Monday, September 29, 2014

The Truth About Obamacare

A while back, tubby documentarian Michael Moore said Barack Obama was destined to go down in history remembered as being the “first black president,” of the United States, with little else to his credit.

While my faith in Obama has seriously waned since 2008, I think Moore’s estimation is a little harsh, because I’m fairly certain the president will be remembered for his namesake health care reform, rather than the color of his skin.

I don’t pretend to know everything about health care policy, politics, or even the Great Pumpkin. But I do know that on the surface of things, Obamacare has helped my family out quite a bit.

First of all, our health care insurance premiums were $200 a month lower this year – thanks in part to the Obamacare provision widening the pool of insurers from which my company could offer policies. I was able to get into a very large insurance pool offered to a wide variety of federal employees, and that helped our monthly bottom line.

Then this June our son spent a day in the hospital with double pneumonia. We just got our explanation of benefits from our insurer this week (yes, the wheels of bureaucracy still function slowly) and discovered that out of $5,200 worth(!) of treatment (which, as I recall, boiled down to what our son considered to be an unhealthy interest in his urinal output) we’ll only have to pay $676. When I saw that amount I felt like one of Bob Parr's InsuriCare customers.

Again, I have no idea if it’s Obamacare that helped us out like this. We had good chance with previous insurers not to have a claim this big (though it’s a testament to our horrendously expensive healthcare system that I’d think a 24-hour stay in the hospital is a big claim). Maybe our previous insurers would have covered us just as adequately.

I’d rather not find out. Just glad to know we’re not spending more than $1,500 out of pocket on this escapade.

Take Photos in the Wilderness? Better Read This

And by “read this,” I mean this article, not necessarily this blog post, because the article gets you to the place you can grumble about what’s going on and possibly have people listen.

Here’s the deal: The U.S. Forest Service is seeking to make permanent some temporary rules put in place a few years back to require news organizations to acquire permits to the tune of $1,500 a pop in order to film or take photos in any designated wilderness area. Due to misinterpretation of the rule, Idaho Public Television reported they were required to get a permit to talk to a forest service biologist in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest – clearly not a designated wilderness area.

Why is this such a big deal?

It’s restricting press freedom, for one.

And it could potentially restrict any random person’s freedom to take photos on federal land, if the rules are interpreted too loosely.

Write a blog and post your photos? You could be considered a news agency, even if no one reads you. Because you might make money with those photos somehow – and that qualifies as commercial use, not the non-commercial use protected by other federal laws. Take photos in the wilderness and then sell copies of the photo? Oh, you’d better believe that’s a paddlin’.

But the burden of proof appears to lie with forest service officials. If legitimate news organizations are running afoul of the proposed laws, they won’t likely blink at prohibiting any random yahoo from taking photos if they’re photographing something that might not be in the forest service’s best interest. And as Roger Phillips, writing at the Idaho Statesman says, the line between amateur and professional is pretty easy to blur these days. Zealous Forest Service folks might err on the side of caution, on the side of shutting down even an amateur photographer.

Problem is, wording in the proposed rules are very vague. Read them yourself.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Another Classic: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- and The Hoff

So I'll express a little ignorance here. Like everyone, I was familiar with the concept of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I had no idea it was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, of Treasure Island fame. Obviously, Stevenson is a writer who wanted to stay on the forefront of writing fads and trends. A good thing.

I also had no idea they'd made the book into a Broadway musical. Starring a singing David Hasselhoff.

So I have read it. And Stevenson nails the basics of science fiction, with the Idea and the Madness Behind the Idea. Which he sums up neatly in Dr. Jekyll's letter to his lawyer friend:

The hatred of Hyde for Jekyll was of a different order. His terror of the gallows drove him continually to commit temporary suicide, and return to his subordinate station of a part instead of a person; but he loathed the necessity, he loathed the despondency into which Jekyll was now fallen, and he resented the dislike with which he was himself regarded. Hence the ape-like tricks that he would play me, scrawling in my own hand blasphemies on the pages of my books, burning the letters and destroying the portrait of my father; and indeed, had it not been for his fear of death, he would long ago have ruined himself in order to involve me in ruin. But his love of me is wonderful; I go further: I, who sicken and freeze at the mere thought of him, when I recall the abjection and passion of this attachment, and when I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide, I find it in my heart to pity him.

The Idea, of course, is that each person inside himself or herself balances both good and evil -- while the madness behind the idea is that sometimes we let the bad guy out, whether by choice or by potion. And when the choice or potion stop in their efficacy, it's harder to keep the bad guy from coming out.

The book may have application in studying addiction. Or human nature. Certainly, it's a classic worth reading, whether The Hoff is singing it or not.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Jahun: A Conversation

Though Liam is my son, it is awkward with him here.

Earlier I said he was twenty. He is nigh on thirty. I knew him last as an eleven-year-old and, on that last night, was brusque with him:

“You need to go to sleep now. You’ve got school in the morning. You can’t go tired.”

“I know. But I can’t go to sleep.”

I rolled my eyes. “Why not, son? Why can’t you go to sleep?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t.”

I order him to bed, but, feeling guilty, follow, and in softer tones inquire: “Maybe you could listen to some music; that helps me sleep.”

“I’ve got Alvin and the Chipmunks in,” he said, pointing to his CD player. “But I can’t sleep through them.”

“No wonder. I couldn’t either. Wait here. I’ll find you something.”

Downstairs to the CDs. Back upstairs with one. Guitars or something. “Okay, open it up,” I say, pointing to the player. I’ve never been able to run it, seeing it only in the dark. Typically when he’s asleep and I want to shut it off, I pull the plug rather than fuss with buttons.

The CD plays. I stomp out of the room. I do not hear from him again. So hopefully it worked.

Then I am gone. Gone to the spaceport, sneaking aboard a milk runner. Not feeling guilty about our last encounter.

Yet he comes. With rose-colored glasses, he comes. Of course, I am not always that brutish with him. We often had fun together, even as a family, wandering the caves out in the lava fields not far from home, climbing the extinct volcanoes, swimming in the cold lakes.

We drew cartoons together. His is the better talent for drawing, and the better talent for ideas, though he condescended to re-draw some of my better jokes because he took a fancy to them. He continued to send them to me, of course, showing little bitterness that I’d left him behind, though in the pictures he drew of us walking the surface of Iapetus, he was always far behind, huffing and puffing, trying to keep up with his long-striding father.

“There are squirrels here,” I tell him the next morning as we eat and look out over the landscape through the windows I carved into the side of this Tortelosa Mont.


“I didn’t see them at first. First, I saw flickers of movement just in the corners of my eyes. I thought it was tumbling rocks, tricks of light or shadow. But as time passed, the movement became more frequent. I think they were shy of my at first. But after several months, they would perch in my hand to stare up at my face. They’re gentle enough.”


“Yes. I looked for them this morning, but they seem to be hiding again. Probably because they know there’s a stranger here. They’ll come out before too long. You’ll see them.”

He stared out the window at the rock-strewn slope.

“Okay, Dad. Hey, let’s talk about something else.”

Something else is a daily routine, now shot to hell because there are two of us here. He sees little utility in my daily staring into space for several hours – those from the warmer parts of the solar system are always so busy – but he’ll soon learn why I do so: There’s nothing else to do here.

“I’m not really staring into space. I’m actually actively avoiding going to Jahun.”

“Jahun. That’s your biggest refuge, right? Where you’ve got your manufacturing and fabrication ability? We need to go there. We’ve got stuff to make.”

“No,” I said, practically screaming. “Not this time of year. Not this time of year. Too stormy. Too stormy.”

“Stormy? There’s basically no atmosphere here. How can it be stormy?”

It’s the Sun’s fault, of course. Even on distant Makemake, the sun can warm the surface enough to volatize the crust; Makemake has a spotty, tenuous methane atmosphere when conditions are right. Iapetus has a spotty atmosphere too – which I point out through the window. To the northeast, toward Jahun, there is a mist clinging to the ground.

“Okay. I see the cloud. What makes it so bad?”

“Almonds and pepper. It smells of almond and pepper.”

“And that’s bad? It smells like sulphur and fart here!”

“Yes. But there are fewer squirrels. Where the air is thick with almond and pepper, there are more squirrels.”

Now it is his turn to stare blankly – albeit at me, rather than at the wall. But maybe, indeed, I can get him used to life with the Hermit of Iapetus.

Tall Table

Funny, the things you do.

This past weekend, I made a pool table taller.

It’s a miniature pool table we bought for the kids years ago. It’s served us well, but lately has been on wobbly legs as the particleboard they’re made of cracked and broke.

A few weeks ago I bought some 1x4s so I could make new legs, and after I got home from a campout and five-mile hike over lava rock with my boy scout troop, Michelle decided Saturday afternoon would be the best day to get the pool table job done.

I wasn’t looking forward to it, but, you know, she’s downstairs shampooing carpets, and we had to move the table anyway . . .

So I took the legs off and threw them away, with the exception of the cross braces. I then decided, before I cut the new legs, to consult the boss on whether she wanted a taller table. As it is, we all have to stoop now to play pool. So a taller table it was to be.

I wanted to re-use the same bolts, but the new legs were thicker. So I did a little counterboring and got the old bolts to work with the new legs. (It struck me: I know exactly what to do to fix this table and the problems I encountered while fixing it. I have absolutely turned into my father.)

As I worked, one of my scouts stopped by. He wanted to turn in his Hiking merit badge card – the last merit badge he has to earn before he can become an Eagle Scout. So huzzah to him. He’s pretty excited and didn’t seem to mind seeing his scoutmaster in his slippers, covered with sawdust.

Seeing him got me to thinking about that hike – across the lava flows at Hell’s Half Acre. Rough territory. There was a fair amount of walking, but also a fair amount of clambering up and down the slopes of collapsed lava tubes and craters. One carter in particular caught their attention – they called in the Hunger Games Arena. They want to go back. Going back would be their third time there. Good sign.

I want to go back too. Maybe in a weekend or two, Liam and I will go walk all the way out to the vent. But today would be a mysterious day to do it – I’m at work and it’s foggy in the desert.

Back to the pool table.

I did indeed make it six inches taller. At least that’s how it started out. I also put the table’s feet back on. That seemed to make it about a foot taller. It looks like a giraffe on which one can play pool.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ideas and Madness

First, a side note: Thanks to electronic books, I’ve just finished reading H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man,” one of many classics I’ve read only in electronic form. I’ve read a few studies where researchers show electronic devices are disengaging us from reading – and I’d like to stand out as an outlier. Having classic books on an electronic device has made me more likely to read them, to retain information from them, and to want to read additional similar books.

Now, The Invisible Man.

Pure science fiction, concentrating on the two big sci-fi themes: The Idea, and the Madness Behind the Idea.

The idea of the Invisible Man, of course, isn’t invisibility: It’s that the devil is always in the details of any grand Idea pursued to fruition.

Griffin, the Invisible Man, achieves invisibility – but quickly realizes there’s precious little he can do with it. As he tells his classmate Kemp:

I made a mistake, Kemp, a huge mistake, in carrying this thing through alone. I have waste strength, time, opportunities. Alone – it is wonderful how little a man can do alone! To rob a little, to hurt a little, and there is the end.

Hitherto I have gone on vague lines. We have to consider all that invisibility means, all that it does not mean. It means little advantage for eavesdropping, and so forth – one make sounds. It’s of little help – a little help perhaps – in housebreaking and so forth. Once you’ve caught me you could easily imprison me. But on the other hand I am hard to catch. This invisibility, in fact, is only good in two cases: It’s useful in getting away, it’s useful in approaching. It’s particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like. Dodge as I like. Escape as I like.

Griffin discovered, in his twisted, isolated mind, that there were few advantages to the goal he sought – once he had achieved it and yet had no way to turn back the clock.

I’m struck by how often isolation is used in science fiction – even this early science fiction – to demonstrate the madness behind the Idea – the devil in the details. Alone, one is easy to persuade that the end is all that matters, discovering only afterward that the end presents its own dangers.

Kind of reminds me of another isolationist:

So what are the flaws in Ted Kaczynski’s Idea – aside from his forcing his idea onto others by the same killing Griffin decides to pursue?

Kaczynski’s idea that technology is all bad is, of course, flawed. There are bad uses of technology, and much time wasted in its use, but the benefits of, say, computers and the Internet, of advances in travel and medicine, outweigh what disadvantages we can identify. If there are shortcomings in technology, it is that, as with Kaczynski, there are shortcomings in how we deal with people and technology, not in other people and technology on their own. The flaws we see in society are more often than not the flaws we project onto society from our own darkened windows. That is the madness behind the idea.