If ghosts could vote

Yesterday would have been my mom’s 73rd birthday. Her death earlier this year was in part a case of “Murder by Spreadsheet,” which is the phrase that describes the criminal cost-cutting widely practiced by health insurers. They routinely delay or override the official recommendations of medical professionals, fully aware of the deleterious and often fatal effects on their patients. The outstanding and passionate reportage on this subject by DailyKos’ nyceve will curl your hair.

In my mom’s case, her doctors wanted to keep her at the hospital while she recovered from a severe infection and received radiation treatments for (a very treatable form of) cancer. The insurance company said no and sent her to a nursing home, where the standard of care was far lower. There her health declined rapidly; she was dead within a few weeks.

Now here’s a surprising fact: of the 100 U.S. Senators, Democratic and Republican, who is the one who has taken the most campaign money from evil HMO’s? Hillary Clinton.

Here is another surprising fact: who is the U.S. Senator who has taken the second largest amount of HMO money? Barack Obama.

Now, which presidential candidate made a career of fighting evil HMO’s and drug companies and their ilk — and winning? Which one has promised, if elected, to discontinue Congress’ golden health-care plan unless it passes meaningful health-care reform? Which one has a detailed and realistic plan for just such reform? And which one has opted for public campaign financing in order to be free of undue corporate influence? John Edwards.

My mom’s ghost and I implore you to vote for John Edwards. He’s our only good hope for making sure the insurance companies don’t turn too many other people into ghosts.

Lightsaber duels: who wins?

Luke: Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we? Remember: anger, fear, aggression — the dark side are they.

This chart considers duels only between Force-adept antagonists (which eliminates the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and General Grievous).

Star Wars
Good guy Bad guy Winner
Obi-Wan Kenobi Darth Vader The bad guy
The Empire Strikes Back
Good guy Bad guy Winner
Luke Skywalker Darth Vader The bad guy
Return of the Jedi
Good guy Bad guy Winner But
Luke Skywalker Darth Vader The good guy In a fit of rage!
The Phantom Menace
Good guy Bad guy Winner But
Qui-Gon Jinn Darth Maul Stalemate Darth Maul appeared to have the upper hand before Qui-Gon was whisked away.
Qui-Gon Jinn Darth Maul The bad guy
Obi-Wan Kenobi Darth Maul The good guy In a fit of rage!
Attack of the Clones
Good guy Bad guy Winner
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Yoda Count Dooku The bad guy
Revenge of the Sith
Good guy Bad guy Winner But
Mace Windu Palpatine The good guy Not for long
Hordes of Jedi “younglings” Darth Vader The bad guy
Yoda Palpatine The bad guy Yoda would have won… if he hadn’t simply left. WTF?!
Obi-Wan Kenobi Darth Vader The good guy How good is a “good guy” who leaves his mutilated, helpless one-time friend to die in agony?

The record is not too favorable for the good guys. In fact it looks like the only good guy who wins while acting like a good guy is Mace Windu! You see, this cat Mace is a baaaad mother– Shut yo mouth! But I’m talkin’ ’bout Mace! Then we can dig it.

Happily, my son Jonah bucked the odds recently when he battled Darth Maul to a draw under the guidance of his teacher, Jedi Knight Tiere Kai, when the Sith Lord paid a surprise visit to Jedi Training Academy.

Humbled by Henson

This blog is not about posting links to other people’s content. Occasionally when I see something online that merits the attention of my (few, but all the more beloved) readers I add it to my “Around the web” sidebar. But once in a long while I see something that I simply must amplify to the best of my ability; and so I present Jim Henson’s “Time Piece” from 1965, courtesy of Your Daily Awesome.

This short avant garde film provoked three very strong reactions from me: (1) No amount of adulation or awe of Jim Henson is too much; (2) I’m sorry I missed the Sixties; and (3) Frank Oznowicz?!

My five-year mission

Twenty years ago my first serious professional programming gig began, helping to maintain and develop features for “Andrew,” the campus computing environment in use at Carnegie Mellon University. The technology in Andrew was ahead of its time. My specialization was in the e-mail components of Andrew, and it launched me on a mostly rewarding career of mostly e-mail software development.

My years working on the Andrew project were golden. Part of this is due to the effect of nostalgia, of course; another part is due to the novelty of a regular paycheck; still another, the outstanding colleagues from whom I learned so much. But a big part of what I loved about that job was being able to perceive the effects of my work on my user base, for better or worse, which not all software engineers are able to do. When we rolled out a new feature that I had worked on, the campus message boards would immediately light up with excitement about it. When e-mail wasn’t working well, the frustration emanating from all corners of the university was palpable in my office. And if I was then able to fix it — especially if it involved clever detective work — that was my idea of heaven.

(On one memorable occasion, I unadvisedly rolled out a version of the mail system on my own to the whole campus late at night, thinking to fix a small bug; instead I broke mail for everyone. Frantically I tried to fix things until I realized I couldn’t without help, and that help wouldn’t arrive until early the next morning. The thought that mail wasn’t working for anyone at CMU that night tormented me so that I went to a local bar to drown my sorrows. A cute waitress there who was an acquaintance of mine listened to my story and sympathized with me. “And today that woman is my wife.”)

Five-year trophy

This is the fifth anniversary of my joining Danger, Inc., a cool company with cool people, products, and services. A big part of what I love about this job is that it recaptures a lot of what I loved about the old CMU job: once again I am overseeing a high-volume, advanced-technology e-mail service used by a very large number of people all the time, and once again I have the occasional pleasure of hunting down and solving serious software bugs and making life better for everyone at once.

On this particular day, though, as I recuperate from a week of pneumonia, what I’m most grateful for is Danger’s health insurance plan… and my fleecy, unreasonably comforting “Danger” hoodie, without which recovery would have been nigh impossible.


I always thought pneumonia was something you got only if you didn’t take proper care of a cold. But as I learned today, you can go from healthy straight to pneumonia. That explains the past week’s worth of fever, cough, and weakness.

Seriously, 2007, you are starting to piss me off.

Censure Dianne Feinstein

For years I have been sending letters to Senator Dianne Feinstein expressing disappointment in one vote of hers or another. She is on the wrong side of many issues.

In the recent past she has outdone herself in coddling the Bush administration. She helped Michael Mukasey become Attorney General — the top law-enforcement officer of the nation — despite his refusal to renounce torture, an illegal practice. And she has voiced her support of “telecom immunity,” which would rescind privacy laws that telecom companies broke, for no reason other than that the burden of defending themselves in the resulting lawsuits is too onerous. (Message: break any laws you want if you can pay later to have it officially overlooked.)

These actions were taken under a serious conflict-of-interest cloud. Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, is a defense contractor whose company has won lucrative no-bid contracts from the Bush administration.

Every time I’ve mailed her an objection, I’ve received a prompt, polite, and discursive response telling me we’ll just have to “agree to disagree.” Enough of that.

So I’ve joined the Courage Campaign’s effort to have the California Democratic Party censure her. Please do the same.

I also plan to send her a small bottle of cheap perfume with the note, “You stink.”

The beginning of wisdom

[This post is participating in Strange Culture’s Film + Faith Blog-a-thon. Warning: spoilers follow for the book and film Contact. Update 16 Dec: this post is also participating in Joel Schlosberg’s second annual Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon.]

I read Carl Sagan‘s novel, Contact, soon after it was published in the late 1980’s, and enjoyed it greatly. It’s the story of a radio astronomer, Ellie Arroway, who is the first person on Earth to detect, verify, and begin deciphering a genuine extraterrestrial message.

A considerable part of the story is devoted to the societal implications of Arroway’s discovery, especially among various religious communities. As it’s depicted in the book, Ellie must suffer various crackpots, blowhards, and garden-variety religious leaders (well-meaning but deluded) spouting their superstitious blather in her quest to secure the resources needed to finish decoding the alien transmission and build the Great Machine.

For the transmission includes, among other things, construction plans for a tremendous and tremendously complicated machine. At its center is a capsule that seats five intrepid adventurers. No one knows what will happen when the machine is switched on. Will the capsule launch into space? Travel through time? Pop into a different dimension? Or is it a weapon that will obliterate the Earth?

The trials involved in achieving the goal of building and activating the Machine are portrayed very much as the power of pure reason overcoming the fetters of fear and ignorance. In the end, Ellie and her fellow travelers are propelled across vast distances and have a surprising encounter with a superior but benevolent race. When they return days later, they discover that no time has elapsed on Earth, leaving a diehard core of doubters free to insist that nothing at all happened, even though there is compelling evidence to support the stories told by Ellie and the others. Science is the clear winner, religion the loser, and it’s pure wish fulfillment: what atheist hasn’t dreamed of winning one of those unwinnable arguments about faith and science against a true believer?

In Robert Zemeckis’ film version of Contact, things are subtly different. Ellie is as much an empiricist as in the book, but man-of-God Palmer Joss is much less easy to dismiss out of hand. His interplay with Ellie on the subject of faith leaves her uncharacteristically at a loss, unable to turn him aside by articulating the bedrock principles of skeptical inquiry.

When the time comes to try the Machine, crucially there is room in it for only one person, so that when Ellie returns from her amazing journey there is no one to corroborate her account. There is also a total absence of physical evidence to support her story. Ellie ends up passionately, desperately trying to persuade people to believe what she is certain is true but cannot prove. Palmer Joss sympathetically points out that this is precisely the situation in which persons of faith find themselves.

It’s a marvelous storytelling contrivance, and the dialogue and performances drive the point home economically and convincingly. But I left the theater conflicted. On the one hand, the film had excellent performances and astonishing visuals, it was exhilarating to see an intelligent, uncliched portrayal of science and scientists in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and it was in many respects faithful to the novel. Where changes were made, by and large they were to add some emotional depth that had been missing from Sagan’s plot- and technology-heavy writing. On the other hand, the rebalancing of science and religion changed what the story was fundamentally about! It offended me that Carl Sagan, recently deceased after a lifetime of science advocacy (today would have been his 73rd birthday, by the way), should have his fantasy about the triumph of humanism and reason watered down for a mass audience!

Over time, though, the film version grew on me and I recognized it as something greater than the source novel: an adventure in which reason triumphs and an exploration of the tangled interrelationship between belief and skepticism. Where I had been hoping to see religious moviegoers get schooled in the virtues of rational thought, instead I had received a lesson about the nuances and complexities of the human experience. The science-beats-religion version of the story had become, to me, overly simplistic. (Sorry, Carl.)

After all, even Mr. Spock admits, near the end of a long career working with humans, that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”


[This post is participating in M.A. Peel’s Comedy Blog-a-thon.]

It may be immodest of me to identify, as my “purest comedic moment,” one that I helped to create. But when I try to think of one that I merely experienced, there are a thousand different ones vying for the top spot. On the other hand, of my own comedy there was a single moment that stands above the rest.

As I mentioned a few months ago, some friends and I won our ninth grade talent show with a comic act called “The Epiphany County Choir.” Wearing plaid flannel shirts, bad haircuts, and dumbfounded expressions, we pretended to be country bumpkins from Nebraska newly arrived in the Big Apple. We sang “When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska” to much laughter and applause.

A short time later, through some connections of Chuck’s as I recall, we got a gig performing our Epiphany County Choir act in front of a studio audience on a local cable-access show. We arrived at the studio early on a Saturday morning excited and nervous, chatted a bit with the station manager, and then were shown onto the stage in front of our audience: a class of 2nd-graders from Harlem.

The show must go on. We gamely performed “Hog Calling Time” in character, but to say our humor was lost on them is giving too much credit to the connotative powers of the word “lost.” We left the stage and huddled in the waiting room with the station manager and the schoolteacher, who registered her displeasure at the choice of entertainment for her charges. She wanted to know if we had anything more age-appropriate to perform for her kids. Chuck, apparently interpreting this to mean “race-appropriate,” indelicately suggested, “We do know the theme song from The Jeffersons.”

Because the world is funny, today Chuck is a professional diplomat.

Embarrassing at the time, that episode is funny in hindsight, and Chuck has gotten his share of ribbing for his gaffe, but that wasn’t my purest comedic moment. Read on.

We reprised our Epiphany County Choir act the following year to reasonable acclaim, with about twenty minutes of new material. The year after that we decided to stage our own hour-long show: “The Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special” (in April).

Feeling we hadn’t sufficiently promoted the show in advance, we stood outside the entrance to our school on show day, lined up in our flannel shirts and in character, repeating the following in unison over and over and over for about forty-five minutes as students arrived for classes: “Come to the Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special, 11:30 in the auditorium for free! Come to the Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special, 11:30 in the auditorium for free! Come to the Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special, 11:30 in the auditorium for free!” You try it, see how long you can keep it up.

The show included a performance of “Silver Bells” on a set of handbells; an Andy-Kaufman-style pantomime to a recording of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music; an a capella rendition of the theme music from The Odd Couple; an audience “sing-along” consisting of nothing but hand-clapping; and more. We were a hit; the crowd loved us.

But the coup de grace was the “Chud game.” Steve set the stage with a few minutes of (intentionally) bad stand-up about Chud, the neighboring county to Epiphany. “They call themselves Chuddites over there,” he told the audience with barely suppressed mirth, “but we just call ’em Chuds!” (Whereupon we in the Choir crack up.) There followed several supposedly disparaging Chud jokes — e.g., “How many Chuds does it take to screw in a light bulb? Fifteen!” — and then our helpers distributed Chud cards to the audience members.

The night before, we had drawn up hundreds of Chud cards by hand. These were Bingo cards, but with four columns apiece, labeled C, H, U, and D. Each card was different, just like real Bingo cards, but they were all rigged to win simultaneously when we called the four prearranged “Chud numbers.” I should mention that this was more than a year before “C.H.U.D.” stood for Cannibalistic, Humanoid Underground Dwellers.

After the Chud cards were distributed, Steve announced that the winner would receive a prize. The prize was beef jerky. A few days earlier, Andrew and I had gone to a snack-food wholesaler to buy enough beef jerky for the whole audience.

I cranked the handle of a genuine Bingo cage we had secured from somewhere, and I handed the chosen numbers to Steve one at a time. Although he made a big show of trying to read the numbers off the balls, of course he didn’t actually; instead he announced the numbers we had arranged the night before. “C-8!” “U-32!” “D-49!” By the third number it was obvious to the audience what we were up to and they began laughing and clamoring. Steve threw an unrehearsed curveball, announcing a number we hadn’t planned, and I was momentarily furious with him, worried that someone might prematurely win the game — but no, he succeeded in building a little suspense.

When he finally announced, “H-18!” the entire audience jumped to its feet and roared, “CHUD!” in unison. Somewhere there is video footage of me, Steve, and the others in the Choir with perfectly astonished looks on our faces as the crowd dissolved into screaming laughter. (We never could have pulled it off without cracking up ourselves if we hadn’t stayed awake the entire night before, preparing the show and rehearsing, making ourselves weary and slightly sick from too much beef jerky.) In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined causing such merriment or producing such a response. It was my purest comedic moment.