Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One came out years ago - 2011 - and I've long wanted to read it.  Not too long after it came out I picked up the book, the real kind with pages, not the Kindle version I usually read these days, and it has been sitting in my house for years, including through two moves across the country.  Still in perfect shape.  There's a movie coming out next year that's based on the book, and me being me I wanted to read it before the movie came out.  But that wasn't what ultimately got me off of (or rather forced me to sit on) my duff and read the book.  Rather, I had just finished reading Version Control by Dexter Palmer, a slightly mind bending exploration set in the future about the nature of reality and spacetime.  And I really liked that book.  All of a sudden I heard Ready Player One calling my name, beckoning me into its own version of the future, with its attendant lookback into the 80's culture I was steeped in as a teenager.

The book opens in Oklahoma City, where our hero, Wade Watts, is living in what is known as "the stacks".  We quickly find out that the stacks are towers of mobile homes "stacked" on top of each other, held up by scaffolding and platforms that provide access to each trailer, which essentially is a "floor".  The stacks serve as a symbol for the widespread and systemic decay that has hit the United States, where fuel and energy are incredibly scarce, jobs are few and far between, and infrastructure is crumbling.  Wade's only escape is into a fantastical immersive virtual reality simulation, known as the OASIS, coded by one James Halliday.  The OASIS consists of worlds, starships, realms, you name it - all populated by anyone having access to the tools needed to enter into it - essentially a VR visor and sensory gloves.  A user of the OASIS creates an avatar, and Wade names his "Parzival".  Wade even attends school in the OASIS, where he logs in from his hideout in an abandoned van in a junkyard.  Wade has no friends in reality, and only one friend in the OASIS.

When James Halliday dies, he leaves behind a will that creates a contest - a contest that is essentially a treasure hunt through the OASIS in which the contestants are looking for an "egg".  The one who finds the egg will inherit Halliday's fortune.  The thing about the contest is James Halliday was also an obsessive 80's culture geek, and the contest as you might expect requires a good deal of knowledge about the 80's (Fun!).  And Wade, growing up, made it his business to study James Halliday, and becomes obsessed with finding the egg as a way out of his meager circumstances, along with hordes of other egg hunters called "gunters".  As you might expect, bad guys are also interested in Halliday's fortune, including the corporate behemoth known as IOI.

The contest quickly becomes an interesting play on the nature of relationships in the virtual world and the meaning of those relationships - including Parzival's relationship with "Art3mis", the book's heroine, other friends he meets along the way, and the interaction with the bad guys through the story.  These relationships and interplay make the Ready Player One highly entertaining and a quick read.  I also very much enjoyed the 80's geekiness throughout the book (maybe you won't but I absolutely loved it).

If you would like a combo of action, sci fi, fantasy, and a healthy dollop of 80's game and movie culture thrown in, I would highly recommend this book. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Coldplay at the Rose Bowl!

Gorgeous night at the Rose Bowl - Coldplay put on a fun and energetic show.  Opening act was Tove Lo, who wound up sitting a few seats down from us once Coldplay went on stage!  More pictures after the jump.

View of the main stage, full moon visible at top of picture

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

In The Name Of Civility

I'm simply at a loss these last couple of days.  I feel like our fragile bond of civility is careening towards a cliff, intentionally being driven there by both public and private actors, accelerating faster with each month.  The tragic shooting in Las Vegas is simultaneously one of disbelief, sadness and outrage.  It is not just disturbing in its scope, terror and senselessness - it feels like it is part of a broader pattern of collective madness that has gripped our country, coupled with a sense of powerlessness to do anything about it.

I struggle with the fact that Congress is poised to pass a bill actually loosening restrictions on gun silencers and the sale of armor piercing bullets.

I struggle with the reactionary anger over NFL players protesting - peacefully - the epidemic of violence and incarceration in our justice system that is impacting African American communities.   The protest is about civil rights, not vets, the military, the flag, or the anthem (although you may not know that there is a verse of the Star Spangled Banner that celebrated the capture and killing of slaves.  If you don't believe me the full text is here).

I struggle with the fact that the President threw paper towels at hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, told the mayor of San Juan that the people of Puerto Rico are not doing enough to help themselves, suggested that hurricane Maria was not a real disaster like Katrina. 

I struggle with the fact that 9 million children just lost healthcare as Congress let CHIP - the Children’s Health Insurance Program - expire.  CHIP provides funding to provide insurance to children, reducing the uninsured rate of kids to 5%.   A bipartisan approach was generally agreed upon until the last GOP push to kill the ACA got in the way and failed, which derailed the CHIP renewal.

I struggle with the Commander in Chief undercutting his own Secretary of State’s efforts to diffuse the situation with North Korea.  This guy wants a war.

I struggle with Trump and the GOP trying to push through tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest Americans, including the Trump family.

I struggle with Trump referencing some of the white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville as "very fine people".

I struggle with the fact that I didn't even know we had U.S. Special Forces in Niger until we just found out three of them were killed.

I struggle with the knowledge that the Trump campaign may have assisted the Russians in targeting of Facebook ads in key swing districts.

I could go on.  Bill O'Reilly called the Las Vegas shootings the "price of freedom".  No really, he said it.  The White House said "now is not the time" to have a gun debate. 

Are we really powerless to stop this madness?  Madmen gain power when we feel powerless.  But it doesn't have to be this way.  Yes, Donald Trump sits in the highest office in the land.  But he is still a small, insecure bully who thrives off of fear and division.  When we begin to listen to each other, respect each other, care for each other, when we can see each other - we can begin to heal ourselves and our civility.  Donald Trump and the nationalistic crazies only have as much power as we are willing to give them. 

John F. Kennedy said "Those who make peaceful revolution possible will make violent revolution inevitable".  Let us begin our peaceful revolution, one based in love of our fellow human beings.  As Americans, it is our duty to uphold the ideals that, while we have traveled a long way towards reaching, still require us to reach ever further to fulfill.  Let us, We the People, form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, fulfill the promise of the Constitution for the United States of America.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The real meaning of "heritage"

Josh Marshall gives some very good context for the "heritage" of the statue of Robert E. Lee the white supremacist march in Charlottesville was trying to save. These are bad people. They came ready to fight with guns, shields, knives and a philosophy of segregation and racial supremacy. Anyone willing to drive a car into a crowd of people is no better than ISIS planting a car bomb in a crowd of people. Addtionally, David Duke and others praising Trump's response in the aftermath of Charlottesville speaks for itself. There is no ambiguity here - we have a president supported by white supremacists, and his base is more energized than ever. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

All Politics is Local - the GOP purge of voting rolls continues

The fundamental premise of a democratic (representive democracy?) form of governance is the right to vote.  I've long been frustrated as to why this nation doesn't celebrate voting in any formal manner.  Such as making Election Day a national holiday.  That would be great, wouldn't it?  Ballots. BBQ and beer!!  And not necessarily in that order.  Yes, I know not everyone gets a federal holiday off.  And it may not be a pancea for voter turnout in all areas.  But making it easier to vote and celebrating the franchise so many have fought for seems like a good idea right? 

Turns out Ohio and the Feds have a the opposite idea - Ohio is kicking folks off the voting rolls if someone hasn't voted in six years, and the Feds, reversing course from the Obama administration, are backing the Ohio effort.   2 million voters have been purged from the Ohio rolls between 2011 and 2016.  To top it off, if you have been removed, you have to re-register 30 days before the next election.  So if the election is coming up and you find out you've been booted off the rolls, if you're within a month of the election you can't vote.

Justification for this and other efforts to restrict ease and access for voting comes in the myth of "widespread voter fraud".  There's no evidence that voter fraud on any scale exists.  In fact, there's more evidence that our elections were tampered with by a hostile foriegn government, not some mythical horde of non-citizen voters.  So why would someone go through the trouble of making it harder to vote?

This is not a new dilemma.  Our history has been one of voter supression since the very beginnings of our nation.  Lest we forget, "We the People" of the original Constitution actually meant that white, male, property owning people had the right to vote.  Heck, New Jersey actually took the vote away from women in 1807 - property holding women had the right to vote in NJ between 1776-1807.  The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude".   However, it wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that people of color truly had a chance at exercising the franchise that should be available to all citizens.    The 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, guaranteed women the right to vote.  Prior to that, half the population, regardless of any kind of socioeconomic status, was automatically denied the right to vote.

We are stronger as a nation when we all have a say in its future.   The social conract of a democracy requires buy-in from the people -- our country was founded in no large measure due to the lack of proper representation in Parliament ("Taxation without representation is tyranny").  Measures that make it harder to vote, or kicking voters off the rolls is fundamentally un-American, and contrary to the stated premise (actual practice notwithstanding) of the American Revolution.

This is why the 2018 electios across the board - local, state and federal - are so important.  Voting policies are set at the state and county level, not the federal level.  However federal officials are critical to oversight and enforcement of civil rights protections.  We must remain vigilant and support candidates comitted to each and every citizen's right to vote.  Without this, the idea of Democrats and Republicans just don't matter.  We are all Americans first and party members second.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Lost in the noise - the Senate is close to repealing Obamacare

If you haven't noticed by now the Senate is trying to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a "Obamacare") that looks a lot like the House bill that passed - which is estimated to kick 23 million people off of insurance if enacted.

Let's not forget there are a lot of people who thought "Hey, the Senate just won't pass a bill like that".  I know more than a few of them.  However, the GOP is trying to use a "budget reconciliaton" maneuver that would only require 50 votes plus Pence, and avoid a filibuster avoiding 60 votes.  The Senate parlimentarian has not yet ruled on the merits of this maneuver.  The thing is, the GOP is scary close to passing it if it can use reconciliation.  The Times has a good overview of what the bill is all about, as does NPR.  Here's just a few highlights of what happens under the bill:

  • Medicaid funding is dramatically reduced, and not just for states that expanded coverage.  Almost 40% of all U.S. children are currently covered by Medicaid, and 76% of poor children rely on it.   Half of all births are covered by Medicaid, and 40% of poor adults rely on it.
  • Repeals low-income subsidies to help pay for health care, including for premiums and deductibles.
  • Pre-existing conditions would likely be impacted.  States could apply to waive mandatory coverage requirements, like maternity benefits, prescription drugs or addiction treatment.  This means some items that would otherwise be subject to the "can't deny insurance for pre-existing condition" rule might simply just not be covered by insurance.
  • Medicare would no longer be required to cover mental health.  
  • Insurers could charge older Americans 5 times more than younger ones.
  • Planned Parenthood would be blocked from being reimbursed, even for routine health care.
  • Repeal of Obamacare taxes on incomes over $200k, as well as taxes on medical devices, prescription drugs and indoor tanning.  These taxes were in part used to help fund the expansion of Medicaid, a huge factor in driving down the number of uninsured Americans.
There's more - I haven't even gotten into what happens to the ban on lifetime coverage caps, the impact to people with disabilities, people in nursing homes, and so on.  Read the Times article and the NPR article for a full picture.  

You don't need a CBO score to know that lots of people will lose insurance under this bill, and it is the most poor and vulnerable who get hit the hardest, with higher income earners getting tax cuts and increases in ability to put money into HSAs.  And it's just a mean, selfish bill.

Here's a rundown of where each GOP Senator stands on the bill.  Let's make our voices heard in opposition to this terrible bill, and let's support single payer in California.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Permanence of Hope

The Permanence of Hope

There was a day
When we held each other up
And shared the value of civility
Reaching out to each other
Regardless of belief and faith

There was also a day
When we held each other down
In a way not so civil
Fraying the bonds to each other
Based on belief and faith

Our shared history
Has moved us between both days
Fighting for and against freedom
In the name of the same Nation

And yet the permanence of hope
Has led us down the path of progress
On more days than not
Where we find
Air and simple gifts
Build our shared values

We again face the choice

We hold these truths to be self evident

May 25, 2017

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Thoughts on Health Care

I’ve been giving some thought to the defeat of the GOP plan to overturn the Affordable Care Act.   And it is interesting – I am most definitely happy that that effort failed in the House this week.   But I don’t really feel a sense of joy, rather relief for now.  Because the defeat really happened for an odd reason – some portions of the bill were so malicious – pulling the requirements for coverage of pre-natal care, emergency care, penalizing customers a 30% premium for switching insurance companies - among others – that certain congressional Republicans could not stomach voting for the bill.  But as widely noted, the Republican “Freedom Caucus” thought it didn’t pull enough benefits.  Think about that for a moment.   A sizable chunk of these guys didn’t think it went far enough.  Had they thought “we’ll take this and fight for more repeals on the next major bill that needs to pass” then the country would be on the path to deconstructing the ACA, which helps tens of millions of people.    So that’s still a little scary.

Oddly enough I would guess – it’s hard to know – but I would venture to agree with the speculation that Trump doesn’t want to deal with health care anymore and wants to move on.  My hope anyway is that Trump is of the mindset of “I gave you your chance and you blew it, so I’m moving onto stuff that I care about.”  In that sense to me that there’s a good shot Obamacare lasts through the midterm elections.  As it should.

Keep speaking out on what's important.  Sometimes it makes a difference.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Don't miss what's behind the all the Trump noise

I probably don't have to cite all the sturm und drang surrounding all of Trump's tweets, executive orders, disenfranchising speech, attacks on the media, and his general sucking all of the air out of the room of public debate.  But we also can't take our eye off the ball about what the current GOP controlled Congress may be doing behind the curtain of all the noise.  You may already know that The Trump administration repealed an EPA rule requiring coal mining companies to clean up water polluted by mountain top mining, or that it repealed an SEC rule requiring oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.  Or that it plans to gut EPA rules regulating CO2 emissions.

What you may not yet know about is the introduction of H.R. bill 610, which would repeal a bedrock Federal educational law - the ESEA act of 1965, which among other things, establishes programs for special needs learners, AP classes, ESL classes, funding for low income schools, among other things - and replaces it in its entirety with block grants to states for voucher programs.  Additionally, the bill voids nutritional requirements for meals provided to children in schools.  

Here's the section on repeal of the 1965 ESEA act - the enitre thing is repealed in one sentence:

SEC. 102. Repeal of Elementary and Secondary Education Act and limitation on secretarial authority.
(a) Repeal.—The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 6301 et seq.) is repealed.
(b) Limitation on secretarial authority.—The authority of the Secretary under this title is limited to evaluating State applications under section 104 and making payments to States under section 103. The Secretary shall not impose any further requirements on States with respect to elementary and secondary education beyond the requirements of this title.
Next the bill takes whatever funding was allocated under ESEA and block grants it to states for voucher programs.  Any payments not made to states from existing appropriations go to deficit reduction.  Here's the relevant section:

SEC. 103. Block grants to states.
(a) Grants to states.—From amounts appropriated to carry out this title for a fiscal year, the Secretary shall award grants (from allotments made under subsection (b)) to qualified States to enable such States to carry out an education voucher program under section 105.
(d) Deficit reduction.—Any amounts remaining after allotments are made under subsection (c) for a fiscal year shall not be available for any purpose other than deficit reduction.
Section 105 essentially sets up the authority to block grant funds to states.  You can read the text of 105 (and the rest of the bill, it's pretty short) here.

Here's the text voiding nutritional requirements - they actually have the audacity to call it the "No Hungry Kids Act":

SEC. 201. Short title.
This title may be cited as the “No Hungry Kids Act”.
SEC. 202. Repeal of rule.
The rule prescribed by the Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture relating to nutrition standards in the national school lunch and school breakfast programs published on January 26, 2012 (77 Fed. Reg. 4088 et seq.), and revising parts 210 and 220 of title 7, Code of Federal Regulations, shall have no force or effect.
Whatever you think of the efficacy of these programs, a LOT of kids are impacted by and benefit from ESEA, and this is the kind of thing that should be debated in public.   I do have mixed feelings about educational requirments being uniformly imposed by Washington, D.C., but just blindly granting states Federal taxpayer money to do with as they wish - with no minimal requirements, no assurances for special needs children, no provisions for low income families, etc. - seems like poor policy.  Indeed, with 33 Republican governors and 32 state legislatures controlled by Republicans, it's not a stretch to think that a good amount of taxpayer funds will go to subsdize private, for-profit educational institutions, with much less accountability than public ones.

We need to keep our eye on the ball with all of the craziness hitting our public discourse. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Trump's Toxic Politics

Another personal story exemplifying the toxic atmosphere Trump’s politics have created in this country – I have received permission to identify this person relaying this story to me. Today, my friend and colleague at CBS, Joanna Fenton, boarded a crowded B train headed towards Brighton Beach, at 7:00 p.m. She sat next to a woman wearing a hijab, as well as a young man. All three have dark skin. The woman with the hijab was sitting in the seat closest to the door of the train.

At Atlantic Avenue, a white man with what seemed to be a Russian accent boarded the train which at this point, as is usual for this time, was very crowded. He elbowed his way to the space where Joanna and her seat-mates were, and shoved his elbow into the head of the woman wearing the hijab.

The woman said to the man, “Your elbow is in my temple”.

The man said “So what?”

Joanna and the young man told the Russian sounding man “Excuse me?"

The Russian sounding man said “Trump was right – you are all animals! You need to go back to where you came from!! No one wants you here!”

The young man tried to get up to confront the Russian sounding man – but Joanna and the woman wearing the hijab held him back, fearful for his safety. Seeing this, the Russian sounding man said “Trump is president, I can do what I want!!” And proceeded to continue to insult them through the train ride. Not one person – on a very crowded train – said anything.

The woman who was wearing the hijab told Joanna that she deals with this type of behavior on a daily basis, and that her sisters have given up wearing their hijabs due to their experiencing continued harassment. She told Joanna that she was born in Brooklyn and is a lifelong New Yorker. All three – Joanna, the young man and the woman are American citizens.

Joanna got off the train at Newkirk Avenue, and the young man moved to sit in-between the Russian sounding man and the woman wearing the hijab as the woman was fearful for her safety.

Joanna called me at 8:15 p.m. tonight her time – 5:15 p.m. my time, and I have never heard her so upset. She was angry, fearful, in tears and told me “I had not thought this would happen to or around me, and also thought that if it did happen, that it wouldn’t hurt as bad as it does. This is America, we are citizens, and – this is New York!! Supposedly one of the most liberal places in America!! I didn’t know it would hurt so much.”

I have relayed this story as Joanna has told it to me. She and I trust each other on a daily basis where team members have to deeply trust and rely on each other to get our jobs done. This is why I am telling you this story – the scariest part for me was not just what happened, but that no one on the train stepped up and came to their defense.

Dr. Martin Luther King said "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy".

Where do we stand at this time of challenge and controversy? Where do you stand?