Sunday, October 25, 2009

Creaky Wheel Special Reports: Naughty Lincoln and Lame-Ass Ghosts

Ah, Halloween: That most wonderful time of the year...

Click here and here to read me mocking it all.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Violation of Kindergarten Fairness Part II: The First Tenet of EINKILK, A.K.A. Share Everything

For those who missed the previous post,

A. How dare you? And...

B. The following are ways in which we've all failed to live up to the tenets of the Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (EINKILK) poster from the early-1980s. For this week's EINKILK post, I will start with the tenet listed at the top of the poster:

Share Everything.

Seems easy enough, right? Too bad it goes against every imaginable aspect of human nature. That a shrill, piercing "MINE!" is one of the first words embraced by toddlers is probably not a coincidence. And that I look outside my window as I write this and see a quiet, suburban street lined with attractive homes, buffered by barriers of iron gates or stone walls - and in some cases, an impregnable combination of both - as their first line of defense against the scourge of emo teenage skateboarders, is indicative of a society that fetishizes over the concept of sole ownership.

Hilariously, one of the more opulent homes, set back amidst a phalanx of looming eucalyptus and fir trees, has a cutesy, Casper-inspired "Happy Halloween!" sign draped from its towering, perpetually locked iron gates, thus turning a generic autumnal salutation into an ominous threat.

Which begs the eternal question: How high would Jesus' impregnable wrought iron gate encompassing his estate be?

This obsession with sole ownership isn't restricted to Southern Californians and their preoccupation with material goods. I can recall, as a newspaper boy in suburban Upstate New York, having neighbors on my route with POSTED: NO TRESPASSING signs affixed to modest oak trees that loomed over perpetually muddy, postage stamp front yards. And the image of a paunchy middle-aged guy wearing the requisite stained wife-beater, brown dress socks, bermuda shorts, and plastic sandals, gaining increased satisfaction with every THUD as he hammers the nails to his NO TRESPASSING sign deeply into the pulp of said tree, was a continual source of wonder and amusement for my adolescent mind.

As we've seen throughout the past several months, our primal hoarding impulse, our pathological obsession with maintaining ownership over our stuff - no matter how shitty it is - has gone zoonotic, seamlessly pervading the health care reform debate while inhibiting any degree of substantive reform. From James Surowiecki's "Status Quo Anxiety" piece in The New Yorker,
Behavioral economists have established that we feel pain of losses more than we enjoy the pleasure of gains. So when we think about change we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get. Even people who aren't all that happy with the current (health care) system, then, are still likely to feel anxious about whatever will replace it...

...After all, although people tend to feel that they own their health insurance, their entitlement is distinctly tenuous.
Macroscopically speaking, for the U.S. to even have a fighter's chance of achieving successful health care reform - and maintaining its slightly misnomered "superpower" status, for that matter - we need to collectively move away from this unwavering preoccupation with ourselves and closer towards a greater willingness to share in the sacrifices of building and maintaining a healthy, wealthy, just society. That means embracing the glimmering path towards socialism, then communism, then, ultimately, the liberal wet dream of fascist rule.

Just kidding, you nutty conservatives. Wipe the slobber off your faces.

I'm not talking about erecting mass communes and handing all our worldly possessions over to the Politburo. I'm talking about sharing. Something.

What that means, at least for the short term, is the willingness to play fair, to look out for our fellow citizens, to do what Mom said when she "asked" us to share our cookies with Tommy or Billy or Yuri or whomever that scrappy little kid was who switched schools mid-term and sometimes ate his own boogers but never had the good fortune of getting any cookies in his lunch to eat. (My mom: "I don't give a flying fig that he smells like vinegar. Give him at least two of your damn Newtons!)

When we shared our Fig Newtons with booger-eating Tommy for the first time, some of us discovered that there was great deal value in doing so. For one thing, Tommy was happier - not simply because he was inhaling processed yummy goodness but also because now he realized, consciously or not, that there was another kid in the godforsaken world of fourth grade who had his back.

Alliances are a good thing, whether they're forged with Moscow, Beijing, the house next door, or the kid at the end of the same lunch table.

And just maybe another kid sitting nearby took notice of your kindly gesture and adopted it as his own behavioral template. (Maybe tomorrow he tosses Tommy or another perpetually ignored kid a bag of Wise chips, cheese doodles, or the Holy Grail of junk food orgasms: the Hostess fruit pie.)

Believe it or not, kids commit these acts of kindness every single day. But this is hardly breaking news; it's common courtesy, kindergarten ethics. So at what point did we all become one great big pile of self-obsessed fancy-pants jack-offs?

For one thing, in a society that places a disproportionate emphasis on mass consumption and individual accomplishments and not nearly enough on the responsibility to one's community, the drive for altruism fades rapidly as we enter adulthood.

(Ah, isn't it about that time of year again - you know, when we start getting bombarded with all of those gauzy heartwarming ads in which the husband flashes his trophy MILF the keys to a brand new Lexus, which is, low and behold, waiting in the driveway wrapped in a red ribbon. Now, the wife's reaction has always fascinated me, as it ranges somewhere between a "So?" and a "You know, sweetie, this is just really thoughtful of you." Which has always seemed odd. Or maybe receiving a $50 thousand car on Jesus' b-day is really that prosaic for the super 1 percent. As an even bigger slap in the face to the already raw sensibilities of Americans struggling through an interminable recession, maybe this year an ad agency will put out a commercial wherein a B of A executive endorses a government-issued check over to Boeing, thus commencing the purchase of an upgraded private jet for his new mistress.)


...That the U.S. postures as the paragon of ethics and morality runs counter to the ways in which we actually deal with the less fortunate. In fact, the richest country on earth has:
  • 750,000 homeless
  • 131,000 homeless veterans
  • 37 million people living below the poverty line (larger than the entire population of California)
  • Approximately 45 million people without health insurance
  • 20 percent of all of its children currently receiving welfare
  • The top 1 percent of households owning 57 percent of all corporate wealth
  • An infant mortality rate that holds at 6.7 per 1,000 births (45th in the world)
  • An average life expectancy that ranks 50th in the world
  • Approximately 700,000 of its citizens file for medical bankruptcy each year. (In France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and Japan combined the number is zero.)
We need to start sharing our cookies again. Which means we - along with our leaders - need to stop bragging about how wonderful and bountiful we are and start behaving like the nation we could and should be. A nation more like...France. Again, from T.R. Reid's The Healing of America:
Whenever the French talk about health care, they invoke the concept of solidarite, the notion that all French citizens must stick solidly together to help one another in time of need. "The solidarity principle," explains Professor Rodwin, "requires mutual aid and cooperation among the sick and the well, the inactive and the active, the poor and the wealthy, and insists on financing health insurance on the basis of ability to pay, not actuarial risk."
For starters, that means a health care system that makes actual patient health its first priority, rather than a complete afterthought. Which might mean each of us paying slightly higher taxes so that everyone has a shot at living a healthy, humane existence. What's that you say? Sharing's still not your bag? Well, have no fear, because more people covered by basic health insurance means fewer people using the E.R. as their primary care provider. And guess who pays for those (even more) expensive E.R. visits?

You do.

From The Economist's "Heading for the Emergency Room":
With the truly poor, the free-riders turn up at emergency rooms. This is hugely inefficient, because pricey late interventions and operations could very often have been avoided with a much smaller investment in preventive care. Insured people and taxpayers are forced to cross-subsidies such "uncompensated" and wasteful treatments to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year.
Granted, some people feel as though these freeloaders should be restricted from receiving any treatment at all - even in the gravest of emergencies. And they're called assholes.

Many individuals with degrading or degenerative ailments, such as diabetes or heart disease, turn to the E.R. when their condition becomes irreversibly grave because they couldn't afford regular or preventive treatments in the first place, placing even greater financial strain on an already teetering system. From a recent Times editorial:
People without insurance tend to delay seeking medical care until their diseases, like diabetes and incipient cancer, become so severe that they require emergency attention and often cannot be treated effectively. The rest of us pay for their charitable care through taxes or higher premiums on private insurance.
So you see, this really isn't just about holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." Or giving away Fig Newtons. Sharing is practical, for the short and long term.

And despite what some indignant redneck at a town hall meeting in Tuscon might scream, sharing is not a euphemism for Socialism, Communism, Fascism, or whatever-the-hell-else ism that jumps into his head - and is caught on camera - at that particular moment. It's compassion - one of the key ingredients that supposedly separates human beings from packs of ravenous jackals.

To protect ourselves from the exploiters of our future generosity, it's also high time we become more engaged on key civic issues and political races so that we can, in turn, elect public officials who hopefully won't embezzle or misallocate these new streams of benevolence.

That means steeling ourselves against the tide of red meat issues with which political campaigns so egregiously flood the media, distractions that actually impact so few people yet somehow manage to pulsate the vein on so many a forehead.

But ask yourself, which of the following issues has a greater impact on U.S. citizens? Income tax allocation or euthanasia? Affordable health care or school prayer? Having clean air to breathe and safe water to drink or David and Terrance doing the Hora?)

Yet Americans get sucked in time and again by cynical ad campaigns generated by right-wing interest groups, invoking the cataclysmic demise of "values," a word which, loosely interpreted, has come to mean the outright contempt for lifestyles that don't revolve completely around an arbitrary interpretation of strategically targeted portions of the New Testament.

And not that it matters much coming from a half-assed Jew, but with all their sanctimony, intolerance, divisiveness, hypocrisy, multi-million-dollar mega-churches, and Precious Moments Figurines, Jesus Christ would loathe these charlatans, I promise you.

And one last thing: Private health insurers have every intention of not sharing in the moral obligation of providing a necessary service for American citizens. After all, these are for-profit money machines, largely automated behemoths that are free from regulatory constraints and beholden only to their shareholders. Again, from The Healing of America:
It's revealing that, in the lingo of the U.S. health insurance industry, the money paid to doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies for treatment of insured patients is referred to as "medical loss." That is, when health insurance actually pays for somebody's health care, the industry considers it a loss.
We've been duped into believing that private insurers are the sine qua non of our health care system; in reality, they're not only completely superfluous (care to have your colonoscopy performed by Tim in underwriting? Or how about a tonsilectomy by Marcy in human resources?), but also the primary reason for the mess in which we find ourselves. A government-run single-payer plan could easily, efficiently, and humanely fill the void left by these parasites. From Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece "Sick and Wrong":
In the real world, nothing except a single-payer system makes any sense. There are currently more than 1,300 private insurers in this country, forcing doctors to fill out different forms and follow different reimbursement procedures for each and every one. This drowns medical facilities in idiotic paperwork and jacks up prices: Nearly a third of all health care costs in America are associated with wasteful administration. Fully $35o billion a year could be saved on paperwork alone if the U.S. went to a single-payer system - more than enough to pay for the whole goddamned thing, if anyone had the balls to stand up and say so.
Taibbi's last point is critical in understanding the true essence of this ongoing fiasco. Physicians, politicians, academics, journalists and bloggers have fixated on four main factors leading to the health care system's seemingly irreversible tailspin: As a nation, we overspend, overeat, and over-treat.

Then, when all is lost, we place the reform process in the hands of Capitol Hill's most pathological teat suckers, who, after years of engorging themselves with corporate money, turn around, with straight faces, to inform the public that introducing a public option would never work long-term. And why not? Because it would cripple private insurance corporations' profit margins.

I shit you not, they actually say stuff like this. From The New York Times:

Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, said he feared that a government plan would prove so popular it could never be uprooted. "Does anybody believe Congress would let this public plan go away once it has a constituency?" Mr. Ensign asked. "No way. Once it's started, you will never get rid of it."

It's good to know that being under investigation by the Justice Department for a violation of ethics hasn't dampened Ensign's sense of humor. But then, we get this from Ensign's buddy, Chuck Grassley:
But Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, said a government insurance plan would have inherent advantages over private insurers "Government is not a fair competitor," Mr. Grassley said. "It's a predator." He predicted that "a government plan will ultimately force private insurers out of business," reducing choices for consumers.
If a government-run public option is predatory, let me be eaten raw.

From Robert Creamer of The Huffington Post:
To compete, private insurance companies would be forced to change the way they do business. They would have to end all of those practices that American consumers have grown to hate, cut administrative costs - maybe even cut CEO pay. Of course since the CEO of Cigna makes $26 million -- 65 times the salary of the President of the United States -- he could afford several million dollars in belt-tightening.

They could compete - but they would have to change the way they compete. That's what they are fighting tooth and nail to avoid - and that's also the whole point of health care reform: to change the incentives that determine how the players in the health insurance market do business day to day.
And now, a public service announcement, courtesy of the American Foundation for Insurer's Rights.

Cue this guy's voice:

We've heard about the women and children of Darfur, subject to mass rapings and killings by Sudanese warlords; the starvation of Congolese refugees, forced from their homeland by a brutal civil war; and the women of the Middle East and Central Asia, who all too often fall victim to rigid and severe social strictures. Many endure mutilation, torture, and so-called honor killings for alleged crimes they never commit. These are all grave injustices.

But what about insurance company CEOs?

Forced to compete with the government (socialism), they too will become hopeless victims. Victims of too much competition (pussies), too much choice for consumers (come back - we were just kidding!), too much transparency (see, what had happened...), and the systemic elimination of eight-figure bonuses (worse than The Holocaust).

Sadly, many of these individuals have spent years doing little more than cashing checks. Because neither they nor their companies possess an actual skill, these out of work executives - with palms like the coating on a freshly molted wax worm - will be forced back to the mean streets of Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Champs Elysses with little more to do than to shop for high end merchandise all day, every day, for the rest of their lives.

Thankfully, with your help, this tragedy is preventable. So, please, join with us to ensure that all insurance company CEOs can maintain their yearly bonuses - bonuses that, while greatly increasing the overall cost of healthcare, also go to pay for back alimony, exclusive country club memberships, male breast reduction, penile enlargements, and really, really fast speed boats with cool names like "Child Support, Shmiled Support," and "CUL8TR."

Remember: It's up to all of us to maintain the status quo. Thank you. God bless. And God bless America.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Creaky Wheel Breaking News: Murrieta, CA Man Wins Nobel Prize in Physics

Click here to see what can happen when you dream big.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Violation of Kindergarten Fairness Part I: An Introduction to EINKILK

Most of us have seen the poster.

The first time I caught a glimpse of it was in a Spencer's Gifts, back in the early 80s. It was displayed inside one of those aluminum-framed plastic poster flippers, sandwiched among a cluster of 80s detritus: Muppet Babies (flip), Scott Baio with feathered mullet and cut off half shirt (flip), Olivia Newton John clad in active "Let's Get Physical" headband and skin-tight Sassons (ful......ip), Sebastian Bach licking his double-necked guitar (flip), a florescent velvet-on-black rendering of Ace Frehley (flip).

But The Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (henceforth to be referenced as EINKILK) poster wasn't as easy to dismiss. Sure, it was maudlin and perhaps a bit trite - even to my naive 13-year-old eyes. (Although back then, in my sub-articulate disapproval, I likely filed EINKILK under "gay" in my mental rolodex. Gay: the seemingly boundless category assigned by adolescents across the nation for all things effete or uncool - ironic since at the time I was probably wearing irregular Bugle Boy khakis - "pegged" at the ankles - from Marshalls and a white, cropped, acid-wash jean jacket.)

In retrospect, maybe it was the tone of the poster that startled me more than anything else.

As a non-religious Jewish kid, it jolted me away from my own "Don't fuck with me; I won't fuck with you" moral comfort zone and into the Precious Moments-bedazzled realm of Born Again Christian candy-coated preachy-ness. Still, I couldn't repudiate the poster's overarching theme: Be nice; be considerate; take it easy on yourself and others. In other words, don't be a dick.

Today, the EINKILK poster is little more than a quaint relic from a less cynical era. Though America in the 80s will be forever identified with the scourges of the Cold War, cocaine consumption, material vices, greed, Reaganomics, and Z-Cavariccis, it was also a simpler time. While repression was still in bloom, cooler-than-thou hipster irony had yet to gain enough momentum to steamroll every last fragile vestige of sincerity in the public domain.

Now, sentiments such as EINKILK get re-packaged into kitsch - Urban Outfitters T-shirts, SNL sketches, or perhaps a Zach Galiafanakis bit. In the 80s, it was occasionally okay to be unabashedly corny; now, if you're caught wearing a powder blue My Little Pony T-shirt, it's with a wink-wink and a nod-nod to your cronies - an assurance that it's all just a cute, ironic ruse.

Get it? I'm cool, so why would I ever really wear a My Little Pony shirt - because My Little Pony's corny and saccharine and for little girls who dream about having little ponies as pets. Unlike me, who dreams about slaughtering them and cooking their parts in vats of broth. Though a T-shirt depicting such would be too obvious, thus tarnishing my image as a clever modern master of dripping irony.

Those of us old enough to recall that far back know that, in the early-80s, the face value of things held more currency. Back then, hope was more than a mere campaign slogan and there was only one glossary definition of Abraham Lincoln.

Okay, that last thing was uncalled for. I apologize.

In contrast, EINKILK was conceived, I presume, without a hint of pretense, irony, or self-mockery. It's a poster that softly admonishes: These are the fundamental tenets of humanism, ones you probably should've picked up when your life still revolved around snack time, nap time, and surviving the rapacious child-eating monster holed up in your closest. And if you don't know them by now, learn. Or fuck off.

EINKILK is the manifesto for the dogma of touchy-feely righteousness. And like any dogma - be it the Old or New Testaments, The Koran, Dianetics, or How to Win Friends and Influence People- there are kernels of truth to be found amidst the heaping piles of bullshit.

So ridicule EINKILK if you choose. But if the players responsible for this nation's health care mess - fat cat insurance and pharmaceutical executives; an out-of-touch media; conniving Capitol Hill lobbyists; morally corrupt insurance underwriters, the GOP propaganda power-puke machine; the food industry; timorous Democrats; and an overfed, over-treated, out-of-shape, and under-informed populace had just followed its 12 simple tenets, most of us wouldn't have to freak out about keeping our already tenuous coverage every time we switch jobs, get laid off, or discover an oblong mole on our asses.

In subsequent posts, I will make a direction connection between the not-so-lofty standards of EINKILK and how we, as a society, have done everything possible to violate them (though I'm still struggling conjure a remotely relevant metaphor for Warm Cookies and Cold Milk are Good For You. My suggestion box is wide-open for that one.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Grassley: Government is a "Predator"

Say what you will about the Republicans, but they sure as hell know how to stay on message, irrespective of whether that message is quasi-rational or bordering on the maniacally insane. You see, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller had a proposal this week that would've offered a fiscally responsible public option to compete with health insurance companies, which would inevitably temper their current stranglehold on the health care system.

From The New York Times:
Mr. Rockefeller said the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that a government insurance plan could slice $50 billion from the cost of Mr. Baucus's bill, originally put at $774 billion over 10 years...

..."The public plan will be optional, "Mr. Rockefeller insisted. "It will be voluntary. It will be affordable to people who are now helpless before their insurance companies."
After Rockefeller's proposal was predictably rejected by his buddies in the Senate Finance Committee, New York Senator Chuck Schumer took his own shot, issuing a similar proposal. Naturally, that went down in flames, too.
Mr. Schumer said the public option would hold down costs because it would not have to generate profits, answer to shareholders or incur marketing expenses.
It would also save over $300 billion a year in dumb-ass administrative waste, which would cover the entire cost of a public option. Oh, and in case anyone still cares, it would offer a happy medium between getting raped by an Aetna insurance adjuster and never having to worry about filing for medical bankruptcy.

Ronald Brownstein, senior writer at the National Journal, quotes economist Len Nichols, who emphasizes the need for a public option if there's to be reform of any kind - since health insurers are, you know, greedy, profiteering bastards.
Locally dominant insurers often pay providers excessive reimbursement rates to discourage them from participating in rival insurance plans. That dissuades other insurers from entering the market, which, in turn, frees the leading insurer to raise its premiums to cover the inflated reimbursements.

"The only people who lose in that," Nichols says dryly, "are the patients."
In other words, a competing public option is both ethically and fiscally responsible, insofar as it would prevent private insurers from their business-as-usual tactic of exploiting a flawed health care system. Oh, and by the way: Duh.

So then what's the problem? Well, if you haven't already heard, there's a war on. The War on Logic:
But Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, said a government insurance plan would have inherent advantages over private insurers. "Government is not a fair competitor," Mr. Grassley said. "It's a predator." He predicted that "a government plan will ultimately force private insurers out of business," reducing choices for consumers.
There you have it. Private health insurers do everything in their power to drop sick and needy individuals from their roles (by instituting a practice called rescission) - and get to vastly increase their premiums on a moment's whim - they've been known to hold open enrollment on the upper floors of non-retrofitted buildings so as to discourage elderly, handicapped, and chronically ill people from signing on, and government is the predator? Hello, my name is Charles Grassley, and I'm full of shit.

And just to review, Grassley's claiming that, if there is a public option to compete with private insurance companies, the private insurers will go out of business. Why ever might that be? Would it have anything to do with the fact that a public option would be cheaper, of equal or better quality, more efficient, more accessible, and waaaayyy less terrifying?

Sounds to me like private insurance companies are building an inferior product and either:

A. Need to get up off their collective asses and improve their product


B. Need to either step aside or diversify their brand (Aetna golf clubs, Kaiser Mouth Wash, Wellpoint Douche Bags, etc.)

Or how about the perfect synergy: A Blue Cross fast food franchise? Serve up fried chicken sandwiches and other thousand calorie bombs in the dining area, and then, replacing Playlands with on-site clinics, offer customers on-site bypass surgeries, amputations, and other invasive procedures resulting from obesity and diabetes. You can call it Blue Burger. Yummy.

What's odd about Grassley's point is that I've always been admonished by conservatives about how free and unfettered markets are the cornerstone of capitalism - the party's preferred economic dogma - and hence, the path toward economic salvation.

Until, that is, the losers are the ones who contribute piles and piles of money to your campaign coffers. Per Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece Sick and Wrong:
Getting movement on a public option - or any other meaningful reform - will now require the support of one of the three Republicans in the group: Grassley (who has received $2,034,000 from the health sector), [Olympia] Snowe ($756,000) or [Mike] Enzi ($627,000).

This is what the prospects for real health care reform come down to - whether one of three Republicans from tiny states with no major urban populations decides, out of the goodness of his or her cash-fattened heart, to forsake forever any contributions from the health-insurance industry.
Too bad there's no opposition party in control of 3 out of the 4 branches of government to call out the GOP on its unabashed hypocrisy and corruption. Oh, wait...

Before I leave you today, and because the Democrats won't, let Wendell Potter, former head of public relations for CIGNA, remind you once again whom the real predators are:

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Where My Kindle At!?

I'm one of the few human beings left on the planet under the age of eighty-five who still gets up every morning and cracks an actual newspaper. For many who still even bother to read the morning news, it's straight to the Kindle, iPhone, Reader, or laptop.

Not me.

I get a physical rush from the tactile feeling of a virginal newspaper in my hands, the muted, grainy, sickly gray hue of the paper stock folded horizontally at its center, and the eighth-night-of-Chanukah-like anticipation of wondering what the front page headlines will be as the brooding, cynical bastard within me prematurely simmers over the fact that the most important story of the day will undoubtedly be buried somewhere around page A-27.

To me, the newspaper is a crack-of-dawn companion, a distinguished mentor, and a loyal partner in commiseration. As I'm not a morning person, I rely on it to shake me from my somnambulant stupor with its heaping slabs of social injustice, worldly carnage, and hyperbolic, counterintuitive, and insufferably didactic op-eds. Oh, and did I mention the horoscopes (Me? I'm a Leo!)

Although I do make an occasional foray into the world of online news, it's never the same. I don't have a Kindle yet and possibly never will ($299.00), so I'm surely missing out on all that goodness. And, as much as that cute, trim, unassuming - yet agonizingly smug - hipster on the Mac commercials might want me to feel otherwise, my laptop monitor screen is just an austere face glaring up at me, awaiting my next command. Rather than passive-aggressively admonishing my ambivalence, a la HAL, it silently hectors me with precisely the same harrowing news stories that my cuddly newspaper seemingly reveals to me with kid gloves.

Okay, so maybe that last part's all in my head.

Still, in a strange way, there's just something so comforting about physically holding that newspaper and all its ominous headlines in my hands - an illusory sense of empowerment, perhaps - as though I'm not a victim of destiny but rather an active participant? Maybe. Because I sort of feel like, if I can hold it in my hands while reading it, everything will probably turn out all right. Did I fail to mention that I'm a control freak?

But, on an apparently slow news day (aside from a hell cauldron brewing in Afghanistan, an impending health care reform bill that's sure to be either DOA or utterly ineffectual, and a defiant, dangerous, and increasingly volatile Iran dithering about a possible stockpile of weapons-grade uranium), my usual morning raft of sanity offers me this little beauty from its front page:
In the age of the iPhone, Kindle and YouTube, the notion of the book is becoming increasingly elastic as publishers mash together text, video and Web features in a scramble to keep readers interested in an archaic form of entertainment.
Because reading words is, you know, like hard and stuff. Sometimes I feel that this country would make so much more sense to me if I were a 15-year-old girl.

Incidentally, at what point will watching video become too taxing on our intellect? Will then every video-capable device come with a pygmy wizard-gnome, there to sagely explain us through the mental rigors of guys getting whacked in the nuts with sledgehammers or two coeds making out in their dorm room? Once again, from the same Times piece:
On Thursday, for instance, Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, is working with a multimedia partner to release four "vooks," which intersperse videos throughout electronic text that can be read - and viewed - online or an iPhone or iPod touch.

I can't wait to see how they "intersperse" video footage of Jake's impotence-induced demise due to his unrequited love for a woman he can never physically attain in The Sun Also Rises. No worries, though: I'm sure it'll be well-acted and tastefully done, as only vooks can do.

Jake: I see you were out with Cohn again.
Brett: Yeah. So?
Jake: No, I was just...
Brett: Look, I need me a REAL man. Someone who can satisfy ALL THIS!

Judging from the breathless tone of the rest of the article, The Times is clearly taking an if-you- can't-beat -em-join -em tack on this new abomination - uh, I mean synergy - because they, along with most other newspaper publications and publishing houses, are doing everything in their power just to remain solvent and relevant in an age in which information is perpetually condensed, compressed, and then power-vomited into the public sphere at light speed.

In other words, they're happy just to be up and running; any strategy at this point that will enable them to remain in business will be eagerly employed, whether it's incorporating vooks, streaming video, or mimes acting out the latest developments in health care reform.

But what's most gallingly unforgivable for me is that The Times article frames innovations such as the video-text/novel hybrid as a revolutionary movement in literature, rather than what it is more likely to be: the continued demise of written language and overall literacy. Disagree? According to The USA Today, approximately 32 million American adults are not skilled enough to read anything beyond a children's book, though on the bright side, it also means they're still fully capable of reading The USA Today. Buh-dump-bump!

At the very least, atrocities like "vooks" are the canary in the coal mine in the slow, lumbering slide into an anti-intellectual abyss (Though if you were to counter that the re-election of George W. Bush was, in fact, the seminal moment of our burgeoning idiocracy, I would have no rebuttal.)

The following is an excerpt from Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, a book that I find exceedingly appropriate for this very occasion:
The debasement of the nation's speech is evident in virtually everything broadcast and podcast on radio, television, and the internet. In this true, all-encompassing public square, homogenized language and homogenized thought reinforce each other in circular fashion. As George Orwell noted in 1946, "A man may take a drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks." It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
(Not that I'm one to point fingers, but, extrapolating from these statistics, more American adults have watched NASCAR on a regular basis over the past year than have have read a book.)

Even more disappointing is Maryanne Wolf's apparent complicity in this movement. A few years back, Wolf penned Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, a staid but exceptionally informative reader about the ways in which the human brain adapts to, and hopefully masters, the mentally arduous task of reading. In The Times' article, she states:
There is no question that these new media are going to be superb at engaging and interesting the reader.
But in her book, Wolf emphasizes the systematic nature of becoming a proficient reader, that it is often a slow, cumbersome process that is fully actualized through fits and starts - it's difficulty deriving from the fact that the act of reading is not a skill that humans innately possess. From Proust and the Squid:
Learning to read is an almost miraculous story filled with many developmental processes that come together to give the child entry into the teeming underlife of a word usable by the child. Socrates and the ancient Indian scholars feared that reading words, rather than hearing and speaking them, would prevent our ability to know their many layers of meaning, sound, function, and possibility. In fact, early reading exposes - during the moment of acquisition - how many of the multiple, older structures contribute to each layer as they come together to form the brain's new circuitry for reading.
And then:
The more a child is exposed to written words, the greater his or her implicit and explicit understanding of all language.
So how does Wolf reconcile her exhaustive research into the reading process with her current optimism for the video-text hybrid model? To be fair, she adds:
Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?
Intriguing question. Personally, I have plenty of patience for George Eliot. He's that NASCAR driver, right?

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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