Your Thoughts Exactly: December 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Down in the Boondocks

December 31, 2005
marks the end of a year that can’t end soon enough. It also marks the tenth anniversary of the last Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, which has been celebrated by the release of the beautiful leather-bound collection of all Calvin and Hobbes strips in two giant volumes. I have yet to buy these books because I lack disposable income, and because I already have every Calvin and Hobbes strip in my collection, although many of these strips are in books that have spent years on my bathroom floor.

I think that Calvin and Hobbes probably shaped my sense of humor more than any other source material. Calvin, the main character, can be gross, sarcastic, satirical, mean, and of course, a numbskull. His relationships, most importantly with Hobbes, but also with his parents, are not boxed into one type of interaction as most characters are portrayed on sitcoms, in movies, and in comic strips. Bill Waterson was able to use the comics’ daily format to mirror real life, in that you interact with people differently on different days. So some moments Calvin can be deep and philosophical and some moments he can be banging nails into his mother’s coffee table.

Since the Calvin and Hobbes ended, the Comics page in the Boston Globe has not been the same. Nothing has filled the void; to the point where ten years after the fact, the Globe has begun to run old C+H strips. I am not opposed to this at all, as there is an entire generation of ten year olds that can have their senses of humor and outlooks on life improved by this resource. But it would be nice if some new comic could come along, inspired by Waterson to carry the mantle.

The closest any strip has come to doing this is Aaron McGruder’s the Boondocks, in its early years of existence. In The Boondocks, McGruder was able to replicate the depth of relationships between the strips’ characters, although the characters in The Boondocks were very different than those in C+H. First, he split his protagonist into two different characters, the good: Huey, smart and philosophical, and the bad: Riley, troublemaker. Both are descendents of Calvin and both share his anti-authoritarianism. Second, he had a deeper stable of supporting characters: Grandpa, Caesar, Jasmin and her parents, Cindy, Huey and Riley’s teachers (one of whom is named Ms. Peterson, after one of the parents of Taylor James Peterson.)

Third, the premise, urban youths move to suburbia, allowed McGruder to examine an issue Waterston never covered in his strips: racial relations in the U.S. Sometimes McGruder’s characterizations seem a little over-the-top, particularly his characterization of Cindy, a young white girl who goes out of her way to impress Huey of his knowledge of black culture, thus coming across as totally naïve. In general though, McGruder was able to infuse the racial background of the Freeman family into the relationships of the strip in a realistic, and of course humorous, manner. Plus he made lots of hip hop references which I adored.

Following 9/11 the content of the strip changed, however. McGruder addresses this, saying that he was unable to continue the strip in its past format, even if it was a format that everyone liked. To avoid burnout, he stripped down the number of characters and changed the strips focus, from emphasizing the relationships forged between members of different races living in suburbia to emphasizing Huey’s take on current events. This had the dual effect of limiting the breadth and potential of the strip and garnering The Boondocks more attention. In the hyper-patriotic atmosphere of 9/11 The Boondocks was one of the only voices speaking out against suspect legislation like the PATRIOT Act and questioning the motives and competence of the Bush Administration. What followed was a TV deal for The Boondocks cartoon as part of Adult Swim and of course, increased fame for McGruder, who began to brand himself as one of “America’s angriest black men.”

The Boondocks TV show has grown out of the second incarnation of The Boondocks comic strip. The show looks at one issue per week, (the R Kelly trial, golddiggers,) and while the half hour TV slot allows the show to put the issue into a greater context than a comic strip, the lack of continuity and development of characters still hinders the show's potential. In choosing to label himself the angry black man, McGruder has limited his characters’ ability to grow and develop into something else. Of course there is a lot to be angry about, and Huey Freeman will always be a rebel and always be looking to give it to the man. But in its older format, Huey had the potential to give it to the man and at the same time grow and learn to live with these crazy white people around him, and to make his own mistakes based on his prejudices. As all people do.

I hope on this tenth anniversary of the ending of Calvin and Hobbes, McGruder can go back and read into Calvin’s nature, his complexity, and attempt to apply this same complexity to his characters. Nothing will ever replace Calvin and Hobbes. But there is much we can still learn from it even ten years later.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


The War of Christmas

I'm sure this is sort of old news by now, but over the past month (and the past few Christmases) an argument being made by the ultra-conservative right is that the liberal media is polluting Christmas by making it available to the masses, by depriving it of its Christian roots and even totally secularizing it by calling it "the holiday season".

I don't know if this stems from some deep-seated Christian need to feel persecuted, but as Jon Stewart said- "you guys have pretty much been in charge for the last 2,000 years." No, this doesn't really have anything to do with Christianity. Actually, I think it's nothing more than a pretty clever ploy by the conservatives to get liberals back on the defensive.

Not that it's evil. I'm not saying 'oh great, those damn CONSERVATIVES are at it again'. I'm just pointing out that I think this is more a strategic ploy than a real issue that the leadership of conservatives care about. In fact I wish the democrats were better strategists of this kind.

And of course, this could be all totally false, like all my posts, but I came up with this theory when I was reading some article accusing Wal-Mart of trying to cater to the small minority (I think the article said less than 10% of America didn't celebrate Christmas) while offending the majority of America- that they cared more about non-christians than Christians! Gasp!

Now, Wal-Mart, like any good corporation, probably spent a lot of man-hours on their entire holiday strategy. What exactly to say, how exactly to say it, what imagery to put in their ads, their decision to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" were all probably rehashed a thousand times each year, every year. And even they didn't see this coming (and it's probably a safe bet that like the Waltons, a lot of the execs are actually Republicans themselves). And they are, ostensibly, doing the right thing in not just caving into the majority and saying "screw those Hannukah-celebrating bastards!" So where is this strange backlash coming from? How is it that "Happy Holidays"carries even a little bit of controversy?

I 'celebrated' Christmas two days ago in a pretty secular, Americanized way. We had a tree, we had presents. I even said Merry Christmas. And, as you may or may not know if you've ever read this blog, I'm an atheist. I didn't go around saying Happy Holidays, even though I might be considered in the prime demographic for someone in the War Against Christmas. So when this story started breaking in fine news outlets such as the O'Reilly Factor, I actually thought "Well, it is an American holiday, and I doubt anyone, myself included, would be offended if they changed to Merry Christmas."

And I probably still wouldn't. But the point here is that somehow, they've gotten the backlash worked up enough to the point that they are actually convincing people that being politically correct- trying not to offend, trying to do basically the "Right Thing", is somehow offensive. That not only should places like Wal-Mart be catering to Christians, they should have no qualms about brushing aside all non-Christians. And on Wikipedia, I actually had to edit out of the article a section where some enterprising young citizen had added a small section of a few companies (including Wal-Mart) that say "Happy Holidays" instead of Christmas. Why was this relevant at all, I wonder? Why were they singling out these few companies when the vast majority of the large national companies say "Happy Holidays" at this time of year? I think it's simply to give attention to the nation's largest retailer- to get easily swayed Christians to boycott Wal-Mart (or at least start a letter-writing campaign)- and get Wal-Mart to change their ways. That way, other retailers will start to follow.

And what is really the point of all this? Well, first, it's subtle. It gets the attention off other bigger things going on in the political world, but at the same time it's something that everyone can have an opinion on. And it doesn't get confused with the war in Iraq, so the story is something that gets carried as a sort of 'on the lighter side of things' in most news outlets. Secondly, like I'm trying to point out- it gets people thinking in an us vs. them attitude. "I'm a Christian, and so is most of the US, so we should be a Christian nation!" Screw the minority, this should simply be a matter of tyranny of the majority. And once you have enough people thinking that way, some get to thinking that anything Christian is the only way forward.

So what can the liberals do? We can't simply try and get everyone back to saying 'Happy Holidays'- that would play right into their trap that we are indeed trying to destroy Christmas. And by ignoring the 'issue' (which is mostly what has been happening) you simply mitigate its effects. I don't think there is anything else that can be done- which is why it is good strategy.

Monday, December 19, 2005


What happens if God is a giant chicken?

Eternal consequences, that's what! And what would those be? Well, obviously, god is going to create a deadly bird flu to wipe us all out and repopulate the world in his image. Then we'll all be reincarnated as Big Bird clones and we'll all live together in a wonderful puppet world where everyone is fuzzy and corporate sponsorships are brought to you by the number 4.

Uh, something like that, yeah. But let's cut to the chase. There's been a LOT of hype about bird flu lately, and while some of it has been accurate, some of it has been dead wrong as well. In fact, I think that talking about it, in and of itself, is both accurate and inaccurate in some way. What the hell am I trying to say, you ask? Well let me explain.

The current flu strain that they are talking about- H5N1, is a virus that exists mainly in birds. It has been shown to jump to humans in a few instances, and in those instances, the mortality rate has been about 50%. That's a nice big number, and while not as high as say, rabies, or Ebola, there IS reason to fear this more than those other numbers. Why? Because flu is known to spread quickly among human populations, being transmissible through the air (unlike rabies) and having a longer incubation period than Ebola (allowing more time to spread through unknowing carriers).

So there's some bad news and some truth to that. But the problem is, that 50% number is basically meaningless for a few reasons. First, it's only 50% of the people with suspected cases of this flu- there may well be hundreds or thousands of poultry workers who have contracted a mild version of H5N1, chalked it up to the regular flu, and never having it documented by the health officials. Secondly, in an actual epidemic, a virus can't sustain a mortality rate of 50%. It would be a bad phenotypical trait for a virus to kill 50% of its hosts. It's one reason why Ebola doesn't reach epidemic numbers, and it's the reason why in any real flu epidemic, the mortality rate is much, much lower, like around 2.5% for the 1918 flu epidemic. The thing is, some people think of these viruses as a sentient being- like they're TRYING to kill us (which would probably only be true if god indeed is a giant chicken) and that if they had it their way, the mortality rate would be 100%. Think of it, instead, as more of a mathematical problem- the viruses are simply multiplying as best they can, and the best way to multiply is usually keeping your host alive longer to make more viruses. In fact, the ideal scenario for a virus would probably be to become incredibly transmissible, cause the host to make a bajillion copies of itself, and yet not cause any symptoms or immune response. In fact, this is more akin to what HIV does (and sort of why it's so ridiculously hard to kill/cure)

Still, 2.5% is nothing to brag about. That's still a significant portion of the population, and we probably don't want that to happen. But the problem is, what can we really do about it? Mainly, the asian countries most at risk have been resorting to mass killings of birds when there is a suspected case of the flu in one of them. Is this really helpful? Well, in a small way, yes, it does prevent transmission of that one actual population of virus. But it's not going to work forever, and it seems to me to be a move of desperation more than anything else. Because it's not a solution- it's a stopgap. Are we really going to kill every bird if we suspect it might be harboring a virus? Because every living thing on the planet is a potential virus factory. Some better than others, but the fact still remains that livestock themselves are risk factors and that some degree of disease is reality in a world where we still live with them.

Anyway, there's no guarantee that the next big pandemic is going to come from H5N1. It could come from a SARS-alike, or perhaps an HIV variant. Or maybe just a different strain of flu. Admittedly, it's the biggest threat on the horizon. Which is why you'll see lots of research doctors and policy wonks quoting off things like "this is the biggest threat we'll see in our lifetimes" and "we should be focusing on this rather than terrorism". Ok, maybe this last one is true. But really, the problem is that we can't predict mutations, and we can't predict what the virus' pathology would be like if/when it becomes transmissible from human to human. Is there a real chance of it happening? Yes, but I'd say the odds are still against it. Is there reason to be afraid? Almost certainly not.

So basically, in closing, what I want to say is- this is mostly hype by the media trying to spread fear into our hearts. That being said, we very likely will face some sort of pandemic in our lifetimes, and there probably won't be anything we could have done to stop it (maybe if we killed off every single bird on the planet?) And we're all going to die. But there's no reason to be afraid!

Friday, December 09, 2005


Healthcare in America

The other day, I was privileged enough to sit in on a conference given by the National Health Policy Forum. I was only allowed to sit in because my father was one of the three presenters. The topic, or topics, was how different healthcare groups were changing their models of delivering care for the 21st century. The crucial upgrades in healthcare in this country are driven by the technology revolution; computerization of medical records for example, is requiring massive upgrades and changes in how hospitals and clinicians go about their business. Overall, such upgrades are cost efficient and insure better quality of care by providing an electronic level of quality control to remove doctor error. For example, one of the speakers (not my Dad,) gave an example of how computerized medical banks saved him from prescribing the wrong kind of medication to two of his patients. The other crucial revolution is changing healthcare to be more “user-friendly,” through providing patients with more online resources, and improving the quality of the healthcare consumer experience.

Yet as I watched the audience of legislative aides and policy wonks listen to the various speeches, I was overwhelmed by several recognitions. The first is how annoying some people are. I am talking about the guy with the metro haircut and high-priced glasses who read the paper during my Dad’s presentations, then asked one snotty prepared questions to make it seem like he knew what he was talking about. I guess it’s reassuring to know these people still exist. The second was how broken and fundamentally wrong our healthcare system is. Let me explain.

Our healthcare system is a compromise between private enterprise and a government handout system that makes absolutely no sense and works to screw over people exactly like myself. As a private enterprise, healthcare is flawed because the same providers are responsible for providing care for people with very different needs. You have the majority of the population who requires a yearly checkup, immunizations, and very little care or cost to a company. You have a very small population with chronic diseases, or at the end of life or beginning of life, that represents the majority of cost for insurers and healthcare providers.

Of course, we are REQUIRED through Medicare and Medicaid, to subsidize the healthcare of the two most costly populations, the old and the young. But since we still have predominantly for profit healthcare in this country, and healthcare providers are restricted in the amount of money they can earn off these populations that take up more of their costs, the system is set up so that the burden of cost is shifted to the healthy.

Which is ok I guess if you have a job with benefits. If you are like me, however, someone who can’t get a job with benefits, then you are shit out of luck with regards to health insurance. Of course the healthcare providers don’t want to change the system because that would drive away their main source of revenue. The political hacks at the conference only care how new policies affect Medicare and Medicaid because those are the policies they are directly involved with (and probably because of the voting power of old people.)

What we need is to go down one of two paths. The first is to guarantee some sort of universal healthcare coverage in this country. The second is for some healthcare provider to offer cheap health coverage to only healthy young adults. I am talking dirt cheap, minimal coverage. But that’s what this country needs. Because right now, my tax dollars are going to fund the coverage of other people, while I can’t afford any. And that’s not fair.


Video Game Review: Civilization 4

So, I'm probably like the millionth person to review this game, but I have been playing it a lot (in fact all of us have), and I think it's only fair to give it the full treatment. Here's a one-line review: it's great.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's go over the short list of positives. Why is it short, if it's such a great game? Well, really, there's nothing that new in this game. If you've played Civilization 1, 2, or 3, it's pretty much the same thing. Sure, there are a few tweaks here and there, but by and large, it's still the same turn-based game of world domination. Of course, the earlier Civs are considered some of the greatest games of all time, so it's good that they didn't change it too much. But basically, for a complex version of a game of risk, there's nothing that even really falls into Civ 4's genre.

And that's what this really has turned into with the advent of multiplayer in Civ 4. Sure, multiplayer had been available in add-ons for the earlier civs, but it never worked quite right, because turns took an ungodly amount of time and you were always stuck waiting for other people. They've eliminated this in Civ 4 with the concept of simultaneous turns. This presents its own problem- when two people are attacking, who gets to go first? Basically, the person who can click on their guy fastest. Not a huge deal- but I feel like it could actually make a difference. You know the old adage: a few battles can change a war. But multiplayer is what makes this game shine. Playing singleplayer is great, but it's just not the same as actually making Derek your bitch with a battalion of knights sieging his puny Mongolian cities.

By really, this is mostly just an update of Civ 3. Not one of those "let's just slap new graphics" on it update. Actually, the designers actually rebuilt the entire game from scratch, which allowed them to reexamine what was actually fun and good about their game and what wasn't. The result is that Civ 4 is probably the cleanest game yet, with the least frustration of all the games, and probably the best feeling of control of your mini-empire.

But still, there are a lot of little nitpicks. The game runs pretty slowly for what it is. The graphics aren't that spectacular, and at the end of the game on a large map, things can get really slow. Unacceptably slow, even. And there are just a lot of little things that probably would have been changed if they hadn't rushed it out the door. But then, everyone would have been deprived of Civ for a few more weeks or months and the world would be an unhappier place.

Anyway, the way the Civ cycle has always been for me, is that every few years, they release a new version, I get addicted, play until I can't remember my friends' names, and then quit when I get sick of it. Because Civ is the only game out there like it, they could probably re-release the same game every year and I would buy it and get re-addicted. But thankfully, they haven't rested on their loads and loads of cash, and actually improved the game.

In any case, it seems that 2005 was a down year for games- Nothing spectacular was released, and so I'm actually going to have to declare Civ 4 the game of the year. Hopefully 2006, with the Xbox 360, PS3, and the Nintendo Revolution(Smash Brothers Revolution, anyone?) being released, will be a banner year.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Help Wanted

In case you haven't noticed, Your Thoughts has been in a bit of a funk lately. Is it because I have been playing World of Warcraft and Civilization 4 non-stop? No, of course not. The issue is that we are understaffed. To that end, we're putting out some feelings for a fresh new brain for our growing army of undead to feed on. Now, onto the qualifications:

Our new potential member:

1) Must create enough material for at least 2 substantial posts a month.
2) Must have the ability to hold more than one thought in their head at a time.
3) Must not be illegally attracted to Hermione Granger
4) Must not go to Northwestern University law school.
5) Must not be named David Harris.
6) Must not be an awful, awful human being.

If you fit these qualifications or know anyone who does, feel free to leave a comment.

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