Sunday, February 27, 2005

 

Middlebrow Moviemaking

Tonight is our official annual coronation of mainstream taste in movies. It's called the Oscars, and it consists of Hollywood giving awards to itself. What's usually awarded is a hodgepodge: some good films, some forgettable ones (literally, in that they will be forgotten--the awards have been going on for long enough that we know this from experience), and, in some cases, what amount to awards for tireless schmoozing and self-promotion on the part of the awardee.

I'm not too interested in movies, because I'm a writer, and writers are the Untouchable caste in Hollywood. We are usually treated not only like dirt, but like dirt in a latrine. Writers primarily invent and structure stories, meaning that they are one-third of the creative triumverate of moviemaking--writer, director/cinematographer, and cast--despite which, writers regularly go uncredited, or have their stories taken from them or changed against their will, and worse.

But I digress.

When I'm crowned King of the World (curiously, the older I get, the further away that event seems to recede), besides for decreeing the teaching of logic and civics in all the schools, everyone will be taught to recognize certain qualities of art, in the hopes that they'll stop tolerating them:


And so forth. I'd have moviegoers taught to distinguish "character-driven" action from deus ex machina. Most of all, I'd outlaw "Hollywood endings": the great big slam-bam blow-'em-up effects-fest at the end of most Hollywood movies that resolves everything, after which peace is restored and the credits roll.


The Quotidian Meander

Friday, February 25, 2005

 

"Stop-Loss" is Weakening America

The current Administration is expert with language. They know about "the poet's faith in the power of names." Of course, they use this expertise for totalitarian purposes--which is a downside.

They call the destruction of Social Security "Social Security reform."

Their "Operation Clear Skies" is a cynical proposal designed to allow air polluters to pollute more.

And then of course there's "Stop-Loss," the Defense Department's euphemism for what Republican Senator John McCain more accurately calls a "back-door draft."

Stop-Loss sounds like a good idea. Loss is bad, right? Who wouldn't want to stop it?

Of course, what it actually refers to is the government breaking its promises and flagrantly ignoring specific contractual obligations it has entered into with its citizens. The citizens are chiefly soldiers in the National Guard on active combat duty in Iraq whose tours of duty are being extended beyond their agreed-upon durations. There are a myriad variations: soldiers being called back into service after they've left the military; a program called "Try One" which promises to allow citizens to serve as soldiers for one year on a trial basis, but then forces them to stay beyond that year; the list is long.

Meanwhile, back home, enlistments in the military and the National Guard and Reserves are dropping fast.

Does it take too much brainpower to put those two things together? On the one hand, the government is breaking its stated promises to people who are serving. On the other hand, people are becoming skeptical of the promises the government makes when it's trying to get them to serve.

Duh.

"Stop Loss" should be called "Stop Enlistment." Quite apart from being despicable and dishonorable and a stain on our National virtue, the program, designed to strengthen active-duty army units in the short term, weakens the nation in the long run.



The Quotidian Meander

Thursday, February 24, 2005

 

Backward First-World Country

I have a friend who is a heart surgeon. He tells me he's been going through a mild "mid-life crisis" in that he's trying to figure out what he'll be doing for the rest of his productive life. He says he's feeling somewhat "re-radicalized," and wants to give something back.

He and many of his colleagues (in a medium-sized Midwestern American city) would like to establish a free clinic for poor and uninsured patients. But they can't. They can't find any umbrella organization willing to provide them with clinic space and malpractice insurance. The reason my friend can't work at the existing free clinic in his area is because it would cost him $30,000 of his own money every year to protect himself from malpractice liability.

I don't know anything about the specific laws that pertain, of course, but just off the top of my head it seems reasonable for free clinic patients to agree not to sue their doctors, in return for the free medical care they're receiving. The clinic could have a volunteer explain to the patients that the only way the doctors can afford to give away their time is if they don't have to buy extra malpractice insurance. Waiving their right to sue would amount to the "cost" of the free care.

Evidently that's not possible.

Odd. There was a piece on ABC News last night about how car dealers are embedding deep into the fine print of their contracts a clause which prevents customers from suing them. It commits the customers to arbitration instead. Naturally, at the bottom of the contract, where you sign, it says something like, "I attest that I have read carefully all of the foregoing..." but, naturally, most people don't, since the contracts are usually written in dense legalese and are longer than the average short story. So people are signing away their rights to sue without knowing it. In all but one case, the courts have actually upheld the hidden clause.

Kinda funny that you can sign away your right to sue a corporation when you don't even know you're doing it, but indigent patients receiving free medical care cannot sign away their rights to sue--even if they know what they're doing and intend to do it--such that the doctors they want treatment from would be enabled to treat them!

So what's my friend going to do? Well, he hasn't decided for sure yet, but the most likely alternative is that he will indeed end up working part-time in a free clinic . . . in Sri Lanka.


The Quotidian Meander

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

 

Attn. Snorers

In Ted Rall's most recent editorial cartoon, he lampoons bloggers by suggesting that all they do is "Control-C, Control-V, Control-C, Control-V," etc.

Heh. Guilty . . . some days.

I guess as we grow older we begin to collect ailments, aches, and problems. I just learned I have been suffering from severe sleep apnea. That's when you stop breathing numerous times every night when you sleep. The way it was explained to me, when one area of the lungs is not absorbing oxygen, the body shuts that area down so more blood will go to the areas of the lungs that are getting oxygen. But when you don't breathe at all, no area of the lungs are getting oxygen, so the body shuts down the lungs. Then the right side of your heart is pumping blood with no oxygen in it, so it tries to pump harder and harder to get oxygen to the body. Eventually you get a "drowning reflex," which is the same thing that causes people underwater to eventually suck in a big "breath" of water: the body is in crisis without oxygen, so it forces a breathing reflex on the anything-is-better-than-nothing principle. That's when the sleeper takes a great gurgling, gasping breath and start breathing again.

The process, which can cycle as many as 45 times a night, puts enormous strain on the right side of the heart and can lead to "right heart disease." It's what recently killed Reggie White, the football player.

Sleep apnea both causes and is caused by overweight. Some recent studies are suggesting that as much as 20% of the heart disease in America may be caused or complicated by it.

I can't afford to get it treated right now (no $, no insurance), so I'm doing the only thing I can, which is try to lose weight.

But in case anybody's interested, here's what you can do to help your lungs stay healthy:

--At least once a day, do this: expel as much air as you can from your lungs, and hold it as long as you can; then breathe in as much air as you can and hold it; repeat, for 120 seconds.

--At least once a day, get out of breath.

And here are two things you can do to keep your heart healthy:

--At least once a day, get your heart rate up and keep it there for a while.

--Don't be obese.


And also in case anybody's interested, here are the danger signs and waking symptoms of sleep apnea:

--Snoring.

--Excessive daytime sleepiness.

--Drymouth or headache upon awakening.

--Difficulty waking up, extended feelings of confusion or disorientation after getting up, or waking up still feeling extremely tired and run down.

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor!

Well, sorry for the long digression into me (Egotist: "Well, enough about me. What do you think about me?").

And by all means, if you want to, do a Control-C, Control-V on this. Evidently this affliction is too little known and too often ignored.



The Quotidian Meander

Monday, February 21, 2005

 

George Washington, Anti-Imperialist

An excerpt from a column by John Nichols. To read the original, click on the title, which is a link.


When dissenters from the impulse toward American empire held their annual gatherings in cities and towns across the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, they would meet on the anniversary of George Washington's birth. It was the accepted wisdom of the day that, in addition to having been "the father of his country," Washington was, as well, the father of the anti-imperialist movement. The first president had given his ideological descendants ample evidence on which to base their claim. His 1793 proclamation of American neutrality in regards to European political and military conflicts explicitly rejected international entanglements, with Washington later explaining that, "The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations." But it was Washington's Farewell Address, delivered in 1796 toward the end of his second presidential term, that became a touchstone for ensuing generations of anti-imperialists. Washington used his last great statement to the nation he had shepherded through the struggle to loose the grip of British colonial rule, "to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." Washington saw great danger in any step that would "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice" but it was not just alliances with European states that worried him. The first president counseled that it should be "our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."

The commander of America's revolutionary armies did not want his country to follow the European course of collecting colonies and establishing spheres of influence that would need, ever, to be defended. He warned that the new United States might "pay with a portion of its independence" for involving itself in "projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives." And he asked a question that would echo across the ages as his presidential successors moved the country further and further from its founding principles: "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?"



(John Nichols)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

 

That Darned Apostrophe

David Vestal points out that "troops" isn't even a word. "Troop" is already plural, the singular being "trooper." This is one of those cases where usage is going to have its way, though, as with the repulsive deployment of "impact" as a verb. We should really just say "soldiers."

There are a few more strange errors that seem to be ubiquitous on the internet. One is a persistent misspelling of "lose." People write "loose" instead. Unless usage has sanctioned a mere misspelling, "loose" is still the opposite of "tight," whereas the opposite of "win" is "lose."

A traditional error that has always been widespread is that #$%! apostrophe with the word it. A majority of people just never know where to put it. For the record--though it will do no good in any general sense--plurals don't get apostrophes. You don't pull on your short's and take your basket's and your blanket's to the beach. Just add the "s." Cameras. Lamborghinis. Brats. Like that.

It's when something belongs to something that the apostrophe kicks in--except with the word it. Then it's its. For purposes of self-defensive grammar, just remember that, first of all, there is no such construction as its', with the apostrophe after the s. There are only two possibilities: its and it's. And to tell the two apart, just remember that the apostrophe always has to replace something.

It's too bad: the apostrophe replaces the "i" in "is." It is too bad.

The dog bit its owner; the owner bit it back. Possessive: no apostrophe.

It's been too long! The apostrophe replaces the "ha" in "has." It has been too long.

It's in its case. The female mantis ate its mate. Its eggs were then eaten by birds.


I could go on, but aren't you glad I won't?


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Friday, February 18, 2005

 

A Woman Who Doesn't Know What 'Irony' Means

You've really got to love this.

If you follow neoconservative hysteria-mongering at all--you know, the stories neocons circulate endlessly amongst themselves to work each other into a lather about the perfidy or foolishness of liberals and Democrats--you've probably heard about Ward Churchill. He's a professor who got disinvited to lecture at a college other than his own after somebody found an old essay he'd written about 9/11. I admit he said some outrageous, intemperate, irresponsible things, although I tend to agree with Ted Rall, who notes that "one suspects the tone of the piece owes much to the revulsion that thoughtful Americans felt for the mindless 'United We Stand' jingoism that stifled attempts at serious analysis of the terrorists' motivations in the immediate aftermath."

Anyway, here's the point. Someone whose business it is not is calling for Churchill's ouster, saying that even with academic tenure he can't expect to say anything he wants to and still keep his job. Know who it is? None other than the liberal-hating She-Hellion Ann Coulter. Who makes millions of dollars by--yep, you know it--saying outrageous, intemperate, irresponsible things. And hasn't lost her job for it yet. I mean, that is her job.

As I say, you just gotta love stuff like this. The woman should have left that one alone. Luckily for those of us who appreciate it, though, she clearly has no comprehension of irony!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

 

The Upcoming Bush Depression--Enjoy!

SCENE: President Bush "explains" the virtues of his Social Security plan, Tampa, Florida, Feb. 4, 2005. (Passages in bold are real quotes.)

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I don't really understand. How is it the new [Social
Security] plan is going to fix that problem?

[Interposed] Here's my brief explanation of what's actually going on:

Ultraconservative President Dick Cheney, who really sets policy and controls everything, believes in the extreme right-wing theory that government "entitlements" (Social Security, Medicare, and welfare) are philosophically disreputable and must be terminated. There are two ways he and his cabal plan to go about this. One is the "inside" way, meaning through legitimate channels: getting changes in the law that disable the programs. The other is the "outside" way, which refers to the forcing of structural changes on the capabilities of the government. According to this theory, if the Treasury is bankrupted, it will force the government to curtail entitlements--which, aside from the servicing of the national debt, are the largest domestic expenses.

The theory is egregiously wrong, and if left unchecked will lead to economic depression. But that's what the current administration is actively engaged in. They're trying to bankrupt the Treasury by spending lavishly on anything that benefits their clients, corporate America and the defense industry. (If you haven't noticed, the Bush administration spends big on anything that comes from a contractor, but skimps as much as possible on anything that goes to individual Americans--even soldiers.)

The cynically misnamed Social Security "reform" is just the "inside" half of the strategy, that's all.

Okay, now here's President Bush's explanation:

GEORGE W. BUSH: Because the...all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculated, for example, is on the table. Whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those...changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be...or closer delivered to what has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the...like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate...the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those...if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.


All clear now? I thought so.

Monday, February 14, 2005

 

Kafkaesque?

The popular adjective "Kafkaesque" is overused, and its meaning is usually somewhat vague. To me, it signifies Gregor Samsa waking up to discover that he's a cockroach on his back unable to right himself. Absurd, bizarre, trapped, frustrated, doomed.

Kafkaesque in this sense, then, is an "initiative" reported by CBS News tonight. It seems several states (led by Oregon, ironically enough) are proposing to affix monitoring devices to energy-efficient hybrid gas-electric cars so it can tax them by the mile.

It seems the State is concerned about losing out on gasoline tax. Since fuel-efficient cars aren't paying their "fair share" of gasoline tax (because, of course, they don't use much gasoline), people who buy them will be taxed by the ground they cover--if this initiative goes anywhere.

What can I possibly say about this irredeemable idea that could possibly convey greater absurdity that is inherent to it already? This is not just poor leadership, this is anti-leadership--a example of idiocy approaching a theoretical apex of irresponsibility.

In a civilization that's driving itself to perdition, the last thing we need is to give people a disincentive to do the right thing.


© 2005 The Quotidian Meander

Saturday, February 12, 2005

 

Fiscal Responsibility

I'm not the one to lecture anyone on fiscal responsibility, quite frankly. I haven't got a head for numbers or money, and although I do understand some things about mathematics, I understand them in just the sort of vague, general way that anyone who really cares for numbers would disapprove of.

Still, if you don't know this, you really should: the nutters in charge of our government are deliberately trying to bankrupt the treasury.

I know this sounds absurd, but, as usual, the Neocon Corporatists are hiding their agenda in plain sight. If you care to look into the matter, it turns out that they've got the whole theory thought out, written up, signed and sealed. The idea is that somehow it's immoral for the government to be "redistributing wealth" to lazy, sinful, undisciplined, and/or racially inferior poor people (or, worse yet, heathens and atheists), so they've decided that if they bankrupt the treasury then socialist--er, sorry, social--entitlements will all wither up and blow away. They've actually got "think tanks" and "political scientists" backing up this incredible twaddle with deep-sounding treatises and war plans.

The Administration has just handed Congress the largest national budget in the history of the World, while at the same time sending the usual troops out to announce to the waiting toady corporate-owned media that it's a "strict" and "severe" budget and that what they're doing is "cutting expenditures" and so forth. Meanwhile, the proposed deficit is the largest in human history, and is quite probably badly fudged even so. For starters, it doesn't include the true cost of the prescription drug program Congress has already passed; it only includes a little more than half of what that's actually going to cost. It doesn't address the cost of the demolition of Social Security now being proposed. And it doesn't include the cost of the war.

Let me just mention that again: the budget that the Administration just submitted to Congress includes a grand total deficit that doesn't include the cost of the war in Iraq.

Seriously. You don't need to be good at math, I would submit, to realize that a skunked dog stinks.

Meanwhile, We're nearly a month into George W. Bush's second term, and he has yet to veto a single spending program. Instead, he just keeps proposing more and more spending. Ominous signs are already on the horizon: the dollar, while not in a nosedive, is slanting rather alarmingly downward; a dark cloud is forming over foreign capital as it gets more and more anxious about whether investments in our debt is really such a good idea after all; "new" jobs are worth on average ten thousand dollars a year less than the old jobs they're supposedly replacing, never mind inflation; corporate malfeasance is snowballing though "Kenny Boy" Lay is still at large; and the housing and real estate markets, which have pretty much carried the economy's load since George seized power, are showing signs of stress.

I'm no economist. But is bankrupting the U.S. government really such a smart idea? Is it really going to make the government smaller, tighter, and more efficient, while returning vitality and exuberance to the private sector? Or are we all going to go to hell in a handbasket?

As I say, I'm not the one to say. But one thing's for sure: the party of fiscal responsibility is clearly the Democratic Party. The Republicans will have lost that title for good by the time George gets done.



© 2005 The Quotidian Meander

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Friday, February 11, 2005

 

Love Stories

It's curious that people greatly prefer the fake love story of Charles and Diana, whereas the story of Charles and Camilla is actually a real love story, and quite a bit more interesting. But people would much rather have the fairy tale version, simplistic, lame, and false, than the real thing, which is complex, ongoing, provisional, and problematic, but true.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

 

The Onslaught Against Decency

Amid the current onslaught against freedom, decency, and responsibility by the current government here in the U.S., it's important for Americans to realize that we do not occupy a position of moral superiority over the rest of the World with regard to human rights. Indeed, the Bush Administration's enthusiastic embrace of torture is one of the most disquieting developments of the post-Democratic era in America for many people. Whether you disapprove of torture by your leaders or approve of it, it's important to be informed.

This week in The New Yorker magazine and online, Jane Mayer writes about the use by the United States of "extraordinary rendition," the practice of sending terrorism suspects to other countries, where they may be interrogated and tortured on America's behalf. Here she is talking about torture and the war on terror with Amy Davidson.

Amy Davidson: You begin your piece with something President Bush said recently—that “torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.”

Jane Mayer: President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales all made similar statements last month, asserting that not only does the United States condemn torture, it also does not send U.S.-held suspects to other countries for torture. In reality, the record appears to be quite different. Beginning around 1995, the Central Intelligence Agency inaugurated a form of extradition sometimes referred to as "extraordinary rendition," in which captured foreign terrorism suspects have been transported by the U.S. to third countries for interrogation and prosecution. The former C.I.A. director George Tenet estimated that between the time the program started and 2001 there were some seventy renditions. Most experts suggest that since the Bush Administration launched the global war on terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that number has grown dramatically. Present and former officials involved in these renditions, including several whom I quote on the record in this week's New Yorker, suggest that, from the start, it was suspected that many of the rendered persons were tortured abroad. Certainly, in three cases where the suspects have emerged publicly to speak about their treatment—the cases of Maher Arar, Muhammed Zery, and Mamdouh Habib—they have alleged that they were tortured after the United States rendered them to other countries.

What are America's obligations under international law with regard to rendition? Is there a legal difference between torturing someone ourselves and handing him over to someone who will torture him?

The United Nations Convention Against Torture and U.S. law both have a blanket prohibition against torturing anyone either within the territorial boundaries of the U.S. or abroad. These laws also prohibit the U.S. government from extraditing non-nationals to third countries where there are “substantial grounds for believing” that they would be tortured. The imprecision of this clause, however, appears to have allowed for a fair amount of latitude, according to lawyers whom I interviewed for this piece. For instance, Martin Lederman, a former lawyer with the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel—who did not deal with the cases while he was in office but has studied them since—suggested that what looks at first like a complete prohibition actually is not. The legal standard allows U.S. officials to argue that they didn't know with any certainty that a suspect would be tortured, and so can't be held liable. U.S. officials have in fact often sought what is known as "assurances" from countries to which they have rendered suspects that the suspects would not be tortured. Even if these assurances are just a wink and a nod, they may provide legal cover. Finally, some lawyers believe that the U.S. may be finding protection by never formally taking legal custody of suspects it renders abroad—even if, for instance, the U.S. government transports such suspects. Such details are difficult to find out about, however, because the program is secret.



To read the rest of the interview, click on the title of this piece, which is a link. You can read Jane Mayer's article in this week's New Yorker.


The interview excerpt comes from newyorker.com. Scott Ettin sent me the link.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

 

Basic Principles

Executive summary: Politicians and pundits can't seem to grasp simple principles, and neither can the public. Why? Maybe an insight of Johnny Carson's provides an answer.


Johnny Carson, who died last week, noted in a late interview that his audiences had gotten steadily more stupid as the years went past. Surely this can partly be put down to the fact that, in his later years, he may have been making references in his jokes to celebrities and public figures whose careers were current before some people in his audience were born. But he implied that his audiences had become less mature, responded more to puerile jokes, and responded with puzzled silence or polite, uncomprehending chuckles to jokes that required a bit of knowledge to get. No one was in a better position to recognize this than Carson.

Personally, I have to throw in the additional qualifier that I'm older now myself, and adults must have seemed relatively more mature to me when I was younger. Yet I agree with Carson's opinion. For instance, there were news reports the other day that 50% of American high school seniors think that the First Amendment is "no big deal" and agree with the statement that the government should have some say over what is written in newspapers. This is so utterly and literally un-American that I almost don't trust the news--visions of repressive neocons paving the way for oppressive censorship swirl in the more paranoid reaches of my brain.

I've been similiarly flabbergasted by the persistent failure of so many Americans to understand the basic principle behind the separation of Church and State. It was, of course (like I have to tell you), an Enlightenment reaction to the turmoil caused over the centuries in European countries. By keeping the State resolutely secular, it guarantees freedom of religion for all. The idea is that the government can't tell you, or anyone, what to believe in (religiously speaking), or how to worship. This means that you can worship as you please without fear of goverment intevention, retribution, or persecution. Of course, as a condition, you have to agree to tolerate other peoples' religions (which is a good thing, as otherwise there might be a movement to stomp out Evangelicalism--or at least Creationism), and you have to be content with confining religion to the home, Church, and private community, suffering it to remain absent from government offices and functions.

It's a simple principle. Yet hordes of Evangelicals and Pentacostals, and no small number of their representatives in Washington, persistently act as if it's an affront to decency. As if we need yet one more example of the problems secular government is designed to sidestep, Saddam Hussein's exaltation of his minority Sunni sect and marginalization (and worse) of the rival majority Shiite sect is a case in point. To understand the reason for the principle, all Christians have to do is imagine a minority religious sect seizing control of the government, imposing its own religion on everybody, and outlawing all others. Say, for instance, that the Mormons suddenly gained power, outlawed Evangelical and Pentacostal forms of Christianity, as well as traditional Protestants and Catholocism, and enforced deference to the Book of Mormon. How would Christians like that?

Why can't mainstream Christians understand that idea? It's not a difficult idea. And yet many of them just don't seem to get it. It really ought to be taught in school.


Sudden, involuntary, Kramer-like spasms
I didn't listen to George II's speech last night, for several reasons. First, in 30 years I've never heard a halfway decent State of the Union speech. Next, Dubya's voice makes me react like Kramer listening to Mary Hart. And I won't address every inanity in what he said, because, first of all, there aren't enough hours in the day, and besides, it seems whiney to complain about George to the degree he begs to be complained about. But just one little comment. Social Security is shared risk. That is, we set aside a little in case things go badly wrong and any of us really need it later. Investment is a risk opportunity. That is, you accept a risk of loss in return for the possibility of profit.

Put bluntly, investment is like gambling; Social Security is like insurance. They're opposites. You'd think that ordinary, modestly educated people, much less politicians and pundits, would be able to grasp this simple, basic principle. Why can't they? It's not a very difficult idea.

Of course, Johnny Carson would say this much more courteously. But maybe we the people have just plain gotten too darn dumb.


© 2005 by The Quotidian Meander



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