Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!!!

Hope everyone has a fun and safe New Year!! Have a good time, but be careful. As someone who works in a job where I get to see all of the arrest reports after the fact, believe me when I say that there are a lot of people out there who shouldn't be on the road every New Year. Have fun, but call a cab! (and if you're the one driving, just be careful and look out for the drunks!)


Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Schedule

My posting may be a bit sporadic and random this week. I'm on a holiday break from work, and that includes the blog, it seems.... Hope everyone's doing ok!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!!!!!

Hope you guys are all having a nice holiday! Have fun, and be safe (especially anyone travelling)!!!!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Sort of Christmas Gift

Merry Christmas Eve!!!
Well, the Senate got their version of the reform bill passed. It'll be interesting to see what changes, if any, get made during reconciliation. My guess is that the final bill will look a lot like the Senate version (which is unfortunate because the House version contains a public option and better cost controls). If they try to change the bill much from the Senate version, it would probably never pass a final vote (conservative Democrat senators would torpedo a final version if it had a public option). Anyway, as I've said before, this Senate version is far from ideal, but I still hope it helps some people. Hopefully this bill can be added to and improved upon somewhere down the line.
In different news, I also heard that there's a bill being introduced, I believe in the House, which would prohibit TV broadcasters from playing their commercials louder than their other programming. I like this idea. I bet it gets much better bipartisan support than health care reform.
Hope everyone is having a nice holiday!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Tomfoolery; What it Takes to Get Work Done in the Senate; Health Care Unconstitutional?

I saw this on TV this morning, and it kinda made me laugh. This guy's friends (who are in an improv comedy troupe) decided to present him with the gift of all the stuff he already owned when he returned from a trip. Check it out.

Not too much to report. Last night I worked on cleaning up and editing some songs that we played at band practice last week. They sound a little rough. They're sort of just afterthought recordings of a practice (we're still working on the parts of these songs and figuring out what the final versions might sound like- not focusing on making perfect recordings), but it's fun stuff, and I enjoy messing around with it.

I heard on CNN this morning that the health care bill was looking like it might not reach a vote until relatively late in the night on Christmas Eve (around 10:00 p.m., probably), so, instead, Senators have reached a bipartisan agreement to vote on the bill earlier in the day (around 8:00 a.m.) in order to avoid travel delays and insure the fact that they can be home with their families on the holiday. It struck me as sort of ironic/crazy/bizarre thing that the Senate, which has been pretty much unwilling to reach a bipartisan agreement on anything, and the GOP senators, who have been making hyperbolic statements about fighting the health care reform bill tooth and nail to the death (some of them saying they would hold out until Valentine's Day in order to kill it), can all set aside their differences and reach an agreement on scheduling this thing for a timely vote when failure to do so might cause them a personal inconvenience on their holiday. How ridiculous is that? The fact that 40 million Americans are uninsured didn't force a any sort of bipartisan agreement on any given issue, the fact that thousands of Americans die prematurely and/or unnecessarily every year for want of proper health care coverage wasn't enough to force some compromise, thousands of Americans being forced into bankruptcy because of health care costs didn't prompt agreement on anything, or the ongoing denial of insurance coverage for thousands more because of pre-existing conditions. None of these things resulted in any sort of visible compromise or agreement between Democrats and Republicans on the health care reform bill on any issue, but when Senators were faced with the possibility of a Christmas eve in which they might not be able to share milk and cookies with their families, suddenly they were finally able to break the log jam and agree on something. I think that maybe we need to start threatening to take away holidays from U.S. Senators every single time they can't reach an agreement on a major issue, and then maybe we'll actually see some things getting done in the Senate.

In a different but related note, GOP Senators are now saying that they will contest the new health care bill on constitutional grounds. The exact bone that they have to pick with the new bill is with its provision which mandates insurance coverage for all citizens (essentially making it illegal for people not to have insurance). Their argument, in essence, is that the constitution doesn't sepcifically provide for such a mandate, and that the constitution forbids the government from seizing private property for public use without just compensation.
I don't think this argument is going to fly, but it's an interesting one. On a practical level, states have long required people to have insurance before driving a car (although people can be self insured if they can show that they have enough cash in the bank), and this has never been struck down as unconstitutional. Another counterargument might be that this isn't really a seizure of private property for public use, and certainly not a seizure without just compensation. The money that people will need to pay for insurance actually benefits the person making the payment (to a degree theoretically equivalent to or exceeding the money spent), so I'm not sure this is a true seizure. The government isn't simply taking something from people in order to give something to the public in the same way that they do when they use emminent domain to seize property to build a road. In those cases, private property is being seized and essentially just taken by the government for its own use. Here, the government is insisting that a person enter into a transaction where the individual making the purchase is the one most directly receiving the benefit (not the government or the public). And, even if this were a seizure, there's always the argument that just compensation has been made by way of the health care coverage provided. If the Supreme Court ends up buying into this argument, I think it will be a pretty clear indication that they're just playing politics (which would be extremely disappointing, but maybe not altogether surprising).
Anyway, that's all for now.
Hope everyone is feeling a bit of Christmas cheer!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Crimson Tide; An End to Arkham (?); All Rebel Rockers

Hola! How's stuff? Last night I had dinner with Ryan and Jamie and watched Crimson Tide (which I've seen before). Crimson Tide (which is a 1995 movie about a power struggle among the commanding officers of a nuclear submarine during an international incident with Russian revolutionaries) isn't really a great movie, but it's kind of interesting, and it actually has some decent performances in it from Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. Viggo Mortensen is in it, which is kind of funny, because he was just sort of a minor, supporting character. Given the way his career has taken off since 1995, I sort of doubt you'd see him in a similar role today.

I also finished playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was a pretty solid game all the way through. A story that was pretty good for a video game (which managed to take advantage of the video game format to tell the story), good playability, great art. Apparently they're already working on Arham Asylum 2, and I'll happily play it if it's has as good as the first one.

I just don't have a whole lot else to tell you guys. I recently downloaded All Rebel Rockers, which is an album which was released in September of '08 by Michael Franti and Spearhead. It's a sort of dub/reggae sort of thing for the most part, and I like it. It kind of puts me in a good mood (strangely, it also reminds me a lot of the Grand Theft Auto videogames, because I regularly find myself listening to the in-game reggae station in my cars when I'm driving around town in those games. So now I'm driving around Austin and listening to Spearhead and feeling like I need to be on the lookout for gangsters with guns...).

Anyway, it's a cool record.

Just not coming up with much today.

Probably better not to force it.

Hope you guys are having a good one!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Weekend Update; Adios, League of Melbotis!! (?); Public Enemies; Health Care Reform Takes Another Step

Hey! Hope everyone had a good weekend. Mine was pretty good, although sometime last night my body suddenly realized that there was a decent amount of cedar pollen in the air, so today I'm suffering some from the ol' allergies. Oh, well. If I weren't suffering from allergies it wouldn't be Christmas!

On a different note, my brother made what he is reporting to be his final blog post this weekend. I'm not sure I want to get too sentimental about the purported end the League of Melbotis because, as I've repeatedly told Ryan, I'm just not sure that this supposed end to his blog is going to stick, or that he won't just start up a new blog somewhere else. (yes, the appropriate comparisons to Brett Favre's retirement and Ozzy Osbourne's repeated farewell tours have already been made) Without putting too fine a point on it, I remember sitting in Jeff Wilson's backyard years ago (Ryan and Jamie were still living in Arizona) and having a conversation over a beer about why The League kept threatening to end his own blog. Anyway, the possibility that The League of Melbotis might come to an end has been sort of an ongoing theme of the blog, and so I'm not sure that The League won't return once he gets a break from the blog for awhile and gets a chance to work on some other things (my brother is also a talented fiction writer and artist, so hopefully he'll find a way to do some work in those directions).
All of this being said, if, in fact, this does turn out to actually be the end of The League of Melbotis, I would be remiss in not taking a moment to point out my appreciation for it. My brother's blog helped to inspire me to start my own blog over five years ago, and I've met a lot of good people and had a lot of positive experiences by way of The League of Melbotis.
While he'll occasionally go off on a rant or express some frustration on his blog, I would probably also have to admit that my brother's blog has consistently been more entertaining than my own. Ryan has managed to infuse his blog with a sense of humor and, generally, a greater sense of cheerfulness than I think I tend to project on my blog. Where I've pretty much come at blogging from a standpoint of rumination, emotional venting, and cheap self therapy, Ryan has done a considerably better job of keeping his audience in mind- keeping them entertained, interested, and engaged. I like my blog for what I get out of it, but it seems pretty clear to me that Ryan's blog is probably more fun to read and that he just does a much better job of pleasing his readers.
Anyway, I have a fair amount of confidence that The League of Melbotis will eventually arise again in one form or the other, but if not, it's been a fun ride, and I want to thank Ryan for the experience. I've looked forward to checking for new posts and reading them on a daily basis for years now, so its absence will be missed. Good luck with your new endeavors, League.

What else? I watched Public Enemies this weekend on DVD. For those who don't know, this was a Michale Mann movie that told the story of John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, and his pursuit by FBI agent Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale. It had decent acting, cinematography, direction, and even music, but in the end it was a pretty forgettable movie. The movie hit some of the major points of Dillinger's career, exploring the strange relationship between the abk robber and the law enforcement agents pursuing him, but in the end the movie just didn't give a very compelling reason to be interested in Dillinger as a character (or at least nothing that would make him any more compelling than any other bank robber that we've seen in a heist movie), and the bank robberies, while well depicted, didn't really bring anything new to the table in terms of a heist movie. Anyway, Public Enemies wasn't bad, but it wasn't all that interesting, either.

What else? Well, I took Cassidy to the dog park yesterday, and I had band practice.

Cassidy really had an extra good time at the park on Sunday. She found a few dog friends to play with and wore herself out.

And the Senate passed its version of a health care reform bill late last night, so Democrats are claiming a victory as their bill moves toward reconciliation with the House version of the bill and a final vote. I guess I'm guardedly happy that a health care reform bill was passed by the Senate, but my satisfaction is significantly diminished by the absence of a public option and the removal of a provision which would have allowed for a Medicare buy in for people 55 and older. I guess I won't really feel good about this bill until I see the thing working and see that it's keeping a significantly greater population of the American people insured and keep[ing healthcare costs down. The bill includes a mandate for insurance coverage (so now people will be breaking the law if they don't have coverage), but it also includes subsidies for people who aren't able to afford coverage on their own. The bill also prevents insurance companies from denying people insurance because of pre-existing conditions, limits total out of pocket expenses, and creates insurance exchanges which are designed to help small businesses, the unemployed, and the self employed find afford coverage.
So there are some things in there to feel really good about. At least theoretically.
In practice, I still have some serious questions about whether this bill will ultimately bring down health care costs. Without a public option, it still seems like there's some danger that the insurance companies will continue to manipulate the system, collude, and find ways to artifically inflate prices. I still think that the creation of a public option would probably have been the best safeguard against manipulation and artificial cost inflation, but, despite some considerable skepticism, I'm trying not to judge this new bill to harshly until we see how it works. Hopefully this bill will help to relieve some of the worst problems that Americans have been facing because of defects in the current system (including inability to get coverage and health care related bankruptcies). I'm just worried about whether or not prices will really stay under control. Implementing a mandate for coverage if prices can't be kept at reasonable levels seems like it could create really serious problems.
So I just hope that some good comes out of this bill. I'm glad that something got passed, but I'll save any full throated endorsement or celebration until we see the bill having real, measurable effects (and all of this, of course, assuming that a final version of the bill ever gets passed at all).

Well, I guess that's it for now! Hope you guys are starting off your Chritmas week on the right foot!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Underwater Volcano!!!

Well, here's some video from an American robotic submarine of an underwater volcano erupting more than a kilometer beneath the Pacific Ocean's surface, near Samoa. I just thought this video was cool. I think volcanos are really cool, anyway (Ryan and I were lucky enough to see a live eruption at Arenal in Costa Rica when we went there), what with reshaping the Earth and seeing plate tectonics in action and all that, and it's just even more amazing to see the whole thing taking place 4000 feet underwater. It's a trippy world, people.

Friday, December 18, 2009

More Festiveness!

Howdy! Happy Friday!
Last night we had our office Christmas party at Serranos. It was about the same as it is every year, but at least it gave me a chance to visit with some people that I only get to talk to for moments at a time during the normal workday. Anyway, it was good to share some festiveness with the courthouse folks and people from our office.
I also went to a "Holiday Revue" put on by FOS (that's Friend of Steanso) Kellie at the Highball last night. It was fun! Kellie had organized a burlesque show, so they performed, and there was some singing (some surprisingly good singing, actually) and dancing and a whole lot of holiday related jolliness. Good stuff. Those women are brave.
So we had a good time, and it was fun to hang out with friends for some holiday cheer!
As a result of all the fun, I'm feeling a little worn out today, but it was worth it.
Anyway, I'm going to cut this sort of short, but maybe more later!
Hope you guys have a good weekend, in any case!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Peace, Tranquility, Christmas

Sorry that I haven't posted anything today! Work's been kind of crazy, and I ran some errands last night, so that's been busy as well.
I don't have too much to comment on, and I don't have much time to write a post, anyway. Just wanted to say that I hope everyone is doing okay. Christmas season always seems a little nuts. Also, as much as I hope that everyone is enjoying the holiday season and feeling merry, I also know that when you're feeling down or depressed, the whole Christmas thing can end up just making you feel worse- feeling like everyone else is happy and that you're supposed to be happy, but that somehow you just can't pull it off. If you're feeling down, the mandatory merriness of Christmas can just make you feel even worse and sometimes a bit isolated. I've been there.
So this post goes out to the people who are struggling just to get through Christmas. I hope that if you can't find it in your hearts to be entirely festive and merry, you can at least find a little bit of peace and tranquility during the holidays. I know I have some friends who are sort of feeling this way, and I just want to say that I'm thinking about everyone- the jolly and less jolly alike.
So hang in there! Spike some eggnog with some rum and drink it up. Go see some lights.
Anyway- Steanso wishes everyone some yuletide peace, and hopefully some happiness.
Here's to a good Christmas....

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From Jesus to Christ; Nopenhagen

Hola, amigos.
Not too much going on here.
I really have no idea what I did last night. I got home slightly later than usual, and I know I did a little time on the ol' elliptical machine, but after that... I guess I pretty much just squandered the rest of the night away.
Oh yeah. I watched most of a Frontline episode called From Jesus to Christ. It was about the life of Jesus, approaching his life and work from more of a historical account than a strictly religious one, and about the early days of the Christian religion and some of the early, formative steps that Christianity went through before becoming the religion that we see today (in its many different forms).
It was an interesting documentary. Right from the get go (as early christian leaders like Paul worked to establish the chrisitan church) it sounds like there were substantial differences in doctrine and practice among various groups and congregations that had sprung up. Keeping in mind that all of the earliest Christians had been Jews (Jesus and his disciples considered themselves Jews and were firmly embedded in Jewish practice and tradition, after all), one of the earliest questions for the new practitioners of Christianity involved whether or not a person had to become a Jew, with all of the rites and practices that went along with it, before becoming a Christian. For a period of time, then, there was a bit of controversy about whether Christianity would really become a religion in its own right, or whether it would remain a sort of version of Judaism. Also addressed were questions about when the messiah would return to Earth. Apparently the earliest Christians believed that Jesus would return to earth and signal the return of the kingdom of heaven within the lifetime of the church's founding members. The earliest Christians were somewhat alarmed when some of their members began to pass away, and Jesus still had not yet returned (which required some reassurance and clarification on the part of Paul and other early church leaders).
Anyway, it was a really interesting documentary. Hearing more about the political and social realities of the time period really sort of put some of the old classic Bible stories into a more real, human context. I'm not sure how devoutly religious people would respond to the program. While it certainly wasn't sacrilegious or anything, the documentary really looked at the events from the Bible from a solidly historical perspective. While the theologians and historians in the documentary don't really contradict religious scripture, I'm not sure that a lot of Christians would be comfortable with the idea that Jesus was probably considered to be an insignificant cult leader and minor political irritant by the Romans. Still, it makes sense. Many other religious figures and self declared messiahs had come before Jesus, many of whom also claimed religious and social authority (which the Romans saw as a threat to the rule of law and their own political authority), and many of these people were summarily arrested, imprisoned, and executed- a significant number of them suffering crucifixion in the same way that Jesus did. At the time when Pontius Pilate had Jesus executed, it's unlikely that he saw Jesus as anything more than another in a long line of religious fanatics turned political dissidents (Jesus's own political dissident status evidenced by, among other things, the mocking Roman label of "King of the Jews"). The documentary even went on to explain that Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, had gone to Jerusalem (he typically tended to reside in towns that had Roman, pagan temples and altars) to essentially provide security and crowd control during the chaos and crowds involved with Passover holiday. Point being, Passover was already sort of nuts, and Pilate, who was already known for being ruthless, was probably not really in the mood to put up with troublemakers during this particular point in time. It's just kind of weird to know that this sort of event, the sort of thing that Pilate had probably been involved in many times before while ruthlessly trying to maintain peace and security in his occupied territory, would later come to help define one of the most widespread, powerful religions that the world has ever known.
Anyway, kind of a strange post for me, I know, but I found it all very interesting.

What else? It sounds like there really hasn't been any substantial progress made in Copenhagen in terms of getting the countries of the world to agree to any sort of new restrictions on carbon emissions. The poorer countries can't seem to get the sort of funding that might help them make substantive changes, and the wealthier, industrialized nations (the U.S. and China, most specifically) won't submit to emissions reductions for fear of harming their own economies.
I'm just starting to feel a sort of resignation on this whole thing. I feel like all I can do (aside from supporting some environmental groups and driving low emissions vehicles) is hope that the people on the right actually turn out to be correct about all of this stuff, and that the problem ends up being much less severe than the scientific community continues to expect. I don't really expect the conservatives to be right on this, but I just feel kind of stuck. In general, the countries of the world have occasionally been able to band together in order to confront a sudden crisis, war, or disaster, but it seems like we've only been able to mobilize when things really come to a head (say, after the Nazis have occupied Europe or after a tsunami has wiped out cities on coastlines in the Indian Ocean). Global warming is more of a slow building problem, though, so it's going to be hard to have that single moment of realization that seems necessary to mobilize the world community, and global warming seems to be the sort of thing that's much better dealt with through way of prevention than through repair (I'm not sure if we even can mount recovery/repair efforts for something like climate change). The whole inability of the international community to come together and make changes, even in the face of a likely catastrophe, is just very depressing. If you believe the vast majority of scientific analysis (as I do), then our inability to act together as a global community at this point seems like a triumph of greed over self preservation. So... very... lame...

Grrrrr. Now I'm annoyed. I'm signing off.
Hope you guys are doing okay.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Festiveness; Lieberman!!!;

So I had dinner with Ryan and Jamie last night, and, got a chance to watch their copy of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas. Gotta say that it contained possibly the single best scene that Danny Devito has been in over the course of his entire career (no, I'm not gonna give it away- you gots to see it). Anyway, the whole thing was way funny. Kudos to Team Steans for buying it!
After dinner last night we also drove around a small bit looking at Christmas lights. Fairly festive stuff! Ryan and Jamie's neighborhood seems to do a significantly better job of getting into the Christmas spirit than the folks in my neighborhood. Anyway, I think that next year I might need to take the lights up a notch (I'm now thinking that maybe you've missed the boat on the whole Christmas light thing if you don't do something that makes the neighbors question your sanity).

What else....?
Oh yeah. I really, really can't stand Joe Lieberman. He's a former Democrat and current Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, but he cuts the legs out from under them whenever he gets the opportunity. First he spoke at the Republican convention, stumping for McCain and blasting Obama on national television during a critical stage in a presidential race, and now he's playing a really significant part in obstructing health care reform. He's been saying since 2000 (and as recently as this September in news interviews) that he supports a Medicare buy-in plan for 55 to 64 year olds, but now that his vote is crucial to the passage of a bill, he suddenly feels that a Medicare buy-in would be too costly and cumbersome (even though that never seemed like a problem for him before, it's not clear that a Medicare buy-in would contribute significantly to the deficit over the long term, and even though the official, nonpartisan report from the Congressional Budget Office hasn't been completed- which would provide an actual cost analysis of the bill). Meanwhile, Lieberman's wife, Hadassah Lieberman, has significant ties to the healthcare industry, having worked in consulting positions for companies like Pfizer and ALCO (which makes medical equipment and parts). It sounds pretty much like Hadassah Lieberman worked as an unregistered lobbyist for members of the health care industry, and now Lieberman is claiming that he's never felt any pressure or experienced any sort of influence from drug or insurance companies. Right....
I think Lieberman is just a big ol' jackass. He won't go ahead and declare himself a Republican, and yet he undermines and attacks the Democrats at every available opportunity. When Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in 2006 (after taking sides with the Republicans on a number of issues), he still managed to win his seat as an Independent, but ever since he's responded like a spoiled child, taking every opportunity possible to stick it to the Democrats.
Of course, I'm almost equally annoyed by the Democratic leadership, who seem content in allowing Lieberman to do these things to them over and over. I guess the Dems think that it gives them power to have Lieberman in their corner caucusing with them, but when they guy keeps working against them on every major issue and project that comes up, he's really only a Democratic ally in the strictest hypothetical sense. In practice, he's more of a Republican, albeit one who's afraid to run in a Republican primary for fear of being defeated by someone with more traditional Republican credentials.
The Democrats in Connecticut really need to get their ducks in a row and run a candidate who can defeat this guy. Also, Senate Democrats need to start playing hardball with Lieberman and take away his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (or at least this should be a very real threat if he continues to obstruct meaningful Democratic efforts). If the Democrats can't ever count on Lieberman's support (and given his trends from recent years, it makes much more sense for the public to expect Lieberman to actively oppose them), it's not clear why the Democrats continue to support him. Honestly, this chairmanship is pretty much just a gift to the guy at this point, and it's one which he hasn't deserved in quite some time.
Ugggh. He's an a**hole. Drives me nuts.

What else? Guess I don't have much. Hope you guys are having a good day!
Talk at ya later.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Son Volt; Avatar and the Movie Making Process

Hi. Hope you had a good weekend.
Mine was pretty good. I did stuff. Saw friends. Hung out with family. Played with dogs. Made music.
Got the most recent Son Volt album, Central American Dust, this weekend. It's a pretty good record. Probably not as good as Trace (which I think remains their best), but a really solid album, nonetheless. When Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy split up and dissolved Uncle Tupelo, a lot of people felt some kind of need to pick a side, as though it were necessary to choose one band over the other. The truth, though, (or at least as I see it) is that both Son Volt and Wilco have both gone on to create some very good music, although they've moved in different directions. I still really like Jay Farrar's voice, and I think that Son Volt continues to produce some good songs that hit me in a slightly different place than Wilco's music. Son Volt seems more grounded in tradition and history, while Wilco acknowledges those things while remaining more contemporary and forward looking (which somehow makes sense if you go back and listen to old Uncle Tupelo recordings where all of these things are present).
Anyway, I like American Central Dust. Good album. Maybe not album of the year, but a solid effort.
Early reviews are coming in for James Cameron's new epicly expensive action adventure/sci fi spectaular, Avatar, and they seem like they're relatively positive. I have to admit that I've been sort of pulling for this movie for quite a while now, mostly because the fan boys and the hip kids had all collectively jumped on this movie and declared it to be horrible and unwatchable on the basis of a few moments of trailer footage and because the aliens in the movie are blue and sort of goofy looking. Anyway, the hypercritical internet reviewers had really gotten bunged up about how much they hated this movie long before they had seen any kind of finished film, and that was annoying me a bit. Also annoying me just a little bit was the fact that everyone seems to be underestimating James Cameron. Whether you like the guy or not, he's made a ton of money and a bunch of movies that have become major mainstays of pop culture, from Aliens to Teminator (1 and 2) to Titanic and even True Lies. As fanboys were snarking about how Cameron had clearly wasted $300 million or so in making Avatar, I was reading about how, for the filming of this movie, he had helped to pioneer new CG techniques which allow directors to see their actors interact with computer graphics in real time, and it sounded to me like this technology just by itself might ultimately end up helping to recoup any potential losses that Cameron might suffer on this film.
Anyway, I just think that Cameron isn't a fluke. He seems to work really, really hard at making movies that are not only big spectacles, but which also connect with audiences in a way that keeps them coming back for repeated viewings years after their release. Essentially, I think Cameron just comes up with stories and imagery in his own mind that really impress him (he supposedly had the ideas and much of the imagery for Avatar in mind for years before making the thing), and then he does whatever it takes to put those stories and images up on screen. Sometimes that process takes a whole lot of money and other craziness (e.g., building a giant recreation of the Titanic and/or using a submarine shoot footage of the wreck itself, coming up with new technology for use with computer graphics systems, etc.), but I think Cameron is one of the few directors that still stands by his instincts and insists upon making movies that live up to his vision in an uncompromising way (he's known to be a director who's fairly demanding and controlling when making his movies). Much of the time this sort of method has worked out pretty well for him, but it's a manner of making movies that many other directors probably don't have the courage to employ- because it's risky. If you spend a ton of money and are willing to step on toes and be demanding, but then your movie ends up sucking, then that kind of thing could really mess up a your career as a director. Cameron, by this point, has enough successes under his belt to cushion the blow of a failure somewhat, but most directors don't have the clout to play that sort of game. The process is even risky for Cameron when he's making one of the most expensive movies of all time.
Soooooo, I've been kind of quietly rooting for Avatar in hopes of it being a success. The hypercritical internet chat has been overwhelmingly negative, but I've liked the fact that Cameron has been unwilling to modify his movie to please the fanboys and critics. I'm not sure whether I'll end up liking the movie or not, but I know that I don't like this whole new feedback loop that has developed where trailers and information are leaked to audiences, and then directors and producers try to craft and shape their films as a reaction to response from "fans" (I put it in quotes because how can you be a fan of something that hasn't even come out yet?). I think that this whole feedback loop just ends up producing movies that lack in originality and vision. Vision doesn't come from group think. Vision comes from showing people something that they don't expect and maybe don't even expect to like, but showing people why this thing is cool and why they should see it from your point of view. Vision is the province of the creative, willful individual- not the product of endless amounts of inane internet chatter.
So I still don't know if I'll end up liking the blue, big eyed aliens after I've seen Avatar, but I'm pulling for the movie to be at least moderately successful because I don't like the way people attacked it before they ever really saw the thing. By most accounts it seems like Avatar, at the very least, will actually represent one man's vision for what this movie should be, and that's something that we're not seeing much of these days, especially in a big, blockbuster movie.

Friday, December 11, 2009

And Merry Christmas from the Steans Clan!!!

Send your own ElfYourself eCards

I can't stop myself. Somebody help....

Merry Christmas, Guys!!

Send your own ElfYourself eCards

Ryan already did this over on his blog, but I couldn't resist. Here's Ryan, Sigmund, Reed, Jennifer and I wishing you guys a merry christmas!!! Enjoy!!

Free Medical Clinics; Hitler's Body

What's up? Happy Friday, all. I've got a little bit of Christmas shopping to do, but I've actually gotten a decent amount of it done early already (for once), so I'm actually kind of looking forward to the small amount that I have left.
Last night I watched a bit of The Ed Show on MSNBC, and Ed Schultz and his crew were in Kansas City, spending time at a travelling, free medical clinic being hosted at the Kansas City convention Center which had treated almost 2200 people at the time of the boradcast. The free medical clinic was put on by the National Association of Free Clinics, a nonprofit group, using 1600 volunteers and 650 medical personnel. I found it interesting that 83% of the people who requested services at the clinic were employed with full or part time employment (many of them reported to be working at more than one part time job in order to make ends meet). At the time of the program, there were wait times of up to 5 hours to see a doctor, but patients still seemed satisified, with several commenting that waiting room times at a local ER would be just about as long, but that hospital emergency rooms would try to bill people for money that they just couldn't afford at the end of their treatment ordeal.
Anyway, it was heartening to see all of these volunteers who were willing to work so hard to provide free medical care, but it was depressing to see such a huge need for services, the great majority of which were being utilized by people who were actually employed, but who could not afford medical care. NAFC organizers report that they are already overwhelmed with a demand for additional free clinics at cities all across the country, and that they're struggling to keep up. Just seeing all of these people sitting in line for hours and hours in order to get basic medical care sort of reinforced and underscored my belief that there is something very, very wrong with our health care system in this country. It's just kind of insane to me that working people in our country can't afford health care. It makes me really mad and depressed and frustrated, especially when I see such virulent attacks againt efforts at reform.
Meanwhile, we spend billions of dollars in Iraq and give corporate bailouts to companies who turn around and give bonuses worth millions of dollars to executives who drove their companies to the brink of bankruptcy in the first place.
We have a big section of the American public which is either ignorant, self absorbed and brutally callous, or crazy. I don't know what else to think.

What else?
Apparently the Russians are now saying that they had Hitler's body all along, following World War II. They're saying that they seized the body on May 5, 1945, finding it in a crater near Hitler's bunker (it's reported that Hitler died by a combination of cyanide and a self-inflicted gunshot wound), and was buried and the reburied in Germany, ending up in grave on a Soviet military base near Magdeburg, Germany. Hitler's body was once again exhumed in 1970, when the Soviets handed their base over to the Germans, with the body being burned to ashes, and then thrown into the Biederitz River. The Russians maintain that this was done in order to prevent Hitler's burial site or final resting place from becoming a memorial or place of commemoration for Nazis and supporters of fascist ideas.
A fragment of skull which is reported to belong have belonged to Hitler still remains, and are kept at the Russian FSB Central Archive. American researchers have expressed doubts about the authenticity of the skull, but Russian researchers have pointed out that even DNA tests could do little to disprove or prove the identity of the bone fragments, as there are no known samples of Hitler's genetic material to comapre it to.
Just another strange story surrounding Hitler's death, I guess. It sounds as plausible to me as anything else that I've heard, but then again, I also wouldn't be surprised if it were just a Russian tall tale, meant to build their own national mystique and deflect sme of the slight embarrassment that the Soviets felt after losing track of Hitler's body at the end of World War II (the Soviets got to Hitler's bunker well ahead of any American forces).
Of course, the truth, as we all know, is that Hitler escaped after undergoing plastic surgery and experimental Nazi life extension procedures. He walks among us still, changing his appearance and altering his identity as he sees fit, sowing the seeds of evil, chaos, hate, and fear wherever he goes.
Dick Cheney, I'm looking in your direction.

Well, gotta run! Hope you guys have a good weekend if I don't write any more!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Quick Post; Bit on Obama

Well, didn't write last night, and not much time today. Woke up this morning to see President Obama giving his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Very interesting. You don't hear many Nobel recipients making an argument/plea for greater European support for war when the cause is just. Not sure how the audience received the speech, but, as usual, I thought the president made some really good points.
Obama's popularity has begun to slip somewhat as he takes on a number of difficult issues (the economy, health care, our wars, etc.) and discovers that it's pretty hard to make everyone happy, but I still like the guy and have a lot of respect for him (even though I don't agree with him on every single practice and policy- I think we still have too many troops in Iraq, and someone remind me why Gitmo is still open?). He might not always reach the same conclusions that I do, but at least I trust that the man goes through an intelligent, well-reasoned thought process before making decisions, and I believe that he's dedicated to making positive changes for the country (not just paying lip service). Obama is very pragmatic, and sometimes that gets him in trouble with his liberal base, but I think that if a leader really wants to get stuff done in our current political climate (and not just be a figurehead), it's almost impossible to move forward without some compromise. Part of the job has got to be knowing when to make concessions versus when to engage in arm twisting. I might like to see a bit more arm twisting on Obama's part, but, on the whole I think he's doing the right things and mostly taking the right positions.
And that man can sure give a speech. If nothing else, it's great to have such an articulate leader representing our country.
Gotta run, so that's it!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Cheney's Prediction; The Media and Climate Change

Not much to report on from the home front.
Cheney has gone on record saying that the GOP is going to pick up quite a few seats and make some big gains in 2010. Unfortunately, unless we see some rapid improvement in the economy, I tend to agree. It's a situation which sucks, because Democrats pretty much inherited the current situation from the Republicans, and if Democrat recovery efforts do end up paying off, we may not see substantial positive effects until a new batch of Republicans are in office, ready to reap the reward of work done by the Democrats. Oh well. Such is the cyclical nature of politics, and the impulsive, reactionary voting tendency of the American public. The Democrats have benefitted before from economic downturns- the one which most vividly springs to mind in my memory was the advantage that was handed to Bill Clinton in his race against George H. Bush when the economy went south during Clinton's first run for office.
Anyway, let's all keep our fingers crossed that the economy continues to steadily improve. The country needs it, and it would really help out the Democratic Party as well.

And now for something that's really starting to annoy me. I'm getting really, really tired of the media spending more time covering public opinion polls about global warming than covering the science and the developments behind the phenomenon itself. Over and over again while watching CNN, I hear about how more and more Americans don't believe in climate change.
I'm not even sure what to do with this information, other than to confirm my belief that, on the whole, Americans must just be uninformed, uneducated, self interested clowns.
Whether Americans believe in climate change or not will have little or no bearing on whether it's actually occurring. Even more importantly, if CNN spent half as much time explaining the mechanics of climate change and providing covergae of the changes that our planet is already undergoing instead of conducting polls which reveal how ignorant our population is, then maybe people would know and understand enough about climate change to get behind some substantive plans that might slow or stop it.
Look, glaciers and mountain ice and snow that have been around for millions of years have begun to melt and dissipate, causing shortage of water in the Himalayas and other mountain regions. Some large percentage (I think I remember hearing around 40 or 50%) of the sea ice in the arctic has already melted, and we're predicted to lose the rest within the next 10 or so years. Sea levels are beginning to show measureable change. Trees in the American West have begun to die out in large numbers because of changes in temperatures and because diseases and pests which would normally be kept in check by freezing weather are now more virulent in the warmer temperatures. Intense storms have become more frequent, and temperature swings have become more wild and intense. Record drought conditions and extreme heat have effected numerous areas around the world, with areas of agriculture in various parts of Australia and Africa turning to desert. The signs of global climate change have become not only visible, but irrefutable (although Americans tend to see the rest of the world as somewhat fictitious, so I suppose many of us won't really believe in real climate change until its visible impact is at our own front door).
All of this on top of the irrefutable scientific explanation of how carbon emissions create a greenhouse effect which heats up the atmosphere.
I understand that people are mad and scared and freaked out. In some ways, the global warming situation has been a little bit like getting the diagnosis for a chronic, serious disease, so I guess it's not all that surprising that many people are just trying to deny that anything is happening at all (after all, isn't denial a classic reaction for a patient to have when they get news that they have a very serious medical condition?).
What I'm annoyed by is the media coverage that seems to suggest that public opinion on this issue is somehow more important than the phenomenon of global warming itself, as if it would be a viable option to simply ignore the problem if enough people decide that it doesn't exist. To me, arguing about whether global warming exists is a little like arguing about whether or not your ship is really sinking, even as it takes on more and more water and sinks further and further into the ocean.
Like I said before, if CNN and the other networks spent half as much time focusing on the causes, effects, impacts, and remedies for global warming as they do on covering public opinion about it, then maybe global warming wouldn't be surrounded by this air of pseudo controversy in the first place.
And in the end, even if global warming didn't exist (although all scientific evidence points to the contrary), does anyone really think it's a good thing that we're continuing to pump massive amounts of carbon gasses into our air, with this occurring at a continuously accelerated rate all over the globe? Shouldn't we just be trying to pollute less, anyway, so we have safer, healthier air? As the president keeps saying, we seem to have a need for a new industry that can help to reinvigorate our economy, and green energy would appear to provide many opportunities in this regard.
Anyway, do better, media. In an industry where ratings are God, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that public opinion always seems to take precedence, but sometimes, in some matters, it actually, really doesn't matter all that much what the public thinks. Or maybe, more correctly, some things just aren't really up for public debate. When people have the wrong "opinion" on something that's not really a matter of opinion, we just call that being poorly informed, ignorant, or wrong. The job of the media at that point needs to be the communication of genuine facts- not the continued propagation of false controversy.

*** (You know what's weird? I wrote this piece last night after watching some annoying coverage on CNN about the climate change "debate", and then this morning on the CNN page I found Al Gore talking about climate change denial and why it was ridiculous. Check it out. So weird. Some of his examples are even the ones I used. Clearly, I need to run for president.)

Well, that's done. I'm ranted out.
Hope you have a good one.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tuesday Morning

Just a quick shot from the Lamar Bridge on my way into work. Thought it was kind of a cool picture.

Eight Team College Pigskin Playoffs?; New Autism Treatment

Hi. Not much going on.
There's an article today in the Austin American Statesman that supports the idea of creating an eight team playoff system which could decide who the national champion is each year. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy that UT will be playing in the Rose Bowl this year, but I really like this idea of an eight team playoff system. Even though I think UT had a great season and deserves to be playing for the national title as much as anyone, it's hard to justify a system where a team like TCU can play a completely undefeated season and still not get a crack at playing in the championship. Taking the top eight teams and putting them in competition with each other would cover the legitimate possibilities in terms of giving the best teams in the country a chance to play in the championship game, so that would make things seem a lot more fair (it might help to alleviate some of the injustices created by teams who face radically different levels of competition during their regular season schedules and give teams who had suffered a single, slim defeat a chance to prove that they're still the best overall team in the country).
Also, and probably more importantly, it would just be really fun to watch an eight team playoff series. The drama and excitement generated by the NCAA basketball tournament every year has shown how much people love to see teams play in this sort of do or die, high pressure situation (lots of people who don't watch a college basketball game all season tune in to see the yearly playoff tournament in March), and, frankly, any team that wants to declare itself the best in the country on any given year ought to be able to prove that it has the willpower, tenacity, and grace under pressure to navigate its way through a playoff tournament.
The only potential downside that I could see for an eight game playoff might be that it could potetntially take a little bit of the drama out of the regular season. Instead of clawing and fighting through the season to earn a number one or number two spot (a situation where each and every game is truly and vitally important), teams would know that they only need to finish in the top eight in order to have a crack at the title. Granted, you normally can't lose many games and remain in the top 8, but there's usually a little wiggle room in there in terms of who you lose to and by how much.
So, anyway, I'm all for a playoff system with the top 8 teams. Just not this year.
Yeah. 'Cause we're already in it this year. ;-)

In other news, I saw a story on CNN this morning about new and/or increased use of a therapy called applied behavior analysis, used with children with autism, and about how the use of this therapy at an early developmental stage in kids can help to decrease and sometimes even remove their symptoms (this therapy, APB, involves repetitive use of exposure to stimuli and accompanying social cues and emotional reactions from therapists, which helps to retrain autistic kids in how to relate to their environment). If APB turns out to be a real trend in treatment, with widespread, verifiable results, this could be huge. Autism is already one of the most widespread mental disorders diagnosed in children, with rates of incidence running as high as 1 in 100 children (although this figure is up for some debate- it sounds like many experts are more comfortable with the previous figures which were set at 1 in 150 kids). Autism, which can create issues with language skills, social and personal interaction skills, and IQ, has been a diagnosis which has traditionally been considered pretty difficult to successfully treat, but which remains fairly debilitating. This new study involving the use of applied behavior analysis sounds pretty promising when used fairly early on in a child's development (which means that it may be more important than ever for new parents to learn to spot the warning signs and symproms of autism, so that kids can be treated early on, when therapy is most effective).
Anyway, I just found this story to be both interesting and encouraging. It seems like the incidence rates for autism have been increasing steadily over the years, and I've never really been clear about whether this was because the disorder is becoming more prevalent or whether clinicians were simply getting better at spotting and diagnosing it. Either way, the trend is troubling, and if I had a young child or a possible child on the way, I think I'd be a little worried about the autism thing (with 1 in 100 kids developing it, the autism risk seems more legitimate than many other things that parents worry about). Actually, even without kids of my own, the increase in autism still has me worried for the rugrats.
So I'm glad to hear that healthcare professionals may be making progress. Hope this new therapy proves to do a lot of good.

Well, that's it.
Hope you guys are having a good one!
Well, that's all I've got right now.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Weekend Update

A few pics from the weekend.....

We celebrated Andy's birthday. Here he's making music with his new hooter.

Here he's being Afghandy

A bit of holiday conversation with the ladies...

And on Sunday, Roundball gives us a greater understanding of why he needs a secret identity....

It was a good weekend, all in all. On Friday I hung out with Ryan and Jamie. We watched a Canadian documentary called Cat Ladies which was about.... well, I think the title sort of speaks for itself. Anyway, the documentary was well done, and the whole thing was much more poignant than I had been expecting.
Saturday we went to Highball and celebrated Andy's birthday with some drinks, appetizers, and bowling. It was fun. I like the Highball.
After Highball we hung out a bit at andy and Rami's place, and I got to see the second half of the UT-Nebraska game. I was pretty much on pins and needles, but most of the rest of our gang wasn't all that into football. We all were glued to the TV for the last few minutes as UT squeezed out their last second (literally) field goal, though. Anyway, it was good for me to watch that game with people who weren't as emotionally invested in it as I was. I was nervous enough without anyone screaming or hollaring around me for most of it (and we all celebrated together after the UT win).
Sunday I had breakfast with Team Steans, did some Christmas shopping with Ryan, and had band practice with Reed. So Sunday was also a good day (I got a lot done in terms of the Christmas shopping, and Reed and I had a good, laid back practice).

So that was the weekend. It was a nice one, and it went by too fast. I'm happy that I got so much done in terms of the Christmas shopping.
Maybe I'll blog more later, but I blogged more than usual over the weekend and I'm sort of busy today, so for now I'm signing off.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Funding for the Mental Health Services in Texas (and the impact in the justice system)

Man, I normally don't post nearly this much on the weekends, but things just keep popping up that I can't help but comment on. There was a big ol' article in the Austin American Statesman today about the tremendous demand for additional/expanded mental health related services in Texas and about the lack of funding and support that mental health care services currently receive. I just wanted to take a moment to encourage people (especially Texans) to read this article if they have the time.
In my current position as a mental health prosecutor, this lack of funding and resources for mental health services is a constant, ongoing source of frustration and grave concern. Lack fo available beds means it has become frequent when we have a person in jail who is seriously ill and needs hospitalization for that person to be put on waiting lists that are often four months to five months long. This means that mentally ill people, many of whom are in jail on relatively minor offenses (like criminal trespass, misdemeanor theft, etc.), often end up sitting in jail for long periods of time while just waiting to be treated and stabilized (defendants in criminal cases are required by law to reach a certain minimal level of competency before their case can be addressed by the criminal court system- so mentally ill people often stand to do much more time waiting for treatment than a typical person would spend in custody on a given sort of crime). The hospitals which treat the mentally ill are simply too crowded and don't have room to take more people. Another big problem is that in situations where mentally ill people are in crisis (i.e., are displaying fully psychotic behavior that makes them a threat to themselves or the people around them) police officers are trained to take these people straight to the mental hospitals for an emergency commitment. When the mental hospitals are too crowded, though, (which seems to be a chronic problem) the mental health hospitals will refuse to accept new patients, and the police officers are supposed to take these individuals to regular hospital emergency rooms instead. Most regular hospitals are poorly equipped to handle these sorts of patients (they're not really all that well equipped for medium to long term stabilization and they're not really well situated for dealing with a person who is currently in crisis so severe that they're being brought in by a police officer), and oftentimes it takes a long time to get these people admitted to the hospital and processed in. Police officers aren't crazy about dealing with these situations for hours and hours, and the regular hospitals don't seem to be crazy about dealing with these situations, either. As a result, I think that we run into situations where officers know that they're going to have to deal with being turned away from hospitals and rerouted to other hospitals, and they go ahead and just make an arrest for whatever disturbance they were called out on in the first place. The officers know that the disturbed person will receive at least a basic level of medication and treatment in the jail, and the processing time is much faster, thereby allowing officers to get back onto the streets more quickly. I don't really blame the officers for taking the path of least resistance in this situation (and it's often a fine line for officers when deciding to take a person to the hospital or jail in the first place), but the end result is that, once again, the end result is that we get mentally ill people in the jail who really belong in a mental health treatment facility. The fact that the mental hospitals are overcrowded shouldn't be the deciding fact between whether a person gets treatment or goes to jail. Our Travis County jail does a really good job at providing services for a jail, but it's still a jail, and it's not the proper environment for treatment (nor can it offer all the same meds and services that a hospital might offer).
Anyway, on our mental health docket, we try to find workarounds and alternative solutions (we now have an outpatient competency restoration program and a few other tools), but many of these things are just sort of stopgap measures. We need more funding for hospitals (to treat people who have destabilized) and for the basic services that can keep people healthy in the first place (before they get into crisis). The mental health docket was supposed to be designed just to decide punishment terms for mentally ill defendants and whether or not people were criminally culpable for their actions in the first place. The task of trying to with and work around an underfunded mental health system with inadequate resources has become an ancillary task that we're dealing with simply because it's an unfortunate part of the reality of the caseload.
So, I encourage people to take a glance at the article if you have time. The mental health system is woefully underfunded in Texas, with many people simply ignoring the problem because it isn't a day to day part of their lives. For the people who deal with mental illness personally, in their families, or in their community, however, mental illness is an extremely pressing problem that can be made all the more devastating if left unaddressed. As a prosecutor, I think it would be great if we could get more bed space in our mental health hospitals, but equally important are the community clinic services that the article refers to. If we could get more people off the waiting lists and into a situation where they were actually being treated, we might see a lot less need for hospitalization and, hopefully, a lot less crisis situation where the police ever get involved.
I don't mean to sound like a public service announcement, but this stuff is very, very real, and ignoring the issue will only make the problem worse.
The good news is that proper medication and treatment can work absolute wonders in a lot of cases. We can do a whole lot to improve our communities and to improve the lives of people with mental illness if we direct our efforts appropriately. Texas ranks 50th in the nation in terms of funding services for the mentally ill, and that just isn't acceptable.
Okay. End of sermon.
Just saw the article and had to get this off my chest.

Horns Win!!! Horns Win!!

So the Longhorns beat Nebraska! Winning the Big 12 championship on a last second field goal, UT really put its fans through the wringer, but the win feels really good. The Horns should be headed to the national championship game in the Rose Bowl. I have some serious doubts about how well UT can do against Alabama (who soundly defeated a very good, formerly #1 ranked University of Florida), but for now I'm just really enjoying the fact that UT has won the Big 12 championship! It's awesome that UT will even get the chance to get a shot at the national title, and for the moment that's more than good enough.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Bill White for Governor- Rally on Sunday

Well, running as a Democrat for governor in Texas has seemed like an almost impossibly uphill battle for a long time now, but I'm hoping that we can make some inroads in the next Texas gubernatorial election. As many of you have heard by now, Bill White is looking like he stand a pretty good chance of being the next big Democratic hopeful for the Texas governor's office. White has managed to get himself elected twice as mayor of Houston, with margins of 86% and 91%. My parents, who live down in the Houston area and who aren't really strongly aligned in terms of political parties, have both been really impressed by Bill White and his work. And by almost all accounts, White has had a very impressive record while serving as mayor of Houston. Job growth has been at record levels under his terms, crime has dropped, property taxes have been cut, traffic congestion has eased, services have been expanded (from parks to libraries to health clinics), and the Houston Chronicle has praised White for steering the city through some difficult finanical times, as well as helping it to survive and thrive in the wake of hurricane damage and following the influx of refugees after Hurrican Katrina.
So, I think there must be something to this Bill White guy. Houston tends to lean toward the conservative side, so it sort of says something in my mind when they rally behind and support a Democrat so strongly (mostly I think it says that White is pretty pragmatic and just focuses on getting results as opposed to playing a lot of politics).
Anyway, my main point in writing this today is to point out that White sounds like a good guy, and he's having a rally tomorrow (Sunday, December 6th) at Scholtz Garten here in Austin (1607 San Jacinto Blvd.) from 5:00 til 7:00.
You might want to go check it out and see what you think of Bill White!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Happy birthday, Andy!; Snow?; Go Horns!; Better Jobs Numbers; Contagious Loneliness

Happy Friday!

Also, happy birthday to my good friend and fellow Crack member, Andy Sensat! Andy's a good guy and a good friend! I hope he's having a good birthday!!!

So it's supposed to snow today in Austin, and everyone's freaking out a bit. The news broadcasts have been going nuts talking about the snow and warning everyone about dangerous driving conditions and broken pipes and frozen pets and whatnot. Every once in a while one of the weather forecasters will slip off script and mention that the snow probably isn't going to be very substantial or stick on the ground very long, but for the most part they seem to enjoy playing up all kinds of crazy blizzard type scenarios. Texans can handle 106+ degree summer temperatures without batting an eye, but winter weather makes us freak out like it's the end of the world (and don't get me started on the way that Texans drive if there's any amount of snow or ice on the road). This time I hope everyone stays safe and warm and enjoys any wintery weather that we might have.

The Big 12 championship game is this weekend up in Dallas, with UT facing off against Nebraska. Should be a good game. I have to admit that I'm a little nervous for the Horns. I think they ought to win the thing, but it's a big game with a lot of pressure, in a dome stadium (which will be something different for them), and emotions will be running high. Plus, Nebraska is a pretty good team. Anyway, UT can win if they just settle down and play consistent football with some tight defense. Go Horns!!!

What else...? Apparently the job numbers are out for November, and the U.S. is beginning to show signs that job losses are slowing. It looks like we lost about 11,000 jobs in November, which was down significantly from the 111,000 we lost in October and the 139,000 in September. Hopefully this is part of a rebound trend (although part of me worries whether some of this improvement might be temporary and related to seasonal employment as the holidays approach- but maybe it doesn't matter so much if holiday spending helps get the overall economy back on track). At any rate, long before we saw any recovery, economists had predicted that the job numbers would be one of the last areas to show improvement, as employers would be unwilling to retain employees or hire new ones until they were genuinely sure that the economy was actually on the mend (which is why economists kept referring to job growth as a "lagging indicator" in terms of predicting economic recovery).

So I'm glad the economy is showing some signs of improvement. Maybe this will help to get some of the critics off of Obama's back in terms of the federal economic stimulus effort that he put into place. Or at least they can begin looking around for other things to complain about.

New research suggests that people who have friends or family members who are lonely are more likely to, in turn, begin to display behaviors that may make other people feel isolated or lonely, essentially meaning that feelings of loneliness are things that are contagious and which can be transmitted. Loneliness, in this context, may not actually mean that a person has no contact with other people, but rather that a person feels disconnected and isolated from the other people in their life, regardless of how many people they may come into contact with.

Although this research is sort of intuitive on some level, the ramifications are still something to think about. A family member, significant other or roommate is grumpy or acts in a way that makes you feel isolated from them, and then you go to work or to some other place that requires social interaction, and pretty soon you're acting grumpy or otherwise shutting other people out, so pretty soon the people that you come into contact with are taking on these same behaviors and spreading them to other people in their social network. Anecdotally, I've noticed over the years that up in our courthouse there are some days when, for no discernible reason, the majority of people are suddenly in a noticeably worse mood than usual (and this can make work sort of challenging when working out disagreements is central to what you're doing for a living).

The researchers say that this loneliness transmission often occurs subconsciously, but that an awareness of the phenomenon can help people to be on guard against it (people are better about taking control of their own emotions when they come to realize that other people might be having an undue effect upon them).

Of course, another good idea might involve trying to cheer up that first lonely person who starts the chain reaction...

Well, I'm just sort of rambling now, aren't I?

Maybe I'll sign off for the moment. Everyone have a good weekend!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Timeline for Afghanistan;

Hope everyone is doing okay. Not much to report on the home front.
In fact, I really don't have too much to comment on at all. I've been reading more about the reactions of various liberal and conservative groups about Presidnet Obama's plan for Afghanistan, and it seems like no one is really happy with it- the liberals because we're staying over there and sending more troops while the conservatives are upset because the president included a target date for leaving the country.
I'm hoping this whole target end date thing actually ends up working in our favor. The common wisdom is that an end date will just lend "aid and comfort" to the enemy by providing them with a timetable for how long they need to evade and survive before they can begin attempting to retake control.
Our overall strategic model, though, seems to include the objective of stabilizing and training the Afghan government, military, and police so that (hopefully) they can be self sufficient in suppressing violent extremists within their own country. Maybe it will lend a sense of urgency to the effort and help push the Afghans to make more progress and bigger strides if they know that they can't depend upon us indefinitely. If Afghan political and military leaders know that American support is going to begin to fall away after a certain point, maybe they'll work harder to take advantage of American resources during the years while America is still in their country. For one thing, if the militants resume control, I would think that things might get a little hairy for the Afghan leaders who sided with the Americans. It might behoove these people to have a decent plan regarding how to keep things under control after the Americans leave (and we want our allies to understand that we're going to be leaving at some point, anyway, don't we? Right?).
Anyway, I'm just saying that a little bit of urgency might be a good thing. Heaven knows, we've tried the endless war thing before, and that didn't really pan out very well for us (see Vietnam and Iraq), so at least this new plan with a supposed date certain for withdrawal has the virtue of not having been tried. I also like the fact that it recognizes that our problems in these situations stem almost as much from the failure of our allies to "step up" as it does from our actual combat with the enemy.
Anyway, I felt a little weird watching The Daily show the other night because it was one of those rare times when I wasn't entirely in agreement with what they were saying. They were trying to draw a lot of parallels between Obama and Bush and Afghanistan and Iraq, and I didn't think the comparisons were altogether fair. Obama ran on a promise to try to win the war in Afghanistan and referred to it as a necessary war throughout his campaign. The wars themselves, I believe, have been fought for very different reasons. Afghanistan is a response to an attack on American civilians that occurred in the heart of one of our biggest citizens. To be honest, I'm still not sure why we ever went to war in Iraq (basically, to me it seemed like a war fought because of some kind of almost personal grudge that George W. Bush and members of his administration had against Saddam Hussein, who was most definitely a jackass, but probably not a threat to the U.S. or its allies).
It's true that both of these wars were difficult to extricate ourselves from once we were involved in them, but that isn't a factor which speaks to the moral underpinnings of the two conflicts or their necessity. I don't think that Obama wants this war in Afghanistan, but I also doubt that he thinks of it as an unwinnable war. If he saw Afghanistan as unwinnable, I think he would be ordering the withdrawal of our troops. Instead, I think the president believes that we can make just enough progress to stabilize the government and establish a security force that can keep the Taliban from reestablishing control (or at least the most dangerous elements of the Taliban- I've been hearing news reports on NPR saying that not all Taliban elements are equally dangerous).
Maybe nobody else cares about this. I find it kind of interesting.

Welllll, not much time for blogging, and not much else leaping to mind (although I'll admit there hasn't even been much time to read/watch the news).
It's supposed to snow in Austin tomorrow, so all of you Austin Adventurers enjoy that!!!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Obama on Afghanistan

Hello. Hope everyone is having a decent day.
Last night Jamie made some really good tortilla soup for us for dinner. It was really good, and just the right thing to eat on a cold, rainy night. Thanks, McSteans!
So the big news last night was, as expected, Obama's announcement that he's sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, with an exit strategy goal of withdrawal in three years (beginning the withdrawal 18 months after the deployment). Also, as expected, no one is entirely happy with this plan. Many Democrats think the war just needs to be drawn to a close immediately (believing that we're never really going to stabilize Afghanistan to any meaningful extent, anyway) and many Republicans are unhappy with the fact that the president is already setting a timetable for withdrawal (the theory being that this sort of schedule setting only emboldens the enemy by giving them a certain time that they have to "hang in there for" before American troops will begin to make their exit). As I said yesterday, it was easy to know before Obama ever made his speech that he was going to have an impossible time making everyone happy.
Having listened to his thinking and his arguments, I definitely understand the president's thinking and respect his choice about a course of action. It sounds like sort of a risky strategy, and my guess is that we're going to end up being in Afghanistan longer than 3 years, but at least I respect the man's reasoning and I understand why he felt compelled to make the choices that he did.
I guess the biggest question in evaluating whether or not President Obama made the right decision is probably the issue of whether or not there really is a legitimate likelihood that Islamic extremists (i.e., Al Qaeda and the Taliban) would/could reestablish a base of operations (presumably to be used to attack the U.S. and other Western powers) in Afghanistan if we simply packed up and left.
That's a tough question to answer if you haven't actually been to the country, witnessed the activities of the militants and the civilian population, and talked to the locals.
My guess, though, based upon history and upon the current fighting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is that the extremist Muslim hardliners in the region continue to pose a real, legitimate threat to not only our own national security, but also to the nations of Western European and to other allies of the U.S..
I've read the argument that Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic movement are now so decentralized and globally scattered that it makes little sense to focus on securing one country or region as a means of denying them a base of operations (the theory here is that Al Qaeda and other groups have now made a strategic decision to train and mount operations by way of smaller groups of people that are more widely dispersed, thereby denying foreign fighters the opportunity to attack them en masse at any single "base of operations"). I believe that Al Qaeda really might be employing this kind of strategy, but I also think that given a safe, secure place from which they could gather together and mount attacks, Al Qaeda and/or other groups would probably take advantage of such a resource, reestablishing training grounds, munition depots, and generally using the area as a safe haven to house nasty people who travel the world doing nasty things to America and its allies. Plus, they'll probably grow lots of opium poppies to help finance their efforts.
Anyway, if I were the president I wouldn't be too happy about needing to stay engaged in this war, and I would keep my door wide open to any and all suggestions regarding ways to disengage America from this conflict while simultaneously continuing to deny Afganistan as a safe haven for terrorists and extremists. I would guess that Obama took so long in making his decision because he was trying to make sure he wasn't overlooking some other viable option.
So good luck to the troops. Who knows? Maybe this new offensive will see quicker, better success than any of us expect. The Surge in Iraq certainly ended up working better than I expected (although, in the end, the long term stability of Iraq is still pretty questionable, and we're still propping the country up with our troops).
This whole thing is a bit of a nightmare scenario for a commander-in-chief. People keep making the comparison to Vietnam, but in at least one crucial way this thing is actually worse than Vietnam. At least when we were in Vietnam we didn't have the same kind of immediate threat and concern that the Vietcong were going to launch attacks against the U.S. or our allies if we withdrew from the war.
Sooooo... good luck to the troops as they dig in to be in Afghanistan a while longer. Let's hope our generals have some good ideas in terms of how to use the additional troops that we're sending.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Festiveness; Quick Note on Afghanistan

Hey there! Well, I don't have much time for blogging, but I don't have much to blog about, anyway, so maybe it all works out. Here are some pics of mi casa, all decorated up festive like for the holidays.
Not too much to report. I went out to dinner with Ryan and Jamie last night at a new Thai place by my house, and it was actually pretty good (can't remember the name, but it's over off Brodie in one of those new-ish shopping centers).
Lots of controversy around Obama's new decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Man, I don't know. That's a tough one. It really sucks for us to be over there fighting and losing men and struggling away at the nearly impossible task of trying to turn Afghanistan into a stable nation, but on the other hand, I have little doubt that once we leave the militants will swoop back in and reestablsih the place as a hotbed for militant (meaning quite possibly violent) Islamic fanaticism (and I really believe this to be true- the place was used as a training ground for Islamic freedom fighters throughout the Soviet occupation and has continued to be a training ground for Islamic fundamentalists through the Clinto years and up utnil the time we moved in following 9/11). The whole thing just feels like a lose/lose situation.
Anyway, the whole situation is going to be tough. I really don't envy the president in having to make that decision because no matter what he did he was going to have a lot of people up in arms.
Gotta run.. Hope you guys are doing okay.