Remember when journalism was compelling reading?

Hubby and I have been watching Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix, and since the storyline is anything but linear, we both looked for articles to help us understand the story. As we are chronologically gifted, we remember the case being in the news, but as it happened some 25 years ago, we wanted a refresher. Hubby looked at Wikipedia, because, as always, it comes up first on search engines. I went a bit farther and looked at the source material for that article and chose a piece in the NY Times archives. Oh, wow, is that a great article. A hell of a great read, and it helped me know more about the Unabomber case than I ever knew way back when. Also, it was a glaring reminder of how far the standards of good journalism have fallen.

Unabomber

One of my sisters is a journalism major, and she still thinks that journalists do a reasonable job. Oh, sure, she says, there are some bad ones, and some hacks, but that’s always been the case. My other sister works in communications and believes modern journalists are often poor writers managed by even poorer editors who are more interested in how many times articles are shared or clicked upon than actual quality. After reading the simply superb article about Ted Kaczynski in the NYTimes, I tend to agree with the sister that says journalism has fallen on hard times.

Manhunt: Unabomber is a good show if you haven’t seen it, and I recommend it, but the filmmakers do jump from scene to scene, sometimes with only a brief graphic telling the date, too quickly. In part, this seems to be an effort to create a bit of suspense, which is always tricky when telling a tale wherein the outcome is known by the audience. The folks behind the show do an excellent job of portraying the very complex man who chose to bomb those he deemed hostile to him or to his vision for the advancement of society, and it reveals the mis-steps of the initial profilers of the suspect labeled UNABOM because his targets were associated with universities or airlines. The NY Times story mentions Kaczynski’s failed attempt at getting articles (or rants, depending on one’s viewpoint) published. Indeed, only the Unabomber’s success at getting his “manifesto” published in a national newspaper actually caused him to be captured, and the FBI had a tip or it wouldn’t have happened at all.

The story in the NYT is not entirely linear either, as it jumps from witness to witness, but the story is primarily based upon a long interview with David Kaczynski the bomber’s brother, who ultimately helped the FBI identify the bomber. Still, the article is far more informative, if not as dramatic, as the television show. In particular, I was struck with the tremendous dilemma in that David had, because he knew that other instances of FBI vs. a long sought suspect ended in a firestorm (such as the Branch Davidians in Waco and the stand off at Ruby Ridge) so he was concerned. With the support and prompting of his wife, he supplied materials to support his suspicions and approached the FBI. Despite being assured that his role would be anonymous, someone in the investigation leaked it to CBS news. Nowadays, it is no secret that the FBI is more of a political organization than a crime fighting one, but even then, the younger Kaczynski brother was very wise be concerned, and even wiser to have an attorney.

One aspect of the NYT story that helps it be fascinating reading is the focus on Ted Kaczynski, from childhood on, and the use of excerpts from the manifesto. Despite being mentally unbalanced, the brilliant former math professor did have some profound observations about the deleterious effects of advancing technology on people and society. He attempted to wall off those technological intrusions by living as he did, off the grid, in Montana. For whatever reasons, whether one deems it mental illness or just plain evil, Kaczynski did try to fight technology by writing and bombing. His life, and those of his victims, would have been far better if he had written more, been a little less clueless about getting published, and never made those bombs, however.

The television series Manhunt has two seasons available. Season one is about the Unabomber and season two, entitled Deadly Games, is about Eric Rudolph and Richard Jewell, one of whom made bombs, and one of whom was falsely accused. Both shows are worthy of viewing. Sadly, I don’t think anything published in the New York Times today is as nearly as good as “PRISONER OF RAGE — A special report.;From a Child of Promise to the Unabom Suspect.”

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Last Stand series by William Weber—review and commentary

Last Stand: The Complete Box Set

From time to time, I’m offered a “box set” of eBooks, which strikes me as funny as there is obviously no box, just a longer than normal eBook. While these often seem to be great values, I seldom read an entire series. Last Stand is different, because I did indeed read all four books, and while I enjoyed them, I liked each one a little less, but that’s just me and what I Prefer to read, rather than any flaws in the books themselves.

Book one, Surviving America’s Collapse, was so suspenseful that I read it in less than 24 hours. Apparently survivalist/prepper books are a sub-genre, but this is my first such book. Viewed simply as fiction, readers might be annoyed, as the narrative often becomes pedantic, teaching survivalist techniques to the reader, but I rather enjoyed those segments. In short, the story begins with the hero, former Army officer John Mack, being the only guy in his neighborhood who understands that the vehicles, phones, and other conveniences aren’t working because some entity set off an “EMP” device. Mack rescues his wife, then his children, thinking they will soon retreat to his survivalist hideaway cabin, but his wife convinces him to remain in their neighborhood, to assist their friends. This proves to be increasingly difficult, as resources dwindle and nefarious elements attempt to takeover their community.

Book two, Patriots, begins in the second setting, the Mack family hideaway. The canvas of conflict widens a bit in this book, as Mack realizes the scope of the attack upon America, and feels the need to take up arms not just to defend his family, but his country. Book three, Warlords, is a bit darker in tone, as the forces behind the attack upon America begin divvying up the country. Book four, Turning the Tide, is on a grander scale, as Mack is one cog in the military effort to fight back against the foreign powers that seem to have figured out how to conquer the United States.

Each of these books has a fictional story, but invariably the author uses his story to also instruct the reader. Those who like lots of details about the military and/or weaponry might like these books more than I did, but I did enjoy them. Some of the characterizations are fairly stereotypical, and sometimes the main characters are able to overcome situations which would probably be hopeless without the assistance of the author. So, suspending one’s disbelief a bit is a necessary skill for staying with the series. Still, the suspense is sufficient to keep the reader turning the pages.

Survivalists, military buffs, and those who enjoy suspense will all find something to like in Last Stand. As of this post, the price for the eBook set is three bucks, which is a down payment on a hamburger! I can’t think of anything as entertaining as these books for that price, so take a look. These books are also available in paperback and as audio books, and all have hundreds of ratings on Goodreads, mostly 4-5 stars.

For All Mankind—on Apple TV

MankindWith the purchase of a new device from Apple comes a free subscription to their relatively new paid streaming platform. As hubby and I are often seeking a new television series to binge watch, we just finished For All Mankind on the Apple platform, and overall, we liked it quite a lot. However, I read several reviews, with criticisms being at least as numerous as the accolades, and often both are well deserved. The series was developed in part by Ronald D. Moore, who has a stellar (pun intended) reputation for writing and producing excellent science fiction, from Star Trek the Next Generation to Outlander, and with the simply superb reboot of Battlestar Galactica in between.

The scenario is quite promising: In an alternate history, the Soviet Union beats the United States to be the first nation to put a man on the moon, and the growing rivalry between nations causes the space program of the United States to flourish, rather than founder. Neither our citizens nor our politicians like being second best, so the need to catch up and surpass drives the plot. As an alternate history, many of the characters are based upon real people, but quite a few characters are inventions. Even those who are based upon real people have different adventures (or mis-adventures) due to the fictional nature of the series. The acting is good, as is the writing. The effects are very good, also. The sets, props, and costumes are really amazing—it’s truly a back to the 60s look. So far, so good.

But, as many negative reviewers have noted, the series is typical of our “social justice” modern agenda. Immigration, same sex relationships, race relations, and feminism are more than just sub-plots in this re-imagining of the space race. Each of these social justice themes has a story arc devoted to it, and these themes are every bit as strong as the “what if America had continued to send people to the moon?” theme that is the advertised plot line.

Alas, any subtle use of themes is no more. This alternate history is very good, but the social justice warriors are using a sledge hammer to right perceived wrongs. For All Mankind is just like many modern day productions in that regard. What could have been A+ for Apple’s streaming service is instead closer to a B-.

If you have Apple TV, check it out. If you don’t, I wouldn’t buy it for this series alone.

The Future of Learning for K-12

ChromebookNews organizations have truly embraced the old adage, “never let a crisis go to waste.” With every new pronouncement regarding the COVID-19 virus, the sky gets a bit closer to falling. Many of the public schools in my area have closed, but most of them are posting assignments online. Indeed, one of them has offered Chromebooks for check out if the family lacks a computer. This strikes me as a leap into the future of K-12 education.

Having taught both web enhanced and hybrid classes for the Technical College System of Georgia, I fully understand how to teach from my couch. In those classes, students had access to an online learning suite (either Blackboard or Angel, depending on the flavor of the year) wherein I listed assignments or offered online assessments. For those readers who are not chronologically gifted, the idea of closing schools seems unthinkable, but for anyone who has attended a post secondary school in the past decade, these fortnight long closures are no big deal. Indeed, I used to make jokes (during face-to-face class sessions at school) about teaching in my pajamas!

For younger students, such as those in K-12, however, quite a few of them have little experience with online learning, and some of their parents may not have experienced it at all. With a bit of coaching, both students and parents will come to see that much of what happens in a classroom can happen at home. In fact, in some cases, it is better to have online content. Forgot what happened to that important handout? Just print another one. Want to check the due date for an assignment? Just look at the online lesson plan. Need extra help? Email the teacher with your questions and concerns and you should get a prompt, personalized answer. Missed a class? Watch a recorded video session. In my experience, most college students eventually came to appreciate online resources, even if they didn’t embrace them. There is a learning curve, of course, as anything new requires some learning. Parents around here are about to embark on a new way of helping their kids with homework.

Who knows if the COVID-19 will actually be a serious threat to public health? Only the perspective of time will let us know that. However, this unprecedented interruption of business as usual in public education will demonstrate the power of online instruction. No doubt there will be some kinks in it, as this is new for some folks. But, the future of K-12 will be online, and this is just a preview of how it will work.

The book of the year?

The price we pay book cover
Lots of books are published each year, and I can only read a few of them. But, when a really important general interest book comes along, I often put it on the top of my “to be read” pile. In September, Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon associated with Johns Hopkins, released a book entitled The Price We Pay: What Book American Healthcare—And How to Fix ItSince most people in America eventually get sick or have an accident, and only a few of us are fifty rich, this is the ultimate general interest book.

In Part I, entitled “Gold Rush” Makary doesn’t have to travel far—he visits “health fairs” at local churches, where salespeople disguised as medical professionals do screening tests and scare participants, mostly those on Medicare, into unnecessary and rather expensive procedures, such as placing stents into leg veins. In the second chapter, he discusses the lack of transparency in hospital pricing, as well as the astronomical rise in common procedures. For instance, a medical center in New Jersey offers joint replacement surgery for $135,400.00, which rose a mere 76.8% in a single year. BTW, Medicare only pays 13K for that procedure. For his third chapter, Makary travels to Carlsbad, NM, where the medical center seems to have overcharged and then sued almost everyone in town. Back in Virginia, Makary visits the courthouse to learn more about similar shenanigans at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg. Sadly, this hospital is supposed to be a “not for profit” hospital, and thus receives favored tax status, too. Also in this section, Makary provides an analysis of the proliferation of for profit helicopter ambulance services, which charge somewhere between $40K and $60K for a ride that I could make in an hour in my Toyota.

In the second portion of the book, Makary delves into some medical practices that can be improved by focusing on individual physicians. One OB doctor in Florida had a reasonable rate of C-sections, until figuring in Fridays, when the rate rose 80%. Why? The good doctor didn’t want to be bothered on the weekend, so moms who were in labor on Friday got the surgery. This section of the book also discusses the opioid crisis, and Makary admits that he had to learn to write fewer prescriptions for pain pills, after learning about the misuse of all those pills.

Part III of the book is about “Redesigning Healthcare” and it does offer several solutions to problems, but one chapter in this section explains how drug prices are affected by middle men (pharmacy benefits managers) who don’t supply anything other than a big bill for their services. Here’s an example: A pharmacy is paid $34.94 for 90 40mg doses of Zocor, but the employer is charged $442.85–and the PBM gets over $400 on that one transaction. Another chapter discusses problems in health insurance, which less and less helpful except in catastrophic circumstances, and there is even a chapter on “wellness” and how those well meaning programs are far too costly, especially as they often mean an invasion of privacy, or worse, over-treatment for minor issues.

Makary doesn’t make the mistake of only discussing problems without discussing solutions. Several positive programs are mentioned throughout the text, including websites such as ImprovingWisely.com, and the last chapter is a bit of a call to arms. In short, legislators and employers need to be educated on these matters, and healthcare consumers should do everything possible to demand transparent pricing for upcoming procedures.

The Price We Pay is a very important book. This should be the topic of your next book club, a gift for your friends and/or family, or even a holiday gift for your doctor or your legislator. Please buy this book, read it, and pass it on. Knowledge is power, and as this text has lots of information for Americans, this may well be the most important book you will read this year.

How much for a flu shot?

Mostly, I write about books, or maybe films. No doubt, I will do that again soon, but recently I have been experiencing various forms of health care, and my latest such visit was for the annual flu shot, so I’ll write a bit about that. For some years, I opted out of having this injection, but after hubby lost a week of work and felt terrible for even longer, I went back to getting the shot. After all, the couple of times I had influenza it was no fun at all.

Current United States policy (via the Affordable Care Act) requires that insurance cover the flu shot as a preventative measure, without any co-pay from the patient. So, my doctor’s office has made a business decision to “stick it” to the insurance company—pun intended. See the attached screen shot of the EOB for this procedure:

Flu Shot

Now, thinking that $248 is a bit steep for this, I just looked at GoodRx (a nifty site if you have never used it) and it tells me that the estimated cost for the shot is $32 at Walmart.

GoodRx

Now, going to my doctor’s office was convenient and fast, but I’ve had flu shots at the grocery store or at a mini clinic, and neither of those were inconvenient. Bottom line, the doctor’s office knows that they can charge whatever for preventive procedures, and my insurance has to pay for it, so they are taking advantage of this. Kudos to Walmart for making this injection available for regular folks. If you don’t have insurance, or if you want to keep it real, just go to the GoodRx site and put in your zip code. The site automatically offers several locations and price points. BTW, the average when I looked was $32.

As for Piedmont Athens Primary Care, they’ve made me think, yet again, that when insurance premiums go up again, and they will, their approach to business is one reason for those hefty increases.

 

Earth Day

planetI have mixed emotions about this day, but I do like some of the promotions associated with it. There is a nifty kids’ consignment store over in Buford that is having a big sale today, urging their customers to buy used. For kids, that’s generally a win-win, as children’s clothing is often not worn out before it is out-grown, and as kids are hard on their clothes, cheaper options are better for play clothes. I noticed some emails from an online clothing vendor, which is offering sale prices and promotional buttons which say “used.” I’m not going so far as to wear one of those, regardless of how good buying and wearing pre-owned items is for the planet.

One of my friends works with elderly folk, doing both house-keeping and care-giving, and she recently brought me some bags of fairly nice clothing from a client who is downsizing. I’ve been going through those, listing some items on eBay, and setting aside some for charity. She was told to “get rid of them” by the client, so my friend had the choice of trash or wholesale charity, but she is a thrifty sort, as I am, so she went through them first. Some readers are going to say, “Yuck, I can’t imagine being that poor.” But, the truth is that neither of us is especially impoverished, but we do realize that the planet is better off when things are re-purposed or re-used.

In my kitchen, I have a compost bin, and I take it out regularly, adding to my compost pile in the back of my property. When I set out plants, I use the composted material for fertilizer, instead of using chemicals that aren’t good for me or the planet. When I’m away from home, I generally take a water bottle, rather than buying those. I use rags and towels when cleaning, rather than always using paper towels (which I can’t get hubby to do.) And, I’ve learned that Dawn+vinegar+water trumps most pricey cleaning products.

As a reader, I enjoy new and old books and magazines. These days, most of the content I read is in digital form, which sometimes saves significant amounts of cash, but it also prevents the waste associated with old or remaindered books. If you haven’t tried eBooks, this is a great time to take the plunge, as there is plenty of free and inexpensive content. Try the “Nook” app from Barnes and Noble, as it works quite well.

Earth Day is a chance to think or re-think consumption.

Lincoln— the film


I’m not sure why we didn’t watch it when it was new, but hubby and I were perusing a list of the best films available for streaming on Netflix, and we chose to view Steven Spielberg’s ode to the controversial president. Gosh, there’s been so much written about this man. Historians can easily demonstrate how controversial and even unpopular Abraham Lincoln was during his lifetime, but since then his stature has ridden the waves of popularity, sometimes to heroic heights and then again to be mostly forgotten.

I’ve read some of the books and articles on Lincoln, but there’s many, many more that I haven’t. Still, the film version has much to offer viewers, regardless of their prior knowledge of the civil war era leader. For the two hours plus of runtime, the film focuses on the struggle to pass the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one which prohibits slavery, except as punishment for criminal behavior. Daniel Day-Lewis does a remarkable job of portraying the title character. Sally Field is also very good as the mercurial Mary Lincoln, and the supporting cast is peppered with famous and talented actors. When we paused the streaming version for a pantry raid, hubby and I commented that it was as if the script had been tailored to showcase some aging but remarkable players, including Tommy Lee Jones and David Spader.

Mostly, this is a really good film, but the beginning, although dramatically effective, leads a well-read viewer to question its authenticity. The soldiers who quote from Lincoln’s now famous address at Gettysburg seem so sincere, but it is quite unlikely that war weary soldiers would know by memory that speech, as it was not considered to be much good when it was delivered. History has given those words their significance.

Although I don’t remember the source of the recommendation to watch this film, I, too, endorse it. While the outcomes are not really suspenseful, the film holds the viewer’s interest. No biopic is entirely historically accurate, of course, but the spirit of truth is certainly present. Watch (or re-watch) and enjoy!