The Healthcare Debate

The healthcare legislation that has been working its way through Congress over the past year has finally been passed in the House, and will likely be signed into law later on this week by President Obama, mandating Healthcare for the general public and generating some of the most intense debate that I've ever seen when it comes to politics. I have mixed feelings about the bill. On one hand, people will be mandated to carry private health insurance, and will require health insurance companies to carry people, restricting how they can drop people from insurance (no more people dropped due to preexisting conditions, etc) and allows the states to set up markets for people. It'll provide some subsidies for people at a certain income bracket, and will help to pay for itself through fees and a couple additional taxes.

On the other hand, this is a system that is most likely unprepared for the sudden influx of 32 million people, on the part of the hospitals to insurance companies. It's most likely going to cost a bit of money in unexpected places (even though it's supposed to reduce the deficit by quite a bit) and is causing a lot of worry from some people about how it will affect small businesses and gives something for the paranoid anti-governmental cranks to yell at.

With that in mind, I think that this is most likely going to be a largely positive move for the country to go to. Numerous other developed worlds have put into place such a system, and while it's been longstanding desire on the part of many a politician, it's never been enacted until now. This is major, for the public, and its being hailed as the next step of civil rights. To be very honest, I don't know if it is or not, or what will happen next, but I am happy that the entire mess is over for now.

Moreover, it's huge win for the Democratic Party. Despite enormous and united efforts on the part of the Republican Party, the bill was still passed. The President's major legislative goal, promised in his campaign, has since been fulfilled, and represents a concrete example of what the party has done. Interestingly, the bill has been designed to be put into place gradually - some things, such as the more popular ban on dropping for pre-existing conditions, allowing college students to remain on their parent's insurance, and so forth, allowing people to see the changes in action, which will likely help to stem a lot of the negative publicity on this bill.

Still, the Democrats really screwed up parts of this. Much of the angst and issues came from language relating to some of the more controversial elements of the bill, but also because congressmen were too concerned about their futures in the House. While this is a legitimate concern, when a party becomes more important than the immediate good of the nation, problems arise. In particular, this fight over the past eight months has weakened President Obama's presidency, if only because of his inability to keep his party in line and to hold them to specific legislative strategy. One can hope that this will become a lesson for what not to do with the Democrats, and demonstrate the need for a clear and unified party strategy. Similarly, simply saying that people would come around once they see the bill in action, while probably true, simply isn't good enough. As a party, the democrats needed to sell their vision to the American people, and that was something that they largely failed to do.

At the same time, the Republicans have dug themselves into a major hole with their actions. Despite their complaints that they were shut out of the process with the bills that were proposed, I've always thought that the cries to start again, this time with more conservative ideas, was just a thing to buy time and delay the actions that just happened, which was genuinely hurting the Democratic party. Rather than providing a unified front against the Democratic ideas, the gamble was that they could derail the bill, rather than incorporating ideas from within and using their leverage there to get their way - it was a gamble that failed, and most likely, there will be some Republicans that will be in hot water with their own constituents over the bill’s passage.

Still, for all of their arguments, it largely came down to one point: it would be too expensive, and would land the country into even more debt. While that’s an entirely reasonable argument, I wonder where these people were when the Iraq War was pushed through congress, which will no doubt do far more damage in that department than this bill. The Democrats should have done far more to attack them on this point, and explained just how this bill will not do what the Republicans think it will.

What worried me the most was the tactics used on the part of right-wing elements in the country to bring out voters, utilizing mis-information about the bill, general hatred towards our President and resorting to some pretty nasty stuff, especially right before the bill - racial slurs, death threats and so on. I'm all for galvanizing a population and encouraging them to get involved, but not in ways that are fundamentally detrimental, and in the end, just stirred tempers and drove the image of the Republican Party further to the right. In the end, that's probably not going to help the Republican Party - the Democrats, through this whole experience, can show that they're a party that's somewhat flexible, if somewhat hard to pull into line, but one that has far more moderate policies amongst its members as a whole. What hampered some of the movement on this bill may in fact be something that can be exploited.

What needs to happen next is for the Democrats to sell this victory - they need to get out and about to their bases, talk about what they've done, and make people realize what they've done, and how it is good. They need to use this victory to push forward to other positive accomplishments that they can work with, and use this to their advantage to move forward what they want to do in the next two and a half years.

(A bit of a disclaimer – given the heated nature of this political argument, I’m closing comments. These are my own views on this, and I’m not in the mood to deal with a whole lot of confrontation over them. If you don’t like it, go write your own angry blog post.)

The Nobel Prize and The President

This morning's news that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize was an enormous surprise for both me and the President, who was informed earlier this morning of the news. The Nobel Prize Committee, in a short press release on their website, cited that the President has "created a new climate in international politics", as well as reemphasizing the role of the United Nations and work towards nuclear disarmament. While I am surprised that the President has been awarded the prize, I believe that this award comes too prematurely, and could serve to undercut the short-term credibility of the organization. President Obama has really done little thus far to deserve such an award, in my view. While I am a fan of the President, and largely agree with a number of his policies, many of the major policy initiatives that he has sworn to undertake have not been fulfilled yet. The prison facility at Guantanamo Bay is still in operation, despite orders to close the base, attempts at a peace between the Israeli and Palestinian governments have not changed in any significant fashion and two wars in the Middle East still rage on.

Despite that, I think that the awarding of this prize is a significant marker in the way that the tone has shifted towards the United States because of President Obama. Given that the nominations for the prize were due around the time that he went into office, I have to think that this wasn't because of any specific policies, but more about the post-election period where his administration began to plan out their strategy for the next four years, which included ending the war in Iraq, closing Guantanamo, and working on fixing the country domestically, all things that have yet to happen, and most likely won't for the foreseeable future. The fact that the prize seems to have been awarded on the potential of a person is a bit disturbing, because a failure of the Obama administration to achieve some or all of these goals will undermine the award. The speeches and talk prior to the election sounded good - fantastic, even - but it has to be remembered that it is the actions that will distinguish the president, not his words.

Still, the mere presence of a riveting figure appears to be worthy of the prize, and there are some good indications that his entry into world politics has yielded some results. Iran has agreed to open nuclear talks with the rest of the world, and the US has made some significant moves towards reducing its nuclear arsenal, along with Russia. What is more important, I feel, is the overtures that the President is making, pushing for a more important role for peace, apologizing for some very wrong things that the United States has undertaken and showing that at least there is significant efforts to change the very standoffish stance that the United States has undertaken in the past eight years. While these have not been backed up with the same significant actions, the United States has shown the first efforts towards this with renewed efforts in the State Department.

Is the president deserving of this award for his actions in office thus far? Not really, no. But, as the New York Times points out, it's not unprecedented, that individuals with potential have been awarded the Prize, such as West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. As the Times suggests, there is already something in progress with the election of President Obama. I just hope that it will play out as expected.

Technology & Pirates

Last night, on my way home from work, I ended up listening to a couple commentators discussing the recent rise in piracy off the coast of Somalia. This has been of particular interest here in Vermont, as Captain Richard Phillips is from Underhill, and recently was returned home safely after a 5 day standoff with the pirates who took him hostage.  The article in general was examing a number of high tech ways that vessels, which generally don't like to arm their crews (for safety reasons), are adopting to fend off pirates. These items range from types of foam that can prevent someone from climbing up on a ship, water cannons, directed sound and light emitters that deafen or blind combatants, all of which have had some use in the seas already. Most of these things I remember being developed by the military for non-lethal warfare, and they seem to be pretty effective at repelling boarders, which is hoped will help to stop piracy in that region. 

I don't think that it's going to work, however. 

A short while ago, I did several reviews and an interview with Wired for War author Peter Singer, and I think that there are several parallels between this high-tech approach to taking on 21st century pirates, and our new, high tech ways to taking on insurgents in a 21st century world that Singer has outlined. Additionally, there were several points in my own studies on methods of warfare that give me some pause when it comes to new and high-tech gadgets being put into combat situations. 

On the more obvious side, technology seems to be the silver bullet for warfare. Soldiers nowadays have enormous capabilities compared to their historical predecessors. Our soldiers can fight in the dark, can shoot a person from over a mile away, can fly over a hostile combat zone from thousands of miles away, and talk to one another while fighting in a way to coordinate their movements. These advances have allowed our military personnel to be far more effective in combat, and as a result, more people come back alive than before. There is very little downside to this. 

What I fear, however, is that our military, and indeed, our society, has come to expect far more from fighting forces, and are more willing to utilize technology as a method of warfare. While covering the 2009 Colby Military Writer's symposium here at Norwich University a month ago, the panel discussion brought up the point that President Eisenhower noted in his fairwell address in 1961, warning against the rise of a military industrial complex, noting that going to war nowadays is far easier, because the personnel required is smaller, with technology being percieved as making up the difference far better than humans can. 

This has certainly been a big issue for Iraq, and numerous talks and people I've spoken with have noted that the human element to warfare is something that cannot be underestimated or eliminated. Author Alan R. King, noted that many of the problems that we had in Iraq was a failure to understand the human element within the country, with in turn cause the situation to worsen. Peter Singer also noted that a number of human rights groups have looked into the idea of utilizing unmanned drones in genocide areas, such as Sudan's Darfur, in an effort to stop the violence, and former CIA operative and author Robert Baer has noted that for all the satellites in orbit, having an operative in a room with someone is the best way to gather intelligence, because they can see, hear and feel everything that it going on, things that robotic solutions cannot do at the present moment. These 'solutions' are really not solutions. 

So, when it comes to the rise in Piracy in Somalia, technology is certainly going to deter some pirates. But, what happens when they aquire a water cannon of their own, or use goggles and ear plugs to counter the countermeasures? The same thing is happening in Iraq at the present moment with children armed with spray paint - an expensive robot is taken out of commission by a far cheaper solution. The other issue that I see with extensive countermeasures against pirates is that this could up the ante when it comes to the pirates themselves, and they have already threatened to do so following the deaths of the three pirates who took Richard Phillips the other day. Simply killing and deterring pirates at this point is a short-term solution, as we have found killing insurgents. Where there are people who have taken up arms, there will be people to follow, and the situation will escalate. 

President Obama has recently said that they will be putting a stop to the rise in piracy over there, but what exactly does that mean? Will we send in a carrier group to cover a large amount of ocean, while not addressing the underlying problem? Or will he go the route that will be unpopular and attackable by working with the remains of the Somali Government to try and control the problem through economics, which will ultimately solve the problem? The pirates are the symptom of a country in dire need of help, and working to alleviate that symptom will not bring about any sort of long term solution.

The Beginning

As of noon today, we have a new president.

I'm reminded of a conversation that I had with a prospective student almost a year and a half ago, right after I first started, while I was giving him a tour around campus while he stopped by to meet us here at the graduate school. This was right as the campaigning was just getting underway. John McCain was having difficulties, Hillary Clinton was leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else on the Democrats side and Barack Obama was still a fairly new name. At that point, I was just getting interested in what was starting to happen. I knew very little about presidential politics, and looking back, I've realized just how much I've learned about how the country is run, and from that, about how my own political beliefs relate to the various parties and sides.

The United States has achieved something remarkable this year. Not electing a man of bi-racial decent, but by electing someone who is dedicated to the country, who is willing to listen and consider alternatives, and one who has demonstrated intelligence, something that we don't seem to have seen a lot of in the recent past. That all being said, we have elected a politician to office, and over the next four years, we will see successes and failures from him and his staff. No President is perfect, he will need to make changes and compromises to how things are done. Despite his popularity with the American people, something that needs to be done is to hold him to the highest level.

I have been encouraged by President Obama's habit of reaching out to his opposition, and I hope that it will continue. I firmly believe in considering all options, to go with the best route, even if it might cause problems in the short term. It is this responsibility that I saw alluded to in his speech earlier today, just after he was sworn into office. (I was a little disturbed by Chief Justice Robert's mangling of the oath - I hope that it was a mistake, and not deliberate.)

President Obama's speech leaves me with confidence where I had previously really had none. I was never a huge fan of President George W. Bush, but I have never shared the utter hatred that a number of fellow Vermonters and members of the more leftist side of the political spectrum. I disagree with his policies, and recognize that he was placed in an incredibly difficult time of our history, and I suspect that the years will eventually be kind to him, once the historians have picked apart the eight years. Looking forwards, I have to wonder what the world will look like four or eight years from now.

I have confidence that we will see a competent and forward thinking government for that time, and I believe that the US will once again regain the trust that we once enjoyed with the world. The past eight years have been difficult ones for us, and the next several will undoubtedly be so as well. I am thrilled to see the Mall filled with cheers, rather than protesters, and seeing a new administration start to such enthusiasm and interest in the system made it all worth it.

I hope that this presidency will inspire the same interest and action that defined the campaign throughout the next four years. I personally would like to have more conversations like I did earlier.

Best Television of 2008

My top TV episodes of 2008: 10 - Fringe: Pilot / Leverage: The Nigerian Job

This was a bit of a tie, because both these shows aren't all that great, but they are fun to watch. Fringe was one that I was really looking forwards to, and I've been somewhat disappointed by how it's been handled over the season that I've watched thus far. Hopefully I'll get to marathon the entire thing at some point. That being said, the pilot for the show was very fun to watch - it was interesting, had a fun concept and was so over the top that it's laughable, but again, fun. Leverage is a show that I've started watching because I like Heist shows, and this one is certainly one of the better ones that I've seen, ever since the show Smith a couple years ago. There's a fun cast dynamic and some good hooks in this episode for future episodes.

9 - Big Bang Theory: The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis I've been wary of this show until this season, and now, I've really gotten into it for some reason. The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis really takes the show away from some of the easy jabs at the characters and makes some room for some real character development at the end. Plus, the following quote from Leonard is just plain gold:

Do you know what this means? If I can get a healthy ovum, I can grow my own Leonard Nimoy!

8 - Barack Obama 30 Minute TV Spot No matter what side of the aisle you support, this TV spot was a brilliant move on the part of the Obama administration. It consumed a news cycle of talk show, talking heads and really outlined the priorities of the incoming administration and helped put Pres/Elect Obama into the lead, furthering his momentum. I personally was a supported of the Democratic Ticket, and while this TV spot showed us nothing terribly new to supporters, and essentially reiterated his position, it was a good introduction to people who still weren't sure who to support.

7 - John Adams: Join or Die The John Adams miniseries was a very well done series based off of the book by David McCullough by the same title. This pilot episode demonstrated fantastic production values and is an outstanding adaptation of history, from the characters and casting to the look and feel of the sets. These first episodes showed the American War for Independence, a crucial time in our history, in a way that has largely been glossed over in a few short lessons in school.

6 - Lost: The Constant This was possibly one of my favorite episodes of the entire series, where Desmond begins his own time jumps back and forth through. While Lost has overdone the lifes of some of the other characters like Jack and Kate, this episode really got into Desmond's head and proved that the writers could still write compelling and interesting characters, while advancing the story forward while doing so, rather than just exploition on why the characters are the way they are.

5 - Battlestar Galactica: Revelations Episode 410 of Battlestar Galactica brings the show to a point that we've been looking for for the past four years on the show : Earth. Four of the last unknown Cylons come forward to their friends, and Kara finally leads the fleet to the people, only to find a devastated landscape. There was a lot of emotion and storylines caught up here. Characters were not what their friends thought they were, and the episode represents a culmination of a number of storylines, and ends on a killer cliffhanger.

4 - Pushing Daisies: Comfort Food I'm very sad to see this show go - it's one of my absolute favorites. Comfort Food follows Ned and Olive during a cooking contest, while Chuck has brought her father back to life, at the cost of Dwight Dixon. This was the end/middle of a mini-arc, and it really does a fantastic job with both Ned and Chuck - Chuck with seeing her father return, and Ned for having his trust betrayed. And there's a Colonel who's been deep fried.

3 - When We Left Earth: Landing the Eagle / The Explorers This year was the 50th Anniversary of NASA, and to celebrate, Discovery released a documentary on NASA's human exploration of the solar system. This episode, Landing the Eagle, details the Apollo program through to Apollo 11, while The Explorers follows the remaining five moon landings. The footage here is absolutely stunning, and even includes interviews with Neil Armstrong. I get chills watching the landing.

2 - Life on Mars: Out Here in the Fields I was very skeptical about the remake, and the first pilot didn't leave me with any confidence here at all. But Out Here in the Fields, the second pilot to the UK remake, helped to allay my fears that this would be a poorly done show and showed not only could this re-make be a good one, but one that would stand on its own, with its own qualities. I can't wait for its return later on.

1 - House, MD : Wilson's Heart Season 4 of House was pretty lackluster. The change up with new staff only marginally worked, and while we saw some new characters, they're not quite to the point of Chase, Cameron and Foreman. The newcomers are interesting, but too similar, except for the fanatic character Amber, whom I can't stand. This episode made me entirely rethink her character, but also saw an incredible amount into the characters of House and Wilson. These episodes of House are the best ones, when we see real development, and it's happening fewer and further between episodes now. The last ten or so minutes of this episode are possibly the best minutes of the show that I've seen yet.

Rant: Gov. Sarah Palin

The more that I read about Gov. Sarah Palin, the more annoyed and disturbed I am about the vetting process and her own personality, which is doing much, much more to push me over to the Democratic side of the ticket than anything else this year. One of the clinchers is an article published yesterday on the New York Times: Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes. The article goes on to look at how Palin has hired people once elected into office, with a number of friends and classmates filling top-tier positions. That doesn't bother me so much as much as this segment:

And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said.

“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”

The blog entry in questions seems to be this one.

Honestly, I think she's a bit of a twit, and I'm more than a little worried about the fact that being a "Hockey Mom" is being considered far more qualifying than any sort of foreign policy or legislative expertise. Granted, while Sen. Barack Obama is certainly not as experienced as other candidates, he's backing himself up with a lot in his choice of Sen. Joe Biden. Although, as someone that I know said a couple weeks ago: "Experience apparently doesn't matter. We've had two fairly experienced politicians in the White House for the past eight years, and look what that's gotten us." The extreme mudslinging on both sides over this issue doesn't seem to really help things.

What is really bothering me is that Gov. Palin is supposed to fill in the gap left behind by Sen. Hillary Clinton's failure to get the top and second slots on the democratic ticket, as well as sooth many of the ruffled feathers that Sen. McCain has left with some of the more dedicated Republican supporters, which will make this race even closer than before.

The hubbub over Gov. Palin's child, or grandchild, as it turns out, doesn't bother me in the slightest. What is really frightening is that the people vetting her for the postition didn't know, which makes me question their judgement and motivations for selecting her for the VP slot. To me, this seems like a rush descision - with Clinton out, they saw a slot that needed to be filled, and as such, Palin is only in play to fill the void. This suggests that a McCain administration would be very, very reactionary, without thinking things through. While the VP honestly doesn't do much, and she's clearly here only to gain that chunk of people that the Democrats have isolated, putting a person in that postition for a limited and narrow purpose is downright frightening, especially given McCain's advanced age (72).


Obama and Space

I came across this article on io9 earlier today, which has me interested, and gives me more of a reason to want Sen. Barack Obama in the White House after this election - he wants to cut some of the funding that NASA receives:

As the race for U.S. President starts to heat up, Barack Obama has continued to polish his image as the youthful candidate promising a hopeful future. And yet he's also on record saying "[U.S. Space Agency] NASA is no longer associated with inspiration." He's proposing cutting NASA's budget in order to fund early-education programs for kids under 5. It's hard to fault his desire to educate kids, but why sacrifice space programs to do it? If elected, is it possible that Obama, the "hopeful" candidate, will destroy our hopes for space exploration and colonization?


They link to an article from the Chicago Tribune where Obama says the following:

But Obama said he does not agree with the way the space program is now being run and thinks funding should be trimmed until the mission is clearer."NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration," he said. "I don't think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn't even pass for news anymore."


Now, at first glance, that seems very drastic, as if the budget cuts will be a) ending NASA's work in space and b) leaving humanity stranded on this rock for who knows how long. Thinking about the issue closely though, I believe it's an incredibly responsible thing to do, given the huge number of NASA screwups over the past couple of decades, such as crashing landers into planets, losing billions of dollars because of simple mathematical errors.

NASA is a weird organization, in my opinion, who's heyday was back in the 60s and 70s, with the buildup to the Lunar landings starting in '69. It has gone from a scientific and exploratory body to one that is chiefly scientific. In all honesty, the perception seems to be that all of the advances in sciences are largely not practical to the every day person, aside from Velcro and the freeze dried ice cream that tastes horrible anyway. But now, we have the space shuttle, which barely makes the news unless something goes horribly wrong, and the international space station that costs a lot of money, but is up there for a number of weird experiments that nobody ever hears about, except on really slow news days. It's a very sad reality.

I believe NASA should chiefly become an oversight and regulatory body, and I suspect that it will become something like that in the coming decades, as private firms begin their own space programs, like Virgin Galactic has already done, with a spaceport underway in New Mexico, where four launches have already taken place (suborbital rockets). Space exploration will be in the hands of the corporate sector in the future, because they have the capital and resources that the government honestly can't put together. Every time an astronaut perishes in an accident, there is always talk from Congress about it's continued existence. Oversight such as this is not a good thing for a space program, especially with the increasingly smaller budgets every year. The highest point was in 1965, at 33 billion dollars to 17 billion dollars over the past year. It fluctuates a bit, with a spike around 1991, but when one considers that the entire Apollo Program ran about 136 billion dollars after all was said and done, it's a huge price tag. Now consider that Walmart's total revenue for the past year was $379 billion. (Granted, that's not profits), but look at what corporate businesses can do with money that they do get.

Nowhere here does Obama say that he is going to be ending the space program - he apparently believes in it, but he also sees that the agency has a number of flaws that will need to be corrected, and that they will once again need to find a clear and present path in which to follow, such as what they did with the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programs in order to get to the moon.

Secondly, this doesn't necessarily mean that humanity will be stuck here. America, while we have the biggest space agency, that's likely going to change. We're not the only ones interested in the cosmos. Russia sort of has something, the EU has their own program up and running, while India and China have both been making advances of their own. In all likelihood, the Chinese are going to get to the Moon next, because they have the technology and drive to do such a thing. While I personally hope that we'll be getting there first again, I foresee some sort of space race in the coming years.

Because of these pressures, I don't think that NASA will be the primary mover and shaker of the American Space industry. Rather, I suspect that it will be driven mainly by commerce, with tourism as the big item, but once the Moon and Mars are visited, what types of things can we find out there that we'll need? Another planet with ores and metals? Manufacturing in zero gravity? I don't know - science fiction has certainly given us numerous options and ideas, but who knows what will work out?

Back to the beginning of this little stream of consciousness, I think that this goes to show that Barack Obama is the right person in office, because he's not pandering around for something inspirational such as bringing back the glory days of NASA, but that he sees a problem and has a solution.