Robert's Random Ravings


In the last decade, especially since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11/2001, the American government has had to grapple with some difficult issues in what has come to be known as the “War on Terror.”

This war is a very real thing, but the enemy that we are fighting in this war is not so easy to pin down. We have called out specific targets, such as Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, President Bush’s “axis of evil” (Iran, Iraq and North Korea), and a few others. The problem that we face is that we are not fighting a typical army. We are fighting an ideology, religious fanaticism and a nebulous, ever-changing group of people whose one and only mission is to destroy our way of life.

America’s military might is really not in question. We have the strongest, most effective conventional military in existence now (and probably that has ever existed). But this military is completely ineffective in the battle that we are now waging. It’s not about dropping bombs an eliminating an opponents’ army. When people are willing to load themselves with explosives and become suicide bombers, how do you fight that?

We have tried to drop pamphlets on people. We have tried to broadcast information, whether through the radio, TV or the internet. None of this seems to be working.

Osama bin Laden in the December 2001 video
Image via Wikipedia

Something that has come more and more to the forefront in recent years is the use of torture techniques to try to gather information on different terrorist cells and impending operations. There is a lot of question about the effectiveness of such techniques. And there is even more question about the legitimacy of any information that is gathered in this manner. I really don’t know the answer about that and I doubt that we will ever see real proof that torture works. When it comes to National Security, sometimes there are things that we in the general public just do not know and can’t be told. I understand that.

So I am forced to think about what my own position is on torture. I thought this would be an easy thing. Simply put – I consider myself to be completely against the use of torture on another human being. I had always looked at it in this way: if we have to resort to the bad deeds of our enemies, what makes us any better than them.

US leaflet used in Afghanistan.
Image via Wikipedia

But the more I think about the issue, the less sure I am about my stance on it. Like many other things in life, it is not a black and white thing.

Let’s take an example. If I KNEW without doubt that hurting someone or even killing someone will positively save the lives of thousands (or even just hundreds) of people, would I consider that a fair tradeoff? What if someone is being suspected of trying to put together and detonate a dirty nuclear bomb over an American city. And let’s say that the only way to find out for sure involves extreme measures of interrogation. Is that OK? Well, I would have to look at that situation and think that it IS in fact OK because it would save so many lives.

Now let’s take that a step further. Let’s say that the person suspected of having this information is someone in my family that I love very much. Now that would complicate matters a whole lot. Cause of course now I would not want that person to be tortured or subjected to extreme measures of interrogation because of my relationship with him or with her.

Taking it even further, let’s say that this person is in fact subjected to torture and then it is later determined that it was the wrong person and that this person did not, in fact, have any information and was not even involved in this alleged plot. This is where things get sticky for most us, I think. As long as it is a guilty person then we can look away and act as if it is not happening. That’s the trouble with the kind of unchecked powers that the previous administration employed (wire tapping American citizens without obtaining warrants, extreme rendition, etc.) There will always be innocent people caught up in the web. Is that a risk that we are willing to take?

Again, I do not know the answer to this question. It seems that it is necessary to allow the potential risk to a few to save the many. But it also seems to me that it still needs to be done in a way that is accountable to someone (that is the purpose of the secret FISA court – it grants accountability but also preserves the necessary secrecy).

So, at the end of this discussion, where does that leave me? It’s still not a question that I can answer for myself. I still am opposed to torture in theory, but I totally understand the potential that it can have for preventing terrorist acts on the scale of what happened in New York in 2001.

What do you think?

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03/30/2009 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

President Obama on Leno

President Obama on Leno

President Obama on Leno

Last night, President Obama was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. To see the video of the interview, click here. To see a full transcript of the interview, click here. The New York Times did a great review of the interview as well.

I just finished watching it and felt compelled to write about it here on Robert’s Random Ravings.

First of all, I have to say how refreshing it is to have a President that gives you a feeling of pride in being an American. He actually talks in full sentences and has a command of the English language. When he was explaining the situation at AIG with the bailout money and the bonuses that were paid out, the first thing that came to mind was how President Bush would have bungled that explanation. I don’t think there is any way that Bush could possibly have explained the situation. I just don’t think he even would have had the understanding to do it.

I enjoyed listening to him and watching him. He has a charming smile and a very endearing way about him. In spite of all of the calamity around him, he looked relaxed and in charge. I loved his joking about the bowling alley and the March Madness tournament. Even when Jay asked him if he picked North Carolina because it is a swing state. President Obama didn’t bat an eye and stayed right with him. I genuinely like this guy!

A lot has been said over the last 8 years about President Bush being the guy that you would want to have a few beers with. Well, while President Obama was talking last night with Jay Leno, I was thinking that I would love to have a few beers and just “hang out” with him.

Does that mean that I agree with everything he does? Absolutely not. As an example, he apparently was trying to get veterans to pay for their own health care if they had any access (through themselves or their spouse) to private insurance. To me, this is a BAD idea. I really don’t care if a veteran has access to private insurance. If our young men and women make the commitment to the US military (no matter which branch, and whether they see combat or not), I think that the LEAST we can do for them is to cover their health care after they leave military service. I never want to see treatment like we saw at Walter Reid a few years ago. They give their service to us, we give our service to them. That is how a voluntary military works. Period. End of story.

I am willing to give the President and his team some time to work things out. As he said last night (and many other times), it took a long time for us to get into this mess. It will not get fixed overnight. The policies of the last 8 years were an abject failure. It is time to try something different. No more “business as usual.”

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03/20/2009 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Best US Cities to Live In

I see a lot of polls online and in magazines that discuss the Best City in the United States to live in. Some lists are based on cities with the most job opportunities. Some are based on affordability of housing as compared to the typical salary in that city. Some are based on school systems, or quality of life, or many other things.

I am going to talk about the cities that I think are the best cities in the US to live in and why. In a future post, I will be discussing the best foreign cities to live in, as well as the worst US cities to live in. I also plan on doing a post about the best cities in the US to visit.

For me, the best city in the US to live in (without regard to cost of living) is New York City. New York offers the best opportunities for anything you could want. If you are a foodie, it has pretty much the widest selection of restaurants anywhere in the US. If you are into culture, New York offers dozens of world class museums, literally hundreds of theaters (Broadway, Off-Broadway, way off Broadway, etc). It offers Opera and Ballet. If you are into sports, there are typically two professional teams in every major sport, and sometimes even three (if you include nearby North Jersey).

New York has beaches and parks. It is the financial center of the world (though you might not want to say that too loudly right now).

It has history. There were battles fought here in the Revolutionary War. The first President of the United States was inaugurated in a building on Wall Street. Ellis Island is here.

It has easy transportation access in and out, whether by car, train, bus or plane. It has a mass transit system that can fairly comfortably take you just about anywhere you want to go in the city, at practically any time.

I could go on and on about all of the things that New York offers, but I will stop there. All of the things I mentioned (and more) are the reason that I think it is the best place in the US to live.

After New York, I am going to mention a number of other cities, but the order is arbitrary. I am not going to try to rank the rest because I think that would be pretty difficult to do.

Chicago is another great city to live in. Again, it has plenty of restaurants of pretty much every kind. It is considered by many to be the #1 food city in the country. It has some of the best museums this country has to offer, including the Art Institute of Chicago (which is my favorite museum of all), the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Industry and Science. It also has a phenomenal mass transit system. Unlike New York, though, it does not reach out into all of the suburbs. Once you pass a certain point west (near Oak Park) or north (just past Evansville), you cannot rely on the trains and the buses don’t cover every area nearly as well. One advantage it does have over New York is that it is much cheaper to live in Chicago. Of course, this is offset by the brutal weather that Chicago experiences for at least 3 months of the year (not that New York is without its bad weather).

Another great city to live in is Seattle. The natural setting for the city of Seattle is virtually unmatched in the US (except for maybe San Francisco). Seattle is a young, vibrant town that is full of energy (possibly due to the unnaturally high per capita consumption of coffee). Seattle is a great gateway to the West Coast of the United States and Canada, as well as Alaska. One of the things I like to look for in a city is what opportunities it offers for weekend getaways and quick trips. Seattle’s plate is full in this category – whether it be a trip to Mount Rainier, or to the Straits of Juan de Fuca; to Vancouver or Portland; to the Cascades or the fantastic ski resorts of British Columbia. It will take a long time to run out of things to do in and around Seattle.

Let’s move on to Philadelphia. This is not a city that would be on a lot of people’s list for top US cities. It is on mine, though. It is a great hub for the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeastern United States. Within a 6 hour drive, you can be in any of the major cities along the Eastern Seaboard of the US, from Boston all the way down to Richmond, VA. That encompasses most of the original 13 colonies, so you would have fairly quick access to some of the best historical sites in the US. Philadelphia itself offers tons of options for investigating US history. In addition, of all of the major cities of the Northeast, it is the cheapest city to live in. It’s also a great sports town (though its fans are not known as the most polite fans in the country).

I will finish off with the city that I actually live in – Austin, TX. Austin is very different from the rest of Texas. It is a college town and it is a capitol city. It is growing much too quickly. But in spite of all of that, it is a charming and beautiful place. The hill country immediately to the west of the city has become a major tourist destination. Austin is a big city now, but it has not completely lost its small town charm (unlike Dallas and Houston, which I would dare say would not be considered “charming” by most people). It is also a major center of live music due to its hundreds of venues downtown for live musicians. It hosts several very large, well attended festivals, including SXSW (South By Southwest) and the Austin City Limits Festival. I really love living in Austin especially because of the friendly people. In spite of its rapid growth, the people still treat others in a kindly and welcoming manner.

I would love to hear comments from any of my readers about your favorite cities to live in (and why they are your favorite).

03/17/2009 Posted by | General | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Depression – the silent ache

There is a problem which affects millions of Americans every day. Many people probably are not even aware that they are experiencing this problem. I am referring to depression.

Our society moves very quickly and places a lot of value on things that are not particularly fulfilling – money, status, number of friends, the type of car you drive, how big your house is, and on and on. There is nothing wrong with having a nice house or driving a nice car. But if you think that once you get these things you will be happy, you will be in for a surprise. “Things” cannot really make us happy.

When discussing depression, it is necessary to mention that there are many flavors of depression – from a one time feeling to an ongoing, life-long battle; from a chemical imbalance that can be helped by modern medicine, to mental illness that has no cure. Everyone deals with depression of some sort at some time in his or her life. But there are a lot of people out there that can barely face the day. It could be your closest friend and you may not even know. People are very good at hiding things when they don’t want other people to know about them. I can talk from experience here because I have battled depression and other related issues for most of my adult life.

How is it possible to live in a large city and feel completely alone, for example? The answer is that it is possible and it is very hard to explain. Whether you are surrounded by people or live in a small town, you can still feel lonely.

It is a common thing to blame our parents for problems that we face in our adulthood. And the reality is that our parents do play a role. But I would say that it is rare that our parents are 100% responsible for depression and other mental illness issues that we face as adults. It is important to talk to your parents if you feel that there are issues. They may surprise you. I have had many such opportunities and I have found them to be both liberating and enlightening. See, most parents do the best they can. They go with the information they have at the time and try to live according to their values and morality, and then pass that along to their children. Every generation struggles with the previous generation. That is just a fact of life. But if you live your life hating your parents because they have “ruined your life,” I would say that it is time to take responsibility for your own well being and try to do any and everything possible to move past it. If your parents are no longer alive, it is a little harder, but it is still possible. I think that we alone are responsible for our own well-being and happiness.

I have been taking a prescription anti-depressant for a very long time. I know it helps me and that I would be much worse off without it. But the medicine alone is not enough. Lately I have found that I don’t have a lot of people in my life that I feel that I can really talk to – really open up to – and trust with what I might say. I have been deeply hurt in the past by people that have been in the role of counselor who have decided that what I say to them in private did not need to be kept private. That is a real betrayal and it has made it very difficult for me to trust anyone now. But in spite of the hurts of the past, it is more damaging to keep everything bottled up. I have finally taken a step towards getting professional assistance again. I hope it goes well.

One of the things that makes it hard to get help is the “stigma” associated with it. I know that there is much less these days. After all, one of the most popular shows of the last decade was about a mobster that went to a shrink. But you may recall that even Tony Soprano did not want other people knowing that he was going.

I also have run into the attitude that saying you have a mental illness is a crutch or an excuse for not accepting responsibility for your own behavior. It is truly amazing to me how prevalent this attitude is. I still have to deal with it to this day in some people that are pretty close to me.

I know that there are not that many people reading my blog, but if I am able to encourage even one person to take a step towards getting help – towards realizing that he or she can get help – then sharing my own experiences will have been worth it.

03/08/2009 Posted by | General | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

American Idol

American Idol

American Idol

I think just about everyone has heard of American Idol by now. It is the number one show on television each year. It is now in its eighth season.

I have been watching American Idol since the third season and in general have really enjoyed it. This year, however, it does not seem to be grabbing my attention as much as previous years. Don’t get me wrong. I am still watching every moment and still discussing it with my family and many of my friends who also watch it religiously.

The funny thing is that in each step of the way this year, I have gotten to the point where I cannot wait for the current stage to be over and the next stage to begin. By the end of the auditions, I could not wait for Hollywood week to begin. By the middle of Hollywood, I was ready for the Final 24 to be announced. Then they changed the format and made it a final 36. The show is now just about finished with this Final 36 stage and ready to get to the Final 12.

During this stage, they had the contestants sing in 3 groups of 12, with only 3 of those 12 making it through, based on the vote tallies from the American audience. The top guy, the top girl and then the next highest vote getter make it through.

Tonight, they will be doing a wildcard round wherein they have asked 8 of the people that did not make it through to come back and compete for the final 3 spots in the Top 12. Whew. This process seems to have gone on forever.

Thankfully, after tonight, we will be back to the familiar format where all of the contestants sing and the person receiving the lowest vote total is eliminated. And even after all the “frustration” and “drama,” I can honestly say that this Top 12 group will be a pretty good group.

The problem with the show is that it is supposed to be a singing contest, but always turns into more of a popularity contest. Is there any doubt that the producers and judges of American Idol wanted Lil Rounds and Danny Gokey in the Top 12? They made sure that those two got the final spot in their respective weeks of this round, or what I call the “pimp spot.” That way, the last thing people remember when they go to vote is those performances. And of course, it worked. Both of them are in the Top 12. This is not necessarily a bad thing since both of these contestants happen to be very talented and capable artists. I just don’t like the manipulation that seems to take place every year by the show’s producers. If it truly is a contest based on America’s vote, don’t manipulate us.

Then there are the judges. Their comments (except for Simon most of the time) are basically useless and completely unhelpful. “Your outfit is atrocious.” “I don’t know who you are as an artist.” “You are so much younger than that song.” And on and on. It makes me want to scream at the screen (which I do, in fact, do). Plus each judge tries to out-do the other judges. None of them allow the other judges to talk without talking over them and creating a general sense of confusion.

I think that they should limit the judges to 20 seconds of commentary and “play them out” like they do on the Oscars if they go over. The show gets so bogged down. Think about it. This week, there were 12 contestants, each singing for 90 seconds. That is a total of 18 minutes of singing. But the broadcast was two hours long! All I can say is “thank G-d for Tivo”.

And can we talk about the group numbers? Who puts these together? Almost all of them are just horrible and cringe-worthy efforts. On “So You Think You Can Dance,” I always look forward to the group numbers because they are imaginative and entertaining. I can only remember 2 or 3 group numbers on Idol that were worth listening to.

Another thing that kills me is the band. This is not “America’s Favorite Band.” They feature the band way too much on American Idol. The music and the backup singers should be behind the contestants – not overpowering them. Half the time, all you can hear is the band. I also do not like when any of the band is put up on the main stage with the contestant. This is very distracting and again, it is not the point of the contest.

Finally, what is with the sound engineers on this show? This is the top show on television for 8 years running. I have to believe that Fox and American Idol can afford to hire sound engineers that actually know what they are doing. Is that too much to ask??

All that being said, it is still one of my favorite shows and I look forward to this year’s Top 12.

03/05/2009 Posted by | General | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment