Thursday, October 17, 2013

Phrase of the Day: BAND-AID ON A BROKEN LEG

Well, it's over.  It's finally over.  The sixteen-day partial government shutdown of 2013 is over.  The Senate and the House of Representatives passed a bill late last night and President Obama signed the bill just after midnight this morning.  Many federal employees are back to work today.  National parks and attractions, such as the Smithsonian Institute, are open again.  The threat of the shutdown's effects expanding even further has been averted.  All is well, right?  No, not really.

If you think doing things piecemeal is doing things well, then you might say this shutdown was worth it.  If constantly delaying issues so that you have to re-deal and re-deal and re-deal with them again and again is doing things well, then you might say the shutdown was a good thing.  If you think holding the Congress and the entire country hostage while acting childish is doing things well, then you might say the ends justify the means.  I could not, no matter how hard I might try, disagree with you any more strongly.

Just imagine if any of us performed our jobs in the manner Congress has performed during this shutdown.  Would any of us still have our jobs?  

To be clear, I am happy that the shutdown is over, but that is where my happiness ends.  The result and how it was reached is ridiculousness ... and it is ridiculousness repeated.  Two weeks ago, my blog posting summarized the government as useless.  To expand on my earlier question, any one of us would be considered "unproductive" or "uncooperative" performing at our job in a similar manner, thus likely necessitating our boss firing us.  While the term "useless" may or may not be used, we could be considered useless, or at least unhelpful, in terms of achieving the goal of desired productivity.  How can Congress be considered useful or even productive when all they have done for the past several years is "kick the can down the street"?  Temporary fixes of a few months, six months, or a year are no way to operate well.  It is an example of operating poorly.  It is estimated that the shutdown cost this country around twenty-four billion dollars ... and this same debate comes up AGAIN in a little more than 100 days.

When I worked at a company that did a whole bunch of temporary fixes as a result of piecemeal decision making, I called it putting a band-aid on a broken leg.  In other words, yes, you tried to help, but it did little to nothing to address the bigger problem.  The job was in Information Technology and there were a number of programmers working there.  Temporary "patches" on a program were not unusual, but an eventual final fix of the issue in question was always sought.  The overall culture at this job was putting band-aids on broken legs.

Congress thinks it has an indepletable box of band-aids, while the American people are fed up watching it go to the medicine cabinet.

To call what has happened this time around, as well as all of the other right-up-to-the-cliff moments (i.e. fiscal cliff, sequester, debt ceiling), political theater would be correct.  (Have you noticed how they generally keep getting closer and closer to a deadline with nearly each successive manufactured crisis?)  Moreover than just political theater, it shows a huge lack of interest in fixing larger problems once and for all.  It shows an inability or a lack of desire to solve problems.  It shows a culture of abdication. 

This culture of abdication continues to be cultivated today by such things as members of Congress still getting paid during this debacle.  Their staffers did not get paid, mind you, but the members of Congress themselves did.  Since both a sense of duty to follow their oaths and a sense of general decency are in such short supply that they are negligible in Congress, there is no incentive to do better.  Nether dutiful carrying out of their oaths nor a sense of decency would require any outside incentive; the incentive is inherently within those things.  

It appears that this Congress, as well as its successive predecessors, is unwilling to change for the better.  The numbers of those who want to change for better are too few to be persuasive.  Can they change?  I do not know, quite frankly.  Maybe they can, but Congress needs to stop breaking legs and to stop putting band-aids on those broken legs.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Phrase of the Day: THE MORE YOU KNOW

Today's posting stems from an odd combination: a visit to a children's playground and a book about genes.

I finished reading a book I've had for several years, but only just recently got around to reading.  The book is The Divine Code of Life by Dr. Kazuo Murakami, Ph.D.  Dr. Murakami is a geneticist who  decoded the genetic makeup of the enzyme
renin, which is responsible for high blood pressure. 

Dr. Murakami's position is that genes can be "turned on" and "turned off", in opposition of the long-standing theory that genes are fixed and cannot be changed in any way.  There is also a minor spiritual element to the book, in that Dr. Murakami states that the complexity of genes points to a non-human creative force; he calls this creative force "Something Great".  Although some of the science presented in the book went over my head, I found the book to be a fascinating read.

In a chapter titled 'Life Lessons from the Lab', Murakami draws a distinction between what he calls "day science" (i.e. classes, class-related lab work, lectures, etc.) and "night science" (i.e. intuition, chance-taking, etc.).  He argues that most scientific discoveries stem from "night science" -- sometimes out of sheer curiosity, sometimes out of sheer frustration.

His furthering of this distinction can best be described by the phrase "ignorance is bliss".  He cites a conversation between him and Masaru Ibuka, one of the founders of Sony Corporation regarding the secret behind his success.  He quotes Ibuka as saying:
      "In retrospect, I think that I was lucky not to be an expert.  If I had fully understood tape
      recorders or transistors at the time, I would have been far too intimidated to attempt such
      a thing.  When I learned more about them later, I was aghast at my own foolhardiness."(pg. 85)

Murakami argues that too much "day science" can get in the way of "night science".  In other words, too much scientific knowledge can actually be a hindrance to scientific pursuits.  One example was his entering into research of the enzyme renin.  He states that his students with higher grades were far more resistant to this pursuit because there was so much uncharted territory.  He does not suggest that those with lower grades or lower intellect are more open to new ideas, but rather the accumulation of massive amounts of knowledge can persuade one to be less curious and, by extension, less persistent.

Murakami answers the question of how excess knowledge can sometimes be a hindrance:
      "It is not that information itself is inherently bad; rather, knowing more than others can
      delude us into believing our judgment to be superior.  Overdependence on knowledge
      dulls our intuition and can make us look too far ahead.  When an endeavor does not
      proceed smoothly, excessive knowledge can cause us to jump to conclusions; the
      conclusion reached in such a situation is likely to be pessimistic; and we assume the
      project is doomed to failure when there is still a prospect for success." (pp 87-88)

Here's where my visit to a children's playground comes in.  I was at an outdoor crafts festival last weekend and it was sunny and hot.  The area the festival took place was out in the open.  The only shade to be found was just outside the festival space.  A friend of mine, who I had not seen in some time, and I sought relief from the sun on a bench blissfully engulfed in shade next to a playground. 

While we sat on the bench catching up the other on the goings-on in our lives, we watched the children playing.  I thought of their sheer delight and pure abandon while climbing steps, sliding down slides, swinging on swings, etc.  I thought of how we, as adults, for the most part, lose that sheer delight and pure abandon.  Certainly, many of us engage in recreational activities in which we can experience such things, but we have to plan when it will happen (i.e. weekend, days/nights of the week, vacation).  (No argument here about planning, as long as you can find the opportunities to feel that delight and abandon.)  All a child needs is a parent or guardian willing to say, "Let's go!"

Children come by such things so much more easily, don't they?

Obviously, it is because of their age, which means less responsibility and less knowledge than an adult.  Then, "growing up" -- not getting older, but "growing up" -- happens.  We have to go to school; we have to try and get good grades; we have move out on our own; we have to go to work; we have to meet responsibilities, such as doing out job well, paying our bills, saving money, and so on.  If marriage is in the cards, we have to be faithful to our spouse and meet familial responsibilities.

During this time, we also add to our accumulated knowledge.  We learn the proverbial "readin', writin', and 'rithmetic"; we learn chores are a part of family life and how to do them; we learn going to bed late when you have to get up early is a really bad idea; we learn how to do the duties of our job; we learn that frivolous and unrestrained spending leaves little to no money for paying bills and that not paying them is a big problem; we (hopefully) learn that money does not grow on trees; we learn to love and that love can be as beautiful as it can be hurtful; we learn the value of truthfulness, honesty, integrity, and loyalty, etc.

We also learn the down side of humanity and of life.  Life is hard; life is not always fair.  People can be helpful; people can be hurtful.  

Just as Dr. Murakami finds excessive knowledge a hindrance in science, so too we might say the same, to a degree, in terms of life itself.  If I was playing in a playground and the size and height of the equipment were adjusted for adults, I might to be so keen to try some things.  Why?  Because I might not have the abandon because I am aware that could get hurt, like landing funny and injuring a foot or an ankle.  Keep the equipment kids' size, I'd be more apt to climb on board.  Knowledge (i.e. an injured foot or ankle hurts a lot) is a hindrance.  Not necessarily a bad hindrance, in terms of caution and safety, but a hindrance of sorts.

Just as those who have a fear of failure, the same may be argued.  Someone who has tried a similar course of action(s) and failing at them, whatever failure would mean, might be less likely to try again because of their knowledge of their past experiences.  Similarly, someone who has never tried a particular course of action being afraid to try is likely basing it on his/her knowledge of failure as a whole.  Neither past experiences with one result nor the general knowledge of failure are logical reasons to not try, but those forms of knowledge, in addition to fear, of course, become hindrances.

If you are familiar with the phrase "the more you know, the less you know", you may have guessed that was where I was going with today's posting.  It would seem that Dr. Murakami's corollary to that adage would read as "the more you know, the less you're likely to try".

Smarts are one thing.  I would not trade the knowledge I have gained through life experiences and formal schooling for anything, and am truly grateful for them.  I try to not let that accumulated knowledge get in the way of experiences.  I admit I do not regularly engage in a lot of "jumping off cliffs", but I try to at least push myself to try new things and, possibly, to learn new things along the way.

It is not hard to imagine the scientific discoveries that would have been abandoned had it been that knowledge held scientists back time and time again.  The same can certainly be said for ourselves in our day-to-day lives.  We are not meant to simply learn and apply knowledge.  We are meant to engage and to experience new things.  In other words, do not let the more you know keep you from the more you can try.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Word of the Day: USELESS

Two days ago, after much political maneuvering, the U.S. government was shut down.  Once again. 

This is not the first time a government shutdown has taken place.  The U.S. government has been shut down a total of eighteen times, including this shutdown, over the past thirty-seven years.  While polls, for what they're worth, show that most Americans blame the Republican party for the current shut down, it is easy to make an argument that such a move is usually mostly one or another party's fault.  Such an argument is easy and lazy.  Historically, it is a mixed bag.  Ten out of the eighteen times, the President has been a Republican, while Democrats have controlled the Congress half the time during shutdowns.

The first government shutdown was in 1976, during the Gerald Ford administration, and lasted ten days.  In the 1970's, the average length was around eleven days, with a total of six shutdowns.  In the 1980's, the average length was roughly two days, but the number of shutdowns increased to eight.  The 1990's saw only three shutdowns, but the average number of days went up to ten. 

The 1990's average is so high with the fewest number of shutdowns because that decade saw the longest government shutdown in history, three weeks, running from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996.  This number is often coupled with an earlier shutdown in mid-November 1995 that lasted for five days. 

The 2000's saw no government shutdowns, but the same is now no longer true for the 2010's.  The current shutdown is in day three as of this posting.

This shutdown is based on House Republicans wanting to attach a defunding or delaying of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to a spending bill that would also raise the debt ceiling.  A short, pointed statement by President Obama on the afternoon of September 30 did nothing to stop the shutdown from happening at midnight that night.  A meeting at the White House yesterday between the President and congressional leaders to find a way to end the shutdown proved fruitless, with some news outlets saying it did nothing but cause both sides to dig their heels in deeper.  It is being reported today that President Obama issued a challenge of sorts to House Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote on an already-Senate-approved spending bill which has no strings attached to the Affordable Care Act.  My speculation is that Speaker Boehner will not bring the bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

If nothing is done soon, the benefits and government employee paychecks that are cut-off will be added to by Social Security benefits not being paid out as well as other services being stopped.  (Let's not forget that the Congress recently voted to cut billions of dollars from the food stamps program.)  With my mother on Social Security, living on a fixed income, I do not want to see that happen.  A CNN online article hihglights that members of Congress -- not their staffers, just members of Congress themselves -- still get paid, no matter what.
        "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives,
        shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened."
That is the 27th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it means any change in congressional pay cannot happen until the mid-term elections in 2014. After that, it cannot happen again until the presidential election year of 2016.

Minnesota Representative Rick Nolan has introduced a bill in Congress which would stop congressional pay during the entire stretch of a government shutdown, calling for common sense to be used in governmental operations.  I think it is a great idea, but it cannot be implemented until at least next Fall at the mid-term elections.

Now that I have presented all this, let me get down to brass tacks.

As great of an idea Representative Nolan's bill is, do you think it has any chance of passing?  Seriously, do you?  Politicians agreeing to have their pay stopped?  Politicians willing to accept their "just desserts" and operate under the same standards as you or I do?  Politicians working around the clock to fix a manufactured crisis that they themselves manufactured?  I could say that I would believe it when I see it, but that seems pointless.  I doubt Representative Nolan's bill, or any bill similar to it, will get anywhere in Congress.  If it does, there will be so many additions, exceptions, loopholes, and conditions included within that it will be watered down from the get-go.

I ask you, is it a sensible expectation that those who hold the power to screw over the American public without any likely repercussions to themselves, other than possibly not getting re-elected, are completely willing to do the right thing all the time, or completely willing to admit they screwed up and to fix it, and completely willing to restore the integrity of government that government had generations ago?  My response is it is not a sensible expectation at all.

Again, for what polls are worth, the public's congressional approval rating is down to a pathetic 9-10%, depending on whose information you read.  Whether it is that low or even a little higher, it is clear that Americans hate Congress and it job it is isn't doing.  I cannot blame them; I wholeheartedly agree.

Are you as sick and tired of hearing terms like debt ceiling, fiscal cliff, sequester, defunding, and delaying, year after year, as I am?  They are nothing but advertising buzzwords for ideological squabbles and agenda advancements at the expense of the American.

This is the oath of office taken by U.S. senators and representatives: "I do solemnly swear/affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God."  How does this shutdown support or defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies?  (Is President Obama the enemy or, more importantly, are the American people?)  Are we to assume that the shutdown is an example of discharging the duties of office well and faithfully?  (Are ideological battles and agenda advancements part of those duties?)  And they want God to help them benefit themselves while allowing Americans to suffer?  (What does that say about their religion and their personal religious beliefs?)

It is not hard to imagine those in politics for centuries have received perks that they should not have or that they have made deals to benefit themselves.  This is not to say doing that is okay, but it has been even more obvious for many years that the benefit of themselves, and their business interests, is standard operational procedure.  That increased obviousness has led to an increase in America's dissatisfaction and disillusionment with Congress.  It may or may not be hard to accept that those in power receive perks, but the willful intent to do so is not part of what those in Congress were voted in to do.  

However, I find it unacceptable to engage in obstructionism and see it as what those voted into office are supposed to do.  I find it unacceptable that a faction of one of the two political parties controls that entire party, and even steers the entire country directly toward actions like a government shutdown, is what those in office are supposed to do.  I find it unacceptable that those who can take paychecks and benefits, as well as access to public places and health care, away from both federal and non-federal employees suffer no consequences for their actions is the way that things are supposed to be.  And yet, these are the things that have been, and are, happening.

Therefore, Congress is useless.