun toward the end of Bush's second term by officials within the Department of Interior, but has subsequently been handed off to the Justice Department.
I remember environmental and conservation groups sort of freaking out way back when Gale Norton was appointed as Secretary of the Interior in the first place- mostly because they felt like she was beholden to various industry groups and lobbyists. The Department of the Interior under the Bush administration had a pretty awful record in terms of wilderness conservation and environmental protection. In fact, many critics essentially saw the Bush administration's policies as nothing more than a systematic effort to increase private exploitation of federal lands, with little or no regard for the impact of these activities upon the natural character of the environments in question.
All of this to say, I guess I'm not that surprised that Norton is in trouble. She didn't seem to have much respect for the job that she had been appointed to do (and, to be frank, the people who appointed her really didn't want a person in that position who would slow down the encroachment of private business into public lands), and the general attitude of officials in the Bush administration, as a group, seemed to be that they would do whatever they damn well pleased and worry about the legal ramifications at some later date, if and when those issues ever came up. I think this sort of attitude set an awful precedent, by the way, which is one of the reasons I am strongly supportive of some kind of investigation into the use of torture by the Bush administration. It's also one of the reasons I would fully support an investigation into this situation with Norton. I think government agencies and administrations, like private individuals, need to know that there may be significant repercussions for violations of the law. I'm not saying this because of any political agenda. I'm saying it because those laws are in place for a reason, and no one should feel like they're above them.

What else? I have't written much about the homicide investigation going on at Yale University involving graduate student Annie Le, mostly because I just don't think it merits that much discussion. The victim, Annie Le, seemed smart and attractive and pleasant, and it's undoubtedly a terrible tradgedy that she's dead, but it mostly sounds like she was killed because of either some kind of workplace conflict that came to a head or because of some kind of romantic situation (or maybe stalking situation) involving campus employee and coworker Raymond Clark. The situation is very sad, but there doesn't seem to be any ongoing danger to the community, and the crime, while brutal, doesn't seem so out of the ordinary or unusual that it really captures my attention from a psychology/criminology perspective (I mean, we're not talking about a serial killer, mass murderer, or other extremely unusual case here). It seems like just another sad, awful, senseless murder. I think the main reason the media and the public have seized onto this story is because the victim was a successful, smart, attractive woman at any Ivy League School. If Clark had strangled some drug addict, homeless person, or prostitute at some location a little farther away from campus, the story might have never even gotten much local attention, let alone headline status in national media outlets.
I'm not saying that Le's death doesn't deserve attention or that it shouldn't be mourned, but I still find it curious that it's being so widely, closely followed.

Well, that's all I've got. Hope ya'll are doing alright.

Well, that's about it for now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Steanso Is Not a Good Mechanic; Drug Violence in Mexico

Hey, guys! Not too much going on here. I spent a good portion of last night turning a simple automotive battery change into a much more complicated endeavor. My car's battery died yesterday, so I went and bought a new one. Over the years I've replaced a few batteries, in my Camaro, my Bronco, and maybe even in this car. Anyway, last night I screwed it up. Apparently at some point I must've done something wrong. I'm thinking I must've touched the wrong wire to the wrong lead on the car, or something, because when I put the new battery in, the car was dead as a doornail. It was a real buzzkill, Adventurers.
Admittedly, I don't know much about cars, but I'd been feeling pretty happy and self reliant, working out in my garage on swapping out the batteries while Cassidy hung out in the front yard, alternately playing with the neighbor dog and watching me. I was sort of pleased with myself for avoiding the natural lawyerly inclination to just hand someone else some money in order to just avoid having to fix a problem, but when I screwed the thing up and was staring down the barrell of having to call a mobile mechanic (which would have cost twice as much as having someone put in a battery in the first place) and/or miss work, I started kicking myself for ever trying to fix things in the first place (which is sort of a self defeating place to be). It was supposed to just be a small deal, but I wanted to save a few bucks by doing the job myself, and I was feeling good about my plan right up until the car wouldn't start.
I called up my friend/neighbor, Kate, who knows a thing or two about home repair and motor repair and gizmos, and she came over to help. We decided they might've sold me a bad battery. We took it back to the store. The battery was fine.
There was some talk of tinkering with the starter and other possible fixes, but eventually we narrowed it down to a fuse problem. We spent some time checking fuses and looking for the right fuse in a couple of different fuse boxes, and sure enough, finally found one that was blown. Then we had to go back to the store to get the right fuse.
Anyway, my 20 minute battery change ended up turning into a 2.5 to 3 hour ordeal. Cassidy was a little disappointed in me. I could see it on her face.
In the end, we got it straightened out, though, so thanks to Kate! (also, thanks to my dad, The Admiral, for lending me some advice over the phone, and thanks to Jennifer for giving me a jump start in the first place!)
By the time I finally got the car started I felt fairly accomplished for having done something as simple as changing a battery (or at least for never giving up).

What else?
Ten people were killed in yet another attack on a drug rehab center in Mexico yesterday. This is the third such incident in Juarez this year (people were killed, execution style, in similar attacks at rehab centers earlier). There have been at least 1,657 drug related killings in Juarez this year, which already surpasses the 1,607 killings from last year. Twenty two people were killed in Juarez yesterday alone, and most of these were presumably related to drug activity (Austin, by contrast, appears to have had 23 murders in the entire year of 2008).
The U.S. throws around the phrase "the War on Drugs", but down in Mexico they are, quite literally, caught in the middle of a drug related war. The cartels are incredibly powerful, and in addition to fighting one another, they strike back with brutal violence when the police try to move against them. Early in September the mayor of Juarez requested that the Mexican military remain in Juarez for at least an additional six months to help combat the drug problem.
The drug cartels just have a ton of money and power, and the Mexican government seems sort of poorly equipped to deal with the problem.
The American drug culture and our attitudes toward it certainly help to contribute to the situation. Juarez is a key battleground in Mexico's drug war primarily because of its close proximity to the U.S., a location which makes it an ideal place to serve as a staging ground for the smuggling of drugs and illegal aliens. I feel like American hypocrisy- taking a strong public posture against drugs while our population spends something like $63 billion dollars a year on illegal them (worldwide, the drug industry is said to account for more than $400 billion)- is contributing very heavily to a situation in other countries where lots of people are dying. Drug dealers are using extreme violence to compete for profits in a business that we're helping to build, but which we refuse to take ownership of.
If 1,657 people had died in an American city this year as a result of narcotics activity, it just feels like we'd be figuring out some new ways to deal with the problem.

Well, I gotta run.
Hope you guys are having a good hump day!

A Day in the Life

Some photos from my new iPhone. Nothing too special- just an average work day. This first one shows us working on the mental health docket on Tuesday morning. Amber (defense attorney), Tom (MHMR caseworker), Lilly (court administration), and Deborah (MH paralegal) are pictured.

In the court 3 prosecutors room. Chris (defense attorney), Officer Mitchell (APD), and Reuben (Court 3 prosecutor) are shown. Those pieces of posterboard against the wall are trial exhibits, for the old timers who don't use power point.

One more shot of people just trying to get some stuff done. I'm not sure of the first guy's name, but he's a defense attorney, Ed (intern), Joe (defense attorney), Reuben (prosecutor), and Randall (prosecutor). The prosecutor rooms at the courthouse are pretty small, and they can get cramped, especially when it's busy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Steanso Appreciates Adventurer Loyalty, Extract, iPhone Makes it Better, Jacoby Joins the Fight

Hey, ya'll!
Couple of things.
First, I've recently noticed that very few people are reading this blog anymore. I don't keep daily track of the numbers or obsess over how many people are reading or anything, but The Adventures does have an attached site meter, and I've noticed that I'm pretty much down to a trickle of readers. I mostly write this thing for myself, so I'm not gonna lose a lot of sleep over it (and I know I could be making more of an effort to write about things that are more entertaining instead of just writing about stuff that interests me), but if you are one of the few remaining people who still read The Adventures from time to time, please know that I really do appreciate the fact that a few of ya'll are still out there checking in with me. My blog is something of a personal journal, but it's in a format that's meant to allow me to share my thoughts with the world. I know that I talk about a lot of stuff that's probably sometimes depressing and/or boring, but I'm just trying to write about stuff that's on my mind (which is where the therapeutic aspect of the blog comes into play), and I honestly don't think I could keep this thing going if I wasn't focusing on stuff that was, first and foremost, of interest to me at the time I was writing it. That being said, it's nice to know that a few people care about what I have to say.
The five year anniversary of The Adventures of Steanso is coming up in November. Maybe I'll have whoever's left reading this thing over to my house for a beer. Should be a small enough group for my living room to easily accomodate everyone by then. ;-)
In other news, I saw Extract yesterday. It had some funny moments, but it wasn't nearly as funny as Office Space, or even, in my opinion, Idiocracy. That's not to say that I didn't like the movie. I actually found it pretty interesting. Mike Judge has just developed into a guy who addresses some interesting questions and issues in his movies, but he does so in such a laid back, mellow sort of way that it's kind of easy to overlook the depth of his subject matter in favor of just enjoying the comedy. Extract kind of examined some of the existential questions of modern middle class/working class life (i.e., strained romantic relationships, strained work relationships, strained relationships with the neighbors, etc.) in a way that could have easily been depressing, but the movie sort of avoids exaggerated emotional highs or lows in favor of a more "if we don't lose our heads, things are going to work out alright" sort of outlook. (Office Space also sort of examined sort of existential issues related to jobs and careers, and Idiocracy looked at the sort of anti-intellectual attitudes that Americans seem to be increasingly adopting). Anyway, the movie had some funny moments, to be sure, but I definitely wouldn't go so far as to call it hilarious. Actually, I walked out of the thing a little confused about how I felt about it. It was worth seeing, though. (although, in terms of a recommendation, I would probably say it might be fine as a renter).
Another big development is that yesterday I got an iPhone. I finally broke down and got one. According to all of my friends who've been chattering away about their iPhones for years, now that I'm a member of the iPhone club I will never again be unhappy, and each and every day will have a newfound sense of joy and wonder.
Admittedly, it's a neat gadget. I'm beginning to understand the annoying urge to pull the thing out and start messing with it whenever there's a momentary lull in the conversation (although I vow to fight such urges). I still tend to think of it as a toy, as opposed to an indispensable piece of technology, but we'll see how that changes over time.

And there was another good op-ed piece about racism and it's place in the current anti-Obama movement, this one in the Washington Post from Susan Jacoby. I'm not going to regurgitate the whole thing, but I thought she made some excellent points. One of her points that I will go ahead and highlight, because I firmly agree with it, is the fact that not everyone who disagrees with Obama and his policies is a racist. That's not the position of Dowd or Jacoby, and I certainly don't believe it to be true, either. I think there are legitimate concerns about national fiscal responsibility, the intervention of government in the free markets, and so forth that deserve some respect (the use of tax subsidies to support a health care public option is one of those areas- I tend to be fine with it because it will lower health care costs, but I can understand why some people might think this will give the public option an unfair advantage against private companies, thereby driving private companies out of business and reducing the coverage choices available for health care consumers).
That being said, I think that there have been racial undertones in a lot of the rage and vitriol that's been spewed at Obama. Referring to a very moderate African American Democrat as a commie, Nazi, foreigner, witch doctor is kind of insane, and the repeated claims that Obama is trying to hijack the government and subjugate the American people are not only incorrect, but they're just way out of line. These people are acting as if Obama illegitimately seized office through some kind of a coup, when, in fact, the man simply won an election, and won it by a decisive margin (by a considerably wider margin than Bush, who never even won the popular vote in his first election in the first place). Many of these people not only disagree with Obama, but they seem bent on delegitimizing him as our president.
And some of those nutjobs are really, really starting to piss me off.
Anyway, enough of that. Read the column.

Not much else to say at the moment.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Weekend Update

Not too much to say about the weekend. I've still been kind of trying to shake this cold off. I watched the UT-Wyoming game with Ryan, Jamie, Matt, Nicole, Jeff, Pat, Julia, and Steven on Saturday. UT sort of sputtered through the first half, but then came alive in the second. Their defense didn't really look particularly impressive in either half, though, in my opinion. The Tech game next weekend could be interesting. Anyway, I really had a fun time watching the game with everyone. I even made some gumbo, and it come out pretty well.
Sometime late Saturday night/early Sunday morning my air conditioning unit gave out. So now I gotta deal with that. Just trying to be thankful that it didn't crap out 3 or 4 weeks ago, when I woulda been quickly cooked by the heat.
Anyway, Sunday was a slow, lazy day. I had breakfast with Ryan, Jamie, and Heather, and I had dinner with them. In between I watched some of The Return of the King on TV with Jamie (Ryan and Heather had gone out to do some recreational shopping). Man, that's a long, complicated movie in a long, complicated trilogy (there were parts of it that I just didn't remember, even though I'd seen the movie before). It was in HD, though, and fun to watch. A few very minor CG moments aside, the movie hlds up really well. It's cool to have a movie version of those books out there that obviously just had a lot of love and careful craftsmanship poured into them.
Anyway, it was a weekend that really felt like fall. Rainy weather, football, good food, hanging out with some friends and the dogs.
Well, the weekend update might be about all you get from me at the moment. I wrote some other pretty lengthy posts this weekend, so you can keep yourself busy with those, if you're so inclined.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Maureen Dowd Also Sees Something Troubling Going On

Speaking of racism (as I did yesterday in a post with an entirely different context), there was a really interesting op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd in Saturday's New York Times about Joe Wilson, his outburst, and the fact that Dowd believes racism and prejudice to be an integral component of the fanatical opposition to President Obama and his initiatives in health care reform and other areas. I've voiced similar opinions of my own in prior posts, and I find the whole thing pretty alarming.
Dowd supports her argument that race played into Wilson's outburst by pointing out that the man was a member of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and led a campaign in 2000 to keep the Confederate flag flying above South Carolina's State Capitol. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, Wilson also criticized and denounced Strom Thurmond's black daughter for launching a "smear" campaign when she publicly acknowledged that Thurmond was her father.
Dowd cites South Carolina senior Congressman Jim Clyburn, who speaks in reference to Wilson's outburst and about other, inappropriate smearing of Obama by staunch, often southern conservatives (who have referred to the president alternately as a Nazi, a communist, a socialist, a Marxist, a foreigner, etc.), by saying, "A lot of these outbursts have to do with delegitimizing [Obama] as a president."
Clyburn went on to warn the White House against thinking that they could be successful in dealing with the mounting problem of racism by simply forgiving it or trying to ignore it, adding, "In South Carolina politics, I learned that the olive branch works very seldom. You have to come at these things from a position of strength. My father always used to say, 'Son, always remember that silence gives consent'".
Clyburn doesn't just raise these points to gain political advantage over an adversary. He publicly warned former President Clinton against engaging in attacks that could be seen as having a racial component during the election. That being said, Clyburn is pressuring Nancy Pelosi to pursue formal sanctions against Wilson.
Dowd cites other southerners who have long experience working within the South Carolina political system, and who believe that many white southerners deeply resent the fact that a well educated, articulate, black president has now assumed a leadership role over them and is telling them what to do. These commentators point out the fact that Obama is not only black, but also represents the federal government, an institution which has been feared, disdained, and distrusted by many southerners since periods dating all the way back to the civil war. This combination- a black president who also represents the authority of the federal government- is only helping to stoke the flames of racial tension.
Anyway, it's an interesting, surprisingly fiery op-ed piece from the New York Times, and in my opinion, it's well worth a read. Even if you don't agree with all of it, I think that it at least raises questions and issues that need to be addressed.
I'm not saying that there may not be reasons to have significant political and philosophical differences with the president, and I acknowledge that allegations of racism are serious and should not be made lightly, but I really am deeply suspicious that something more significant than simple policy debates are going on here. This time around (in comparison to the opposition suffered by other Democratic presidents) the anger and fear have simply reached a level that makes me feel like something out of the ordinary is going on, and, frankly, I find it very disturbing.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Kids and Racism

There's a sort of fascinating article in Newsweek from this past week about children and how their learning patterns and innate psychological makeup can end up leading them to engage in racial discrimination. I just found the article interesting because, personally, I had always thought that racial discrimination was just a social convention which children learned through exposure to people in the world around them. If there were an absence of racial prejudice in the world, I thought, kids would grow up to treat people as equals, regardless of race. This article, however, follows a number of university studies in developmental psychology (from some extensive studies at our own University of Texas to studies at Duke, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and others), and finds, first and foremost, that kids, developmentally, tend to naturally tend toward in-group favoritism. As they gather, sort, and manage new facts about the world, children have an innate tendency to try to define things by categorizing them, and one of the natural ways that they put things in categories is through physical appearance (which is, of course, one of the most readily obvious characteristics that they have at their disposal). Additionally, researchers seem to be finding that children have a natural tendency to assume (even in the absence of evidence) that people who share their own group also tend to share important characteristics with them (e.g., the people in my group are all nice or smart or friendly), a thinking pattern which psychologists refer to as essentialism. Both of these two phenomena working in conjunction can tend to produce racially biased thinking (i.e., kids look at people and mentally divide them into gorups based on physical appearance, and then begin to attribute more favorable characteristics to the group that they fit into themselves).
Developmental psychologists have begun to realize that children as young as six months old are already noticing differences in physical appearance such as skin color and other racial characteristics, and think kids are well on their way toward trying to use these characteristics to classify and define people (and trying to assign them accompanying characteristics by age 3).
All of this was pretty interesting to me, but even more interesting was the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the way in which adults have traditionally attempted to address issues of race based thinking and discrimination in children. Researchers have discovered that many parents either don't discuss race issues with their children at all (assuming that children will learn on their own that all races are equal), or else they tend to speak to their kids in sort of vague, general terms, because speaking about the specifics of race issues kind of makes parents uncomfortable (parents cite this as the reason for avoiding in depth discussions on race). Research is showing that because of innate tendencies to categorize people and to favor people in one's own category, ignoring racial issues doesn't really work as an effective means of teaching nondiscrimination. Vague or general statements have been shown to be fairly ineffective as well, since children often don't really seem to be able to tie abstract concepts to their everyday experiences when it comes to race (this means that saying "People of all skin colors are equal" isn't nearly as effective with children as it would be to say "Black people and people with different colored skin should be your friends in just the same way as white people.") If parents want to help dissuade their children from developing attitudes of racial prejudice- and studies have demonstrated that such attitudes can become fairly solidified and difficult to modify by the time kids are in third grade- then it's much more effective for to have specific, explicit, concrete talks about the fact that black kids, brown kids, and all kids are equal to white kids in terms of being friends, classmates, teammates, etc, and these talks need to happen at a surprisingly early age.
Also, researchers are finding that oftentimes race is only brought up by many parents when a child says something that is deemed socially inappropriate (i.e., some kind of comment on skin color or perceived differences between races), and the parent hushes the child or tells them to be quiet. The message that many children learn from these sorts of interactions isn't that racism is an incorrect worldview so much as they learn that racism is something that shouldn't be talked about aloud, especially in public. To correct this line of thinking, psychologists suggest that race issues should sometimes be discussed in a non-disciplinary context, and that when a child does make an inappropriate comment, that parents should take the opporunity (if the circumstances are approproate, obviously) to discuss and correct prejudicial thinking.
One other thing that struck me as a little bit counterintuitive was a research finding which discounts the so-called Diverse Enviroment Theory. Diverse Environment Theory has long held that children who are growing up in a mixed race setting (i.e., exposed to people of a number of racial backgrounds) will tend to naturally overcome racial prejudices. Diverse Environment Theory is part of the philosophy behind school integration. Although researchers hasten to point out that they still see school integration as imperative on moral grounds, recent sociological research tends to indicate that it doesn't necessarily go that far in dispelling racial prejudice. In fact, studies of adolescents have tended to find that the more diverse that schools tend to be, the more kids tend to self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school. In practice, increased opportunities to interact with one another also tend to produce increased opportunities to reject one another, and attitudes and taboos conducive of self segregation are often reinforced (e.g., divisions are created between groups that can sit together in the cafeteria, fears can build in regard to the alienation of offending peers within one's own racial group by creating relationships across racial boundaries, etc.). The studies showed that children who participate in at least one somewhat demanding activity with kids of another race (i.e., something challenging enough to actually require kids of different races to work together) were much more likely to develop significant interracial friendships. Also, simply having frank discussions about the issue can probably help.
There was also mention in the article of the fact that minority parents tend, on the whole, to talk much more specifically and frequently with their kids about racial issues. The study found that a small to moderate amount of this type of talk was probably helpful to the kids, but that extensive, regular, ongoing warnings about the perils and pervasiveness of racism could tend to form racially divisive attitudes among minority children almost as readily as actual experiences with and exposure to real world racism. Basically, if minority kids were exposed to too many warnings about racism, the kids tended to develop a more paranoid sort of worldview, and also tended to develop attitudes in which personal difficulties were more consistently blamed upon the prejudices of the world at large as opposed to being accepted as something which the child needed to take personal responsibility for and work to correct. Messages of racial or ethnic pride among minority kids seemed to do a better job of helping kids create a more positive worldview and instilling a positive self image (thereby allowing kids to overcome prejudice as well as personal obstacles and be successful) as opposed to simply warning kids about racism. Messages of ethnic and racial pride amongst white kids are a lot more controversial, primarily because the messages aren't being used to overcome a history of discrimination and potential race-based self esteem issues (meaning that if white kids are going to be taught about white pride, a big part of it needs to be about how white people have historically engaged in prejudice and committed some bad acts in the "support of" their own race- white kids generally don't need to be taught that their race is equal, and, of course, we don't need to be filling the heads of white kids with fictions about racial superiority. The racial pride issue with white kids seems to come more in a "we're all equal" flavor, with an acknowledgement that white people have made some bad mistakes at times, often due to discrimination).

Anyway, I just found the whole article really interesting. Definitely worth a read. My mom, aka, the Karebear, was teaching in Florida in the 60's when forced integration first occurred. She has stories about white parents showing up at her elementary school to protest the fact that their kids were having to go to school with black kids, and Mom dealt with classrooms full of white and black kids who were learning together for the first time. Well, as anyone those who know her know, Karebear really does love all kids, so seeing kids subjected to these kinds of attitudes affected and troubled her.
As a consequence, race issues were strongly on Mom's mind as I was growing up, and from my earliest years I remember hearing that there was no difference between black kids and white kids, and that I should be basing my friendships on the way that other kids acted and not on the color of their skin (and Mom is pretty direct. She didn't just sort of spit out general platitudes about all people being equal. I remember getting the "If the black kids in your class want to be your friend, you go play with them because they're just like you" talks.) The Steans family wasn't out marching in demonstrations or anything (I don't want to overstate what was going on in our home), but racial equality, especially in schools, was a big issue for Mom. I remember Mom reading us stories about Martin Luther King at an early age, and I really was raised with the understanding that the man was pretty much an American saint (and I say this without a hint of sarcasm or irony- the combination of King's racial equality message, his nonviolent tactics, and his strong religious faith made him one of the big, historical heroes of the Steans house when I was growing up).
The schools that I went to while growing up were mostly white. There were always a few black kids, but not very many. Still, I had black friends and Mexican-American friends and a number of Asian friends (it kind of annoys me today that I didn't let Jim Lee's mother talk me into going to Chinese school with him on weekends- she really wanted me to go learn Chinese with him on Sunday afternoons).
Anyway, I was extremely fortunate to have grown up in a household with attitudes that I didn't even know were progressive, but which, in retrospect, clearly were. I grew up knowing that my parents both strongly believed that racial integration, racial equality, and civil rights were extremely important, and I grew up hearing that kids of other races were just like me, but with different colored skin (it eventually became clear to me, especially with one of my Taiwanese friends, that there were some differences in language and cultural background, but those never seemed to matter a lick to my parents, except to occasionally hold up their family's work ethic as a model of something that we should be trying to emulate).
Anyway, all of this was on my mind as I read this article. My mom was a teacher for 30+ years in public elementary schools with probably more than half of those years spent in schools with as many or more minority kids as white kids. As much as mom's kids loved her, I know that she also kind of ruled her classrooms with some pretty strict discipline, and I know that she was pretty intolerant of racially divisive attitudes in her classrooms, trying to foster the same attitudes in her kids that I was raised with- you pick your friends on the basis of the content of their character and not on the color of their skin. I visited her classrooms many times over the years and saw kids of all races and backgrounds learning and playing together pretty seamlessly. Granted, Mom's students were young, and I don't know if those attitudes held up over the years, but it's nice to know that those kids had that kind of foundation at least at some point in their lives, and that hopefully some of those sorts of memories would remain buried somewhere in the back of their heads.

Anyway, I'm not a parent, but I found the developmental psychology involved in this discussion very interesting. If children have an innate tendency to classify people based on physical appearance as well as a natural tendency to attribute more positive characteristics to groups of people who look the most like them (and, conversely, a natural tendency to be more suspicious of people who aren't in their group- a phenomenon which the studies also found), then these findings have strong implications in terms of how we need to encourage children at an early age to start looking beyond physical characteristics when making judgments about people (and instead of just helping children to avoid learning about racism from others, we may need to be focusing on overcoming its development as a product of innate learning processes). Like I said, I'm not a parent, but I'm very interested in living in a country without racial prejudice or discrimination, so..... if you want to help make sure that your kids don't grow up with racial prejudice as part of their thinking, talk to them early on and in concrete terms about the fact that black folks and brown folks and yellow folks and white folks all can make really good friends, classmates, etc.. Apparently it's not enough to think that just being around people of other races will necessarily help overcome come racially prejudiced thinking.

I think I've tired myself out.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11- 8 Years Later; Meet Joe Wilson

Hey, guys. Hope everyone is feeling okay. Last night Jamie made us dinner, and we played with the dogs and watched some of the Titans/Steelers game (I quit watching in the 3rd quarter, but apparently it was a really close game). I've sort of got a relatively mild version of the crud. Mandy was sick earlier this week and last weekend, and she's already warned me that it's kind of hard to shake this thing (I'm pretty sure it's some kind of cold and not just allergies). Could be a long fall/winter.

Of course, it's the eighth anniversary of September 11th today. In some ways it seems like it happened a long time ago, but in other ways it seems like it was just yesterday. I started to watch a bit of a documentary about it last night, and then I remembered how I had watched a similar documentary last year on 9/11, and how it had ended up just making me feel really depressed, so last night I changed the channel.
I can't believe Bin Laden is still wandering around out there somewhere (and I'm just going to gloss over the fact that I still can't quite believe that somehow 9/11 got us into Iraq in the first place). In some ways I think Afghanistan is the war that we should have been focusing on all along, but at this point I'm not really sure what the point is. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan, true enough, but they're just as much in Pakistan, Iraq, and a handful of other countries (they've been in Sudan and Yemen in the past). They seem to be able to sort of move around whenever any particular base of operations come under attack. More frustrating is the fact that the U.S. doesn't seem able to engage in full scale anti-terrorism activities in Pakistan due to a lack of diplomatic cooperation from that country (from what I understand, there's enough popular anti-American sentiment in Pakistan that it's government fears that the entire government could become destabilized if they allowed full scale American military action in that country).
Anyway, I don't want to provide terrorists a safe haven that can be used as a base of operations, but it seems like the U.S. is just getting bogged down in another expensive, dangerous, protracted nation building campaign in Afghanistan, and I just find it extremely unlikely that our efforts will result in a stable, effective democracy that can safeguard its own people and provide security against internal and external threats. Attempts at nation building/occupation have been attempted in Afghanistan before, but to little effect (as, most famously, by the Soviet Union, who were in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989), and even as the U.S. attempts to withdraw from Iraq, having tried to declare a measure of success, that country continues to deal with bomnings and other sectarian violence which threatens that country's long term stability (meaning we've had questionable success, at best, with nation building in other contexts, so I'm not sure why we think it will work in Afghanistan).

What else? Representative Joe Wilson (the "You lie!" guy from Obama's speech) is claiming that his outburst was completely spontaneous, even though over the Labor Day weekend he made some sort of vague comments on Twitter about making sure that Washington heard about public opposition to Obamacare in the upcoming week. Wilson, not surprisingly, is totally in bed with members of the current health care system who want to preserve the status quo. (He's received $244,000 from health care professionals, $86,000 from pharmaceutical companies, $73,000 from insurance companies, and $68,000 from nursing homes and hospitals.) Maybe more even more important is the fact that the president wasn't lying at all when he said that illegal aliens will not receive coverage under the new plan (apparently section 246 of the bill specifically forbids payment "on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States."). I'm not sure how I feel about denying coverage to noncitizens (the bill also has a provision which appears to legally require noncitizens to carry private insurance), but my point here is simply that the president was in no way lying.
Whatever. As I said before, I don't even think Wilson's outburst was that big of a deal, but as Ryan pointed out, the conservative right will probably try to make a hero out of Wilson, so I just think it's sort of important that people know who the Republicans are really talking about if and when they start trying to put this guy on a pedestal.

Well, I feel a little run down, so I think I'm going to cut this short. Maybe more later, but if not, I hope you guys have a nice weekend.

P.S. - I more recently read an article which pointed out the fact that Joe Wilson had to apologize in 2003 for publicly attacking Essie May Washington-Williams, the illegitimate daughter of Strom Thurmond, because the woman simply admitted publicly that Strom Thurmond was her father. (the revelation was quite surprising, given the fact that Thurmon remained a staunch, unapologetic segregationist throughout his life and since Washington-Williams' mother was black). Anyway, Wilson, who's a Thurmond supporter, declared the revelation unseemly and expressed anger that Washington-williams had chosen to reveal that Thurmond was her father. Wilson's a jackass, and now people have apparently given him about $1 million in donations following his little outburst.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

After the Speech

Hi, guys!
Well, I'm suffering a bit from cold or allergies or something, but I'm hanging in there.
Since I was feeling a little crappy and out of it, I didn't even end up watching Obama's speech last night. I saw lots of clips of it, of course, and read about it, and watched a bunch of different talking heads as they analyzed it to death, but in the end, it appears that it was almost exactly what I expected. Sounds like Obama gave a pretty strong, persuasive, articulate speech which is probably going to change the minds of just about no one. Big speeches just don't sway public opinion much anymore. People are extremely skeptical of elected officials these days, they're more likely to see persuasive speech as political trickery than as a legitimate means of conveying a message, and most of all, people are too beholden to party ideology to let a single speech affect their position on a given issue. This is one of the reasons I thought it was kind of dumb to keep calling a big speech a "do or die" affair or a "game changer". (and it really doesn't bother me that people aren't that affected by speeches, since most big issues should be judged on their merits rather than ont he eloquence of a leader- but that being said, it seems like endless, ubiquitous political TV advertisements do have an impact, and this is troubling since so many of these ads can be misleading or factually incorrect).
Anyway, Obama gave a good, strong, forceful speech. He may not have endorsed the public option as strongly as most Democrats would have preferred, but he gave a good speech (and even if we end up with something like a trigger, meaning a public option kicks in if insurance companies don't keep costs down and comply with increased regulations, I think a health care reform bill could do a lot of good- a bill could be written in a way that would vastly improve our health care situation). Of course, I would still definitely prefer a public option. I think it's the best chance that we have for keeping costs under control and keeping the insurance comapnies honest.

What else?
Not much.
People have been making a big deal out of South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson yelling out "You lie!" during Obama's speech. Do I thinks it looked really trashy and stupid? Yes. Do I think it was a big deal? Not really. After all of these town halls and other heated events, I was kind of wondering if the Republicans wouldn't vocalize their discontent at some point during the speech. Part of me is surprised that there was only one outburst. I'm glad Wilson apologized, and I'm glad that Obama didn't make an issue of it. Lookin like a rude, classless jackass in front of the entire country is probably punishment enough (although I'm sure there are some people who would rather have seen many more insults hurled at the president).

Well, I gotta go. Hope you're having a good day.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Big Moment for Obama (But Not Do or Die)

Hello. Hope all's well.
So the media and the pundits keep talking about Obama's upcoming speech on health care reform as though it's a make or break, do or die moment that's going to either rocket the president into the history books as one of our nation's greatest all time leaders or leave him a crushed shell of a man, politically devastated and unable to accomplish another single thing during the course of his next three years in office.
Well, I think that's just wrong.
The president's speech is going to be important to be sure, but it should be primarily important to the 46 million Americans without health care coverage and to every other American, all of whom stand to suffer some pretty negative consequences if health care costs continue to rise and spiral out of control.
Even if the president were to totally bomb tonight, the health care reform issue isn't going to go away. Heck, even if the president entirely fails at getting reform passed this time around (although I think something will get passed), this issue isn't going to go away. America currently spends far more on health care than just about any other nation, and yet the quality and extent (meaning the number of citizens covered) lags behind many other nations (we spend considerably more and our costs keep rising, but have a higher infant mortality rate, a lower life expectancy, less medical equipment available per capita, and a lower doctor to patient ration than many other countries). There's a reason why the issue of health care reform wasn't abandoned forever after it floundered during the Clinton years, and, honestly, even if it fails this time I don't think it's going to go away. Health care reform will continue to be brought up as an issue because it's just something that needs to be addressed. The problems it's supposed to fix keep getting worse. Our government can't financially afford to let costs keep rising at the current rate (Medicare, for instance, will simply become unsustainable at some point if things don't change), individual patients will continue to see their services cut and/or refused if costs continue to rise, and our citizens will continue to become financially destitute whenever they get seriously sick unless things improve. Plus, there's the fact that as many as 46 million Americans are simply without any health care coverage at all.
Anyway, even if the president were to utterly fail, I don't think this issue would go away because the problems which underlie this debate aren't going to go away. If left unaddressed, they're just going to get worse. At some point, when things get really bad, even conservatives will have to address the problem. But things might get really ugly before we reach that point.
As far as the president suffering horribly if this health care reform thing fails, well, I just don't see it. At least not for Obama. Democrats in Congress might be facing a different story. When health care reform failed under Clinton, he went on to win a second term, but midterm elections were pretty brutal for Senators and Congressmen from the Democratic Party. I could see that happening again (which, in turn, could be a significant blow to the president's effectiveness). I think that this health care reform issue is taking place at an early enough point in Obama's first term that he can recover from it pretty well (assuming he does other things right) by the time he runs for reelection. It may get a lot harder for him to get things done if the Democrats lose Congressional seats in the wake of a health care reform failure (and I think voters will blame those Democrats if this thing fails; both the House and the Senate have been seen as a bunch of do-nothing squabblers for quite some time now, and it's going to be hard for the Democrats to explain a failure in health care reform when they're positioned with the biggest majority that they're enjoyed in decades).
Anyway, of course I think the president really does need to give a strong speech tonight that can help put the debate back on the right track and serve as a call to arms to get Democrats lined up for battle. But I think that the heat and pressure are ultimately going to be felt by the Senators and Congressmen more than by President Obama. I think that one of the reasons Obama is tackling this issue early on in his first term is so that he'll have time to recover from the whole thing if it crashes and burns (he's taken some heat for going after this health care reform deal during a recession and when he has so much other stuff on his plate, but I'm guessing his team thinks that, strategically, this is the best time to take this risk if they want to keep it from having a negative impact on his next election).
Incidentally, more and more I'm convinced that it's actually been a good thing that the conservatives had so much time to go on the attack and vent and rage and blow off steam during August. By now, there arguments seem sort of tired, and the Democrats have had some chance to correct some of the falsehoods and misrepresentations put out there by reform opponents (doesn't the whole death panel thing just seem silly by now? There are some people who undoubtedly still believe it, but those are the people who want to believe it- people who were never going to support reform, anyway)
Anyway, I hope President Obama hits one out of the park tonight, but I still think that health care reform is going to be a big, important issue that requires attention, regardless of how tonight's speech goes off. The issue is just much, much bigger than one single speech.

That's all that I've got for now. Good luck tonight, President Obama!

p.s.- Well, I guess that educational speech by the president yesterday to America's school children wasn't nearly as controversial in practice as people thought it would be. Stay in school. Study hard. Take responsibility for your own education. Use your skills to build a better country.
It's amazing that the kids survived that sort of thing.