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November 19, 2013

"Affordable" Care Act

Many years ago, California passed laws that made having auto insurance mandatory within the state. The insurance companies looked at that legislation and said, "Great, we have a captive audience. Let's cancel policies, create new ones at many times the current costs, and screw as many people as possible, while making huge profits." (I'm paraphrasing.) While the intention of the state mandate was good, and, logically, the insurance companies would have had many more millions buying the existing policies, increasing their coffers a very respectable amount, they got greedy. California later then created and passed Proposition 103, which forced the insurance companies to rein in their greed. According to the Consumer Federation of America's report, Prop 103 has saved California drivers about $100 billion since it was passed, in 1988. California is also the only state where auto insurance rates have consistently gone down over the last 25 years.

The Affordable Care Act is a great idea. Allowing children to stay on their parents insurance longer? Great. Insurance companies not denying or dismissing your insurance for pre-existing conditions? Wonderful. Setting a baseline for the minimum amount of healthcare that plans will service? Stupendous. Getting rid of plan maximum payouts? Awesome.

But, like in California with the auto insurance, the federal government forgot some vital components:
  1. Setting insurance cost maximums for those base policies.
  2. Making it illegal for insurance plans to eliminate your insurance and then sell it to you again at higher rates.
Insurance works by having many people pay a small amount into a pooled fund. It is assumed that the majority will need very little of the fund and a small minority will need some or a lot of funds, so the majority pay for the minority and everybody pays a small amount total. The insurance companies get their profit from:
  • the amount of people in the fund, paying insurance premiums
  • the interest from the (assumed) amount of money that is paid in that is not paid out again.
Insurance is, in essence, the only legal pyramid scheme allowed, and all insurance works this way.

Health insurance companies could have looked at "Obamacare" as a huge influx of money into their coffers. They should have been lauding and trumpeting the passage and the subsequent Supreme Court rulings making it legal. Depending on which side you ask, somewhere between 15 and 50 million Americans would be added into the pool of those paying for health insurance. This would, by how insurance works, create more premiums going into its coffers and create more interest on the unused, larger amount of funds.

But, like in California in the 1980s with the auto insurance, the health insurances saw a way to make even more profit from Obamacare: in order to hit the baseline minimums that the Affordable Care Act insisted on, insurers simply eliminated a host of existing plans and then resold those people new plans that hit those base minimums but at a much higher cost to the canceled plans.

The minimums required by Obamacare are:
  1. Ambulatory patient services
  2. Emergency services
  3. Hospitalization
  4. Maternity and newborn care
  5. Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment
  6. Prescription drugs
  7. Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices
  8. Laboratory services
  9. Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
  10. Pediatric services, including oral and vision care
You may not need every single aspect (you might be male and single, and don't need maternity or newborn care, for example), but I think most people can respect that these are the bare minimums of things that should be covered by any insurance plan.

Let's say you had Plan X and it had 8 of the 10 minimums and charged you $50 a month. Insurers could add the two items you do not have to your plan and charge you, say, $5 or $10 a month more for the plan, which you would likely find reasonable and affordable. Instead, insurers are primarily choosing to delete your current plan, create a brand new plan with all 10 items, and charge you $100+ to rejoin. What do you get out of it: the exact same coverage, with one or two new coverages added, at double, triple, or more the original rate.

Now, let's say you are a health insurance company. You have 100,000 people with Plan X, paying $50 a month. You are getting $5 million a month from that plan, or $60 million a year. You are betting that less than 20% of your insured population will need to use these funds during any given year, and further betting that, of those who do need to, the majority are for low-cost circumstances (ER visit, kid has the flu, blood tests, medications, etc.). As an insurer, you can add those two missing items, charge the same people $60 a month, and start making $6 million a month. Because of Obamacare, you may also get another couple of thousand who didn't have insurance before who buy into Plan X. So, now you have 110,000 people at $60/month, or $6.6 million a month. You've increased your income by approximately 33%!

Instead, insurers chose to cancel the policies in full, force people to sign back up (with a strong likelihood they would, since the online registration rollout was so poorly handled), and charge them double, or more, for nearly identical plans. That is a money grab, plain and simple. Instead of being happy with the huge increase in profits that would come naturally, they made a grab for even more. And, what's worse, is that it is completely legal, because the politicians didn't consider that a corporation would take full advantage of a law like this, even though they had examples in fairly recent history.

Well, California is leading the charge again. They are proposing legislation similar to Prop 103 that would work the same way. I imagine it will have the same effect, too; insurance companies will continue to do business, will continue to make huge profits, but the people will have affordable rates and policies. No more raising rates by 170% over the last decade while inflation rose 32.5% during the same period!

Had the federal government thought to do this from the beginning, many of the people now without plans, and most of the people who were forced out and back into new plans, would have hardly noticed the Obamacare rollout. It would have truly meant only those people without a plan would need to work toward getting one.

There is absolutely no reason why the Affordable Care Act cannot work and work well. We've seen it work in more than one state and in nearly two dozen industrialized countries. Insuring everyone is a good thing, when done right. However, rather than learning from similar situations (like car insurance in California) or from the various ways that other countries have implemented it, America decided to recreate the wheel -- and did it badly. Insurance companies, which should have been helping every step of the way and thinking about all that new money that would be coming in naturally, got greedy. Politicians, rather than looking out for their constituents, made bad decisions (Democrats) or abstained from the process altogether (Republicans), rather than writing a law that made sense and closed these types of loopholes.

I hope that Obamacare continues because I know people with cancer and similar, expensive illnesses who need the caps on insurance removed. I know (and am!) people with pre-existing conditions that either cannot get healthcare or cannot get affordable healthcare because of them. I know people with insurance that doesn't actually cover anything, and I know people who have had their insurance dropped for no good reason except they had to actually use it, cutting into fly-by-night insurers profits.

Please, government, don't get rid of the ideas behind Obamacare -- just fix the broken bits with laws that make sense and keep the people in mind.

November 7, 2013

Back Pain, Again

I mentioned a little while ago that I had some severe back pain (here and here). Taking the advice of many family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, I pushed for an MRI before starting physical therapy. The issue, many of them explained to me, was that physio is great as long as you are being treated for the right cause. In many cases, however, they started physio right away and nothing worked or their back trouble got worse, because you do different physio based on the root cause of the problem.

The MRI was last week and I got the results today. Turns out that I have disc herniation in the L4-5/S1 area of my back, presenting on the right side. Which is exactly where all of my pain and discomfort came from. Even down to my right leg not wanting to make a full arc when walking due to the discomfort I still feel in it.

The herniation is NOT pressing on the nerve, which is great news, but the fact everything is swollen and not in line still causes a lot of pain and discomfort.

Now that I have a cause, I can go get the right physio for my situation. And my doctor is setting up a referral to a back specialist to review the case and make sure that nothing more is needed, like surgery or specialized treatment.

Hopefully, in a few weeks or months, I can post how my back pain is gone and my therapy worked. Now that we know the root cause of the problem.

Oh, and to the ass hat of an urgent care doctor that didn't want to listen, didn't want to know, and acted put out that I insisted on an x-ray, gave me bad pain medication, and refused to pay attention to my medical history -- I was right and you were wrong. Idiot. I don't know where he graduated in his class, but I can guess he failed the parts about "bedside manner."

November 6, 2013


I was bullied at times as a child. I was small, always something that bullies look for in a victim. I was a bit of a smart ass, something that bullies hate. I was one of the smart kids, something that many bullies can't stand. As someone who was bullied fairly regularly, I learned that there is never one set, pat answer to the bully. The correct response is fluid and changes with what is going on, how bad the bullying gets, the level of physical or mental trauma inflicted, and the level of threat in evidence.

The Incognito/Martin issue currently in the news, and constantly developing, really shows a dichotomy in how people think and see bullying. I was just watching ESPN and it was showing an exchange between Mike Golic and another former NFL player on the subject. Golic's response showed me that Golic has never, ever been bullied in his life (or that he believes one answer is right for all circumstances). He was basically saying, "Martin should have stood up to Incognito. He should have fought him and this problem would have gone away. Martin was weak to handle it the way he did."

Believing that you always stand up to a bully and doing so is the only correct solution shows a lack of understanding of the subject. While many bullies are in it for the physical (or mental) domination and having their prey stand up to them takes that away, not all bullies work that way. Some simply target someone for "fun" or some reason specific to the bully. Once targeted, the bully will do whatever it takes to stay in what they see as a position of dominance and control over their selected victim. If physical works, they use that. If the person stands up to that, they move on to emotional harassment, then maybe political control. They will lie to peers and those in power, even when the victim isn't around, in order to facilitate further bullying later. They will do things subtly, so if the victim speaks out or acts up, it looks like they are the ones at fault or having the problem, and the bully can keep right on doing it.

Add into this the level of sophistication and 24/7 access that today's technology allows a bully, and the abuse can be neverending.

When I was bullied, I had to determine which response was the best/right one for the current circumstances:
  • Stand up and take a beating (and hope to give one, too)?
  • Run away and live to fight another day?
  • Use quick wit and smarts to get out of it or away from it?
  • Take it to an authority and tell on the bully?
Each response has its Pros and its Cons. Each has a potential negative and may cause the bully to continue the attacks, or even double-down on them and make them worse.

With one bully, I stood up. I got punched in the ear so hard it started ringing and I thought his fist would come out the other side of my head. I kicked him in the testicles in return, and we actually became pretty good friends. In another case, I ran away; he had numbers on his side and I was likely going to get really messed up, but I knew I was faster than anyone in the bully's group, so I could escape that circumstance. I then had to avoid that bully and his gang until I figured a way to turn the tables on the bully and get back at him. Then he turned his attention on someone else. In another case, the bully was not physically imposing, but was mentally trying to dominate and control me. I had to use my wits to overcome this threat. And, on more than one occasion, I had to go my least favorite route and simply tell on the bully and see where the chips fell. In some instances, it went badly for both of us. In most cases, the authority figure believed me and the bully got taken down and had to move on to someone else because I refused to play the game.

In many of those cases, had I simply stood up to the bully physically, it would not have made any difference. Those who bully through emotional manipulation, lies, subterfuge -- they would have simply continued on, and probably increase their efforts, because they got the rise out of me they were looking for.

Another aspect that comes into play is the bullied person's temperament. A quite, shy, introvert is going to have a very different response and way of dealing with the situation, regardless of bullying type, than an extroverted, outgoing, confident person. The introvert will want to ignore it, at first, and then try to "go along to get along" second. He/she may finally feel either telling an authority figure or running away is the best course of action. An extrovert is going to confront first, and maybe use their wits, charm, and people skills to diffuse the situation. Both are valid responses, and neither is right or wrong. But what do these people do if their bully simply changes tactics and continues to come at them? That is when character is tested.

This is a very complex issue and one that cannot be solved simply by a physical confrontation. We are still finding out what went on between Incognito and Martin, so I cannot say how Martin handled it was right or wrong. Anyone who says that there is only one right way for Martin to handle the situation, however, I take exception to. Either they have never been bullied or they are completely obtuse to how bullying works.

October 28, 2013

Concussion Conclusions

I'm torn on the recent spate of journalism on concussions in the NFL (and all football). After watching and reading a bunch about it, I'm left with two opinions:
  1. Concussions are bad and it is a shame the NFL has obfuscated, ignored, and lied about it for so long, rather than just helping to fix it. They should get compensation from the NFL for this.
  2. These people get paid hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year partially because of the danger inherent in the job. If the job is safer, they should be paid less.
I'm not sure which opinion, if either, is more important. But, if we are making the game of football less dangerous, than shouldn't we also lower the pay we provide to watch these players enjoy the game?

The average NFL career is three years. For 2013, the base NFL salary for a Rookie is $405,000. The average American yearly income is around $50,000 (it's hard to nail down a precise figure, as there are a lot of variables involved, especially as the wealth gets less evenly distributed. Most sites seem to agree on around $50,000). NFL rookies get paid eight times what the average adult income per year is -- and this is the amount given to the work-a-day rookies. It does not include signing and roster bonuses or various incentives. A third year player can earn a base salary of over $600,000 plus bonuses -- or 12 times the average American salary per year.

Part of this salary, and part for any sports league's high salaries, is based on the short career due to the high potential for injury and even death while playing. Part of the high salary is also simple economics; they can ask for it, due to the high revenues, so they get it.

These salaries have always assumed that NFL players will be somewhat broken down when they retire from the sport, and the high salary is partial compensation for that fact. After three years in the NFL, the average player will have somewhere north of $1.2 million in base salary. This same amount would take the average American salaried employee about 24 years to earn, in their (supposedly) less dangerous and more stable work environment.

The best I can determine is that the average career length for a police officer in America is around five years. The average salary is somewhere between $35,000 and about $50,000 per year, depending on where they are providing law enforcement. The police's job is at least as subject to injury and death as an NFL player's career, so why don't we pay our law enforcement personnel better?

Firefighters get an average between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, depending on location. Their lives are at risk every single time they go to a fire, and yet they only earn up to the national salary average?

Many teachers work in sub-optimal conditions, where their lives are threatened on a weekly basis. Yet the national average for teacher salaries is at approximately $35,500 -- and is only that high because of higher base salaries in the worst areas, like New York, New Jersey, and California. Not only are teachers' lives threatened constantly, their careers are constantly under threat from politicians, funding, and vindictive students and parents. They have to constantly make do with less, and spend a disproportionate amount of their salary on at-work requirements that cannot be found in other professions -- meaning they make even less than the national average if you take into account all of the books, resources, "free" coaching/theater/tutoring/music/etc., and other services they provide out of their own pocket each year. And yet they have one of the most important jobs in the world -- educating the next generation of workers, politicians, and everything else.

It seems like NFL players should be able to put enough aside to take care of their ongoing medical needs after their career, even if that injury is CTE, Alzheimer's, or another head-related trauma. Or, the NFL or Players Association could put aside somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of that salary for medical expenses and retirement needs for the first three years in some fashion that the players cannot touch or get at until after retirement.

I continue to be torn over this issue. These athletes should be able to ensure they are well cared for almost regardless of what type of injury they incur, and that is one of the reasons why we pay them so much. Those who make it past three years are even richer and more capable of taking care of themselves. On the other hand, they were misled and outright lied to over the years by their employers as to just what level of risk the "silent killer" of head trauma could play in their lives. Yet other, even more important, high-risk careers don't get paid nearly what these athletes do in order to entertain us. The athletes are in a high-reward and very profitable business, and should get whatever they can from management. But, at the same time, they should think about the future and save some of that money for the problems 5, 10, 20 years down the line.

This one has me stumped.

September 27, 2013

Moving Forward and Looking Back

When ServiceMaster (SM) first arrived to help us with our sewage flood in our basement, they were helpful, attentive, and hard-working. Morris, the guy we initially dealt with, talked all about the benefits of having a bin brought in to store our stuff in while the reclamation project proceeded. He and "the girls" were quick to sort through everything, box up what could be salvaged and pile up and discard what couldn't.

SM then proceeded with the recovery phase. They were quick to get the wallboard cut out, the damp, moldy fiberglass removed, and the industrial-strength HEPA and dehumidifiers working. Morris talked about the process and the project as it moved forward. Then Morris left.

We were left calling Lynn at the main SM office. She was helpful and we told her what we needed and what SM had done. What we didn't know until about a week and half into talking with Lynn was that she was just relaying these messages to someone called Mike, who was our actual project manager (PM) for the project. But still, things were moving forward; we had new wallboard put in, new insulation installed. The painter came and started the mudding of the wallboard.

But then the painter said he and his wife were going on vacation for a week and was that okay? Not realizing the effect this would have on the project, I said it was okay. When he came back, he got busy right away (well, on Tuesday; Monday was a holiday). He had the whole thing painted in a couple of days and ... the project came to a screeching halt.

TD Insurance sent an appraiser out to review the work done to-date and ask me how I felt about SM's performance so far. I said it was very good, but I lamented the lack of communication with SM.

All of sudden, I get a phone call from Mike. He wants to come over and review the project and get it moving again. Great, I'm thinking, that's what I want to. So I met my PM about 4 weeks into the project. He makes a lot of promises about calling me, getting things moving again. And, for about three days, he was great about that. "The girls" came back to remove stuff from the bin and clean up after the painter.

More little bits of work were needed. I'd call SM and would leave messages, but never get phone calls back or, if I did, they were from Lynn. "The girls" missed a room when cleaning, so they came back after almost a week of back and forths. The lawn was damaged from the bin sitting on it and then the removal process (the truck gouged and scraped up pieces of lawn). All of a sudden, SM was claiming that we would have to pay for the bin and the lawn damage ourselves; they claimed we told them to put it where they did, when no one asked us.

For the last three weeks, starting September 9th, I have called SM each Monday or Tuesday, asking about the lawn project. Each time, Lynn said she'd talk with Mike or email him and have him contact us. Finally, after having my wife call today, Mike finally called her back. He finally admitted that he doesn't know anything about the lawn and was having to contact another company, Taylor's Landscaping, for advice. My wife has had bad dealings with Taylor's and doesn't trust them to shovel manure much less fix our lawn. So red flags went up. More red flags when Mike continued to insist the lawn damage wasn't really their (SM's) fault and they were doing us a favor repairing it. He then said that he was going to send "some guys" over to rake some fertilizer into place and that would be that. Huge red flag. After this conversation, I called SM and asked to speak with Chris, Mike's boss. He wasn't in, but they would give him the message.

We immediately contacted TD Insurance and told them that the SM was not going to provide the services they quoted to us (to the tune of $900!). TD took a dim view of that and canceled the check. I called Lynn at SM and explained that we had the check canceled and that we felt it was in everyone's best interests to move on and get our usual lawn care people, Garden Pro, to do the work. She apologized. I was quite clear with her that we liked dealing with her, and liked SM's overall handling of the process, but that the miscommunication and lack of contact continued to be a big issue for us.

If Mike had managed the project from the get-go, this probably wouldn't have happened. We should have met him the first day or two, and been given his cell phone number to contact him with questions, rather than dealing with a half-dozen other intermediaries. If Mike had been more responsive to our messages, if he had told us that he needed to subcontract the lawn care out, we could have had this all resolved three weeks ago, most likely. It is the constant lack of communication, poor communication, or downright incorrect communication that has caused all this ire.

In the end, I think we left things on decent terms with SM. I'm still irritated with Mike, and I want to speak to Chris about some ways that SM could improve the lines of communication (I will try to remain civil). I already made a phone call to our lawn care guy to give come out and give us an estimate. We're moving forward and putting this behind us.

Congressional Rules (Revised)

I have revised my set of rules for Congress.

A member of Congress:

  1. Shall be paid a Salary equal to the American Median Income + 10%. This amount cannot be raised or changed by Congress in any way.
    1. Must make public and easily accessible any and all Income made in addition to their Congressional salary, including any stock and bond transactions, gifts, gratuities, honorariums, speaking engagements, book deals, campaign funds/contributions, et al.
    2. Shall only have “free” health care provision while in office.
    3. Must make public and easily accessible all travel expenses while in office. Only those that are for official government functions and reasons will be paid for by the government. Campaigning, fundraising, vacations, travel for family members, and any other travel deemed to not be for official government purposes will not be reimbursed by the government. (UPDATED)

[Solves the problem of Congress being paid well more than the average person (current Congressional salary: $174,000/year; current median income: about $45,000/year), making it a job that, once earned, no one wants to leave, but it is still valuable enough that those who want to serve the people will run for office.]

[Provides incentive to Congress to make sure laws enacted are beneficial to all income demographics.]

[Solves the problem of Congress members getting rich via alternate means while in office.]

  1. Must spend a minimum of 12 days out of every month in their home location.
    1. Congress members must maintain a residence in their home during the entire time they are in office.

[Solves the problem of Congress spending all of their time in Washington, D.C. and losing touch with those whom they are supposed to serve and represent.]

  1. Cannot serve more than two consecutive terms in office, and no more than three terms total.

[Solves the problem of lifelong public jobs, cronyism, and the “good ole boy” club mentality. Forces Congress members to have to live under the laws they create.]

  1. Must vote in a minimum of 90% of all Congressional votes. If a Congressman does not vote in a minimum of 90% of voting opportunities, the House or Senate will immediately begin the process of removing the Congressman from office.
    1. Voting and abstentions will be documented per Congress member.
    2. Votes cannot be delegated to another member of Congress.
    3. Votes cannot be made anonymously.
    4. Abstained votes will count as a non vote toward the 90% minimum requirement.
    5. All voting records will be made public and easily accessible.

[Solves the problem of Congress members who are granted all the perks of a government job without the accountability of actually doing the job.]

[Solves the problem of a lack of accountability for votes.]

[Solves the problem of the public not being able to find out how their representative votes on any issue.]

  1. Cannot enact any law that does not include all members of Congress.
    1. Any existing law that excludes any member of Congress will be immediately and summarily changed to include all Congress members.
    2. The Laws of the land will be applied equally to all, regardless of position or status.

[Solves the problem of Congress exempting itself from laws that affect all other citizens. I.e., being able to trade stocks based on their inside information of which laws will pass/won’t pass.]

September 12, 2013

Fall Out

I saw my GP today. Or, rather, I saw the doctor he had filling in for him while he's on vacation or otherwise away from the office. She had me run through a series of tests to determine what may be going on with my back and, in the end, agreed that I am "MRI worthy." However, she also said that regardless of the MRI results, the immediate therapy will be the same and will probably do what is needed: stop the pain and strengthen the back.

As I said I would, I argued for the MRI anyway, saying that it can't hurt, it gives us new and better information, and, on the off chance that something serious happened, it will catch it and we can change course at that time. She agreed and wrote me the script. Now, the bad part: MRI availability is such that I probably won't be seen for three to six months. The joys of being in the Atlantic Provinces!

She was confused that the UC doctor gave me a script for Percocet for two reasons: 1. it doesn't treat potential (and most likely) nerve pain and 2. it is filtered through the liver, and I have a chronic liver condition. So she wrote me a script for both an anti-inflammatory and something to help with the nerve pain, which I will start taking tonight.

Her in-office tests showed that I don't appear to have any nerve damage. I'm to watch for incontinence and loss of muscle function and get to the ER immediately if either happens. That means the nerve has been damaged or pinched again, and the signals are not getting through to where they need to go. It also sort of confirms what was going on during the worst pain from a week ago, as I needed to use the bathroom much more often than I usually do (with large volume each time -- seemingly more than I had actually taken in) and I got to the point where my right leg would not support my weight at all. My nerve must have been under some serious stress at that time, so I'm glad my wife took me to the UC the next day.

I made yet another follow up appointment for November. Hopefully by then I will be back on my feet (literally and figuratively) and my normal doctor can suggest therapies and other regimens along with what I plan to ease back into doing (walking, riding my stationary bike, etc.). In the meantime, I need to avoid lifting and twisting, even after my back feels "fine," as I could re-injure it. I also need to be better about having assistance when I need to move something and not doing it on my own. I already have helpers/doers lined up for our upcoming heavy lifting needs, so that should work out.

September 11, 2013

Back Pain a Week Later

It is now September 11th, an auspicious day, and I am finally able to walk without too much effort and assistance. As long as I don't move around too much, lift anything heavy, or over-exert myself, my pain is minimal. However, I walk with a shuffle, as the pain is still there and my right leg doesn't want to take my weight as well as my left leg. At night, when I roll over, I am waking up and rolling slowly and carefully, due to the stabs of pain that still exist. Sitting in my work chair in the office is uncomfortable and I have to take frequent pauses to stretch and move so my back doesn't lock up and hurt worse when I finally do move.

All told, I hurt my back in the late afternoon of September 1st (around 4 pm) and I am only just starting to feel like I am getting back to normal on September 11th. That's 10 full days, plus a half of a day on the 1st itself. And that includes having the Percocet to take daily and being given 4 days of full rest from the doctor, during which I did next to nothing except sit or lie down and try not to move.

While I know spasming is occurring, and it is difficult for me to keep my back relaxed and loose throughout the day, I find it hard to believe that there is not some sort of underlying cause to this pain. Nearly every person who has had a similar situation happen to them has mentioned that they wound up having either a pinched nerve or some sort of back or disc trouble that needed further attention. In one case, it led to back surgery after years of trying to force her doctor to do the necessary tests to find out what the problem was. In most cases, it required at minimum physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, and/or chiropractic manipulation. In some cases, it has required changes to lifestyle, including one friend who had to get a standing desk at work and is still doing therapy over a year later.

I go to my family doctor tomorrow. Although I am obviously improving, I am going to press for an MRI so that we can definitively rule out or confirm disc issues and proceed with the proper course of action based on that conclusion. I still find it hard to believe that the urgent care doctor wouldn't have insisted on that being done at the time of my visit to rule out anything more severe. Maybe it is nothing -- maybe the MRI will show no damage and it truly is nothing more than severe spasms. Or maybe it will show the simplest form of damage, either a pinched nerve or a bulging disc, which typically require exercises and massage therapies to alleviate. Either way, I want to know.

This situation has driven home the point that I need to work on my weight and my core strength more consistently. I was to the point where I was using my stationary bicycle regularly, and was starting to see some results, when our basement flooded. That resulted in our workout equipment being put into a bin for over six weeks. I did continue to do walks, but walking is not very comfortable for me (rheumatoid arthritis), which is why I got the low-impact bicycle. Just as the situation started to turn around and we started moving our items back into the basement, I strained my back. So it has been since mid-June that I've used my bike. Once my back is to a point where I can walk and ride, I plan on pushing myself to improve my effort and get my endurance back up to a reasonable level (I still generally have my strength, what I lack is any endurance). This should help improve my weight, which will also help my back (as I carry nearly all of my extra weight on my belly).

What is frustrating me the most is that we are in the prime "John needs to do stuff" period of the year. There is wood that needs to be split. There is wood that needs to be ranked/stacked for winter. There is maintenance on the front porch needed. I need to take the AC out of the office window and store it. Even simple things have been affected: I haven't been able to stand well enough or long enough to help with dinner (usually one of my main tasks). We have new flooring coming soon, and I may not be able to move the furniture out of the way or back for when that is happening.

So, basically, during what is usually one of my busiest times around the house, I have been useless. My wife has had to do a lot more and she's got a lot of pressure on her from other sources (work, family, etc.) not to need my poor health and inability to help out adding more to her plate.

I am hopeful that my GP can help. Hopefully he will agree to the MRI. I assume he'll also provide me with some sort of therapy to help strengthen my back to resist this from happening in the future. For my part, I have firm plans to work out more regularly to build up my endurance, continue the plans to eat better to help lose weight (which should help my back as well), and move toward strengthening my core as I am able to do more. I have contacted friends who have offered to help with the wood, furniture moving, and a few other "John-tasks" around the house. And I hope to be able to start taking back some of my responsibilities around the house, like making dinner, soon, so I can relieve some of the pressure on my wife.

September 5, 2013

Back Pain

On the long weekend, my wife and I began the long process of recovery from our recent basement sewage flood. Servicemaster had finished most of its efforts to clean, repair, and recover the sheetrock, fiberglass insulation, etc., and had moved our vacated items back into the basement.

I went down on Sunday evening to assess the plan of action for Monday (my wife was away visiting some friends). As often happens, I started to move a little something, which led to moving a little something more, and next thing I knew, I had been down there for 90 minutes or more and had cleared a whole area. As one final act, I decided to lift a large bag filled with bathroom mats onto a spot in the downstairs closet. When I did, I felt a very tiny "pop" in my lower back and nearly fell to my knees from the pain that suddenly swept from my back through my legs.

I managed to hobble my way upstairs, grab the heating pad, and sit. I waited patiently for my wife to get home and didn't do much moving. She had to help me stand up and move into the bedroom that evening, as the pain was growing pretty bad.

Monday (the holiday) I could barely move. Any excess weight on my back at all, from trying to walk, standing up, and even some positions of sitting, caused intense pain. Any twisting and leaning also caused the pain. So Monday I spent most of the day in my comfy chair. I tried not to do much, rest it as much as I could, and withstand the pain. I finally took two Advil -- not even a dent in the pain. I then took a Motrin -- didn't even touch the pain. My wife went and spoke with a pharmacist an was given some Robaxin -- nothing, nada, zilch.

That night was horrible. I was in so much pain. On a scale of 1-10, it was 10. It was the most pain I have ever felt. At one point during the night, I had to use the bathroom. Even with my wife's help, I only made it about four small steps before the pain completely overwhelmed me. It was so intense that my entire body was sweating from those four steps enough that my sleeping attire was drenched through in seconds. I would have crumpled to my knees had my wife not been holding on to me for dear life. I was crying from the pain and starting to hyperventilate. Right then and there, we probably should have called an ambulance and gone to the ER. Instead, I peed into a cup my wife brought me and she folded me back into bed. I finally passed out for a couple of hours from about 5am to about 7:30am.

Tuesday morning we spoke with my mother in law (MIL), who is a nurse, and we all agreed I should go to either the ER or Urgent Care (UC). My MIL came down to help get me there, and off we went.

The UC had me go straight back to a stretcher. Soon enough, the doctor came. He jabbed a knuckle into my spine and didn't care how much he made me jump. He pronounced that I couldn't possibly have done anything structural to my body with what I described happening. He was going to give me a shot and a script and send me home. I had to ask him for an x-ray. When he got the x-ray back, he seemed surprised by the amount of spasm shown in them (it was straightening my spine). His goal seemed to be to get rid of me and make me my family doctor's problem, so he wrote a script for Percocet, a script for four days of bed rest, and sent me home.

What bothered me the most about this visit is that the doctor didn't want to look me in the eye, didn't want to do what, to me, seems like the bare minimum for someone presenting with unexplained and intense back pain (x-rays and an MRI), and didn't want to find the underlying cause. He just wanted me out of there. Not one person in the UC even glanced at my Medical Alert bracelet, no one seemed willing to pay attention to the medications I am on or care about the chronic conditions I have -- one of which is Rheumatoid Arthritis which, you know, just might be causing swelling in my spine? At the bare minimum, to find the source of the problem, it seems like a doctor should insist on an x-ray (for problems that could be detected there) and an MRI (for all the other problems that do not show up on x-ray or physical exam). Yet this doctor didn't want to do either and had to be persuaded to give me the x-ray!

Today is Thursday. I have been taking the Percocet, which makes me a bit loopy and groggy. It does not do much for the pain, but it makes me functionally able to move around, so I guess that is okay. I am staying off of it as much as I can and trying not to move around a great deal, but you use your back for everything.

Over the last few days, I have learned the pain is primarily on the right side of my spine and down my right leg. If I keep most of my weight off of that side of the body, the pain is much less than when using both legs or when I have to put weight on the right side (like while getting dressed, walking, etc.). I am spending most of my day in my comfy chair or in bed.

We also made a follow-up appointment with my GP. At that appointment, I am going to insist on an MRI, as a number of friends and colleagues have said that their bulging, herniated, or degenerating discs presented like my pain at first and it took weeks, months, and even years before they got an MRI and found the real problem and started to address it. And, since most of these types of issues do not show up via a physical exam nor on an x-ray, the MRI is the only way to find it. I have enough other issues that I will not stand for this to linger; if I need surgery or specialized treatment to fix this problem, I want to get to it now.

As we have our two cords of wood coming, more work in the basement, work coming for our living room and porch, and the rainy season almost upon us, I need to get healthy enough to start working again soon. But, being my back, I also don't want to screw it up in a permanent or chronic way. It will be a balancing act. Luckily, I have good friends who can likely help with the wood and furniture moving that will be needed.

August 28, 2013

From All Over

I have been writing this blog for 9.5 years now, starting in April of 2004. Blogger has changed a lot over that time, as has the Internet in general, but I'm comfortable here in my Omniverse talking blindly into the ether and wondering if anyone is listening.

Blogger has added some nice features over the last few years. One of my favorites is the Statistics page, which allows me to see who is reading my blog and what they are reading. What constantly surprises me is how often people read my old entries. In any given week, I'd say about half of my top ten entries are from 2004-2010. Seeing that a couple of people found those entries and read them makes me click them open and read them. It is a great way to remember and reminisce about those times and those issues.
For example, today's top ten posts break down to four from 2013 and six from 2012 or earlier (with the earliest written in 2006).
Another thing that surprises me is who is reading this blog. As I am American, it is not surprising to see that group leading the stats. And, of course, I have many Canadian friends and family now, too, so I expect that group to be right up there, as well. What continues to astound me, though, is the number of people from Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East, India, and other places around the world who also stumble on my little corner of the Internet.
For example, as of right now, Russia is tied with the US with 29 hits to my blog so far this week. The Ukraine is third with 20 hits. Canada is currently fourth. I have a few hits each from China, Great Britain, Egypt, Germany, and Israel.
It is pretty incredible for me to think that people from these disparate countries and ways of life are finding my blog and reading what I wrote. I hope they find it informative, interesting, or, at least, amusing.

On the Overview page of Statistics there is a graph that shows the number of hits per day over time. In general, I get a small but consistent number of hits, usually between about 5 and 10 per day. What surprises me are the days where I suddenly get 40, 50, or 60 hits, especially when it seems rarely to correspond with publishing a new post. Something triggers people to search for a topic that I have hit upon at some point and I get a swell in my hit numbers on that day, only to see it ebb back to my usual numbers.

I really enjoy blogging, and would continue to do it even if I had no hits. It is one of the ways in which I "get out" my pent up emotions about a topic, edify myself (and maybe others), or rant and rave about some topic of the moment (usually something in the realm of politics, media, or sports). But, knowing that such a diverse group of people actually click in and read what I have written pleases me. I just hope they get something out of it.

If you are one of my readers from Russia, China, Ukraine, or wherever... feel free to leave a Comment and let me know what brought you to my blog.

July 28, 2013

Exciting Times

No time is better for a sports fan than pre-season. In pre-season, your team is undefeated, hope is rampant, and speculation is made with wild abandon.

I am a Detroit Lions fan. Have been since the late 1970s, when my father told me I had to pick a football team and root for them through thick and thin, good and bad. In that time, I have seen a lot of bad Lions teams and a few good ones. In that time, we have won only one playoff game. In that time, we had Barry Sanders to dazzle and an 0-16 season to shame us.

This pre-season, I'm trying to stay cautiously optimistic and not get too hopeful. I have been jilted before. But, for the first time in a long time, I can say that the Lions actually improved in pretty much every area that they needed to in order to become more successful. They picked up offensive line help, so maybe Stafford can stay on his feet and in the pocket long enough to connect on passes. They got what might be the perfect complimentary running back help so Stafford has someone to check down to and ease his record number of throwing attempts from last season in Reggie Bush. They solidified the DB position. The defensive line has come in hungry and angry -- just what you want from your D-line. Their linebackers look to be solid.

The Lions biggest issue has always been their division. Playing the Packers, Vikings, and Bears twice each means that each team beats up on the others. It is called the "black and blue" division for a reason as, even when one or more teams aren't very good, they play each other tough. It is relatively rare for a team to sweep the division. The Packers haven't always had great teams, but you always have to respect and fear their offense. The Bears haven't always had great teams, but you have to respect their defense. The Vikings haven't always had great teams, but they have alternated having strong offenses and defenses. The Lions haven't always had great teams, but they have usually had an offense you had to respect and a player you had to gameplan against.

This year's Lions team has a tough schedule. Most seasons they rank in the upper half or higher in Strength of Schedule (initial or adjusted). Not only do they play the Packers, Vikings, and Bears twice, but they get to play the AFC North this season, so get an always tough Steelers crew, the Super Bowl Champion Ravens, and much-improved Bengals and Browns teams. In addition, they compete against the NFC East this year, having to try to eke out wins against the Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins. They round out their season playing the improved Cardinals and Buccaneers.

Trying to keep my fan hopes to a minimum, I can make an argument for somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7 this coming season. It is tough, because so many of the teams the Lions play are revamped; the Eagles have a new coach and a new system, the Cardinals have a new QB, the Steelers and Ravens have both had a lot of player turnover, the Redskins may or may not have their QB that early in the season, the Bucs made a huge pick-up (granting he is still the player he was prior to injury), and the Bengals have been making steady progress. Actually, many of those teams have new/young coaches -- will that bring turmoil or success?

Any number of wins above four will be a victory for the Lions. Last season, out of 12 losses, the Lions lost nine of those by one score (<=8 pts) games and four of them were by three points or fewer. So they were right in most games. They were a play or a stop away in most games from being an 8-8 team or better. I'm hopeful that this year's team will be able to make those plays, offensively or defensively, and win those close ones like they did in 2011.

What can I say, I'm a fan... and hope springs eternal!

July 26, 2013


With my health situation, one of my biggest fears is having someone, most likely my wife, tell me I look jaundiced and having to head to the ER only to discover my liver has stopped working. The chances of that happening are low, as I take my medications, I get 3-4 blood tests a year, and I meet with my doctors fairly regularly (not as regularly as when I lived in America, and not so often with my GE doctor, but still fairly often).

I woke this morning to a post on Facebook by my cousin's wife. She said that my cousin is in the ER because he got sick and became jaundiced. Everything is pointing toward gallbladder stones that may also be affecting his liver. He may need to have his gallbladder removed, he's having tests on his liver and liver function, and they are doing surgery today to figure out what has happened.

This is pretty much my worst nightmare come to life. He had no indications of anything wrong except falling ill during the San Diego Comic Convention, so chances are this is something treatable that had a sudden onset. But still; my connection to liver illness gives me a unique perspective and greater fear for him than maybe the average person. As long as he has no cirrhosis (which destroys the liver cells) his liver should heal and he should recover.

My thoughts are with him and his wife today and over the next few days (at least) as he hopefully recovers from successful surgery. Here's to hoping that it winds up being something simple and treatable!

July 10, 2013

More Game Design

I have previously talked about game design changes I would make to games I enjoy playing. Another thought struck me recently: penalizing the player. By this I mean that the player is penalized in multiple ways for using his character/avatar's abilities.

Your character has an Energy bar that is used to cast his abilities and each ability has an energy usage amount. So, for example, a power may "cost" 10 energy to cast and your character may have 100 energy total. If you do not have enough energy to cast the ability, you cannot cast it. The higher the power (or more powerful it is), the higher the energy cost to cast it. There is usually a method by which your character regenerates those used energy points, either over time or via some sort of "energy potion" concept.

In addition, each of the abilities usually has a "cool down" timer. This means that, when you cast it, you have to wait that period of time before the ability is usable again. More powerful abilities typically have higher cool down times, so can be used less frequently.

Next, many games use a system whereby a power is only useable in certain circumstances. For example, only after a previous power is used or only when a certain game circumstance occurs.

Lastly, a fairly common practice is to create enemies that have powers that take away your energy, impede your use of your abilities, are immune to some or all of your abilities, or render your character completely unusable for a space of time.

So, to sum up: powers have a cost to use AND they also have a timer for how often they can be used regardless of cost AND you are limited by the amount of energy you have and how fast you can restore it AND some powers can only be used in specific circumstances, plus enemies are often designed to make it difficult to impossible for you to use your character's powers. This seems like multiple penalties all to one game system.

I have a few suggestions to resolve these issues:

  • Pick either the Energy bar/Energy cost OR the cool down timer concept and eliminate it. Both do essentially the same task: they limit how often you can cast the ability in question. If you don't want the player to use the ability very often, then remove the energy cost/bar and keep the timer. If you want the player to have the choice of how quickly he uses the ability, remove the timer and keep the energy bar/cost. 
    • In scenario 1, you remove the bar/cost. You keep the timer. So, in LOTRO, my Runekeeper would still have a low-damage ability I can cast every second, but higher power abilities can only be cast every 5, 10, 15, 30, and 60 seconds. It doesn't matter how much they cost because I'm limited by time to how often I can use them, regardless.
    • In scenario 2, I have no timer on anything. The player must manage the resource and the resource costs of the powers. Knowing I have 100 energy points total, do I deem this combat worthy of using the 50 power cost ability, or should I use ten uses of my 10-point ability? How quickly do I regenerate my power? It all comes down to resource management.
  • Depending on your choice in the previous step, you may want to eliminate having abilities that only enable if/when another power or circumstance comes up.
    • As a player, it is no fun to have abilities that either suddenly pop up and you have (typically) a short period of time in which to click them to make them work, or they only enable after a certain sequence of powers have been selected first. Either make these abilities available all the time (but limited by power cost or a long cool down timer), or make the abilities of the power an upgrade to an existing power, making the timer longer or cost of the power higher to compensate for the added ability.
At this point, you have resolved the issues from the player's side. Either the player has a resource he needs to manage (a power bar and power costs) and he can choose to attack ruthlessly and run out of power fast or efficiently and be available for the long haul, or the player has to time his attacks based on their timers and availability to make "attack chains."

The last point, enemies that somehow make your character unable to use his abilities, either through taking away some/all of his power, increasing the timers on the character's powers, or by "mezzing" (mesmerizing) the character so they cannot contribute at, should be handled delicately. Early on in City of Heroes, for example, the high-end game was not fun because it seemed like every high-end enemy type had one or more energy robbers or mezzers in the group. You either had no energy to use your super-hero abilities, your character was unable to do anything due to being mesmerized, or the enemies turned off your "always on" abilities, making you much more vulnerable. In LOTRO they do the same thing primarily with mezzes; you suddenly find your character completely unable to do anything and very vulnerable to attack. Often, these attacks stack so you are down for 20 seconds, then another hits you just as you come out of it so you are essentially useless for 30, 40, 60 seconds at a time.

Players don't mind when a mob uses good tactics and has powerful hits that take chunks of  their character's "health" (hit points, endurance, etc.) points away and defeat them. But players get upset when they cannot play their character and have no choice in the defeat; the enemy did something that mezzes them and then defeats them, the enemy drains their energy bar to nothing, making them useless and unable to do anything; etc. Game designers need to keep these types of enemy forces reserved for special situations and climactic boss enemies.

In the end, most games I play restrict or penalize players multiple times when they use their abilities. I think a better system would be one that allows the players to make the choice of what and how quickly they will use the player's abilities over one with artificial restrictions. 

July 7, 2013


In the past, I bowled, rode my bike nearly year round, and played softball. As my health grew worse, I slowly gave up on these activities due to the stress and pain they caused me. What I didn't realize was that when I was still doing at least one of them regularly, it was enough exercise often enough to counterbalance the appetite stimulation (caused by the medications I take) and my caloric intake. However, I have been primarily sedentary with little exercise for the last five years, while still having the appetite stimulation from the meds, and my weight has crept up. A sedentary life plus constant appetite stimulation has turned out to be a bad combination!

My wife has turned me on to a site called "My Fitness Pal" online. It allows you to track your calories and exercise per day to help you realize your intake and output so you can manage your weight loss goals. You can feed the results to your Facebook and Twitter, if you wish, and you can have friends on the site who get posted your results for the day (ostensibly so they can encourage or admonish you to stay on target).

While I want to lose weight, I started using it primarily to get a rough idea of how many calories I take in during the day. So I've been tracking my normal intake without concern for how it will affect any weight loss goals I have. As it turns out, I am almost always under a 2000 calorie intake for the day, and often I am under/around 1500 calories due to my natural ebbs and flows in eating.

For the weight loss goal I entered, My Fitness Pal recommended a 1500 calories per day -- which, as I said, is already right in line with my usual consumption habits, but I have done nothing but gain weight. So it is obviously going to take more than simply lowering caloric intake in order to lose the weight. My wife and I have turned to a "paleo-like" diet, where we are trying to increase the "real foods" we eat, sticking with fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats, and lowering our intake of overly-processed foods. We have also cut down on eating out and have started a weekly meal planner system.

In addition, I have been weaning myself off of colas for the last six months or so. I have achieved the point where brown sodas (Pepsi, Coke, etc.) don't taste very good. I am now tackling the other sodas in an attempt to wean myself off of them, too. I am down to having the occasional soda once or twice a week, rather than per day, and those are slowly starting to taste bad to me also.

However, this has increased my milk consumption manifold. While not empty calories, per se, and imbued with many vitamins and minerals and a good dose of protein, milk still has a bunch of sugar in it unless you can stomach it straight from the cow. I drink the 2% milkfat version, but that still is about 180 calories per 12 ounce drink. Which, actually, is more calories per 12 ounces than drinking the sodas (about 150 per 12 ounces)!

At this point, most people I speak with say, "Just drink water." The problem is, and many people simply cannot fathom this, I HATE water. I don't like the flavor of it (and, yes, there IS a flavor to water). Water never quenches my thirst, even on a hot day or after exercise. Water never even tries to make me feel full or even "less empty." I am trying to increase my water intake with the hopes that, just like I have stopped liking the flavor of sodas, I will gradually come to at least be neutral toward water, but so far no luck.

I am tackling my sedentary life through the purchase and use of an exercise bike. I also have a real bike for when/if I can get my level of exercise high enough that I can actually ride the thing on the road without dying. Right now, my stamina is so bad that I can barely ride the stationary bike for more than 15 minutes at a moderate pace, but I am improving. My goal right now is to get to 20 minutes three times a week. My long-term goal is to get back to being able to ride around at least the neighborhood (which is pretty hilly) without difficulty.

The My Fitness Pal site is a great tool for tracking both your exercise and your caloric intake. It has been extremely educational to enter the calories for the foods I eat regularly and see just how much that PBJ, that glass of milk, that handful of chips actually is, and how it adds up through the day. With diligence, this tool may help me to lose some of the weight and prompt me toward my exercise goals. We'll see.

July 5, 2013

Congress Must Go!

"... Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...".
I think it is just about time for us to abolish Congress, both House and Senate, and start over. We need to enact laws that limit the amount of money these positions can accrue while in office, make sure existing laws apply to Congress equally, and to limit the amount of time that one can spend in Congress.

Currently, Congress refuses to work together or with other parts of the executive branch (i.e., the office of the President); refuses to take a pay cut during one of the most dire economic hardships our country has faced; and refuses to hold themselves accountable to themselves or to the American people who, through their votes, have issued directives on what direction and what policies they want to see enacted. It is time for a new revolution where we evict these people from office and, through careful consideration, replace them with people who will put America and Americans first, rather than their own political power and gain.

It is nearly impossible to remove a Congressman from office once they are elected. Congressmen themselves are supposed to monitor each other and evict those who are failing to do their duty. Yet we have a number of Congressmen who rarely show up for votes, often use insider information to accrue wealth and power, and pervert the laws of this great land to their own political, personal, and religious ends. In any other aspect of American life, if you do not do your job, you illegally use your knowledge to profit, and you go against the precepts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, you are held accountable and removed from your position and put in jail. Congress should not be above these laws. We need new rules and laws that allow outside forces to begin the process of expulsion from Congress, as who can trust Congress to govern themselves?

We need to hold Congress accountable for enacting legislation, too. We need to limit the riders and extraneous information that can be added to a law (or give the President back the power of line-item veto so that the extraneous riders and such can be removed and the original bill can be passed). And we need to restrict the amount of time that a Congressman is in office so that they must leave politics and live by the laws they have established.

I have detailed my suggestions for Congressional Reform in previous posts. I am open to debate, but think these five rules are a good first step in reforming politics in general and Congress in particular. I might add a rule that Congressional salaries and/or jobs are tied to passing and having a balanced Federal budget; no Federal budget, no job (or, at least, no money). From here, we can get the government moving once more toward respecting America and Americans.

It is time for a new revolution.

June 20, 2013

Working the Bell Curve

At my previous job, our company was bought out. We went from a smaller company that believed in hiring the best and the brightest, training them appropriately, and giving them what they needed to succeed, to a small part of a larger corporate structure. Part of the large corporate structure was the institution of a bell curve for worker reviews.

In case you don't know how this works, basically it says that each manager selects 10% of his/her workforce and designates them as "stars," 80% are marked as "adequate," and another 10% as "failures" or "needs improvement." Some companies break the 80% up into sub-categories, but essentially you still wind up with the majority getting the equivalent of a "C" in school, a few getting an "A" grade, and the rest getting the equivalent of a "D" or an "F" grade.

The problem with this way of doing reviews is this: why would  you hire people that are going to fail or will need a lot of improvement? And, if the same person gets the needs improvement grade enough times, they will either quit or be fired. This doesn't sound bad, at first, until you realize that you are left with "C" and "A" people who, on the next review cycle, must now be dropped down.

For example, let's say you are a manager of a company with this policy. You have ten employees. This bell curve style of reviews means that you can only select one person as a star, eight people who are generally adequate and do their work in a competent fashion, and one person who "needs improvement." Companies are often fine if you don't select anyone for the star level but they usually insist on you selecting someone for the lowest level each review cycle. Many companies have two review cycles a year, a non-monetary review and a monetary review.

If you like your employees, you either have to cycle through each person (and keep track of them) so that everyone gets to be a star and everyone gets to be inadequate or, after two bad reviews in a row (sometimes more, but companies are usually pretty strict), you fire a person for not being adequate or they leave due to frustration. To keep the bell curve working, though, you now have nine employees and one of the "adequate" employees has to be moved into the inadequate category and the cycle starts again. After two bad reviews, that guy leaves/is fired and you are down to eight employees. Rinse, repeat.

Again, during the hiring process, you are seeking out individuals who have strengths where you need them and who you think will fit into the corporate structure (or, at least, the structure you have created and workers you have already hired). You generally are seeking long-term solutions to whatever issue you have that is causing you to hire people. Therefore, your expectation is that everyone will be at least "adequate" and you hope to hire as many "stars" as you can, so your little part of the company works as smoothly, efficiently, and profitably as possible.

Let's give another example with the same setup. You are the manager of 10 people in, let's say, a sales department. Over the last six months (your company has biannual reviews), all ten of your employees have met the sales quotas you have given them. A few exceeded them by a large margin but most came in around or slightly over the figure you gave them. When review time comes, even though you had, let's say, three people double the sales quota, you can only pick one person to be the star due to the bell curve. That means, in essence, you are telling two other people that doubling the sales quota isn't enough to be a star and to get the perks. At the same time, even though, let's say, three people barely achieved the quote -- but did make it -- you have to select one of them (minimum) to say, "You did everything I asked you to, but it still isn't enough and you need to improve."

The end result of this scenario is that you have now negatively motivated three people (or 30% of your work force) into doing less work. The two who strove hard, did well, and did not get praised for it are now demotivated to work that hard for the next six months (and probably irritated at the one guy who did the same amount of work they did but did get the positive praise for it) and the person who worked his ass off, made every quota, and did as much as you told him to is now not motivated to work any harder and is probably seeking employment elsewhere. You may have also demotivated the one you picked as a star, because now he has two employees angry with him and he doesn't want to be singled out again because he knows they were just as deserving. You have also, possibly, scared and demotivated the two other people who barely made quota. So, now 60% of your work force is demotivated, working scared or angry, and possibly looking for work elsewhere, for a job where they will be praised for their hard work and making quota.

Now let's look at the same scenario without a bell curve. You now have seven employees who were adequate and did exactly what you wanted and what you hired them for. They get the praise they deserve, which motivates them to continue to do the job requested (at least). You give star status to the three people who greatly exceeded your expectations. All three feel the praise and are motivated to continue to work as hard going forward. The other seven see that praise (and, presumably, the rewards that go with it) and work harder to be a star, too. And, as manager, you motivate the three at the bottom by saying, "Because everyone met or exceeded my quotas this term, we're going to increase the quotas a bit and see if we can't do even better in Sales this next term! Go team!" This is a subtle, but positive, way to motivate the three at the bottom who barely made the quota that they are going to have to work harder, smarter, or better.

In this scenario, you have 100% who have received praise and are encouraged to keep working hard. Only 30% have any negative associations to the review (the bottom three, who barely made quota this term but know the quota is now higher for the next term), and the remaining 70% have positives to look at and to work toward (becoming a star employee and getting the rewards inherent in that position).

This second scenario also creates a natural bell curve as you keep raising the bar for all of your employees until you find who can hack at and who can't. Then, you can start giving those at the bottom the "needs improvement" treatment... but the remaining employees don't feel the same pressures as those of our first scenario. And, if any of those at the bottom quit or are fired, you have a new set of expectations with which to interview and hire replacement employees: you have the work ethic and attitudes of the stars to use as traits to look for in the new hires, you have your new sales goals to use as a barometer, and you have the team dynamic (which is much more positive) to consider when determining if the new hire will succeed with your team.

Now, I will grant that sometimes a new hire (or even an old hat at the job) is not properly prepared or able to do the job for which he/she was hired. They lied on their resume, a life event occurs that affects their job performance, or maybe you stretched to get someone who fits in one aspect and you hoped to "train them up" on the other aspects and it doesn't go as planned. Whatever the case, only when a person truly is doing an inadequate job, is not meeting your job expectation, can't make his/her deadlines, etc. should you give them a bad review. The bell curve should happen naturally/organically; there is no need to force one on what is otherwise a group of good to great employees, as all that does is demotivate your entire group.

June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

Note: Mild Spoilers ahead. You've been warned.

My wife and I like to pay attention to critical reviews for movies, but we make up our own minds. Some movies, however, we are going to go see regardless. I am a huge Superman fan, so Man of Steel was one of those "must see" movies. Reading the reviews via and Metacritic, review compilation sites, the movie was getting a just barely "rotten" rating and many critics complained that it had no heart or charm. The critical consensus seems to be summed up with, "It's just not the Christopher Reeve Superman."

In general, I respect critics and I am informed by what they say. But, in this case, I wonder where they came up with those responses. The movie I watched had a lot of heart and charm and soul. The first half of the movie is predicated on showing that Clark Kent was a picked on boy, confused by the emergence of his powers, with strong guidance from his Earth-born parents. Even through all of that, he wanders the world anonymously helping people and saving lives. Here's a guy who can lift mountains and survive virtually anything staying humble and trying to fit in with humanity without doing them any harm. The lessons he learns from his adopted parents are rich and give meaning to his life and direction to his wandering.

Once Clark puts on the red and blue, after "meeting" his biological father and learning of his origin and history, he immediately starts to question his place in a sudden conflict between the suddenly-appearing Kryptonians and the natives of planet Earth. He sides with the Earthlings and places himself between them and the god-like beings who want to terraform the planet and make a new Krypton. This leads to a global battle between Superman and the eight or so surviving Kryptonians under the rule of General Zod. With the help of a very spunky and smart Lois Lane, Superman hatches a plan to remove the Kryptonian threat. He single-handedly destroys one terraforming unit, and then helps the humans in the Army to destroy the other, sending all but Zod back into the Phantom Zone and away from Earth.

Zod remains and is still a threat, as his abilities are slowly rising to the level of Superman's during his time on Earth and under Earth's yellow sun. Zod is a multifaceted villain. He actually thinks of himself as the hero of the story, as he was genetically engineered to be a leader and a warrior and to protect Krypton against any threat. His goal is simply to enable the resurrection of Krypton; he doesn't care that this will destroy the human beings native to planet Earth. His villainy comes from being willing to sacrifice the 7 billion inhabitants to resurrect his lost civilization... under his control, of course. Superman, meanwhile, has sided with the human beings, which confuses Zod. Zod simply cannot understand why a Kryptonian would ally with anyone against him, another Kryptonian. The fact that Superman and the pesky humans have all but destroyed his Utopian plans drives Zod to threaten the Earth and Superman that he will personally kill all the humans Superman so cherishes. Superman cannot allow that, so a final, epic battle ensues between the two.

It is here that the charm, heart, and moral underpinnings get a bit muddled. Superman allows the epic battle with Zod to remain in a highly-populated place (the remains of Metropolis). Every punch, every blast of heat vision, every super-speed flight/jump at each other produces greater and greater destruction in the city, and, presumably, more loss of life. Finally, Zod forces Superman to make the ultimate decision between the Kryptonians and human beings.

This movie has a very solid story and incredible acting. I thought each and every person in the cast did an incredible job, but especially Henry Cavill as Superman. The world created and the mythology changes the writers made all work and make sense. Zod is a fascinating and multilayered villain. The action scenes are very well done.

I have a few main complaints about the movie:
  1. Shaky-cam. Zack Snyder, whom I know from his work on 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and Dawn of the Dead (remake), knows how to direct an action movie. Yet he chose to use a single-camera, shaky-cam approach to every scene in the movie. Everyone in my group who watched the movie with me agreed that, had we seen the 3D version, we likely would have been nauseated by the constant, never-ending use of the shaky-cam. And I know that Warner Bros could afford to give Snyder at least one more camera to use during filming. His goal, I presume, is to make you feel like you are "there" during each scene. The problem is, you (the audience member) CAN'T be there for a lot of it, as the audience cannot fly at Mach speeds, nor go into space, or survive buildings collapsing all around them. And quiet scenes where two people are simply talking especially don't need shaky-cam. Even in 2D, I felt like I was on a roller coaster and got a bit nauseated. Shaky-cam, once again, took me out of my immersion in the film and the world within and negatively hurt my overall impression of the movie. Many people have no problem with shaky-cam, so this is not a strong negative to those audience members.
  2. Flashbacks. I am not a big believer in the flashback. In nearly every instance (there are exceptions!), I find that a movie would be better served simply starting with the flashback scenes and running in chronological order. I think that having most of Superman's youth and moral guidance sequences told in flashback is what primarily makes many reviewers complain that the movie has no heart. Had the movie simply provided the flashback scenes as the start to the movie, and shown Clark as a child, a youth, a teen, and then an adult, the audience would see his growth and maturity into the man he is today and more of the heart and charm would be readily apparent. Again, many people do not have this issue and don't mind having the narrative broken up and rearranged, so isn't a strong negative.
  3. Too much action? This seems like an odd negative in an action movie, but the final battle scenes may be overwhelming for some audience members. They are so action-packed that my wife and I felt tired after watching the movie. The last 30 minutes or so of the film you barely are allowed to take a breath as Superman hurdles from one conflict to the next trying to save the planet. There is a reason that so many action movies put a moment or two of levity or show the hero resting between set pieces in their action sequences -- the audience needs it, maybe more than the hero does. We were on the edge of our seats, watching this roller coaster of action for so long that it simply wore us out. That's a good problem to have, but one that should have been considered.
  4. Length. As with pretty much every single move we have seen recently, this movie is too long. I'd guesstimate that the 2:23 running time could be cut down to a solid two hours fairly easily by removing and shortening a few of the action sequences at the end and cutting a few of the slightly repetitive sequences from the opening. Rearranging the story order (per item 2) would also help the flow of the movie and for it to not feel as long.
All in all, this was an excellent genre movie with a stellar cast and great new mythology. I felt like the challenges were suitably world-threatening. The villain was layered and persuasive. The effects and action sequences were very well done. My complaints are primarily technical and concern how the movie was constructed and some of the decisions the director made in the making of it. This movie deserves to be mentioned in the same stratosphere with Marvel's The Avengers, Iron Man 1 and 3, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and similarly well-received genre movies.

And, if you're a Superman fan, it is a must-see movie.

Addendum (Major Spoilers)

There are quite a few negative reviews that are primarily negative because of Superman breaking Zod's neck in the third act. While this act was a serious negative for me, as well, I thought it fit into the story this movie was telling even if it didn't fit into my preconceived notions of Superman from over 30 years of being a fan, watching the TV shows, serials, cartoons, and reading comics of the character. But it fit with THIS story. Stories are coming out now that show that Christopher Nolan was against that action, too, but was talked into it by Goyer and Snyder. It has also been reported that the plan was to show this as a "true" origin story; i.e., Superman is not the "big blue boy scout" we all know and love, but rather a new hero trying to find his way and do what he thinks is right. He makes a decision that may have a lasting effect on him, and will be shown in a future sequel where he is more fully-formed as the Superman we all know. I can accept that.

That being said, I still think that this movie should have shown at least a dawning realization that his combat was destroying Smallville and Metropolis and that people were getting hurt. I think they should have shown more scenes of him saving someone and then getting hurt because of it (they did have a few scenes like this in the Smallville battle, where he saves some townspeople and army men, but Faora and "Nod" catch him and beat on him some more, but those scenes were mostly absent from the Metropolis battle). Had the Metropolis fight with Zod had more of these types of instance, especially if they actually showed Zod killing humans on purpose, the scene with Superman trying to stop Zod and then, finally, deciding to break his neck would make so much more sense and would show more the inevitability of Zod forcing him to make said decision.

Another aspect I notice is that most/many of these reviews basically like 2/3 or more of the movie. It is this decision and the constant, seemingly uncaring "battle porn" that threatens so many lives where these negative reviews focus. It makes Superman seem "cold" and "heartless" to those reviewers. I get that. And I somewhat agree with it. However, much of this is because of bringing multiple years of experience, understanding, knowledge, and preconceived ideas about the character of Superman to the movie and not allowing the writers to present something new. I was willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and look to the movie as the first act of a larger arc (similar to Batman Begins). If those audience members cannot do that, or are unwilling to because the act of killing is too far removed from the Superman character they know and love, then I can respect it while not agreeing with it.

It is my opinion that the filmmakers took a subtle approach and tried to let the audience come to these conclusions on their own. I think Pa Kent responding to a young Clark asking if he should have let his classmates die with "Maybe... I don't know" was a key moment. Many viewers key on the "maybe" and completely ignore the "I don't know" part. I think that it is important, and very much a part of Clark's growth, that Pa Kent is the "hero" during the tornado scene, but silently asks Clark not to save him... for fear of what those around Clark in the underpass will see and think. Once he lets humanity know of his existence, however, that rule no longer applies, and he is willing to do what it takes to keep humanity from harm. Is it shown well? No. Could it be clearer and could they have shown his desire to save humanity in a more concrete way? Definitely. I also think that one of the subtle messages the filmmakers were showing is that Superman is one guy. One fantastically powerful guy, but even with his speed and powers he cannot save everyone. So they show him occasionally saving individuals and small groups, but needing to focus on the larger threat. He also insists on humanity helping to save themselves, by allowing the humans to take the bomb to the second ship and detonate it. He trusts them to figure it out while he is busy doing what they cannot-- fly to the other side of the world and take out the other device single-handed. 

So, in the end, I can see why these reviews are negative. I even agree with a lot of or even all of what they are saying. I was able to take the stance that this is part of a larger narrative and will have meaning and repercussions for the character down the road, while many of these reviewers do not or cannot. I also was able to divorce myself enough from it that it didn't ruin an otherwise well-done movie, while many of these people cannot or will not.

June 9, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock Presents...

Just finished watching first Psycho and then To Catch a Thief. I have watched Psycho before, but realized I hadn't seen it in a while and that I wasn't remembering much of it. I hadn't seen To Catch a Thief before, so it was new to me. It's fun to go back and watch older movies, as you see and learn so much from them.

Note: Minor spoilers ahead. However, if you haven't seen Psycho or To Catch a Thief yet... well, watch them first and then come back here. My blog will keep.

A few things struck me while viewing these old classics:
  • Acting, by and large, has gotten much better today. Or, at least, we expect more nuance and craft in what we watch today, no matter how frivolous or small the role may be. In Hitchcock's time, actors were simply a cog in the entire clockwork of a movie, and it didn't matter if some of the smaller roles were wooden or without nuance, as long as they drove the movie forward.
In Psycho, for example, the actor who played Sam was a bit wooden and had little range. The cop who follows Marion before she arrives at the Bates Motel was, at best, one-note and without character. Today, directors wouldn't stand for that. Even though what Hitchcock presented was enough to move the story along, today's audiences generally laugh and do not take seriously such one-note performances. Hitch thought nothing of completely redubbing all of one actor's lines in To Catch a Thief, because he spoke no English and his voice wasn't right (you can really hear the difference between when the character speaks French and when the re-dubbed voice speaks English).
  • How few chances that it seems like Hitchcock took in his movies.
This problem is really one of perspective. These moves were made in the 1950s and 1960s, and the fact that the angles and shots that Hitch set up were avant garde for the time is obscured by the fact that every director today has the freedom to use such shots and to spice up their work with interesting camera angles and lighting. And, frankly, many directors rip off... I mean, "pay homage to" ... Hitchcock whenever they can, as he was a master of his craft.
  • The "twist" movie has been around for much longer than M. Night Shyamalan.
Many of Hitch's movies are based on some sort of twist or surprise, like Norman Bates being caught wearing his mother's clothing at the end of Psycho or the "nice" girl winding up being the real thief in To Catch a Thief. But they simply don't have the same impact for today's audiences, that have twists thrown at them on TV, in video games, and in movies all the time. For example, although I hadn't seen it before, the very first scene that introduces the young girl, Danielle, left me saying, "Oh, well, she's the real thief." Low and behold, she was! This is not because Hitch did something wrong or that there was too much information given, it is simply that I'm a product of my time and that it is rare that any movie or TV show surprises me in a whodunnit.
  • Hitchcock didn't need to use "shaky-cam" to give his audiences a sense of action and intensity.
Any long-time reader of this blog knows that I HATE shaky-cam with a passion. It adds NOTHING to a movie except a sense of nausea and confusion about what is going on. Learn from the masters and put your damn camera on a stabilizer, tripod, or, if digital, ensure that picture stabilization is turned "on," please! If your action scene is so poorly conceived and directed that the only way you can save it is to add shaky-cam, stop and reconsider the scene in its entirety. If Hitchcock (and Spielberg, Scorsese, et al) do not need it, YOU DON'T NEED IT EITHER!

Watching these old movies is a great way to entertain and teach younger audience members about the craft of film making. Watching the humble beginnings of things helps new filmmakers to learn and grow their own style, while be cognizant of what has come before and the restraints under which so many directors used to work.

And, frankly, it is a heck of a lot of fun, too!

May 28, 2013

A Life Lesson

[Had video here, went missing from Youtube and I can't find it to re-link to it]

Pretty funny how our assumptions can come back and bite us on the ass. The video reminded me of something that happened in my college years.

The college I attended had a very strong black population. One day, walking from the dormitories to the building that housed my class, I crossed the main quad and stumbled my way into some sort of rally that the black students were having. As I walked across the quad, I became aware of someone shouting over the speaker, "Your people enslaved our people!" and I noticed that the black students around me were staring at me. I stopped and looked around and saw a middle-aged black man with a microphone staring and pointing at me.

"Excuse me?" I semi-shouted back. I was about two-thirds away from the 'podium' area from which he was speaking.

He reiterated, "Your people enslaved us!"

"Nope, didn't happen," I responded and began walking toward my class again.

The speaker made some derogatory comment about white people not accepting responsibility for the slavery of the black people.

Not being one who is able to keep quiet when I feel the truth is being mangled, I shouted out to him, "On both sides of my family, my immigrant great-grandfathers and grandmothers arrived just about the turn of the 20th century. My mother's side moved all the way to Santa Barbara. My father's side got stuck in the coal mines of the Pennsylvania area, which, if any of you know your history, was pretty harsh labor and akin to indentured servitude. He was one of the few who worked his way free and he resettled in Michigan. Neither side of my family owned slaves as it had been abolished a generation before they arrived in this country."

Also, seeing a ripe opportunity at making a shot back at the guy, I concluded, "You should really know your facts before you accuse someone based solely on the color of their skin."

I then proceeded to walk across the quad while a bunch of the black students around me smiled and clapped and the guy with the microphone blustered and 'um'ed' and 'ah'ed' his way back onto his hate-filled, anti-white person speech. But he had lost a lot of momentum. And I found I had a lot more black friends and acquaintances from that day forward.