Friday, January 25, 2013

Living in Denial (the Nile)

Image Credit: David Schenfeld on Flickr
I want to make a point today that will be unpopular.  After the Sandy Hook elementary shootings, people focused on gun control as the answer to the question, "How do we stop this from happening again?"  But the truth is, gun control is not the issue but it is easier to blame guns for the damage than to admit that we as a society screwed up, and those 26 deaths were the consequences.

Humans have the tendency to divide the world into Us vs Them, and we Americans lump anyone with a mental health issue as Them.  We ignore Them; we pay extraordinary amounts of money to keep Them in prison; we donate food to homeless shelters for Them.  But we don't want to talk about Them.  We don't want to pay for therapy for Them, even if that would be cheaper than prison.  We don't want to talk about Them or even acknowledge that anyone who is Them might be a wonderful human being with regular issues, just like Us.

Then we react with horror when one of Them responds to our treatment of Them with violence.  But instead of accepting our responsibilities in the matter, we look for anything else to blame.  In this case, the blame is falling on guns.

I find this annoying, to say the least.  When a person runs a stop sign and causes a car accident, we don't blame the car or the stop sign.  We hold the person accountable for their actions.  When a kid spills a glass of milk, we don't blame the milk for spilling or the glass for being unstable.  We hold the kid responsible for the accident and have the kid clean up the mess.  So why do we blame guns when a person chooses to shot other people?

Because it's easier to blame the gun than the person.  Because we want to live like Egyptian crocodiles and pretend that getting rid of guns will solve all the ills of the nation.

Image Credit: David Shenfeld on Flickr
I am here to tell you that more gun laws will not solve anything.  It won't stop violence, mass deaths, or even run of the mill crime.  And focusing so much time, attention, and money on gun control means that there is less time, attention, and money around to solve the real problem - mental illness.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dissection of a Gun

A Walther PPK
Can you say, "Bond.  James Bond"?
Reading through anti-gun commentaries, I found a common theme that I find rather interesting.  While most people don't come out directly and say it, there's this feeling that gun are somehow alive and conspiring to cause harm.  People attribute intent and morals to guns as though the gun are self-aware, which to my knowledge guns are not.

Guns are machines that apply mechanical force to a bullet, causing the primer to light the propellant and send a projectile through the air at a large velocity.  (By "large", I mean that some projectiles fly at faster than sound speeds.)  That's it.  Now some guns have rifled barrels; some don't.  Some guns let you fire multiple bullets without needing to manually chamber the next round; some don't.  But in the end, modern guns work the same way.

Gun are no different than a TV gaming console, a motorcycle, kitchen knives, recliners, and other everyday objects.  Guns have no mystical powers; guns have no intent, good or evil.  Guns don't put thoughts into people's head, a concept explored in  "Men at Arms" by Terry Pratchett.

Heckler and Koch G8 
I want to stress this point because society seems to want to treat guns differently than, say, a cell phone.  Do you want the government telling you what kind of cell phones you can and cannot buy?  Do you want the government to track who owns which cell phone specifically?  Do you blame cell phones when someone takes an inappropriate picture of a woman without the woman's knowledge or consent?

My answers are:

  • No, I'll buy whatever cell phone I want.
  • No, the government doesn't need to track this information.  It's private.
  • I blame the person taking the picture, not the cell phone.
That's why I've included some exploded views of guns here.  I want to show that nowhere in a gun is a heart, mind, soul, or evil nanotechnology trying to take over the world.  A gun is a machine that you can use to harm another human being, just like a mechanical pencil.  Only less prevalent.

Colt Trooper MK III

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Put Common Sense Back Into Gun Control

These days, the topic of gun control fills news sources, opinion pages, blog posts, Tumblr rants, and a few odd dusty corners of the Internet.  But I find very little information or opinions that use common sense when referring to guns.  People either want to send armed guards to every public place, or ban types of gun as being "too dangerous".  It's one extreme or the other, but very little in the center.

But I'm a centered-type of gal.  I believe that moderation is the key to most of life.  So let me share with you my version of common sense gun control.

First, we need to define gun control.  According to Merriam-Webster, gun control is the "regulation of selling, owning, and use of guns".  Let's start with the first part - selling guns.  There are two types of people who fall into this category:  gun dealers and gun owners.  Gun dealers run a gun shop, work the gun show circuit, or otherwise make a living buying and selling guns.  Gun owners are individuals who own at least one gun and who might want to sell a gun.   For gun dealers, we need regulation, either on the state or federal level, defining the knowledge required to safely sell guns.  Currently, we have federal licensing regulations for this.

As for gun owners, we need the same level of regulations as we do for car owners, stereo owners, iPad owners,...  That is, none.  I know, I can hear it now.  "But that means a gun owner can sell a gun to anyone!"    Yes, yes it does.  But as a parent I learned early on to pick my battles to those that I could realistically win.  And there is no way to realistically create enforceable laws that cover individual gun sales.  So we as a society can spend a bunch of time and money, essentially beating our heads against the wall and creating complex tangles of law that still don't stop criminals.  Or we can admit that there is no reasonable way to regulate this without severely infringing on civil liberties, and just not make the futile attempt.  I do believe that we need laws to cover the case where a person doesn't want to pay the licensing fee and decides to become a gun dealers on the side.  But the laws need to cover the exceptions, not the norm.

The second part of gun control is ownership.  These regulations need to cover two different domains: eligibility and education  "Eligibility" means limiting access to firearms, keeping guns out of the hands of felons, mentally unstable people, and anyone else with a demonstrable reason not to have a gun. "Education" means all potential gun owners need a minimum level of knowledge about gun safety and gun laws before acquiring their first gun.

Right now, we have no educational requirements for owning a gun, and that is a mistake.  We need the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to develop federal standards that define what gun safety knowledge is essential before owning a firearm.  Then, each state can create a gun safety test using the federal standards and the state's gun laws.   Finally, change the eligibility rules to make passing the gun safety test mandatory before purchasing a firearm.  To clarify, I don't think that you need to pass a gun safety course every time you purchase a gun, just the first time.

As for eligibility, we need a new background check system that meets the following conditions:
  • Easy to use for the gun dealers
  • Shows only information relevant to the gun purchase, such as:
    • Age?
    • Passed the gun safety test?
    • Felony?
    • Mental Illness?
    • Other problems?
  • Provides a report to the gun buyer about eligibility
  • Provides a simple process for a person to challenge the report, in case of mistaken information
To help gun dealers that travel, such as with gun shows, I think the background check system needs to be available as an app on Android system, iPhones, or iPads.

Falling between gun ownership and gun use is the waiting period.  Today, there is no federal waiting period between purchasing a gun and taking possession of that gun, though several states have different regulations about this. The reasoning for a waiting period is that a waiting period creates time for someone who is buying the guy angry to calm down and not do something stupid in the heat of the moment.  But if a gun safety course is a prerequisite to buying a gun, there already is a built in waiting period, and we don't need a second one.

The third part of gun control, gun use, is already covered by current laws.  Killing neighbors for playing music loudly - illegal.  Killing a person breaking into your house - legal.

You might notice that I did not mention tracking gun owners, because that is not part of gun control.  We do not need state or federal databases of who owns which gun, and allowing the government to track the situation is to voluntarily give back some civil liberty.  I realized that this is a problem when the Journal News published an online map of gun owners in the New York counties of Westchester and Rockland.  At first, I felt furious that this newspaper would violate people's rights with such a stunt.  Then I realized that the newspaper simply used an existing database to pull the information, and I wondered why the database existed in the first place.  Does the government really need to know who owns a particular gun?

What would you do, if you could create your own gun control?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Common Sense About Vaccines from SkewedDistribution

While I flit around, reading articles and blog posts from hither and yon, there are a few blogs that I subscribe to and read on a regular basis.  SkewedDistribution is one such blog.  The author is an epidemiologist who works at a university, and provides scientific information about vaccines as well as her thoughts on the subject of vaccination.

Last week, SkewedDistribution posted a wonderful article examining the phenomena of "Us vs Them" that seems to infect all the anti-vaccination material I've read.  I asked if I could repost it here, so without further ado...

Vaccination fears: People Like Us vs. People Like Them

Hi Reader,

If it weren’t behind a paywall, I would tell you to take yourself with haste over to Harper’s to read the incredible essay entitled “Sentimental Medicine: Why we still fear vaccines” by Eula Biss. But since it is, I’m afraid you’ll either need to pony up about $17.00 for yearly access to the archive (which may well be worth it), or just settle for my impressions and thoughts on the article.

First, both the writing and research in this article are simply wonderful. If you’ve ever gone into the archives of old medical journals and read the articles, you will know what I mean. The language is simply delightful, and in some aspects Biss manages to capture that feel, while providing an accurate historical perspective of the anti-vaccination movement, about which I very much enjoy writing myself, as my reader of course already knows. Biss’ piece is a very useful reminder of why writing is often best left to the professionals, but nonetheless I will blunder on with my musings.

The thing that absolutely floored me is that Biss has brilliantly managed to put into words an idea that has been rattling around in my brain for some time, but which I have not been able articulate very well. This is the concept of People Like Us and People Like Them. In the olden days of disease theory, People Like Them were awash in filth. Filth caused disease, and People Like Us were simply not affected, because we were clean and pure. As Biss writes, all one needs to do is replace the word “filth” with “toxins” and viola! You have today’s anti-vax movement. Toxins are sufficiently scary-sounding and simultaneously elusive enough to pack a wallop of emotional fear, marinated in Facebook and seasoned with Google and Twitter.

These days, there are a great many folks in the anti-vax movement who still strongly believe that vaccines are only for People Like Them. The poor, the less fortunate, and the children of drug addicts, in other words. Biss goes on to point out that it is often People Like Them who do not have adequate medical care and who for a variety of reasons may miss some vaccinations. The idea of public health has traditionally been that People Like Us are meant to protect both ourselves and the less fortunate by taking steps to prevent disease in our communities as a whole. At times this approach has taken on a distinct odor of paternalism, and to be fair, I’m not sure that when it comes to healthcare decisions, the Haves ever acted solely for the benefit of the HaveNots. The parents who rushed to enroll their children in the Salk polio trials were most likely motivated by helping their own children, with the health of the community as a secondary concern. Nonetheless, vaccination has always been a community contract of sorts, yet this system is falling apart before our eyes, as the entitled parents of wealthy countries ignore their neighbors’ health and safety in order to worship at the altar of People Like Us.

If you’ve spent any time on anti-vax sites, you know what this altar looks like. It is constructed upon a base of false belief that because of our education and opportunities, we understand more than doctors, nurses, and public health practitioners. Mixed in are impressions that a “natural” lifestyle will combat any disease that comes our way, while ignoring the fact that People Like Us will be the first to run to an idiot doctor when something really goes wrong, because we have the time and money to do so. And sprinkled in is a hefty dose of not caring about others. Not giving a damn about the child in the local school whose mother works 3 jobs and hasn’t yet been able to sneak in immunizations. Not caring about the newborn infant next door who could die from pertussis, even though that child comes from a family of People Like Us.

The key part here is that they do not see that they are also putting their own children at risk. Because, you see, vaccine preventable disease does not care about Us or Them. It does not “care” about anything at all, though like all living things it will seek out a hospitable living environment, like a nice trendy Craftsman in a “transitional neighborhood”, or possibly even a yurt. The infectious disease Craftsman will be found among the Unvaccinated, who provide prime real estate for the homeless microbe. And with more and more People Like Us falling into the Unvaccinated category, we are likely to see that in the very near future, it will be People Like Us who are spreading disease hither and yon, and People Like Them who are justifiably giving us the finger and calling us vermin.

Reader, I strongly recommend that you take the time to read Biss’ thoughtful essay. You can tell that like us, she’s done some time in the online anti-vax trenches, and the piece is far more comprehensive than just the snippet that I wrote about here. It’s an article that strikes at the heart of some of the issues I wrote about in this post, albeit with much more eloquence, and it’s well worth a read.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Catastrophe of Mental Illness Treatment in America

Whenever I think about mental health,
I remember the book,
"Flowers for Algernon".
After the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, I decided to do a little research into the history of mental illness and society, specifically how society treats people with mental illness.  I found a long, quite dirty history that tells the familiar tale of people wanting to help and ending up causing potentially more harm.

Travel with me back to the first half of the 1900s.  I haven't found an unbiased source to explain the why, but the decision was made to put people with any sort of mental irregularity into permanent facilities.  By the 1950s, we had one bed per 300 Americans in these mental institutes or hospitals.  The good news was we had room for someone to go if he or she needed a bit of space and treatment.  The bad news was abuse and neglect were rampant in several of the institutes.  So the decision was made to close the mental hospitals and transition to a community-based treatment system.

That's were is all falls apart. The community-based treatment system required some fundamental changes to communities that cost money and time, as well as a change in how we as a society view people with a mental illness.  I'm not certain if it was the money, time, or societal attitude that prevented the community-based treatments from getting created, but either way most people were released from the mental institutes with no place to go.

Here's where the story goes from bad to even worse.  While some people with mental illness can function in society, a lot of people cannot.  So these people ended up getting into trouble with the law and going to prison, where they have less ability to cope because they literally cannot follow the regular rules.  This leads to mentally ill inmates serving more time, costing more money, and needing more help when they get released back into society because they lost whatever social coping skills they previously had.

The influx of mentally ill people into the prison system has a brighter side and a darker side.  As of this moment, one of the best psychiatric treatment systems is the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.  One of the prison's facilities is the Franklin Medical Center, which houses mentally ill inmates in an environment designed to help them cope.  The Franklin Medical Center employs psychiatrists, psychologist, has a fully-stocked pharmacy, and an attitude that mental illness can be treated.  On top of this, the staff regularly visit inmates in segregated areas in other prisons to see if a mental illness is involved in the segregation.

The dark side of so many people with mental illness getting incarcerated is the effect of society's attitude toward mental illness.  We already have a problem of treating the mentally ill as though they are a lesser version of humanity, sending scores to prison because of a condition outside of their control sadly reinforces this stereotype.  Also, the time and money spent in the prison system to simply house and feed the extra inmates leaves little money or time to help with the real problem, the mental illness. (Caveat - Except Ohio.)

I think that we can change the situation.  First, we need to change society's attitude and make mental illness acceptable as a condition, like the flu or pink eye.   Second, we need to create a combination of community-based treatment centers for people who can cope unescorted in society, and full-time homes for people who cannot cope unescorted in society.  While the second idea needs the support of government and probably legislation, anyone and everyone can work on the first idea by actively talking about mental illness differently, teaching our children about mental illness differently, and treating people with mental illness differently.  No one should be ashamed of feeling less than perfect, no one should feel the need to lie about a problem to avoid social backlash.  It's time we acted, each and every individual, because this is how we can make the world a better place.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mixed Feelings over Recent Executive Actions

As you have probably heard, President Obama issued 23 executive actions yesterday related to the backlash after the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.  Reading over the list, I felt... well, that's what I want discuss with you.  This set of executive actions falls into three major categories:
  1. Brownian Motion
  2. Potentially Hazardous to the Bill of Rights and Civil Liberties
  3. Potentially Beneficial

Brownian Motion

These executive actions appear to say, "See?  We're doing our job."  But none of them really change anything, other than granting the idea/law official White House acknowledgement.  I put the following orders in this category:
  • 1. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system. Doesn't this happen anyway?
  • 4. Direct the Attorney General to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks. What does this really accomplish? Aren't felons and crazy people already on the "Do Not Buy" list? This feels like a CYA on the government's part.
  • 6. Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers. I seriously hope federally licensed gun dealers already know how to run background checks, since the process should be the same regardless of the seller.
  • 7. Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign. I debated where to put this, because another national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign can't hurt. But this just feels like the President is throwing a bone to the NRA.
  • 8. Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission). Again, this is not a bad idea, but feels like the government is doing a CYA.
  • 9. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations. To my knowledge, federal law enforcement already traces gun, so this doesn't really change anything.
  • 10. Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement. I think that data analysis can be useful in many situations, but this orders leaves me with three questions.  
    • What information will be in this report?  
    • How do they see local law enforcement using this information?
    • Does the DOJ normally keep their information secret, such that an executive action is needed for them to share?
  • 11. Nominate an ATF director. In the past six years, Congress has not confirmed a Director for the ATF. I know that the President wants them to confirm the current acting director, but I don't think an executive action will change this.
  • 12. Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations. For what I've read, no one in Sandy Hook responded inappropriately; I don't think more training would have changed anything that day. This order feels like it is playing on people's fears, "solving" the problem of inappropriate training.
  • 13. Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime. White noise that changes nothing, simply sounds good.
  • 17. Release a letter to health-care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law-enforcement authorities. Again, white noise.
  • 19. Develop model emergency-response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education. This is similar to the "training" order. There already are emergency response plans in schools and such.
  • 20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental-health services that Medicaid plans must cover. This should be clear already, and sending a reminder on one hand wastes someone's time and costs money.

Potentially Harmful

We already have a problem with current federal regulations stomping over our civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, e.g. the Patriot Act. We don't need the government, either local or federal, taking away any more.
  • 2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system. What's an "unnecessary legal barrier"? When does the rights of society trump the right to privacy of an individual? This executive action begins down the slippery slope of government collecting and sharing information on individuals that may or may not be necessary, with the problem being the government having the ability to classify anything as "necessary".
  • 3. Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system. What kind of incentives are we talking about and what information will be shared? As with the previous order, this sounds innocent but potentially leads to danger.
  • 5. Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun. If the police seized a gun from an individual and now must legally return the gun, then doesn't running a full background check qualify as an illegal search? After all, you need to get a background check before buying a gun, so theoretically anyone with a gun has already passed a background check.
  • 16. Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes. Why does a doctor need to know if someone owns a gun? How does this stop gun violence? This is harmful, though, because it allows/encourages doctor's offices to collect information on people that is unnecessary and irrelevant. It also breeds the attitude that knowledge of your gun ownership is not your private information.

Potentially Beneficial

That leaves six executive actions that might prove beneficial:
  • 14. Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence. While I don't consider gun violence a traditional, germ-based disease, I do think that gun violence is a social disease. The CDC is the perfect choice for attempting to determine the causes and prevention of such.
  • 15. Direct the Attorney General to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies. Getting the private sector involved is brilliant, because the government gets better technology with no budgetary increases, the newer inventions stimulate the economy, and society hopefully ends up with safer guns.
  • 18. Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers. I feel two ways about this. On one hand, I think that schools need police officers to be role models for the kids and provide appropriate education. On the other hand, schools don't typically need a police officer there every school day, during every school hour.
  • 21. Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges. Removing loopholes and making regulations clear is always a good thing.
  • 22. Commit to finalizing mental-health-parity regulations. Hopefully, this will finalize regulations that favor the individual instead of companies.
  • 23. Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health. While gun safety has been a national topic for years, mental health still lives in a shadowy corner wearing a "Dunce" cap. People hide the fact that they have mental problems for fear of condemnation, because society still looks at mental health problems as a sign of weakness or a terminal character flaw. A national dialogue on the topic is definitely a step in the direction of removing this stigma.
Overall, I suppose that six potentially beneficial executive actions versus four potentially harmful ones is a good balance. I just wanted, well, more. More acknowledgement that our current mental health system needs a major overhaul, more acknowledgement that managing guns isn't the magical solution to gun violence, more actions that have meaning instead of Brownian motion.

Maybe next time.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: "Learning Town" on Geek & Sundry

Paul (on the right) and Storm (on the left)
Last week, I received an email asking if I'd like to review a new show on Geek & Sundry called "Learning Town with Paul and Storm".  Squee!  I love Paul and Storm, going from complete ignorance of their existence to a total fan after seeing them open for Jonathon Coulton.

My first actual thought (besides the squee) was, "Can this be a kid's show?  I mean, Paul has a potty mouth."

It turns out that this is not a kid's show.  It's a comedy about two comedic musicians with a serious math/geeky bent who take over a kid's show who happen to be named Paul and Storm.  The first webisode covers the death of the show's previous host, a snappy parody of Meatloaf, and the introduction of the "villains".  (I have to put quotes, because I don't think that these characters have enough brains to be real villains.)

The show both was in some ways exactly what I expected and in some ways exactly not what I expected.  I like how Storm and Paul exaggerate their own personalities a little, so that the Paul and Storm in the show aren't them.  I expected there to be a funny song; I didn't expect the parody of Meatloaf.  In fact, if you're not a Meatloaf fan you might not recognize the reference, though I don't think that's required because the production is funny anyway.  I expected a cover band reference, though to be honest it went by so quickly I had to rewind to hear it clearly. I did not expect Paul to be able to speak for over seven minutes without a single vulgarity - only the villains use such language.  I expected cheesy humor, and I got cheesy humor.

Overall, I will be staying tuned for more webisodes.

"Learning Town"  on Geek & Sundry.
Here is a sneak peek of the show, for your entertainment.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Manic Monday: January 14, 2013

I apologize for not posting as much lately, but I have the flu.  Not the worst flu ever, just a baby flu.  But it is seriously kicking my butt. Since I missed Freaky Friday News, I'm doing a later edition called Manic Monday.  Here are some tidbits from around the Internet that you might want to know about.

Beware of Photo Copiers!

I know that this sounds crazy, but modern copiers and printers have hard drives that store everything that you either copy or print.  This is a bonus if you find yourself with some document that is deleted from your hard drive and the only available copy is left on the printer.  But this is bad when your company decides to replace its copier/printer, and your private documents are now available to whomever gets the old machine.

YouTube has a good video explaining this problem...

Image Courtesy of Sweet Clip Art

Beware of Java!

Photo copiers are not the only thing you need to watch out for these days. Over four months ago, a security firm in Poland identified a serious security bug in Java.  Oracle released a patch to this bug yesterday, but security experts recommend that users simply disable Java in their web browsers.  Even the Department of Homeland Security recommends that users disable Java in their browsers - a rare statement from them.

To disable Java in Chrome:

  1. Enter "chrome://plugins"  in the box at the top of a tab where the URL goes. 
  2. Search the page for a Java plug-in.  Click on the associated "Disable"  check box.
To disable Java in Firefox:
  1. Click on the Firefox button.
  2. Click on "Add-Ons".
  3. Go to the Plug-ins tab.
  4. Find the Java plug-in and click disable.
To disable Java on Internet Explorer:
  1. Get Chrome or Firefox - the only bigger security hole on your system than Java is Internet Explorer.

You can click here to test whether or not you have Java disabled on your system.  This is something in the middle of the page - if it doesn't render, Java is disable.

No Plans for a Death Star...

In what I assume was a humorous petition, John D. of Colorado asked the White House to help the economy by building a Death Star.  In a response titled, "This Isn't the Petition Response You Are Looking For", the White House turns down the request for several reasons, including my favorite:
Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?
You can read the original petition here and the response here.

But They Do Have Beer.

Last year, President Obama got a brewing kit and started making beer at the White House.  Someone found out, and asked the President to release his recipes.  The White House responded with a cute story about how the President began brewing, which kinds of beer he makes, and three different recipes.  They also note that this is the very first time ever that a person has created alcohol at the White House.

You can read the response and get the recipes at "Ale to the Chief - White House Beer Recipe".

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zombie Houses? No, This is Not A Joke...

...though I wish it was.

From Cat Eyes
For those who are still blissfully ignorant, a "zombie house" is a house where the owner vacated the premises due to a foreclosure order, but then the bank simply did nothing past evicting the owners.  In the current system, the owner's name is still on the house so the owner still has all the homeowner responsibilities, but  doesn't know it because the bank never informs the owner about cancelling the foreclosure.  That means the houses typically get ripped apart from scavengers, built up property taxes, utility bills, and other maintenance bills.  Sometimes a house falls into such disrepair that it violates local housing code.  At least 15 houses blew up in the past year due to the gas being left on.

And the owner is left to pay for the entire mess.

I learned about this mess reading "'Zombie titles' haunt victims of home foreclosure", then I did a little research as to what is being done about it.  Currently, well.. the problem is getting some lip service from politicians.  But no one is stepping up with either a clear problem definition or a solution.

The problem is simple, if you ask me.  Banks have the ability to evict people from their homes, but they are not held responsible for the home after that.  A bank may sell the house immediately, sit on the foreclosure and hope the market improves, or even cancel the foreclosure because it has too many foreclosures to handle.  This situation breaks the basic Spiderman law - With great power comes great responsibility.

The solution is equally simple.  At the time when a bank evicts the home owner, the bank needs to buy the house from the home owner.  Start with an appraisal to get the current, fair market value of the property, and use that amount against the loan owed by the home owner.  If the mortgage is under water, then the bank takes a loss.  If the mortgage is above water, then the bank pays the home owner the difference between the loan amount and the fair market value of the house.

Now, the bank can decide what to do with the house without impacting the former home owners.

By the way, the reason I think the banks should simply take the loss is that compared to the average person, the bank more knowledge about the loan process, the home buying process, and a much greater level of sophistication.  For the current set of bad loans, the banks knew that they were writing unpayable mortgages, yet they still chose to do it.  In the future, I think we need some sort of independent panel to decide the division of responsibility between parties.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Movie Review: "The Last Airbender"

Every Saturday, we have a family movie night, when the entire family sits down, watches a movie, and then discusses the movie.  This past Saturday, we watched "The Last Airbender"  again.  Since I've seen the movie before, I used this viewing to understand my feelings. You see, the first time I watched the movie, I both liked and disliked it.  But I couldn't put a finger on the why.

Now, I understand.

Each scene in the movie, taken individually, is quite good.  The actors portray the characters in a fashion true to the original cartoons.  The special effects flow seamlessly with the actors' motions, adding to the story line positively.  The director even managed to generate and sustain a sense of urgency throughout the story.

But as someone who watched the original series, I felt disappointed by the omission in the plot.  This movie covers the entire first season of the show, and it does a poor job of it.  The conquest of the Great Library is at least three episodes in the show, with conflicts between Aang and the Fire Nation.  Yet in the movie, this event gets an honorable mention.  Plus, the movie lacks the growing connections between Aang, Katara, and Sokka.    While the three characters interact appropriate in every single scene, the movie as a whole lacks the flow between scenes and the sense of growing closer.  Similarly, while Aang is okay in every individual scene, the movie lacks the sense of loss and anguish that haunt him, lacks the depth of Aang that you find if you watch the series.

Ironically, if you haven't seen the original series, the movie still disappoints.  The plot depends in no small part on the viewer knowing the story before watching, because there are holes for people who have never seen the cartoon.

On a scale from 1 to 5, I would give the movie 2.5 stars.  While each scene is good, the movie as a whole lacks cohesion.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Freaky Friday News: January 4, 2013

Dr. Benjamin Rush painting by Charles Wilson Peale
c. 1848
From Public Domain
Today is a day for rejoicing and a day to ridicule the ridiculous.  But first, raise your glass and shout "Huzzah!" for...

Happy Birthday, Dr. Rush!!!

Today would be the birthday for Dr. Benjamin Rush, a little remembered man who was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Dr. Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, served on the Continental Congress, opposed slavery, opposed capital punishment, and helped mend fences between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

He also was a writer, a physician, an educator, a humanitarian, and a professor of chemistry.

I urge you to take a few minutes today and learn a bit more about this person who influenced history itself.

Malala Yousafzai Discharged from the Hospital

In our second "Huzzah"  for the day, Malala Yousafzai has recovered from her gun shot wounds to be discharged from the hospital.  Malala is the young, 15 year-old girl from Pakistan who wrote about life under the Taliban, including how she just wanted to go to school.  The Taliban responded not by offering her a desk, but by shooting her in the head.  Luckily for Malala, the Pakistan government flew her to Great Britain to recover.  Before you misunderstand me, the lucky part is the Pakistan government recognized that the Taliban had a better chance to shot her again if she remained in Pakistan.  I think she would have recovered medically at home; she just would be more of a sitting target.

Actually, let's send up another "Huzzah!"  for the Pakistan government, who gave Malala's father a job at the Pakistan embassy in Birmingham, Great Britain, so that he can be with his daughter.  The government also made Malala an education attache, allowing her to live abroad for at least 3 more years.

Goodbye and Good Riddance, Wegelin & Co.

Wegelin & Co. is a private Swiss bank that will be closing their doors after more than 250 years in business. Why?  Because they lost in court to the US government, publicly admitting that they have helped American citizens avoid taxes to the tune of $1.2 billion dollars over the past decade.  

Yes, that is billion with a b.

Now, what really bothers me about this case isn't the closing of a private Swiss bank.  They knew exactly what they were doing, so I'm fine with them now facing the consequences of their actions.  What bothers me is that at a standard 30% tax rate, the U.S. government should have collected approximately $400 million dollars over that decades worth of time.  Instead, the bank is paying a measly $57.8 million in restitution and fines.  

The government may get the names and account balances of those people who used the bank to evade taxes, and maybe we'll get the back taxes owed.  But doing that costs money as well, so I wonder how much the government will net in the end.

It's the Bazinga Bee!!

Last week, a Brazilian biologist named Andre Nemesio named a species of orchid bee after Sheldon Cooper's favorite phrase, "Bazinga".  

Sheldon Cooper is a character on the T.V. show, "The Big Bang Theory".  I admit, I only started watching the show recently.  But I love the characters on the show, the geeky humor, the social diatribes, and...well, just about everyone and everything about this show.  I wonder if they'll include the new bee species on a future episode???

Welcome to Russian, Mr. Depardieu and Ms. Bardot!

If you think we have debt problems, look around you.  France has its own problems with its economy, so much so that it tried to pass a law that taxes anyone making over a million dollars a year at a 75% tax rate.  

Yes, they want 3/4 of a person's income if that person makes over $1,000,000 a year.

In protest to this law (which I think has been struck down by the courts), Gerard Depardieu became a Russian citizen.  While he doesn't mind paying taxes, Mr. Depardieu feels the country should not penalize successful people.

But the bizarre turn in this story is the addition of Ms. Brigitte Bardot.  Since her retirement in the 1970s, Ms. Bardot became an animal rights activist.  She's protested about sacrificial slaughtering of sheep, set up an animal rights foundation, and gotten herself arrested no less than five times.  Currently, she's upset because the government wants to kill two elephants that carry tuberculosis, and Ms. Bardot is threatening to join Mr. Depardieu in Russia as a citizen.

Wow.  I don't know where to begin.

I agree with Mr. Depardieu.  While I think the 10% that successful people pay over here is too low, 75% just seems ridiculous.  I mean, at some point every dollar you earn nets your less than a dollar with that type of tax scale.

But the elephants?  I believe in animal rights, but a sick elephant is a sick elephant.  If the animals are in pain or otherwise going downhill, why not put them out of their misery?  Even if the elephant hasn't reached the stage of pain yet, if it is contagious and could pass tuberculosis on to humans, why take the chance? This is a particularly nasty illness, and the last thing that any country needs is more tuberculosis.

Book Review: "Cold Days" by Jim Butcher

Cold Days (The Dresden Files, #14)Cold Days by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My husband got this book for Christmas, and we both have finished reading it. Yes, the book is that good, that engaging, and that... well, for lack of a better word, that awesome.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not read through the end of "Ghost Story", please stop reading this review.

Okay, for everyone else, Harry Dresden is most definitely not dead, though he feels that way in the beginning of the book. After being in a coma for several months, Harry needs some time to recover. It's a rather strenuous recovery, though, because there is trouble building up that needs attention from Harry. Pronto.

Jim Butcher has revived Harry Dresden from the clutches of certain doom (otherwise known as jumping the shark) in the reading universe. Up until now, every book introduced newer, tougher, smarter, and more powerful villains, until it felt to me as though Harry only won through luck and trickery. Or if felt like a contrived win, instead of a natural flow of events. In "Cold Days", Harry now is fighting villains who might outgun him, but who lack Harry's tactical thinking and wit. Harry also faces a few people with major mojo, but as the Winter Knight Harry now has some major mojo as well. So the story is less of running around trying not to die, and more running around trying to figure out what is going on.

While Mr. Butcher included several people from previous stories that I remember clearly, I ended up researching Harry's relationship with a few characters because I just did not remember enough of the character to make sense of the current interactions. But Mr. Butcher did a great job with continuity, which is not easy with such a large series.

I laughed out loud several times while reading, because Mr. Butcher included so many good jokes and one-liners. I love that about Harry Dresden; he has such a good sense of humor, an achievement when you consider his life so far.

If you like the series so far, I think you will love this book. I don't want to include any real spoilers, because there is just so much goodness here you need to read it yourself.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading Challenge for 2013

It's no secret - I love to read.  I read young adult books, adult books, fiction, nonfiction, biographies, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and poetry.

As soon as I learned about the website Goodreads, I joined and started to track my reading habits.  If you haven't heard, Goodreads lets you keep track not only of what books you've read, but also your opinion about them.  I also get a lot of good recommendations about new books to read.  I never would have picked up a book by A. Lee Martinez if not for Goodreads and a book review written by my friend, Tara.  Now, this man is one of my favorite authors - I just bought two more of his books with some Christmas money.

Goodreads also holds a yearly Reading Challenge.  It's quite simple, you put in the number of books you want to read during the year, and it keeps track of all the books you mark as "read"  during the year.  Last year, I signed up to read two books a month, or 24 books in the year.  I hit my mark relatively early, so I up the goal to 30 books, and I made that one with a total of 31 books read last year.

This year, I am setting my goal at 24 books again.  Partly, this is because I have to find 24 books that I haven't read yet that I want to read.  Plus, two books a month seems like a reasonable goal.

Will you join me with a reading challenge?  How many books do you want to read this year?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy New Year!! Some Advice and Ramblings...

Happy New Year!

The older I get, the faster time seems to fly.  I realize that's because as a little kid, a year was a significant percent of my life.  But as a mid-40s woman, a year just isn't that long, comparatively speaking.

I know a lot of people make resolutions this time of year, but I wonder how many people think about the word, "resolution".  The denotation is that you publicly state your resolve to accomplish a task.  But I think that the connotation of this word has evolved over the years to mean something different.  When I hear people talk about resolutions, the conversations have a feeling of procrastination about them.  Maybe I've watched "Star Wars"  too many times, but I feel very Yoda about things.

Do or do not; there is no try.

So someone who says, "My New Year's resolution is to try to lose weight/save money/pay off credit cards/get into shape..."  I wonder why try?

I do have a few things I will do starting right now.  First, I have a bad habit of staying up late at night, and then wanting to sleep in.  I am a natural night owl - I would much rather stay up late then get up early.  But I have 5 more months of getting up early for an elementary school kid, and then we are done with elementary school forever!  (I almost feel as though I'm graduating from fifth grade.)  So starting today, I am following a bedtime.  Just don't tell my Mom - she gained more than one grey hair trying to get me to follow a bedtime as a kid.  She may not believe it if you tell her I'm following one voluntarily.

Second, I will smile more this year, and look for the funny side of the situation.   This world is filled with so much hatred, violence, and evil that sometimes I feel as though this entire endeavor, living, is a waste of time because any singular person, me included, cannot fix it all.  But I do believe that learning to smile in the face of such bleakness is a start, so smile I will.

Third, I will continue my campaign of small, random acts of kindness.  Maybe if more people looked for ways to be kind, there will be less hatred.

Does anyone out there have something they are changing this next year?  Please share it with me, if you want to.

As always, I hope that this year is even better than last year.      

Freaky Friday News: Unicorn Licenses

Los Angeles County Gives a Young Resident a Unicorn License Last month, a resident of Los Angeles county, Miss Madeline, sent a handwritte...