Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Vatican Museum

I didn't think I'd ever write about museums, but my mom recently sent out one of her spam emails which included this link to the gorgeous VR version of the Sistine Chapel. I had seen it before, but this time it triggered my recollections of the Vatican Museum, which I thought I'd share.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from the Vatican Museum.  Just a few religious artifacts, then the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica and we're done.  I should not have been surprised to discover a world-class museum, but I was very pleasantly surprised;  after all, this is a major museum in Rome.

The entrance to the actual museum was in the "rear" of the Vatican.  It's actually a small entrance in the giant walled-off complex that is Vatican City (a great picture of this wall is in the Wikipedia article for the museum).  But when you start walking around the museum, you see how huge it is, how filled it is with Renaissance treasures, and how deep its collection.  There are indoor wings, outdoor wings, corridors upon corridors of gorgeous Roman statues, busts, carvings, Renaissance paintings, and of course, religiously-themed art.  There is even an outdoor courtyard next to the food court (a food court in the Vatican!) with a stairway entrance to a really cool "garage" museum of popemobiles, carriages, and palanquin. Did I mention the gift shops?  There are several, including one at the top of a breathtaking curved staircase.

One cool exhibit is the museum stamp collection.  I know, stamps, right?  But this small exhibit is beautifully done.

Of course, the star attractions are the Raphael Apartments and Sistine Chapel.  You know this because there are "Sistine Chapel -->" signs everywhere.  It reminded me of the signs to "La Joconde" in the Louvre (that's the Mona Lisa).  After what felt like walking on a scaffolding a few floors up, we enter the Raphael Apartments; which are just a series of three or four empty rooms painted by Raphael (they were formerly papal apartments).  The last room is the glorious School of Athens; an amazing painting to see.  Two things I didn't know:  1) the ceiling is curved here.  You actually see this in the posters of the School of Athens in the top right and left corners, but only once you know.  And 2) the painted wall starts about 6 feet above the floor.  So you are looking up at it; in fact, you can see the top of the door that you enter through in any poster on the lower left.  I just thought all these little details are really cool and you'd never know from anywhere else.

After the Raphael Apartments, there's a fantastic contemporary art room. Just some really beautiful pieces.  Most people just skip over this to get to the Sistine, but it really is worth going through.

Finally, you are led into the Sistine Chapel.  I certainly won't try describing how breathtaking it looks in real life and after being restored and cleaned.  Let's just say it took me half an hour to agree to be dragged out kicking and screaming. Maybe not screaming, as the Vatican police are busy shushing everyone--which is both ridiculous and appropriate given the shushing the Vatican has done for so many things. I'd love to see a Sistine Chapel-full of atheists not being shushed and just talking about the beautiful room.

And then more gift shops towards the exit.  The St. Peter's Basilica is actually a separate entrance, this one properly in the "main" Vatican square that you see on TV.

For the Basilica itself, I only have three observations.

  1. They are surprisingly lax here in terms of photographs and talking.  You are allowed to take as many photos as you want and talk as loud as you want.  I was expecting to be shushed here too and thankfully wasn't.
  2. Dripping in gold.  D-R-I-P-P-I-N-G in gold.  
  3. It's pretty damned gorgeous (pun intended).  The floor inlays, the famous canopy, the statues, etc, etc.  It's certainly an appropriate former seat of earthly power for an all-powerful empire.  This is not a church, it is where you go for the pope to decide with his court whether you're going to be beheaded or burned at the stake. Historical criticism intended.

So there you have it; the Vatican Museum, an amazing place with gorgeous art.  A must-visit.

Incidentally, that spam email also had these links, in case you're into that sort of thing:

Monday, November 5, 2012

November 6th, Election Day: Vote!

It's the day before the election, and I want to send a big message to all tens of you who are still reading me.

I'm sure you all are, but I wanted to reinforce it.  At some point, too many people have forgotten their "Why I Should Vote" essay from civics class and become complacent.  But voting is the single time where everyone else steps aside and We the People have our say.  No matter which political party you belong to-or none, which side you lie on, what your beliefs are, how hopeful or cynical you might be about our future, all of that is useless unless you join the conversation.  With voter turnout at approximately 50% for major elections (and sadly much lower for off-cycle and local elections), this is the one time when I can say that not enough people are talking.  Join the conversation.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Followup on FEMA

"Those who would argue for a privatized emergency management system must address a series of questions. Under a profit-motivated private sector system, what would prevent private entities from “cherry-picking” easy emergency management activities while shunning more difficult tasks, like preparing huge, highly diverse cities with large vulnerable populations? What private-sector entities would offer assistance to bankrupt, but still vulnerable, communities, like many California jurisdictions, or communities caught in the vise of the fiscal downturn? Would services be more abundant in communities that are willing and able to pay for them? What would prevent companies from overpromising results and gaming the system, as they have in offering infeasible solutions in the war on terror while racking up large profits?"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Face to face teaching

I'm just sitting in class, waiting for it to start.  I find it funny that we still value face-to-face instruction, even when it doesn't bring any value.  It would be so much easier to do a webcast or recording--once all the technology for it becomes easy to set up.  I have a friend who's class has been slightly unsuccessful with blended classes because the setup people mess it up too often!

Disaster Relief at the Federal Level

This video of candidate Romney has been making the anti-Romney rounds on Twitter and Facebook.  In it, he discusses that wherever preferable  the federal government should give up its functions (in this case, federal disaster response functions and FEMA) to the states and the private sector.  I'm sure this also includes education, energy policy, and a whole host of other topics, as per the Republican platform and many other interviews/debates.

There are several problems with this stance.

Moving things to the private sector opens up decisions based on the market, on private budgets, and even to  shareholder whims.  I would argue that central and central-adjacent functions like defense, education, regulation, and disaster relief should never be made private.  In these cases, the Federal government is and should be the 800-lb gorilla, able to throw itself around in order to get things done.

Shifting the power to states wouldn't be that objectionable except for two issues:  First, issues that cross state boundaries require a larger umbrella under which to be effective.  Can you imagine a purely state response to Hurricane Sandy with NY duplicating and not talking to NJ (and DC, and VA, and WV, and growing!)?  Or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or the massive coordination that was needed during 9/11?

And secondly, how would budgets be handled?  Many states have balanced budget amendments to their constitutions, so they can't borrow over their spending limit.  This means that it's quite possible that emergency response functions can get cut during the regular budget process.  When a disaster happens, you can't build up something quickly that isn't there due to last year's budget cuts.

I point to the state education mess that we are in:  overcrowded classrooms, lack of arts, music, physical education classes, meltdown of core STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, and other issues due to state budget cuts.  If anything, this single example of the state-run education system should cause anyone to rethink this approach.

The Federal government is the only large enough entity that can effectively cover all the above: it can coordinate a multi-state effort, can borrow as needed to fund disaster recovery and not be hampered by budgets, and reduce redundancies to have a centralized response.  And while I understand in theory that being controlled by budgets is a good thing, you should not take the time to quibble about budgets and money when lives are on the line.  For all these reasons, the Federal government is uniquely suited for this role.

Obama's Skin Color Loses Him 2 Percent - The Dish | By Andrew Sullivan - The Daily Beast

Obama's Skin Color Loses Him 2 Percent - The Dish | By Andrew Sullivan - The Daily Beast:

It's amazing things like this still happen in 2012.

Monday, October 29, 2012

NY Times endorses President Obama for President

"President Obama has shown a firm commitment to using government to help foster growth. He has formed sensible budget policies that are not dedicated to protecting the powerful, and has worked to save the social safety net to protect the powerless. Mr. Obama has impressive achievements despite the implacable wall of refusal erected by Congressional Republicans so intent on stopping him that they risked pushing the nation into depression, held its credit rating hostage, and hobbled economic recovery.
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has gotten this far with a guile that allows him to say whatever he thinks an audience wants to hear. But he has tied himself to the ultraconservative forces that control the Republican Party and embraced their policies, including reckless budget cuts and 30-year-old, discredited trickle-down ideas. Voters may still be confused about Mr. Romney’s true identity, but they know the Republican Party, and a Romney administration would reflect its agenda. Mr. Romney’s choice of Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate says volumes about that."
From the NYT endorsement

Hurricane Sandy, Mother of Storms

Headlines like this (Sandy Becomes Largest Atlantic Storm Ever) make me think of a great book, Mother of Storms by John Barnes, a fantastic sci-fi book about a nuclear accident causing a huge permanent hurricane. Highly recommended!

Joss Whedon endorses Mitt Romney for the Zombiepocalypse

Taxing the "rich" at $250,000

President Obama wants to raise taxes on those making $250,000 or more.  Considering that I recently had a slightly heated discussion with a friend on this issue, I figured I would do some research and used this Wall Street Journal article to gather some information as an exercise.

If your household makes $25,000, you are in the 31%
The poverty level is $23,050 for a family of four in 2012 in the United States.

If your household makes $50,000, you are in the 56%
This is approximately the median income in the United States.  This is also the mean (i.e., average) income of Hispanic/Latino and Black households.

If your household makes $75,000, you are in the 70%
This is approximately the mean income of Asian and white households.

If your household makes $100,000, you are in the 81%
This salary is usually a nice round number for a lot of people. But you're already in the top 80% of households in the US.  Certainly not "rich", but let's call you "comfortable", yes?

If your household makes $150,000, you are in the 89%

If your household makes $200,000, you are in the 94%
Another nice round number.  Now we're talking lawyer and doctor, salaries.

If your household makes $250,000, you are in the 96%
We have reached our magic number.  Think about that: if you're here, you already make more than 96% of your fellow countrymen.  And if you make more than this, then yes, the President wants to raise your taxes on that portion of income that is above this number.  Please go ahead and tell the 96% of the people who make less than you that raising your taxes is unfair.

If your household makes $500,000, you are in the 98%

If your household makes $506,000, you are in the 99%
And here we are with the 1%, who make more than half a million dollars.

I don't know what this exercise proves.  But it does seem to me that if you make a six-figure household income, you are already in the elite and should count yourself as very lucky (even granted that those in the 1% are heads and shoulders ridiculously above everyone else).  I will grant you that 250k is somewhat arbitrary.  Why not 300k?  Or 500k?  But that answer is above my pay grade.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Supporting a candidate with eyes open

I found my discussions with friends (and strangers) on Facebook quite curious.  Maybe I'm in my own bubble, but it seems that most Obama supporters with whom I've talked to are aware of their candidate's positions in a way that the Romney supporters are not.

For example, those fiscal conservative/socially liberal supporters of Romney recognize he and his running mate are social conservatives but that they represent the Party of Small Government and therefore are also fiscally conservative.  So therefore they have decided that fiscal issues are paramount and will vote for the fiscal conservative.  However, Romney and (especially) Ryan are not fiscal conservatives.  Romney is not seeking a balanced fiscal role where every program is paid for and that the government  exercises prudence. In fact, their budget plan is quite radical.  By rejecting even a 10 to 1 cut/revenue increase in the primary debates, Romney has thrown all conservatism out the window and instead fully embraced Grover Norquist's "no new taxes--ever" mantra.  They seem to only want less and less regulation, more and more tax cuts, throw money at the military, and start another war.  They're an SNL parody of a right-wing candidate.

On the other hand, Obama's policies on the whole have paid for themselves.  Even the much derided Obamacare is predicated on the fact that it pays for itself via the individual mandate and things like the cuts to Medicare reimbursements.  And in fact, it was Obama who put our two credit-card wars and Medicare D expansion on the official books.  Is this not fiscal responsibility and small-c conservatism?

Obama has governed from the fiscal center.  He did not (to the Left's consternation) push for a single payer system, has continued his drone strikes, not yet closed Guantanamo, and introduced a surge in Afghanistan.  He has governed carefully, prudently, and almost too gingerly.  On the other hand,  everything Romney has put forth is quite a radical agenda that does not square with the conservative label, and yet he is the fiscal conservative and Obama the lefty liberal.

So I just don't get it, the cognitive dissonance is painful.  If you say you are a sane fiscal conservative, when looking at the facts on the ground, all I see is one candidate that meets that criteria and it's not Romney.

Why isn't Colin Powell a Democrat? -

Why isn't Colin Powell a Democrat? -
While it is certainly true that Powell's views were not uncommon among moderate and liberal Republicans of an earlier era, it is not entirely clear why he chooses not to identify as a Democrat or as a liberal-leaning independent. 
Call me crazy, but isn't that the answer to his own question?  He is implying that ideological purity is healthy in a political party.  I disagree.  It just leads to two parties that are more unwilling to work together or even agree on basic policies because the game becomes sinking the other party.  Parties should not be religions or competing sports teams, throwing out any member that may agree or even endorse the other side or acting as if governing is a zero-sum game.

It's long past time we returned to politicians trying to help run the country rather than scoring political points and blocking the other side.

Why not cat pics?

I decided that my first two real posts would be political.  The reasons should be obvious; the heated presidential election, the issues on the table (abortion, gay marriage, the economy, foreign policy, etc), and some of the discussions I've had on Facebook.

Some of my friends don't like politics.  They decry the salesmanship and the obvious pandering.  They dislike the lines, the stump speeches, the falseness.  But this is also about getting things done.

I've been working for my company for quite a while and I've seen the same there.  Frustrating as it is, it's still the game that you have to play in order to Get Things Done.  Sometimes it can be fun as well, this game of thrones, but only as long as you don't forget that the Getting Things Done part is the actual goal and not just the game.  So I love politics, not because of the backstabbing or the drama or any of that, but because of the true end goal: taking something forward.  Whether it's a product, an organization, or the whole darned country, let's get it done.

The cat pics will come later.

Why You Should Vote Against Mitt Romney

I have several friends who I've heard want to vote for Mr. Romney in the upcoming presidential election. I decided that I need to do my part in providing both positive reasons for President Obama and negative reasons against Mr. Romney in my own words in an attempt to persuade you to change your vote. So here I go.
  • Because he has fundamentally lied about his platform in the debates. Sure, Obama may exaggerate and omit to his advantage, that’s politics. But Romney previously embraced a far-right platform during the campaign and then cynically flipped in the debates to make himself seem more moderate.
  • Because he said he would not have gone after Bin Laden. Remember him? The man who masterminded the murder of 3,000 people and caused untold damage to our economy, our standing in the world, and our sanity? The same man that Bush didn’t care about (instead obsessing over Saddam Hussein and Iraq—that went well!) and the same man Romney said he’d ignore.
  • Because he wants to choke off Medicare and Social Security. Let’s be honest here, Republicans never liked these social programs. They call people on them “moochers” and “takers” and call this “big government”. You forget the astronomical poverty rate for Seniors before these two programs existed. You forget that we pay into these two programs all our working lives and that these are benefits, not giveaways.
  • Because he and Republicans don’t care about the poor. The party that “embraces” Christianity but does the exact opposite of loving thy neighbor, turning the other cheek, and being their brother’s keeper should be offensive to anyone. I am an unabashed atheist; how is it I believe more in what Jesus actually taught than these people?
  • Because Romney would have let Detroit go bankrupt—as I would have. But he was wrong and I was wrong. Obama’s plan worked.
  • Because Romney and Ryan fought against equal rights for loving same-sex couples at every step. They were both against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, support the Defense of Marriage Act, and want to force their beliefs on everyone.
  • Because they are against contraception. It’s 2012.
  • Because they are against a woman’s right to choose. Abortion is not pretty, it’s not easy, and it’s not a good thing. But people deserve the respect and ability to choose for themselves.
  • Because they are bought and paid for by the NRA. They are against sensible gun control. They are against closing the gun show loophole that doesn’t require background checks. They are against restricting automatic and semiautomatic guns. This is madness.
  • Because we need more Supreme Court Justices like Kennedy, Stevens, and Ginsburg, not Thomas, Scalia, and Alito.
  • Because "legitimate rape" should never be said.
  • Because we were right about President Bush. We were brutally, painfully right. When he took his oath of office, we knew that we were going to war with Iraq (he so much as said so during the debates!). We knew when he was running the first time that he would be anti-gay, shower the rich with tax cuts, tank our economy, and waste our hard-earned surplus. We knew he'd try to voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security, appoint hard-line conservatives to the Supreme Court, and ignore basic science and economics in key decisions. This is most assuredly not to rub it in or to crow "I told you so", but we should have some credibility with you after we all experienced with President Bush. So please try to listen to us when we say what we think about a President Romney; we've been paying attention.

Why You Should Vote for President Obama

I have several friends who I've heard want to vote for Mr. Romney in the upcoming presidential election. I decided that I need to do my part in providing both positive reasons for President Obama and negative reasons against Mr. Romney in my own words in an attempt to persuade you to change your vote. So here I go.
  • Because he restored our standing in the world after Bush screwed it all up. We got out of Iraq, we’re trying to get out of Afghanistan, we got Bin Laden, and we helped depose Gadhafi at a tiny fraction of the cost of Iraq and with no lives lost.
  • Because he actually wants to pay for things and not put them on a credit card. Bush put two wars, Medicare D, and two huge tax cuts on a credit card while Obama gets pilloried for defining how the Affordable Care Act will be paid for. You may complain about the deficit and how it grew under Obama: Of course it grew! He a) put all those unpaid items on the official books and b) saved the US financial system from a monumental meltdown which required spending money to help stabilize the economy.
  • Because Obama saved us from a freaking financial meltdown. Do you not remember where the DOW was four years ago because of Bush’s incompetence and republican deregulation? It was at around 6,000. Today it is over 13,000. How’s that for growth? And jobs are growing. Slowly, but that beats the 700,000 job losses/month when he entered office.
  • Because of the stimulus. Speaking of growth, I know that “stimulus” may be a dirty word with conservatives (and Obama capitulated to this mindset). However, did you notice that the economy has slowed down this year? Romney sure did, he keeps saying this year was slower than last year; last year was slower than the year before. This is true, and it’s because the (too small!) stimulus ran out and Congress has refused to pass a second stimulus along with any other economic help. Almost all economists were for a second one (or a significantly bigger first one), this would have definitely helped to recover the economy quicker if it had passed. So if you don’t like our current economy, blame Congressional Republican intransigence.
  • Because Obama saved GM and the US auto industry. I also wouldn’t have done it; I would have let them go bankrupt. But he did it, and it worked. I was wrong.
  • Because Obama passed the Affordable Care Act. It’s not perfect; I would have preferred a single payer system. But it’s definitely not a “socialist government takeover of healthcare”. It gets rid of preexisting conditions (including “being a woman”), helps kids stay on their parents’ insurance longer, and encourages personal responsibility by mandating that everyone sign up. That’s right, the “personal mandate”. Don’t tell me that you’re one of the Tea Partiers who are against personal responsibility of everyone to be “in the system” in order to pay for it.
  • Because the economy needs levelheaded help.
  • Because it is not class warfare to say that if you make millions of dollars, you should contribute a little more in taxes to help out those not as fortunate.
  • Because Obama (finally!) endorsed the idea that a loving same-sex couple should have the same rights to marry as any other couple. Others have made many arguments for same-sex marriage that I won’t go to here. All I’ll say is this: if you don’t think this is such a big deal, or if you think “civil unions” are enough, then I’m disappointed you think marriage is such a cheap and unimportant thing. LGBT people certainly think higher of marriage than that and aspire to it.
  • Because he got rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was a very harmful policy, and its repeal has been shown as a non-event. We were right.
  • Because we need more Supreme Court Justices like Kennedy, Stevens, and Ginsburg, not Thomas, Scalia, and Alito.
  • Because reality and history currently has a pro-Obama bias. Facts matter and facts back up Obama’s stands on much more than Romney.

First Post!

I'm quite behind on the whole blogging "thing", but I figured it is better late than never.  So hello.