My Encounter With A Bona-Fide Wingnut

[Cross-posted here: Daily Kos]

As Shakespeare once wrote “Facebook maketh for strange bedfellows”. OK, he probably didn’t say that, but I’m sure he thought it. Anyway, I have a friend who posted a facebook update bemoaning a new “war tax” proposal. My reaction to the latter caught the attention (and the ire) of my friend’s ultra-wingnut buddy. Below the fold is my annotated transcript of the ensuing bizarre conversation, which would be funny if it weren’t so scary.
My friend, whom I’ll call “Indy” due to his political non-affiliation, started the conversation with this facebook post:

Indy: What’s on my mind? Yet another tax being imposed on Americans, that’s what!
Rep. McCollum co-sponsors war tax

My immediate reaction was here’s a guy who is a) gainfully employed, b) makes a very comfortable living and c) has top notch health insurance and his biggest problem is that the Government *might* take an additional 1% of his pay. I responded thusly…

Me: What’s on my mind? You and I are in the top 1% of the wealthiest people on earth. How incredibly fortunate we are. See Global Rich List.

Hint, hint, stop whining. I think he got my point (sorta) but he doesn’t really like thinking of himself as rich…

Indy: I agree we’re very fortunate. However, I’m not so sure I believe those statistics, as I surely don’t feel like I’m in the top 1% of the wealthiest people on earth.

I pushed a little harder…

Me: The glass is half empty or half full. You can focus on the fact that you have good health insurance, a high paying job, lots of marketable skills that will leave you in good stead if you ever lose your job, and you live in a country where you have freedom, opportunities and a standard of living unmatched anywhere in the world…OR…you can focus on how overtaxed we are.

It was at this point that my friend’s buddy, whom I’ll call “Wingnut”, jumped into the fray with this barrage of BS…

Wingnut: I think we do need to focus on how overtaxed we are, because our government is slowly chipping away at the freedom we have. It seems like the current administration is hellbent on creating an entitlement society, and with each passing tax increase, we have our freedom decreased. Ben Franklin said it best: “The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.”

As far as good health insurance goes, you can say goodbye to that when healthcare is rationed, and if you look at the job market, the constant barage of governmental regulation and taxation is forcing companies to do more with less, which will inevitably shift jobs overseas.

Being a half full kind of person is all well and good, but you can’t look past what is happening in this country. If you do, freedom and liberty will disappear right before your eyes, and you’ll wonder what happened.

Wow. Where do I start? After the Bush Cheney administration, do you really want to have a conversation about not trading freedom for security? “As far as health insurance goes”…was I talking about health insurance?

How do you argue with someone like this. I could go in a thousand directions but I decided to focus on this comment: “our government is slowly chipping away at the freedom we have”. Compared to the rest of his mini-rant, it’s fairly clear so I decided to challenge that statement. I started with a little dig of my own at the previous administration…

Me: The current administration is picking up the pieces of the mess left behind by the worst administration in US history. You state that the government is chipping away at your freedoms. What specific freedoms have you lost since Obama was elected?

This threw him into overdrive…

Wingnut: Bush’s was the worst administration in history? That is just utter liberal nonsense. You want to talk worst, you need look no further than Jimmy Carter. What you are getting with Obama is Carter 2.0. In regards to our freedoms, you just don’t get it. It is a slow chipping away of freedom that comes over time. Read Saul Alinsky’s book, Rules For Radicals. It is Obama’s bible. There is not going to be any point in continuing this line of converstation. I cannot argue with brainwashing.

Apparently I just don’t get it. Lucky for me, I have this guy to straighten me out. By the way, is “liberal nonsense” somehow different from other forms of nonsense? The Carter comments are amusing – it’s like he’s saying “I know Bush sucked but your guy was worse!”. Then I hear his refrain again “It is a slow chipping away of freedom that comes over time”. And he’s already giving up because I’m too brainwashed. Could he be throwing in the towel so soon because he has no chance of answering my question and he knows it? I persisted…

Me: I don’t mind the name calling. I am a liberal and proud of it. However, I noticed you didn’t answer my question – can you name one specific freedom you’ve lost since Obama was elected?

He responds with a big bowl of crazy…

Wingnut: Liberalism is brainwashing plain and simple.

Well, for starters, creating unconstitutional czars takes away from my freedom. Reviving the so-called “fairness doctrine” is another, and let us not forget the organization that Obama used to work for, ACORN, disenfranchising the American people by stealing elections (that dope Al Franken).

Obama sold the masses of sheep a bill of goods, promising hope and change. Socialism is not the kind of change those voters counted on, and each time Obama bows to another foreign leader, he eats away at the very heart of what made this country great. I find him utterly sickening, as do millions of us out here in America.

Unconsitutional czars? Obama used to work for Acorn? Socialism? This guy’s amazing – he hit all the Fox News cliches in two paragraphs, even managing to squeeze in something about bowing in Japan. And he’s calling me brainwashed. :) Love the part about “as do millions of us out here in America”. Like where do you think I’m writing from? It smacks of Palin’s “real Americans” comment. Not fully satisfied, he unburdens himself with this gem…

Wingnut: The thing I haven’t been able to figure out about liberals is if they are fully aware of the destruction they cause, or if they are just unaware of it. I hope it’s the latter…

Isn’t it nice the way he gives us the benefit of the doubt? At this point, an unknown confusenick pipes in with this perplexing remark:

Confused Guy: Worst president in my lifetime…Carter, next likely candidate, Obama. Twice in my lifetime, before a presidential election, I told all my friends that if elected these candidates would be abysmal: Carter, Obama. I’m a democrat.

Yeah, right, you’re a Democrat and I’m Amelia Earhart. With Democrats like you, who needs Republicans? But I digress. Once again, I try to focus on one simple question…

Me: I think you do yourself a disservice when you assume everyone who disagrees with you is dumb, evil, or brainwashed. BTW, I am still waiting for an answer – what *specific* freedoms have you personally had taken away from you by the Obama “regime”?

The tirade continues…

Wingnut: I listed 3.

Besides, my goal is to stop Obama from destroying my freedom BEFORE he does it, not after it’s too late. Answers like this are not always simple and concrete. This is the difficult thing about arguing with liberals.

Confused Guy: I empathize with you as well. I know plenty of decent, hard working democrats who are disturbed by the takeover of your party by the radical leftists.

Yes, I am passionate about this, but it is not merely politics to me. This is a struggle against tyrrany, and it is a battle for our way of life, and I am not going to sit on the sidelines and watch Obama, Pelosi, and Reid trample all over our Constitution. I can’t let that happen to my children.

Now if you’ll excuse me, but this capitalist has to get ready for work. There are millions of people and politicians out there who think they are entitled to a portion of my earnings, and I cannot let them down.

Love the “Besides, my goal is to stop Obama from destroying my freedom BEFORE…”. Also love “answers like this are not always simple and concrete”. In other words, OK, he hasn’t taken away ANY of my freedoms so far but I’M SURE HE’S ABOUT TO ANY DAY NOW! Here’s me again, trying to keep calm and giving it one more try…

Me: you’re right, you “listed three” right wing talking points but you never answered my question. In response to a request for one *specific* freedom Obama has taken away from you, you cited:

1. unnamed czars who took away unnamed freedoms
2. ACORN (?!)
3. the fairness doctrine

Yup, that’s a list of three things, all right. :) But it has nothing to do with my question.

I’ll help you out here – the answer is “none”. There are no specific freedoms you can cite which Pres. Obama took away from you and I think you know it. But that answer is very unsatisfying because it undermines the right wings caricature of Obama as a stealth socialist intent on ruining the world as we know it.

You’ve cited standard right wing talking points like “chipping away at our freedoms”, “struggle against tyranny” and “trampling on our constitution” but when challenged to cite an example you can’t name a single one. So who’s brainwashed? :)

Again I get no answer but something akin to Bluto’s rousing call to action at the climax of Animal House…

Wingnut: I will agree that both sides use talking points, and I realize that I am never going to convince you that the liberal philospohy is absolutely destructive to our nation. The only thing I can do is cancel out your vote, and do my damndest to talk to as many people as I can , and work to cancel out as many liberal votes as possible. You can count on me doing that for as long as it takes.

If Obama has done one successful thing in his 11 months, it has been to awaken the quiet masses of Americans who are sick of big government, sick of massive spending, and sick of our leader going around the world apologizing for our way of life. Obama’s election will eventually lead to the left’s downfall, and for that, I am truly grateful.

Can you hear the John Phillip Sousa music playing in the background? “When the tough get going…uh…”. I made one final comment…

Me: Let me translate your response into plain english:

“I can’t cite a single concrete freedom that Obama has taken away from me but I still hate him because of…all those other talking points”. :) Let’s agree to disagree. I’m fine with you having different opinions and even though I don’t think you can justify some of your statements, I respect your right to disagree with me and to reach different conclusions.

And it’s great that you’re going to work hard to support your views but I’ll be working just as hard to support mine. :)

And then I heard no more. Perhaps he is back in front of the TV, reloading his impressive stockpile of right wing talking points.

Why Are Jews Democrats?

It’s a stereotype but one that happens to be true – Jews in America disproportionately support the Democratic party. In 2008, despite concerns about whether the huge bloc of elderly Jewish voters in Florida would vote for an African American candidate (see Sarah Silverman’s hilarious Great Schlep video), Barack Obama won 75% of the Jewish vote.

Jews represent a mere 2% of the US population. Consequently, of the 535 members of Congress, it would be reasonable to expect roughly 10 Jewish congresspeople. Amazingly, there are 44 Jewish members of Congress (13 Senators and 31 Representatives). Anyone care to guess how many of those 44 members are Republican? Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) is the sole attendee at the annual Republican Hanukkah party.

But why are Jews so overwhelmingly blue? Why isn’t the Jewish population split as evenly as the rest of our deeply divided nation? My theory is education.

As an ethnic group, Jews are one of the best educated in America. Educated people ask hard questions and see through simple explanations. Educated people realize that we are all connected – we all succeed when everyone succeeds. Educated people are more inclined to cast their votes on the basis of substance and policy, rather than personality and charm. Educated people realize that our government can be a force for positive change in our lives.

In short, education is the Republican Party’s worst enemy because it’s hard to trick educated people into voting against their self-interest. That’s why I think so many Jews are Democrats.
While we’re on the subject of Jewish demographics, everyone knows that New York has the largest Jewish population in the US (as a percentage of total population) but can you guess which five US states have the next highest percentages?

Answer:
  1. New Jersey (5.5%)
  2. Massachusetts (4.3%)
  3. Maryland (4.2%)
  4. Florida (3.7%)
  5. California (3.3%)

Orange You Glad You Don’t Dress Like Me?

My wife once called me a fashion nightmare and I can’t dispute that assessment, however, I think I’ve recently raised (or lowered?) the bar to a new height. I’m on a three week business trip to England and I forgot to pack my nice, business casual coat. It’s a bit chilly so I’m stuck wearing my radiant bright orange windbreaker to work every day. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I bring my lunch to work in little plastic bags I’ve collected from trips to the local supermarket. Those bags are, of course…bright orange.

So every day I tromp off to work in my bright orange jacket carrying my neon orange lunch bag. Without further ado, here’s a picture of me in full regalia. You might want to shade your eyes before viewing this photo…

Too much orange

As you can see, I’m doing my best to show the Brits my uniquely American sense of style. I only hope they don’t deport me before I finish my work here.

Traitor Joe: Obama’s Chess Move With Lieberman

[cross posted at dailykos]
Remember when everyone was clamoring for Joe Lieberman’s head? After doing everything in his power to defeat Obama, including firing up the crowd at the Republican (!) National Convention, a lot of people wanted Senator Joe stripped of his prize Homeland Security Chairmanship, or worse. As you can see here, I was part of the “Kick Joe to the Curb” campaign myself.

You may also recall that one big reason why Lieberman was shown compassion, rather than the door, was because Obama publicly stated his recommendation to cut Joe some slack. At the time, I was disappointed in this response but here we are nearly a year later and we could really use Joe’s vote to pass health care reform. I know what you’re thinking: What good did leniency do us? He’s up to the same old tricks again, threatening to support a filibuster with his fellow Republicans. But here’s why things are different this time around…

Because we didn’t force Joe out of his leadership role, we still have leverage. It may not seem like much, but imagine what kind of bargaining position we’d be in if last November we had exiled Lieberman to the Senatorial equivalent of Siberia? Instead, today Harry Reid and the rest of the Democratic Caucus still have control over something Lieberman wants to keep. If push comes to shove, Reid can say “stand with us or kiss your chairmanship (and any future leadership role in a Democratically controlled Senate) goodbye, once and for all”.

Let’s face it – Lieberman is a stealth Republican. He may not care whether the Dems expel him, but I think we’re talking about a guy with some serious ego who’s not going to be happy spending the rest of his term with the standing of a Congressional intern. And exiling him from the Dem caucus would pretty much force him to officially become a Republican. As Rachel Maddow once observed, how do you think Lieberman will fare running for re-election as a Republican? In New England. :)

Win or lose, this situation suggests to me the wisdom of Obama’s decision last November. He realized he was going to need Lieberman’s vote on an important issue and when that time came, he’d need all the leverage he could get. He showed us that strategic planning beats retribution and revenge. Once again, Obama has shown himself to be not just a great politician, but a consummate chess player. Like all good chess players, he thinks several moves ahead and makes sure every move has a purpose.

Movie Review: “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?”

I’m a sucker for offbeat, quirky documentaries. My favorites have a little dose of crazy – either in the characters or the story or both. For me, the craziness is what makes it human and compelling.

The story in “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” is so strange you’ll have a hard time believing it’s true – an elderly female truck driver (you read that right) of very modest means buys a cheap painting in a thrift store and discovers, to her amazement, that it appears to be an authentic Jackson Pollock (the drippy guy) painting worth several million dollars. And that’s just the beginning.

In order to certify a master work of art (and thereby sell it for big money), you need experts to give their stamp of approval. This quest for authentication leads to an epic culture clash: brash, street smart and determined trucker lady vs. erudite, snobby and skeptical art critic. Throw a world renowned forensic scientist and a felonious art promoter into the mix and you’re in for quite a trip.

I won’t reveal any further details but this film is a gem – in a relaxed way it explores class boundaries, the battle between science and art and the inner workings of the art world, all told through the eyes of some wonderfully eccentric characters.

Here’s a link to the movie on Rotten Tomatoes.

Mormon Church – Epic Hypocrisy In Their Own Words

[Cross-posted on dailykos]

This morning I read Spud1′s diary about how the Mormon church is up to their usual tricks (this time in Maine) of backing anti-gay rights groups while publicly distancing themselves from such contributions. I got curious about something: given their obvious aversion to publicity in this area, I wondered how the Mormon Church itself portrays its views on gay rights. So instead of consulting an anti-Mormon web site, I went straight to the source, the official LDS web site to see what they have to say about their position gay rights. Here’s what I found…

The first thing you’ll notice is that (surprise!) it’s not easy to find any material on this site about gay rights, gay marriage, etc. I looked under the “Home and Family” and “Marriage, Family and Individual Counseling” subject areas but found no relevant content. Next I tried a site search on the term “gay” and found a short article titled “Homosexuality” in their alphabetical index of “Gospel Topics”. So, without further ado, here’s an annotated copy of the Mormon Church’s official policy on homosexuality:

People inquire about our position on those who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians.

The “those who consider themselves” clause is a way of not so subtly denying the existence and identity of some 5-10% of our population.

My response is that we love them as sons and daughters of God.

Which is why they want to deny them the same basic rights everyone else enjoys.

They may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control. Most people have inclinations of one kind or another at various times.

Yup, they do have certain inclinations. The inclination to live their lives they way they choose free of harassment and discrimination. The inclination to fall in love and marry the person of their choosing. The inclination to have a family of their own. You can call these inclinations but I call them basic human rights.

If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the Church. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the Church, then they are subject to the discipline of the Church, just as others are” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, Nov. 1998, 71).

In other words, “it’s our way or the highway”. I would actually have much less of a problem with them if that was their real position. If they, as a private group, choose to discourage or disallow free choice amongst their own members, I wouldn’t agree with it but that’s their choice. But the truth is that by actively supporting anti-gay groups and legislation they go way beyond the position stated above – they’ve set out to curtail the rights of free people everywhere, all around this country, whether they belong to the Mormon Church or not.

I happen to be a straight guy but I’ve been around long enough to know that when one group’s rights are denied, we all suffer. It’s time to stand up not just for gay people but for people everywhere and show groups like the Mormon Church that they cannot say one thing publicly and then privately try to force their religious views on all Americans. If you agree, whether you’re straight or gay, take a stand. Make your voice heard. Let people know how you feel. Progress is made when enough people care strongly enough to do something about it.

I Know What Happens To You When You Die

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me just say that my title is perhaps just slightly overstated. I probably should have called this article “I’m Pretty Sure I Know What Happens To You When You Die” but that doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time and I’ve finally found the answer (actually I came upon the answer a long time ago but I was too lazy to write it up).

Before I pull back the curtain on this ancient conundrum, let me just say that the answer is not warm and fuzzy. So if you’re not ok with a little metaphysical tough love then now would be a great time to move on to a more uplifting blog.

Ok, for those of you still reading (hi Mom!), sit back, make yourself comfortable and prepare for some enlightenment. So…what happens to you when you die is…wait for it…

Nothing. That’s right, a whole lot of nothing. You don’t go to heaven. You don’t go to hell. You don’t get to meet god (she’s way too busy for the likes of you). You don’t even get to meet St. Peter. You’re not reunited with your deceased loved ones (although I admit that’s a nice thought). And you don’t get to frolic with angels. You go into a profound state of non-existence.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been there, man. I don’t mean I’ve been dead. I mean I was once before in a state of non-existence. So were you. Remember? Before you were born, you didn’t exist. For a really long time. Six billions years of non-existence – those were some boring times, weren’t they?

No one has any memories from before they were born. That’s because your memory is a product of the rich configuration of neurons you’ve spent your whole life assembling in that hunk of cells called your brain. Without those neurons and some associated biochemical goo, you’d have no memories and there really would be no you. That’s why you have a hard time recalling anything before your birthday.

So given what I think of as me came into existence on my birth date (or thereabouts), when the hunk of brain cells in my very hard head run out of oxygen and die, all those memories and personality taints – everything that makes me me, will die with the rest of my body, at which point I will return to a state of non-existence. All those other theories, which sound so nice and serene, are really just adult fairy tales, designed to make us feel like our lives have some sort of cosmic meaning and that we’re so special that we must somehow live on after our bodies have stopped working.

Some people might say: “Wait a minute, if my life doesn’t have some sort of cosmic significance, why should I bother being a good person? Why not just do all those filthy things I think about doing every 7.4 seconds?”. And the answer couldn’t be more simple: when you do “the right thing”, when you help other people, when you work hard, you get a good feeling. It’s called fulfillment. You don’t need someone to give your life meaning by telling you a fairy tale about some reward at the end of the rainbow. Your life has as much meaning as you choose to give it.

So work hard, have fun, be a good person, help other people, try not to be too selfish and the result is you’ll probably live a happy and fulfilling life. And then you’ll die. That’s just the way it goes. In the meantime, enjoy your state of existence while it lasts. Trust me, the second time through non-existence is even longer than the first. :)

I Have a Scream

Those of you who followed the 2004 Presidential campaign will remember this moment when Howard Dean’s candidacy was damaged by an over the top display of exuberance:

Fast forward to a few days ago – I was cleaning up some old files on my computer and I stumbled across an audio recording I had made in January of 2004 and all but forgotten about. Here is my then five year old daughter Maya’s impression of that fateful moment in American politics:

Reflections on Marriage Equality (w/ video)

I was recently discussing the quest for marriage equality in the US with a buddy of mine, who happens to come from Pennsylvania (the significance of which will become apparent below). My friend asked “why do gay people need to be married? With many states recognizing civil unions and many companies providing domestic partnership benefits, don’t they already have the equivalent of marriage?”.

Here’s how I answered:

How would you feel if the government said you can’t get married because you’re from Pennsylvania? We’ll let you do something that’s kind of like being married (but isn’t really) and it has most of the rights and privileges of marriage (but not entirely) and when your kids ask why you’re not married you’ll have to tell them it’s because you’re from Pennsylvania and they’ll go “huh?”.

The point being it’s easy to think of civil unions as being “good enough” when you’re not one of the people being told who you can or can’t marry.

This lighthearted video from Ireland makes the point eloquently:

Those of you living outside of Washington state may not know about our Referendum 71 – it asks voters to reaffirm or deny various domestic partnership rights already approved by our state legislature. Similar to California’s infamous Proposition 6, it’s an attempt to circumvent the established law by taking the question directly to voters. I just filled in my WA state ballot, and I voted “Approved” to affirm our state domestic partnership laws . If you live in WA state, I hope you do the same thing.

If Referendum 71 passes, I’ll be happy. But it will be just one more step toward the real goal, which is a time when civil unions are unnecessary, when everyone in America enjoys the right to marry the person they love. I’m not sure when that will happen but I think it’s coming soon. As Barack Obama once said: “Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.” If you agree with me, please make your voice heard.

Book Review: “The Informant: A True Story” by Kurt Eichenwald

Oftentimes, when I start a new book my initial enthusiasm gets me through the first chapter or two. Then comes the moment of truth. If the author doesn’t succeed in capturing my pathetically short attention span, I find myself checking my progress every few pages. It’s the sound of my bored brain repeatedly asking myself “Are we there yet?”. But every once in a while I pick up a book which gives me the opposite feeling – instead of wondering when I’ll be done, I want it to last forever. “The Informant: A True Story” is a long book – over 500 pages, but I never once noticed what page I was on. It’s the kind of book you’ll stay up all night to finish.

The story revolves around a covert FBI investigation into a massive global price fixing scheme involving a number of companies, chief among which is a highly profitable and very powerful company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). The FBI is lucky to have on their side Mark Whitacre, a senior Vice President at ADM who turns government witness against his employer. Whitacre is the most highly placed cooperating witness in the history of undercover FBI investigations. The ensuing twists and turns might seem too far fetched if they weren’t all true. Eichenwald foreshadows the developments thusly:

By the night of the raids in June 1995, the government had amassed an arsenal of evidence unprecedented in a white-collar case. Despite the secrecy of the criminals, despite their ability to spend millions of dollars on a defense, despite the political influence they could bring to bear, the possibility that they could beat back the prosecution seemed ludicrous. They were trapped – trapped by their own words and images, forever captured on miles of magnetized plastic ribbon. The government agents did not know whether Whitacre would emerge as a hero or an unemployed martyr, but they felt sure of their investigation. That night, they could hardly be blamed for believing that this case was all but over.

But it would be their last night of confidence and celebration for years to come. For despite all of the evidence the agents had collected, critical information had escaped them. Before dawn broke, they would sense that something had gone terribly awry. Years later, they would understand that the evening had not signaled the end of the case, but rather the beginning of events that eventually touched the highest reaches of government and industry around the world, events that no one could have imagined.

For on that night in the summer of 1995, almost nothing was what it appeared to be.

I heard about the recent film based on this book (which I haven’t seen yet), thought the story sounded intriguing and noticed the book was extremely well reviewed on Amazon. “The Informant: A True Story” did not disappoint – it’s a thrilling, informative and well researched book. But most of all, it’s a fun book you won’t be able to put down. And when you’re done, I think you’ll agree that it proves the old adage, once again: Truth really is stranger than fiction.

“Nous Sommes Tous Américains”

On September 12, 2001, the day after the most egregious terrorist attack in US history, the French newspaper Le Monde published a front page editorial under the headline “Nous Somme Tous Americains” (“We Are All Americans”). The message was poignant – the rest of the world stood by our side in condemning and opposing the evil that was visited upon our nation. But the article concluded with a prophetic warning:

Beyond their obvious murderous madness, these latest attacks nonetheless follow a certain logic. Obviously it is a barbarous logic, marked by a new nihilism that is repugnant to the great majority of those who believe in Islam, which, as a religion, does not condone suicide any more than Christianity does, and certainly not suicide coupled with the massacre of innocent people. But it is a political logic, which, by going to extremes, seeks to force Muslim opinion to “choose sides” against those who are currently designated as “the Great Satan.” By doing this, their objective might well be to spread and deepen an unprecedented crisis in the Arab world.

In the long term, this attitude is obviously suicidal, because it attracts lightning. And it might attract a bolt of lightning that does not discriminate. This situation requires our leaders to rise to the occasion. They must act so that the peoples whom these warmongers are seeking to win over and are counting on will not fall in step behind them in their suicidal logic. This we can say with some dread: Modern technology allows them to go even further. Madness, even under the pretext of despair, is never a force that can regenerate the world. That is why today we are all Americans.

We did not heed that warning. In a few short years we descended into a collective madness fueled by fear and arrogance. We stopped worrying about what our friends and allies thought and we stopped caring about some of the basic rights embedded in our Constitution.

But all that changed in 2008. It took great sacrifice in the form of millions of hours of volunteer work and millions of dollars in small donations. It took an army of people organizing and knocking on doors and making phone calls and talking with friends and registering voters and getting out the vote. And most of all, it took a candidate with a vision and a laser like focus. It took a man who could inspire enough of us to believe that, once again, we could be the people we were meant to be.

And now we’re beginning to see the fruits of that labor: the speech in Cairo expressing our solidarity with the Muslim world, the re-engagement with the United Nations and our allies around the world, the troop reductions in Iraq, the strategic reduction of a missile defense program in Eastern Europe and its impact on our relationship with Russia. For the first time in nearly a decade, we are once again admired and respected around the world.

Many people feel that the Nobel Prize awarded to our President this week is premature, that in his short time in office he has yet to prove his worthiness. But to me this award is an affirmation of the power of our democracy – it’s a recognition that one of the most powerful nations on earth has drastically changed it’s policies for the better. It is the rest of the world saying to us, once again, “We are all Americans”. But this time around, we are humble, not arrogant. This time around our response is “We are all world citizens”.

Google/Verizon Announcement Changes Everything

With its amazing combination of features and vast array of low cost applications, the iPhone has been a game changer – it’s been hugely profitable for Apple and has helped AT&T substantially expand its subscriber base. But due to an exclusivity agreement between the two companies, AT&T has been the only game in town for iPhone users. With a relatively quiet announcement from Google yesterday, the playing field for smart phones has shifted dramatically.

In 2008 google announced an open software platform, called Android, for use in smart phones like the iPhone. Android competes with Apple’s iPhone software because it provides an operating system or software core for smart, location aware touch screen mobile applications. But Google’s strategy also differs from Apple’s in some important ways:

  • The iPhone software is “open” in the sense that developers are encouraged to create their own applications, but Android is more open in the sense that the platform itself is available for inspection and modification.
  • Whereas the iPhone software is tied to a particular piece of hardware (the iPhone :), Android is hardware independent and is therefore portable to any mobile device.
  • The Android platform is available to all phone manufacturers and all service providers.

Thus, it’s easy to imagine a new generation of smart phones, provided by multiple service providers, all built on Android and competing purely on the basis of price, services, and applications.

At the end of 2008, I took a close look at Android but at the time there was only one phone available (the G-1) and it was available from only one carrier (T-Mobile). Yesterday’s announcement changes all that – the largest US carrier, Verizon Wireless, announced plans to deliver two new Android phones by the end of this year. Sprint has also announced a new Android phone to be available October 11 and T-Mobile has had one for over a year.

That makes three of the four major US carriers (basically everyone but AT&T) that have now committed to making Android phones available on their networks. Verizon also one-upped Apple/AT&T by announcing willingness to support Google voice, which would allow users to make free calls via the internet, bypassing their cellular voice network:

Verizon signaled its commitment to opening up its network by pledging to support Google Voice, a program that allows users to route their calls to one Google number and also receive advanced phone features all for free. AT&T and Apple set off a government inquiry earlier this summer when the same app was rejected from the iPhone App Store.

Don’t get me wrong – the iPhone is a once in a lifetime, killer product and it’s not going away any time soon. The main problem with the iPhone is not technical – it’s political in that it limits competition and flexibility. No one but Apple can see or modify the core software. No one but Apple can sell devices that run the iPhone software. And no one but AT&T can provide the voice and data services for the iPhone. The promise of Android is to knock down those barriers so that people can use the best software on any hardware with any carrier – isn’t that how it should be?

I Need Structure

So my wife and daughter have left me home alone for three days. Party time, right? Wrong. In addition to my day job, I now have to figure out how to feed the pets, clean the litter boxes, do the dishes, keep the house neat, administer pet meds, cook myself dinner, walk the dog three times a day…I have to actually do all the stuff my wife normally does. For three whole days!

But my wife is a very smart woman. She knows I’m in way over my head so here’s what she did: she created a three day schedule, with little check boxes for every activity. 10am on Tuesday – time to walk Meiko, check! 7pm on Wednesday – time to clean the litter boxes, check! Not only have I not missed a single job yet, I’m actually enjoying this because here’s the secret: I love checking stuff off lists. It doesn’t really matter what’s on the list.

Over the years, I’ve learned that seemingly reasonable requests like “Can you do X whenever X needs to be done?” don’t seem to work for me. What I need is “Please do X every day at 7pm”. Extra credit for “here’s a list with checkboxes you can use to keep track of when you’ve done X”. Let me be the first to admit that requiring this level of coddling is pathetic. Perhaps there’s a biochemical explanation but the bottom line is: in order to do a job, I need some structure. And the more boring the job, the more structure I need.

Perhaps it’s just me but I wonder if this is a common male trait. I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts. Is this is a guy thing or a Marc thing?

My Brush with Head Trauma

Imagine you’re 49 years old, very clumsy, accident prone and you’ve just discovered a newfangled, two piece skateboard (like this: http://bit.ly/4aUqlG).

Question: What’s the stupidest thing you can possibly do?

Answer: Ride the thing down a hill without a helmet.

In case there was ever any doubt, I’ve now officially earned my Darwin Award.

Yesterday we were visiting some friends and both kids and parents were enjoying riding various forms of rolling equipment down their gently sloping driveway. Of course, we insisted the kids don protective helmets, as we always do, but for the adults it was a case of “do as I say, not as I do”. You know where this is going, right?

I don’t actually remember the events directly leading up to my fall but at some point both feet went out from under me, my body jerked violently backward and my head smashed hard on the driveway pavement. The next thing I remember is a) tremendous head pain, b) no feeling anywhere in my body and c) screaming at the top of my lungs. I don’t remember consciously generating the screams, it was as if someone else was controlling my body and I was watching the whole scene.

I’m told I screamed three times and then suddenly stopped. I remember thinking how strange it was to feel completely disconnected from my body. Then I began to feel a tingling all over, just like when part of your arm or leg falls asleep. A short time later, all the feeling came back into my extremities. By that time, our friend, Richard, had called 911 while my wife was trying to assess my condition.

The paramedics arrived very quickly. They gave me a bunch of field neurological tests and took my vital signs. Because I was lucid, the paralysis was gone and my stats were ok, they were optimistic but suggested I take a ride to the local ER. I declined, partly because I didn’t want to further traumatize my daughter. My wife was not quite so sanguine – she insisted on driving me to the ER near our house, where I spent the rest of my Sunday.

Five hours later, I learned that I had suffered a mild concussion but the results of a CAT scan and neck X-ray were normal so I was likely out of the woods. Apart from a very stiff neck and a feeling like I’d been hit in the head with a baseball bat, I seemed to be ok. And I’m feeling a little better today.

In conclusion, here are three things I’ve learned from this experience:

  1. I can’t take the same risks I used to take when I was 18. Not because I’m no longer up to the challenge (I never was :) but because I have a daughter and a wife who need me to stay healthy. As my wife noted while driving me home from the ER: “Your nine lives have officially run out”.
  2. I’m very fortunate to have good health insurance so that when something like this happens I can get it fully checked out and treated.
  3. Helmets: not just for kids.

The World of More

TV is a great thing, isn’t it? Anyone who’s babysat a toddler for more than four hours knows the life saving value of Television. And there’s a great deal of high quality educational fare available for the little ones. I’m convinced my daughter learned to read early by watching Sesame Street and other shows. But as my daughter has grown into tweendom, the quality and range of educational TV shows has rapidly diminished. At the same time, her taste has turned a corner – “Jonas” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” are now in (way in), while “Arthur”, “Reading Rainbow” and “Nova” are out. Seemingly overnight, my daughter has acquired an addiction to the televised equivalent of junk food.

It was with this thought in mind that I recently received a letter from my cable provider (Comcast) telling me that our “expanded basic” cable service, which we’ve had for the past five years, is being phased out and going all digital. What this means in practical terms is that if I want to continue receiving the channels my daughter craves most, I need to upgrade to “Digital Expanded Basic” service, which requires a new set top box for each TV and yet another remote control.

Here are some choice excerpts:

“We at Comcast are enhancing our network…” – and by “enhancing” they mean, of course, taking away our existing service.

“…exclusively in digital format starting on the date listed below, to bring Washington the World of More” – the World of More what?

“You’ll also have access to over 10,000 On Demand titles…” – the real reason surfaces: it’s the World of More Money for Comcast.

The letter goes on to say that if you don’t take action soon, your existing service will disappear and, more urgently, you’ll miss out on the World of More.

My wife and I had already been comtemplating scaling back on our TV service. We’ve reached the conclusion that, when it comes to television, what my daughter really needs is the World of Less. And, amazingly enough, the World of Less is less expensive than the World of More. So it’s a win/win!

And, at no additional cost, we get a free subscription to the World of More Reading.

The Road to Alaska

Yesterday my co-workers kindly threw me a little going away party (or a “leaving do” as the Brits call them). Below is the text of a poem I wrote to mark the occasion. Caveat: it’s chock full of inside jokes and references (e.g. the name of the project is “Alaska”).

The Road to Alaska

I took a trip to Alaska, one February day
But I didn’t have directions to help me find my way.
I checked into the Holiday Inn, from there to Voyager Place
Which sounds like a name for something that comes from outer space.

I spent my first morning there with a guy named Jason Beard
And when we finished talking, things were worse than I had feared.
Jason summarized the job, software geek to geek
Then he gave me a year of work to finish in one week.

“I’ll have to think on that”, I said, “but let’s be very clear:
Usually a year of work takes me about…a year.”
“But you don’t have a year”, he said, his eyes all a-flicker,
“With our British bank holidays, we have to work much quicker”.

So get to work and start a’ codin’ and don’t stop till you’re done.
And if you’re still here in June you might even see the sun.
So off I went to find a desk and chair to call my own.
Thano took some pity on me and offered me a phone.

An Irish guy named Jim stopped by, to help with IN-VIEW
He liked to debug Javascript and drink a beer or two.
He took me under his wing, and became my friend as well.
Since then I’ve moved on, but he’s still in IN-hell.

Simon helped me learn the ropes, with mediator lore.
But he had a knack for vanishing when things went wrong with core.
He’s always up for taking an hour break for tea
He’ll even answers questions while performing surgery.

My sometime desk mate Nigel taught new words to this here yank,
Sophisticated English terms, like “bugger me” and “wank”.
But I got the last laugh on him, which is why today I’m all smiles,
‘cause when he wasn’t looking, I deleted all his files.

One day a big door opened, and Turkish people came
Ersan, Borga, Erdem, and some I still can’t name.
Serdar, Serkan, Deniz, Fatih and Dilek too,
Huzeyfe, Guvenc and Sumeyra, just to name a few.

It’s not easy coming here, they’ve traveled very far,
And one who shall remain unnamed, can’t seem to start a car.
These guys are fun to hang out with, and always on the go.
And they’re easier to understand than most of the Brits I know.

So now my trip is over, my adventure nearly done.
Now I’ll take a little time for playing in the sun.
I’m excited to see two girls I haven’t seen in quite a spell.
But I’m also a little sad to have to say farewell.

I never really made it to Alaska all the way,
I don’t know if we ever will, though I’m hopeful on this day.
With Paul and Ian at the helm, I think we’re on our way,
But remember: the game’s not over till we get the customer to pay!

Twenty Great Songs

A friend recently made me a CD with a sampling of her favorite songs. In attempting to reciprocate, I faced the daunting task of distilling my favorite music into 20 or so tracks. I started by acknowledging there is no such thing as “best” in music or art, which is why I’m calling this list “Twenty Great Songs” and not “The Twenty Greatest Songs” (I’m pompous, but not that pompous).

So this morning I rummaged around my CD collection and iTunes, trying to come up with just the right blend of new and old, mainstream and indie, classic and cutting edge. Each artist is limited to one place on the list. Here’s the result, in no particular order:

  1. “Three County Highway”, Indigo Girls, Despite Our Differences
  2. “In the End”, Linkin Park, Hybrid Theory
  3. “Crazy Mary”, Pearl Jam, Sweet Relief
  4. “Phantom Limb”, The Shins, Wincing the Night Away
  5. “Hurt”, Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around
  6. “Let’s Get It Started”, Black Eyed Peas, Let’s Get it Started
  7. “Karma Police”, Radiohead, Amnesiac
  8. “Hey Ya”, Outcast, Speakerboxxx
  9. “Old Pigweed”, Mark Knopfler, The Ragpicker’s Dream
  10. “When You Were Young”, The Killers, Sam’s Town
  11. “Stratford-on-Guy”, Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  12. “Reelin In the Years”, Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill
  13. “For the Widowers in Paradise”, Sufjan Stevens, Greetings From Michigan
  14. “Meanwhile, Rick James”, Cake, Comfort Eagle
  15. “Weightless”, Nada Surf, Lucky
  16. “When Your Mind’s Made Up”, Glen Hansard, “Once” Soundtrack
  17. “Careful”, Guster, Keep It Together
  18. “Where to Now St. Peter”, Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection
  19. “Passing Afternoon”, Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days
  20. “Box of Rain”, Grateful Dead, American Beauty

Scanning this list, I see that I’m a sucker for ballads and I have a decided preference for indie artists. Some readers may wonder where, in god’s name, are the Beatles? All I can say in my defense is a) you try picking just one Beatles song, and b) if you ask me tomorrow, you’ll probably get a completely different list.

Please feel free to add your favorite songs in the comment section below. Now I have go burn a disk or three…

The New iPhone 3G S – Apple does it again!

So Apple announced their new iPhone 3G S today and it’s killer. Here are a few highlights:

  • The built-in camera on my 3G really sucks. It has no zoom capability and no flash and the light compensation mechanism never seems to work right. So if you are at all serious about photography (and who doesn’t want to take nice pictures?) then you still have to cart around a digital camera. Problem solved: the new iPhone 3G S includes a 3 megapixel camera (the 3G had a 2 MP camera) with auto-focus. And, it’s also got…
  • VIDEO CAPTURE! 30 fps VGA resolution with audio. Not too shabby. This feature alone probably means you’ll want to opt for the 16GB model. The 8GB 3G was workable but tight. If you do any video capture at all you’re going to want lots of RAM.
  • Finally, we get cut, copy and paste so we can move data from one app to another. This is actually an OS feature, not new hardware so iPhone 3G folks like me can take advantage of this when Apple releases the new OS later this Summer.
  • Landscape mode for all apps. This may not sound like a big deal but it’s nice for people (like me) who struggle with the tiny “soft” keyboard because the keys are bigger in landscape mode.
  • Mail search. Yup, you can finally search your email folders, just like you can on gmail.
  • New navigation app with turn-by-turn directions. The 3G is a decent GPS navigator but it lacks spoken directions (“turn left in .2 miles”). With this feature, the 3G S is a full blown navigator. Also, there is a new built-in compass, so you can always tell which in which direction you’re heading.
  • Speed – Apple claims the new device is 2X faster than the 3G.
  • Longer battery life – 30% improvement over the 3G, another pet peeve of mine as my 3G requires a daily recharge.
  • Price – same as the former price for the 3G ($199 for 8GB, $299 for 16GB). The 8GB 3G phone is now available for only $99.

In the words of the always insightful Junie B. Jones, “WOWIE WOW WOW!”. The 3G S goes on sale June 19th. Just in time for Father’s Day. :)

Answer to “How many of the world’s ten largest countries can you name?”"

As promised yesterday, here’s the list of the world’s ten largest countries in population order, along with leaders’ names:

Rank Country Population Last Updated % of World Population Leader
1 China 1,338,156,900 5/10/09 19.87% Hu Jintao
2 India 1,164,200,000 6/7/09 17.16% Pratibha Patil
3 United States 306,573,000 6/7/09 4.52% Barack Obama
4 Indonesia 230,330,000 6/1/09 3.42% Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
5 Brazil 191,401,196 6/7/09 2.81% Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
6 Pakistan 166,579,500 6/6/09 2.47% Asif Ali Zardari
7 Bangladesh 162,221,000 2.41% Zillur Rahman
8 Nigeria 154,729,000 2.3% Umaru Musa Yar’Adua
9 Russia 141,814,578 6/6/09 2.11% Dmitry Medvedev
10 Japan 127,630,000 2/1/09 1.9% Taro Aso

Nearly 40% of the world’s population (4 out of every 10 people on Earth) live in China or India. How many countries did you name? I was surprised that some countries I expected to be in the top ten are actually not even close. If you’d like to see a more complete list, check out this article on wikipedia, which is the source for the table above.

How many of the world’s ten largest countries can you name?

    I’m currently working in a very diverse organization in England. Every day I get to interact with nice people from India, Turkey, England (of course), France, Ireland, Russia, Serbia, and many other places. Occasionally, I even encounter the odd American (and I do mean odd). Business meetings are a bit like the “It’s a Small World, After All” ride at Disneyland. But spending time in an environment like this makes me realize how little I know about the rest of the world. 
    All my friends from Turkey know the name Barack Obama (who doesn’t?) but how many of my American friends can name the President of Turkey? …crickets chirping… I didn’t know the name either. But not to worry, loyal readers, here at Marc’s Space, where Marc does the work for you, I will reveal that name in a moment but first, I’d like you to take a little quiz…
    Go grab a piece of paper and a pen and jot down what you would guess to be the names of the world’s ten largest countries (by population). If you know any of the leaders’ names, jot those down too. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
    OK, I see you’re not moving yet. Take your time and come back to this site tomorrow when I will reveal the top ten list along with the populations and leaders’ names and you can see how many you got right. Oh, by the way, the current President of Turkey is Abdullah Gul. You can read all about him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdullah_Gül.

Random thoughts about technology, politics and the arts.