Uncle Mack Acts Up

We’ve all missed the postings from Uncle Mack on the family blog lately, but now I’ve learned there’s a reason:  he’s been acting in films written, directed, and edited by Carl Kotheimer, a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The first piece is called Grief, and appears above.  The second piece, called Desert Places, appears below.  A trilogy is planned, so I’m looking forward to seeing the third and concluding part of the story.  And for those of you looking for a little inside knowledge, I can tell you that the wedding photo that is featured in Grief was, in fact, taken on Aunt Corinne and Uncle Mack’s wedding day.

I’m biased, but I think my Uncle is pretty darned good in these two short films.  Of course, the fact that he is playing a grumpy old man probably helped.

Well done, Uncle Mack!  Well done, indeed!

ETA:  Uncle Mack requested that I take the links to the films down because the director has entered the film in a contest and the films can’t be published anywhere else in order to be eligible for the contest.  So, if you haven’t seen the films, you’ll have to take my word for it on Uncle Mack’s acting talents and wait until the contest is over.  If we get clearance to do so, we’ll post them again.

The Detroit Dilemma

Detroit is a mess — financially, socially, and otherwise.  It has filed for bankruptcy in what is the biggest municipal bankruptcy in history.

Detroit owes billions of dollars.  Its listing of creditors in its bankruptcy case is more 3,500 pages long.  Among other debts, it has huge, unfunded pension obligations to active and retired public workers.  In its bankruptcy Detroit will attempt to obtain significant cuts in those obligations.  Today, in an effort to forestall such cuts, Detroit’s two public employee pension funds are expected to file objections to the bankruptcy, arguing that the bankruptcy proceedings and the attempts to cut pension obligations violate the Michigan Constitution.  The city’s condition is so dire that it has hired Christie’s, the auction house, to value the city-owned items in the Detroit Institute of Art and advise the city on how it could “realize value” from those items.

Much of the focus has been on how Detroit got to its current state.  There is value in that process, because understanding the bad decisions and mismanagement — as well as the failure to recognize the impact of broad economic trends such as the departure of manufacturing jobs — may help other cities to avoid Detroit’s fate.  But it is equally important to think carefully about what happens now, and how America should handle the Detroits of the future.

At present, there doesn’t seem to be any appetite in Congress or in the Obama Administration for using federal money to bail out Detroit.  That’s a relief.  The prevailing view about Detroit may mean that we have moved beyond the notion of bailing out mismanaged entities, be they private or public.  (Speaking of prevailing views, advocates of governmental thrift will grind their teeth when they read the article linked in this paragraph, in which a spokesman for Detroit laments the city’s prior failure to take advantage of federal funds, which he describes as “free money.”  It wasn’t “free” to taxpayers, but local and state governments have long looked at the federal government as an endless source of money.)

It’s important that we set the right precedent with Detroit — because there will be other municipal bankruptcies, and with the massive unfunded public pension and health care obligations in states like California and Illinois, there could well be state bankruptcies, too.  I think the President and Congress are right to resist calls to bail out Detroit, and should similarly resist the the temptation to assume the obligations of badly managed states.  In the meantime, we can hope that the failure to bail out Detroit will cause mayors and governors of other troubled governmental bodies to get serious about getting their fiscal houses in order.

College Changes, College Stays The Same

IMG_4785Yesterday I attended an excellent “On The Road” presentation by the Ohioana Library Association.  It focused on the history of the Ohio State University and included a trip to the recently renovated William Oxley Thompson Library at the apex of the Oval in the heart of the OSU campus.

Our visit coincided with move-in day for students.  When I looked into the beautiful reading room at the library, pictured above, I was surprised to see a number of students reading and working, even though classes have not begun.  Wow, I thought — college really has changed a lot since I got my degree so long ago.

Then we got back onto our bus and drove back to Ohioana, and on the way we passed some off-campus housing where three shirtless guys — one of whom nevertheless wore a tie — were drinking beer in front of a hand-painted bedsheet sign that read “Daughter Drop-Off.”  A block or so later we passed a big keg party featured people dancing on the roof of a porch.  So . . . maybe college hasn’t changed that much after all.

A plug for the Ohioana On The Road programs:  they’re great.  You can get more information about them here.

Our Law-Breaking Government

An “internal audit” by the National Security Agency — one of the documents leaked to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden — shows many breaches of legal authority or privacy rules by the agency and reveals that the agency engaged in unauthorized surveillance of Americans and activities within America.

According to the Post article, the NSA “audit” indicates that there were 2776 such incidents in the 12 months preceding May 2012.  That number, however, is just the tip of the iceberg because the “audit” counts only incidents at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other ­facilities in the Washington area, and does not examine other NSA operating units and regional collection centers.

I’m not going to try to summarize the Post article here; it includes a lot of detail and a lot of attempted explanation and should be read by anyone who cares about privacy issues and how our government deals with them.  It appears, however, that the NSA is a world unto itself.  The special court, and the congressional committees that are supposed to provide oversight, don’t have either the resources, the access, or the interest to really police and control the NSA’s activities.  The Obama Administration’s willingness to immediately disclaim knowledge of the improper activities of government agencies that are supposed to be under its control also doesn’t give any comfort that the executive branch will vigorously protect the privacy rights of Americans.

If the NSA really is the proverbial black box, with its activities wholly hidden from view in the name of national security and governmental secrecy, why should we trust a so-called “audit” that the NSA itself has prepared?  Why should we believe its count of breaches, or its categorization of breaches, or its depiction of breaches as inadvertent?  More fundamentally, why should we believe that the NSA would hesitate to collect information about Americans if it thought it might be useful to do so?  When no one is guarding the hen house, the fox doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the niceties of its conduct.

Urban Decay, Urban Art

IMG_4789I was up at the Ohioana Library for an excellent Ohioana On The Road today, and as I was leaving I noticed a complex of apparently abandoned industrial buildings that I’d never really noticed before.  No doubt the neighbors see the buildings as a scene of urban blight, and the weeds and broken bottles and debris substantiate that view.  Seeing it with the eyes of a visitor, however, I thought the combination of the weathered exterior, the fading pastel colors, the rust, and the checkerboard effect of the boarded-over windows also gave the buildings a certain beauty.

Losing The Pyramids And The Sphinx

Egypt is the latest Middle Eastern country teetering on the brink of chaos.  Each day brings fresh reports of battles between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and dozens of new deaths on the streets of Cairo.

I can’t fully appreciate the religious, political, and social issues that are playing out in Egypt.  I can understand, however, what a loss it is for the world that Egypt has become a place that is not safe to visit.  It means that many people will never see the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, or the other relics of the ancient Egyptian civilization along the Nile.

That loss is a terrible tragedy.  The Sphinx, the pyramids, and the temples of the pharaonic era are the greatest surviving sites of our ancient past.  They are not merely historical sites, but a tangible link to the early development of human culture.  Their very existence shows what our forebears were capable of, even if we don’t quite understand how they were built thousands of years ago.  Their immense age, and their equally immense significance, are the reasons why standing in their presence on the Giza plain is such an awesome experience, and why so many people, myself included, have long dreamed of making the journey to Egypt to have that experience some day.

But not now.  Although the pull of the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings is enormous, it is not irresistible — not when a visit puts you at risk of finding yourself in a mob of angry, screaming men or confronting soldiers ready to fire at any moment.  That means, for me at least, that the pyramids and Sphinx are lost for now, and I don’t know when, or even if, they will ever be safe to visit in my lifetime.  That reality makes me very sad.

Hangin’ At The Columbus Food Truck Festival

IMG_1353Food truck aficionados, take note!  Today and tomorrow, from noon to 10 p.m., you can sample the wares of dozens of food trucks — and enjoy some beer and good music and browse through local craft tents, besides — down at the Columbus Commons.  It’s the weekend of the Columbus Food Truck Festival, and there’s a broad range of trucks operated by some of the passionate folks who are making Columbus’ food truck culture one of the city’s greatest features.

When I visited the Festival tonight, the crowd was just starting to roll in.  I got the sense that we disturbed a woman in a bikini who, amazingly, was sunbathing in the middle of one of the lawns.  Really?  Sunbathing in the middle of a civic event?  Weird, perhaps . . . but it just seemed to make the Festival a bit more quirky, and that’s not a bad thing.

I love the development of community events, like the Food Truck Festival, that you can now find almost every weekend in Columbus if you’re inclined to get out with your neighbors and friends.  It helps to make Columbus an even better place to live.  Stop by and nosh if you have a chance.

To-Do Lists And The March Of Civilization

My lovely wife keeps a to-do list.  It’s several pages of single-spaced, detailed information about the duties ahead, designed to keep her on task and fully aware of all impending appointments.

IMG_4782Most of us keep to-do lists, of one sort or another.  We need them and, well, we like them.  We enjoy writing things down and then crossing them off with a flourish, and feeling a surge of accomplishment as we do so.  We also know that if we don’t keep track of this stuff in our complicated worlds, we’ll forget something important.  So, we walk a fine line between trying to account for all of our duties and obligations without ending up with a list so long that it sends us into a spiral of soul-crushing despair.  It’s also important to distinguish between what is immediately achievable, and therefore suitable for a to-do list, and what is not.

“Lose 30 pounds” isn’t really a proper to-do list item.

As our species moved beyond hunter-gatherer status into settlements, the need for reminders became apparent.  I suspect that writing was develop precisely so that early humans could prepare the first crude to-do list.  Somewhere in the Valley of Kings, waiting to be unearthed by archaeologists, are clay jars of papyrus to-do lists for the Pharoah Ramses II prepared by ancient Egyptian scribes.  The hapless citizens of Pompeii likely were buried by volcanic ash because the Roman who was supposed to be watching Mount Vesuvius was preoccupied with preparing a to-do list instead.

As the world has become more technological, to-do lists have become more advanced and have proliferated.  In the ’80s and ’90s, the hyper-organized among us became addicted to using Franklin day planners to chart and control their activities.  Then, with the advent of personal computers, and Google calendar and electronic task lists, to-do lists moved into the digital realm.  Now they also appear on our smart phones, using gentle chimes or marimba music and flashing messages to remind us of impending meetings.  Soon, I expect, Apple will develop an Apple Nagger app that will remind us, in increasingly insistent fashion, that we have just got to do something.

I ask you:  how many of us have to-do lists that begin with a statement like “Check to-do list”?

Pepsi-Flavored Cheetos?

Apparently some people really relish the combination of Cheetos and Pepsi — so much so that the Frito-Lay Company is selling Pepsi-flavored Cheetos in Japan, and eventually could bring that combination to America.

It doesn’t sound very enticing to me, but I’m not partial to the taste of Pepsi.  According to the Los Angeles Times article linked above, the new product replaces the overpowering cheesiness of Cheetos with a Pepsi flavor instead.  In addition, some reviewers are saying that the taste goes overboard with the citrus element of Pepsi.

If that description is accurate, I think this new product misses the point.  Although I don’t eat Cheetos or similar “snack foods” anymore — my 56-year-old constitution is no longer capable of quickly breaking down such items, and instead simply and irrevocably deposits them on my waistline in the form of immutable belly fat — my recollection is that part of the pleasure of the Cheetos-Coke combination was first savoring the over-the-top cheesiness, then having that cut by the cola taste, and finally letting the cola soak into the Cheetos until you could smush the individual Cheetos nugget between your tongue and the roof of your mouth, allowing the cheese and cola combination to come flooding out.

In short, there was a sequencing of flavors issue, a texture issue, a combination of flavors issue, and then a tactile sensation issue, all rolled into proper consumption of Cheetos and a cola.  Just replacing the cheese flavor with a Pepsi flavor wouldn’t come close to replicating the real experience.  For that reason, I predict Pepsi-flavored Cheetos will end up in the great scrap heap of failed new products.

Marriage And Money

How much of a successful marriage is attributable to what money can buy?  Do good marriages now carry a price tag that working class Americans cannot afford?

Those are some of the questions explored in a scholarly paper that looks at work and marriage in working class and middle class families.  A Slate article on the paper contrasts the stories of two families.  A Mom in Ohio works at a minimum wage job and has had two failed marriages, one to a man who left and another to a man who beat her; her 20-year-old daughter also has had an abusive relationship and is now dating a guy in jail.  Neither wants to get married soon.  The middle-class family in the Pacific northwest, on the other hand, can afford weekends at a vacation cabin, annual travel, and building a barn and buying a horse for their daughter who had begun “acting out” and then enrolling her in a private school involving horses.

The paper, Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape, is based on interviews and surveys of more than 300 Americans.  It focuses on job stability and security.  Secure middle-class couples can afford luxury items like vacations and gym memberships that keep their marriages viable, whereas working class people who don’t have stable sources of income are more concerned with keeping a job and their own survival than with providing materially and socially for others.

I have no doubt that economic uncertainty and loss of a job can provide additional stress that can turn a rocky marriage into a divorce.  The two stories in the Slate article, however, also suggest that other, more important factors can come into play.  Marriages simply don’t last when one spouse is physically abusive, no matter how many horses a couple can afford.  Men who can’t make a long-term commitment aren’t going to make good husbands, regardless of socioeconomic class.  Dating guys who are in jail probably isn’t a good recipe for a stable and satisfying married life.  Serial philanderers, people with emotional problems, and others who are ill-suited for marriage similarly are found at all income levels.

There’s something a bit off-putting, too, in the implicit suggestion that successful marriages are primarily about money, rather than love and compatibility.  Depicting marriage as primarily an economic arrangement that people will endure because it allows them to take nice vacations inevitably discounts the essential emotional component of a strong marriage.

Sometimes marriages end in divorce because people grow apart over time; sometimes they fail because people just exercised poor judgment in getting married to people who weren’t suitable in the first place.  Money woes and job concerns may be a factor in some instances, but I think successful marriages are about a lot more than what is in the bank account.

Hood Ornament In The Sky

IMG_1340Interesting cloud formations on the ride home from work tonight.  The wind and cooler than normal temperatures made the sky into a kind of blue and white artist’s canvas that included this perfectly flat creation that looked like a hood ornament from a ’50s car.  It would have been a perfect day for a favorite childhood pastime — flat on your back on the cool grass, friends at your side, watching the clouds spin past.

Searching For A Scientific Explanation Of Near-Death Experiences

If you’ve ever heard someone recount a near-death experience, you know it can be chilling.  They speak with absolute conviction about the sensation of rising out of their body, seeing their surroundings from above, and then moving rapidly to a bright yet soothing light — among other common themes.

IMG_0770Is there a scientific explanation for the fact that so many people who have gone to the brink have the same perceptions?  This week researchers reported on studies of rats that showed a huge surge in brain activity after the heart stops beating.  The study found a spike in high frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations, to even higher levels than exist in alive, awake rats.  The brain activity was consistent with perception of visual activity, conscious processing, and heightened communication among different parts of the brain.  Then, of course, the rats die and brain activity ceases.

The study has provoked a lot of speculation about whether the rat experience is replicated in humans, and whether it could explain the vivid encounters reported by those who have had a close brush with death.  The theory is that the surge in brain activity after the oxygen flow stops produces the sharp visual sensations and altered sense of time that are reported by many survivors.  As the Washington Post reports, however, there is skepticism and dispute within the scientific community about whether the rat study can tell us much about the human experience and can explain the uncanny similarity of the experiences reported by people of different cultures and religious faiths.

We know that there are many people who have had a near-death experience and who believe that what they saw and felt was real, deeply meaningful, and had an intensely spiritual, even cosmic significance.  Entire websites are devoted to discussing such experiences and large conventions are held so that survivors can share their perceptions.  Many people, including those who have just lost a loved one, find great comfort in hearing about these experiences.

What really happens when we die?  It is the eternal question, and one that science probably cannot answer. We’ll just have to find out when it happens to us.

Taking The “Affordable” Out Of The Affordable Care Act

This week, enterprising journalists discovered that the Obama Administration has delayed another key provision of the Affordable Care Act.

In this instance, the delay affects one of the core selling points of the Act — the provision that capped the total amount of out-of-pocket expenses, in the form of deductibles and co-payments and other contributions by the insured toward health care.  It was supposed to take effect in 2014, but the newly discovered ruling gives insurers a one-year extension.

The delay wasn’t exactly announced in a way that befits an Administration that President Obama recently described as “the most transparent Administration in history.”   The New York Times article linked above describes the relevant ruling as follows:  “The grace period has been outlined on the Labor Department’s Web site since February, but was obscured in a maze of legal and bureaucratic language that went largely unnoticed. When asked in recent days about the language — which appeared as an answer to one of 137 “frequently asked questions about Affordable Care Act implementation” — department officials confirmed the policy.”  I guess “transparency” means burying the bad news in an avalanche of regulatory drivel and minutiae, rather than being honest about the many delays and snags that have affected legislation that was passed three years ago amidst confident predictions about its implementation, enforceability, and impact.

And speaking of impact, Forbes has a very interesting article about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on, well, getting affordable care.  It discusses the inevitable effect of caps on out-of-pocket expenses like co-payments and deductibles.  Because they don’t have anything to do with the cost of health care, that just means more of the cost will be paid through premiums imposed on everyone, rather than through contributions by the users (and, often, overusers) of health care.  The article notes that some colleges that used to offer cheap plans to their healthy students have had to drastically increase the premiums and other schools have stopped offering health care plans altogether.

Of course, the whole notion of burden-sharing underlying the Act means that some people will pay more — the question is, how many people, and how much more?  What we’ve seen of the Affordable Care Act so far doesn’t instill great confidence that we know the answers to those two important questions.