25 November 2009

"Between the Bridge and the River" by Craig Ferguson

Between the Bridge and the River
Craig Ferguson
Date of Publication: 15 March 2007
Cover Price: $13.95
329 Pages
ISBN: 0-8118-5819-7

Fraser, a Scottish TV evangelist, leaves for America ahead of a career-destroying scandal.  George, an estranged friend of his from childhood, is dying.  Leon and Saul are transient brothers, trading on the former's charisma and talent and the latter's conniving to break into Hollywood.  Uniting them are a series of events, the full meaning of which is only revealed to the reader.

First-time author Ferguson weaves a fascinating tale of what he calls, "unexpected redemption."  The pace of the novel is brisk, helped along by the brevity of the chapters (some are a mere two pages).  In fact, at times it feels more like a collection of vignettes than a traditional novel; one can easily see Ferguson dashing off a chapter here or there, as his schedule and inspiration permitted.  Given the philosophical and emotional density of some of the passages, it's actually nice to be able to turn the page and find a conveniently placed stopping point.

There are some distractions throughout; Ferguson replaces real-life names of entertainment people and businesses with fictitious knock-offs (for obvious reasons).  It might be impractical to cast either Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts in the novel, but the fictitious name Meg Roberts (an "America's sweetheart" type actress) is a bit of a speed bump in the middle of this story.  In fact, I found myself frequently wishing to get through the passages devoted to Leon and Saul and return to those relating to George and Fraser.  George's self-examination in light of impending death (and his unexpected affair with the alluring and captivating French Claudette) touches on one of the most important themes of them all: potential.  Fraser, meanwhile, has his own epic story (including a recurring dream in which Carl Jung appears to him to analyze what's going on with him).  In many ways, Fraser's story recalls Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and that's never a bad thing.

13 November 2009

"The Psychologist's Book of Self- Tests" by Louis Janda, Ph.D.

The Psychologist's Book of Self-Tests: 25 Love, Sex, Intelligence, Career & Personality Tests - Developed by Professionals toe Reveal the Real You
Louis Janda, Ph.D.
Date of Publication: 1 July 1996
Cover Price: $13.95
230 Pages

I have owned this book for twelve years; it was one of my sign-up selections when I joined Quality Paperback Club (the first time).  As I recall, I needed a seventh title, and this seemed as interesting as half of the other contenders for the spot.  And so it came in the mail and promptly began its decade-plus role of collecting dust that would otherwise have marred my book shelf.

Unlike other books reviewed by me for this blog, this one is somewhat interactive; I actually took twenty-four of the twenty-five tests.  (I passed on "How Do You Love Your Partner?" which seemed too-Cosmo for my taste.)  Anyway, I found that most of the tests re-affirmed things I've always known or been told about myself.  For instance, I placed very highly on the Experience Seeking subset of the Sensation-Seeking test, while placing very low on the Thrill and Adventure Seeking subset.  I have little attraction to things that could be dangerous, yet will quickly volunteer for something novel from which I suspect I might earn an entertaining anecdote.

My favorite anecdote from having taken these tests concerns the very first test, "How Intelligent Are You?"  There are fifty-four questions, and scoring forty-five or higher places one in the "Gifted" percentile.  When I checked my answers, I discovered that I had correctly answered forty-four questions, one shy of the "Gifted" label.  I also discovered that I had, inadvertently, outright skipped question 25, which, upon review, I would have answered correctly.  If you give me credit for that one that I passed over for some reason, then perhaps I have a claim on the "Gifted" label; I, however, accept that my having failed to even see the question constitutes evidence that I'm not a passable borderline case.

These tests are largely taken from various psychologists; Janda himself only claims credit for one of the tests (and he explains that part of the impetus for this was that he was not given permission to use the test he wanted to include).  Janda follows each test with a cursory explanation of its objectives, and the general implications for people who scored at the high and low ends of the results scale.  One thing I appreciated was Janda's honesty in questioning the significance of a few tests.  For instance, the test, "How Rational Is Your View of the World?" he suggests is reflective of a "philosophy," rather than "science," and that it is perhaps less relevant to the theme of the collection than some of the other, more empiric, tests.  (This test might stand out to me, as I bombed it--scoring a 14, placing me well in the lowest category; the only test on which I surprised myself.)

Tests such as these aren't for everyone.  My own wife balks at the very existence of such things, and will not listen to anything I have had to report about my own results--even when they support things she has insisted are true about me!  I suggest that anyone seeking to take these (or similar) tests do so 1) privately and 2) with the understanding that they are merely introductions to various aspects of ourselves.  Janda regularly offers encouragement for improvement in areas in which we do not place well, and just as regularly cautions against being too proud of a low or high score.

If I had one chief complaint (other than the sometimes obnoxious self-scoring system, what with its reverse-scored questions and all), it is that Janda's explanations are too simple.  Referrals to further reading, or more descriptions concerning the included tests, their origins and those of their creators, would help sheath the tests in a veneer of professionalism.  As it stands, this book is accessible to people with little familiarity with psychology but not particularly rewarding for those who have subsequent questions.

My Results
The General Mental Abilities Test -44, placing me in the 85th percentile; a 45 or higher is "gifted"
The Fear of Success Scale - 14, placing me deep into the 85th percentile (10 or higher)
The Assertive Job-Hunting Survey - 57, placing me well within the 15th percentile (90 or lower)
The Impostor Phenomenon Scale - 72, placing me ridiculously high in the 85th percentile (37 or higher)
The Test-Wiseness Test - 29, placing me in the 85th percentile (28 or higher)
The Self-Esteem Inventory - 22, placing me lowly in the 15th percentile (33 or lower)

The Internality, Chance, and Powerful Others Scale

  • Internality - 33, placing me in the middle of the 50th percentile (32-34)
  • Powerful Others - 33, placing me highly in the 85th percentile (25 or higher)
  • Chance - 30, placing me highly in the 85th percentile (23 or higher)

The Rational Behavior Inventory - 14, in the 15th percentile (22 or lower); the only test with which I strongly disagreed

Sensation-Seeking Scale, Form V

  • Thrill and Adventure Seeking - 6, in the 15th percentile (6 or lower)
  • Experience Seeking - 7, in the 85th percentile (7 or higher)
  • Disinhibition - 5, in the 30th percentile (5)
  • Boredom Susceptibility - 5, in the 70th percentile (5)
  • Total - 23, in the 50th percentile (23-25)

The Existential Anxiety Scale - 10, in the 85th percentile (10 or higher)

The Social Interaction Self-Statement Test

  • Positive Thoughts - 48, placing me in the 50th percentile (47-50)
  • Negative Thoughts - 46, placing me in the 50th percentile (44-48)

The Rathus Assertiveness Scale - 5, placing me in the 50th percentile (0-14)

The Interpersonal Dependency Inventory

  • Emotional Reliance on Others - 31, in the 15th percentile (30-34)
  • Lack of Social Self-Confidence - 40, in the 85th percentile (36 or higher)
  • Autonomy - 42, in the 85th percentile (35 or higher)

The Competitive-Cooperative Attitude Scale - 62, in the 30th percentile (60-67)
The Argumentativeness Scale - 15, in the 85th percentile (15 or higher)
The Triangular Love Scale - did not take
Intimacy Attitude Scale, Revised - 163, in the 30th percentile (161-171)
The Romanticism Scale - 89, in the 50th percentile (86-92)
The Self-Report Jealousy Scale - 31, in the 15th percentile (58 or lower)
Positive Feelings Questionnaire - 112, in the 70th percentile (107-112)
The Sexual Knowledge Test - 21, in the 50th percentile (19-21)

The Sexual Attitudes Scale

  • Permissiveness - 64, in the 50th percentile (60-72)
  • Sexual Practices - 35, in the 85th percentile (35 or higher)
  • Communion - 41, in the 70th percentile (41-44)
  • Instrumentality - 12, in the 15th percentile (9-12)

The Sexual Anxiety Inventory - 14, in the 85th percentile (14 or higher)
The Sensuality Scale - 25, in the 50th percentile (23-25)
The Relationship Assessment Scale - 35, in the 85th percentile (35 or higher)

07 November 2009

The Strength of the Republic

We've become cynical about politics in our country.  Some would have us believe that this happened when Bill Clinton took office; others trace it to the aftermath of the Nixon Administration.  I think it's worth noting that cynicism toward politics played no small role in shaping our nascent federal government, dating to the Articles of Confederation.  We as Americans have a nearly-contradictory view toward our government; on one hand, it is a symbol of our collective might and greatness; on the other hand, it is a frustrating institution seemingly devoid of any ability to function productively.  I spent much of today watching C-SPAN's coverage of the House of Representatives as it deliberates and votes on HR 3962.  Here are some observations:

I was astounded at how refreshing it was to follow the activities without the filter of shouting analysts.  Even the most partial media coverage would insist on characterizing the discourse in the context of viewing politics as some kind of competitive sport.  We too easily accept the "Democrats vs. Republicans" billing, looking to count votes and see who can overcome a filibuster.  We talk about bills as "victories" or "defeats" for either party, and seek to identify every resolution as an indictment of the sitting president (whomever that may be) and his agenda.  Stripping away that tally-keeping leaves us with the actual procedures of our legislative branch.

We have a sense that we vote for people who go to represent us, and then believe that they are forced to abandon any principles upon which they campaigned in order to keep themselves fat.  Today, I listened to a variety of Representatives endorse or slam HR 3962 and while it is fairly easy to identify those whose resumes were built on bombastic language, it is not so easy to say that any one perspective was somehow wrong-headed.  I listened to Republicans who complained that ideas of theirs that they genuinely feel would contribute to help reign in our out-of-control health care system have been excluded from the legislation.  Chief among these is the notion that allowing patients to purchase out-of-state health insurance would take advantage of market principles and help promote, through competition, patient-friendlier pricing.  I have to say, that part makes sense to me and I would urge further legislation to explore this idea.

The public expresses indignation at the disagreements that erupt in our nation's capitol.  We tire of hearing our duly elected officials "squabble" when they should be "doing their jobs."  Well, guess what?  Their job is to squabble.  Contrary to popular belief, we do not enjoy a democracy in the United States; ours is a republic.  Were we to have a true, complete democracy, every franchised citizen would cast a ballot on every piece of legislation.  We don't have the time to dedicate to such an effort; this is why we elect officials to represent us in government.  All you have to do to realize the enormity of their thankless job is to consider the vitriolic rancor that has dominated this singular issue.  Older Americans feel threatened by an increasing trend that panders to the lazy; younger Americans rail against the heartless, survival-of-the-fittest opposition to what they see as the best hope to improve the quality of life for too many of us.

Of course their representatives should voice these concerns; that's their job.  It's tempting to characterize any politician whose vote we dislike as "pandering" to "special interests."  We would do well to remember that even those who speak on behalf of undesirable portions of our society (be they corporate executives or convicted felons) do so to see that our collective voices are heard.  Even when I hear an objection that the government has no place interfering with the "special" relationship between a mother and her child's physician in determining the proper course of treatment for her offspring, I have to admire the dedication to which that Representative has gone to ensure that those who hold that view and fear go acknowledged.  (I would ask them just what insurance companies they've dealt with so far that have so painlessly accommodated all the required tests and treatments that their pediatrician might feel relevant.)

Ultimately, I do not believe that this legislation begins to end the issues facing our health care situation as a society going forward.  There are numerous issues not addressed, and unforeseen issues that have yet to arise, that will need to be solved.  We would do well to bear that in mind, and regardless of the problems that remain--or arise later--that this legislation went through the proper channels.  I, for one, actually found today's discussion encouraging.  Under all the theatrics and the repetitious bumper sticker slogans, these men and women did what we asked them to do: address our issues, and ensure that our disagreeing voices are heard.  It's a shame that too many of us choose not to listen to them work so dedicatedly on behalf of us...and the rest of us.

02 November 2009

Thoughts on the Healthcare Debate, Part II

Note: The following blog entry originally appeared as a thread post on dvdtalk.com.  I have expanded the introduction for this presentation.

Tonight, I entered the discussion on DVD Talk's sub-forum concerning our national healthcare debate.  It was already in its fifth part, sprawled across nearly twenty pages and including hundreds of posts.  Here is what I posted, and I look forward to any meaningful, thoughtful remarks.  I identify as a classic liberal, in the sense that I embrace questioning our government.  I like checks and balances on anyone in power, and I believe that where the government has the legal authority to act on behalf of the public, it has a moral obligation to do so--unless there is clear evidence that not acting will yield preferable results.

I'm assuming that most of the debate here has been like it has been everywhere else; "Public option is evil" vs. "Public option is the only thing that will save mankind." I think it's a worthwhile place to start, but there are far more relevant issues for our healthcare situation I haven't heard addressed much at all that I'd like to throw out there.

We're really just debating whose money is going to foot whose bills. Yes, the money is a major part of it, but I can't help but feel it's getting too much attention. For instance, when I was a kid in the 1980s, we had one kid in the entire school with asthma. I distinctly recall class coming to a complete halt for his occasional attacks, and I personally witnessed an ambulance being summoned for him once. It was a very alarming, disturbing thing and it always introduced a very specific discomfort into the classroom atmosphere to have him around.

Today, of course, kids without a respirator could very likely borrow one from a classmate in case of an emergency and their classmates would not be rattled, or even impressed, the way we were because they're entirely more familiar with such incidents.

I remember it was in the 1990s the first time I ever heard of anyone having a food allergy. I thought it was a joke, or at least an exaggeration. I mean, seriously; allergic to peanuts? That meant you couldn't eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and that was simply a violation of all that was decent. And then I came to be aware of just how many children born in just the last decade or so who have not one, but often multiple such inabilities to safely ingest--or even contact--some of the most basic foods in our society. My wife's stepfather and his son have a deathly allergy to chicken, for instance.

Something is going on there, and we need to start doing something about it. I know the popular belief is that our industrialization has so tampered with our environment that our bodies are no longer surrounded by a healthy natural world, and that our food supply is therefore altered from what it once was. To at least some extent, this is certainly true. I remember when I was a kid, again, in the 1980s, and when I poured a glass of milk, I got bubbles. Somewhere along the line, as corporate farms pumped their cows full of more and more things, the bubbles disappeared. I'd forgotten entirely about bubbles in my milk until one day in the 90s, my mom bought a half-gallon of organic milk and when I poured it, voila! Bubbles.

These are simple examples, but I think they're universally recognizable ones. This isn't about red states, "Obamacare" or anyone's agenda. This is about seeing what's right there in front of us and admitting that by any measuring stick, things have gone very far from where they were even just a short while ago. So long as our children continue to emerge less and less healthy, we can continue this healthcare debate to only escalate--in cost, in urgency and in scale.

I have Crohn's disease and was diagnosed at a time when I was uninsured. I've come to greatly appreciate what limited use I've gotten out of the handful of pharmaceuticals that address my digestive woes, so I bear that in mind when I hear about pharma-profits. Research and development of the kinds of specialized things that help folks like me cost money. Proctor & Gamble manufactures one of the 5 ASA drugs, Asacol, that is a staple of treatment for many Crohnies. They were kind enough to provide my prescription to me free of charge  (roughly worth about $150 a month, I believe) because of my low income. It was only effective for me for about a year, but that was a year in which I was mostly under control and their generosity made it possible for me to take the medicine on a daily basis, instead of having to choose between filling a prescription or paying a particular bill.

I've tried to return the favor, in the little way I can, by favoring their products over those of their competitors when shopping, even now (two years after I last took Asacol). I think it's important to note this partly to demonstrate that even the lucrative pharmaceutical companies do find ways of being helpful and accessible to needier patients, and to point out that this is just one example of how such a corporation managed to not only do so while continuing to post great earnings, but earned a loyal consumer in the process. I couldn't easily afford Asacol, but I can easily afford their toothpaste and other items. I'm sure there's a tax incentive somewhere for them, but otherwise the government had little to do with this situation. I think my fellow liberals have lost sight of some of the genuine cooperation within the industry, just as I think too many conservatives have mistaken their own personal fortunes for a sign that other people's problems are entirely of their own doing and that they shouldn't come asking for help after the fact. Medical science can't even answer the question of how a patient develops Crohn's disease, and the leading theories all point to genes and nothing within the power of any particular person to alter through choice or behavior. Simply put, there's nothing I could have done differently, and Crohn's disease--despite how loathsome I get over it at times--is hardly the worst of such chronic conditions. Even now as you read this, I'm sure you personally know someone who would roll their eyes at me even bothering to complain about it.

Ultimately, I think what I'm trying to say is that those of us who have characterized this debate as a matter of counting senators and money estimates have missed the forest for the trees. There are reasons that our healthcare costs have exploded, and they're not all due to the baby boomers reaching their golden years or greedy executives. There are things that we've done to our world and ourselves that have put us here, and these are the things that we need to be addressing. Perhaps those companies dumping God-knows-what into the rivers did more damage than we'd realized; maybe hormones for animals are worse than the F.D.A. thought. I don't know what the scope of such an investigation even should be, but I do know that I am disappointed, and at times outraged, that I've heard no meaningful effort to even begin its undertaking.

01 November 2009

iTunes - October 2009

330 songs, 23:24:44 total time for October, certainly up from the last two months.  Far and away, the most played selections were the six songs in the Spa Moments Sampler, which I played on twelve separate occasions.  (It's very relaxing, and a godsend for someone like myself who regularly needs to be coaxed into sleep.)  After those songs, eight of the ten songs from Melody Gardot's Worrisome Heart were played three times apiece (the other two songs only had two plays apiece, for reasons I cannot now provide).  I also played The Best of the Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe, a free digital album from Amazon, twice, along with a handful of other songs.  Otherwise, the majority of my October plays were one-time only.

  1. Spa Moments Sampler Playlist, David Huff & Mark Baldwin [free digital sampler] (12)
  2. Worrisome Heart (tracks 1-8), Melody Gardot (3)
  3. The Best of the Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe [free digital sampler], Various Artists (2)
  4. Jazz at Newport Playlist [free digital sampler], Various Artists (2)
  5. Worrisome Heart (tracks 9-10), Melody Gardot (2)
Albums played once in October: American Recordings by Johnny Cash, Sarah Chang: Selections Digital Sampler by Sarah Chang, Johnny Cash Is Dead and His House Burned Down [single] by Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Pieces of You by Jewel, Come Away with Me, Deep Cuts [EP], Not Too Late by Norah Jones, I Love the 80s (1880s) by Various Artists, Working on a Dream by Bruce Springsteen and 127 Rose Avenue by Hank Williams, Jr.

October is always a tough month for me to make time for music, because my first priority is to catch as much of the baseball postseason as possible, and the rest of the month is generally dedicated to horror movies.  Most of my October plays were selections of music for bedtime.  I also began bringing my iHome out into the living room periodically, which accounts for some of the increase in music (Springsteen, Hank, Jr. and some George Jones, for instance), though in truth I tended to favor either podcasts (which are not included in these monthly tallies) or leaving the iPod on shuffle (which doesn't add to a song's play count).