One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Four Eras of World War II Movies, Part 4: The Modern Era

World War II has been the backdrop and setting for movies since it began in 1939. Since there are very few of us alive any more who actually remember or experienced the war, most of the world’s conception of the war comes from film, either documentary or dramatization. When I was younger one of my goals in life was to see every World War II movie ever made. Of course now I realize, especially when looking at this massive list, I’m not ever going to realize that goal.
But I have seen my fair share of WWII movies, maybe more than my fair share. And I have noticed that they generally fit into four eras. Four views of the war that reflect the time, attitudes toward the war, and the sensibilities of the movie industry. There are a few that don’t fit into these categories of course, but for the most part these categories work. 

The last category is what I would call the modern era of WWII movies. These movies are somewhat like those of an earlier time in that they focus on interesting stories in smaller units of men rather than sweeping vistas of campaigns, but they also unflinchingly portray the harsh realities of war. These facts do not automatically make them better movies – you will not find many movies of any genre better than Patton or Stalag 17 – but they do reflect changing sensibilities and approaches to movie making.
Why did it take so long for filmmakers and studios to make realistic war movies? I can think of a few factors, the first one being that the World War II generation was getting older and was going to fewer movies. As a rule, WWII veterans tended to deal with their experiences by internalizing them, never speaking of the horrors they saw to anyone. They were not interested in seeing gore and violence portrayed on the screen, since those experiences were almost a hallowed thing that only veterans could understand.
Another factor is the simple fact of the so-called Hays Code. This was a “voluntary” code the Motion Picture Association of America adopted rather than face government censorship of their movies. Movies did not receive a rating, but they all had to pass the MPAA code in order to gain wide distribution. In 1968, the MPAA rescinded the Code and developed the ratings system we know today. Despite that, most WWII films in the 70s remained in the PG category (or even G - the rating system in the 70s was much different from the one we know today, even though they use the same letters), mainly because that was the way WWII movies had always been done.
It was not until movies about Vietnam like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now came out that film makers felt comfortable treading into more controversial territory with WWII movies. To me that is the most important factor. I know I am generalizing, but Vietnam-era veterans were nearly as likely to internalize their experiences. They were less hesitant to discuss them, and they appreciated an honest portrayal on screen. It took movies about a much more recent war to get Hollywood comfortable with taking a fresh look at WWII. This era began with films like The Big Red One and Das Boot, films that featured young men trying to do their duty and survive the horrors inflicted on them by old men in boardrooms.
The best movie of this era is Saving Private Ryan. It’s certainly unflinching in its violence and grit. Yes, it is set against the backdrop of the D-Day invasion, and if you don’t understand the details of the invasion it detracts from your understanding of the movie. But on a deeper level it connects with everyone because hopefully we all are lucky enough to know or have known someone like James Ryan, a man who answered the call to duty, suffered terrible, unspeakable hardship and then came home and lived a productive life despite the horrors of war. Yes, James Francis Ryan, you are a good man.
This era is also the era of the great Holocaust movies. Yes, there was Diary of Anne Frank and Judgment at Nuremberg in previous eras, but neither of those packs the emotional punch of Schindler's List, The Pianist or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This has a lot to do with the relaxed standards in Hollywood with regard to onscreen violence - both of the former movies were made in the Hays Code era.
A couple of other movies I want to mention here that fit the modern sensibility. Both of them are foreign-language movies. The first is Downfall, a German picture about the last days of Adolf Hitler. This movie is famous for the scene where Hitler screams endlessly about how the war is going. It has been spoofed a million times on YouTube as people change the subtitles to portray Hitler ranting about anything and everything. But there is much more to the movie than that one scene. It shows a delusional, demolished Hitler manically swinging between bouts of depression and confidence that he will ultimately win. No history-book, postwar, and certainly no war-era movie was going to portray Hitler in any kind of sympathetic light, but 60 years is enough time for us to look at his tragic life again.

The other movie I wanted to mention is Letters from Iwo Jima. This is a Japanese-language film directed by Clint Eastwood. It is a companion piece to his American movie Flags of our Fathers. There are a few scenes that are similar in both movies. The American movie is kind of a disjointed mess, very difficult to follow. The Japanese movie is simply better. The story is easier to follow than the American movie, even though most of it is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. It portrays the Japanese general in charge of defending the island and the individual soldiers as honorable men doing their duty for their homeland. I know about Pearl Harbor and about their brutal treatment of Chinese and Koreans, but let’s not forget the Germans actually voted for Hitler. The Japanese didn’t have a choice in their leadership. Not that any participant in the war is excused from the individual atrocities they may have committed, but let’s keep things in perspective.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Four Eras of World War II Movies, Part Three: The "History Book" Era

World War II has been the backdrop and setting for movies since it began in 1939. Since there are very few of us alive any more who actually remember or experienced the war, most of the world’s conception of the war comes from film, either documentary or dramatization. When I was younger one of my goals in life was to see every World War II movie ever made. Of course now I realize, especially when looking at this massive list, I’m not ever going to realize that goal.
But I have seen my fair share of WWII movies, maybe more than my fair share. And I have noticed that they generally fit into four eras. Four views of the war that reflect the time, attitudes toward the war, and the sensibilities of the movie industry. There are a few that don’t fit into these categories of course, but for the most part these categories work. 

The third category of World War II films is what I call the “History Book” era. This era begins as early as 1960 and extends to about 1980. This era was concerned with historical accuracy above all. They are so accurate and so good at getting the big picture of the war that one could string enough of these together and be pretty well informed on the history of the war. These films focus on specific battles, like Tora, Tora, Tora, A Bridge Too Far, and The Battle of the Bulge, or they are biopics of notable characters. They focus on the top of the chain of command rather than the bottom. In these films the war is not fought so much in the field as it is fought in map rooms, with the main plot being carried forward in high-level meetings rather than action. Significantly, for the first time we see some sympathy for the other side. For example, in Tora, Tora, Tora, we almost feel sorry for Admiral Yamomoto as he grieves over what the attack on Pearl Harbor will do for the American resolve.
This poster from A Bridge Too
Far doesn't tell you anything
about the movie besides a
list of the stars. And a

This era is also characterized by the “cavalcade of stars” approach to big productions. It is not uncommon to see film posters of this era with nothing but a listing of some of the big-time actors who make an appearance in the movie. This approach was true not only in war movies but in all genres of films in this era: think about The Magnificent Seven or The Towering Inferno. The two notable films that kick off this era are Judgment at Nuremberg and The Longest Day. Both feature a long list of notable actors, and they both feature real, historical events.
These films are also of note because they frequently feature real war footage in action sequences rather than staging it. This is especially true for films involving planes and ships. I guess it was easier to film guys in uniforms on the ground than it is to set up an elaborate air or naval battle. A couple of films will even mention in the opening credits that they will feature actual footage in the name of “historical accuracy.” Of course the main reason they spliced in war footage was because it was cheaper than actually building a set and filming the necessary elements. Computer-generated effects were still decades away; you had to really film something in front of a physical camera. In the worst films of this era, it’s obvious the writer went through the supply of free footage, found the most interesting scenes, and wrote the film to fit those scenes. Midway is a good example of this kind of shoddy plot development. 
Another reason for using war footage was because the studios’ supply of war surplus props was running low by this time. It’s funny to see, for example, a general jump into a Jeep in a big hurry and the 25-year-old Jeep chokes and sputters as it tries to start, then smokes like a freight train as it scurries away.
The best movie of the history book era is Patton. It is a textbook case for the history book era. The action out in the field is secondary to the actual plot. The plot is carried forward by Patton’s feuds with Allied generals Montgomery, Bradley and Eisenhower, countered by the attempts of German generals Rommel and Jodl to actually defeat Patton in the field. Yes, we sometimes see actual fighting in the movie, but more important to the plot is military and international politics.

A couple of notable films that don’t fit the mold of this era are The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes. The latter film is an out-and-out comedy, which is kind of weird to think about, but it kind of works, especially if you ignore the 70s pop music and the anachronistic hippie tank driver played by Donald Sutherland. The Dirty Dozen’s sensibilities are from the previous, postwar era but the galaxy of stars lets you know this is definitely a late-60s movie.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Four Eras of World War II Movies, Part 2: The Postwar Years

World War II has been the backdrop and setting for movies since it began in 1939. Since there are very few of us alive any more who actually remember or experienced the war, most of the world’s conception of the war comes from film, either documentary or dramatization. When I was younger one of my goals in life was to see every World War II movie ever made. Of course now I realize, especially when looking at this massive list, I’m not ever going to realize that goal.
But I have seen my fair share of WWII movies, maybe more than my fair share. And I have noticed that they generally fit into four eras. Four views of the war that reflect the time, attitudes toward the war, and the sensibilities of the movie industry. There are a few that don’t fit into these categories of course, but for the most part these categories work.
The second category is the postwar period. This period runs from 1945 to approximately 1965. This category and the next one kind of overlap, but I will mention them separately because they are distinct visions of the war.
The postwar period knows the good guys won. It also knows that it’s in the past. So there’s no need to involve other countries and keep the folks at home involved in buying bonds or supporting our allies overseas. These films focus almost exclusively on Americans, with a few English added for color. They carry over the sensibilities of the war period in that they focus on small groups of soldiers in a specific place. (This is in stark contrast to the next era of war films.) The films also have the advantage of having access to warehouses full of war surplus tanks, Jeeps, planes, uniforms, weapons, etc. Soon after the war the studios invested a lot of money in procuring lots of this stuff, knowing it would make for great movies for years into the future.
These films are also aware that a big portion of their audience actually went to war and were not interested in reliving the actual horrors of the war. This is the era where the soldiers seem to spend more time dancing with pretty girls and brawling with the navy boys than actually fighting the enemy. Sure there is death in the movies, but you will not find much gratuitous violence.
This is the era of the great POW movies. I guess the studios felt comfortable enough dealing with the harsh realities of prison camps than about the realities of the actual fighting. Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape and, my personal favorite of the genre, Stalag 17, were all made in this time period and reflect the sensibility of the time. The Great Escape also sort of fits into the era I will discuss in the next article, but it also fits here.

One classic film that deserves mentioning here is The Best Years of Our Lives. It features the struggle of three veterans returning home from the war. For its era the plot is fairly realistic and it shows the experiences of the characters during the war and how those experiences affect them in their new civilian life. No doubt many veterans identified with this movie. It was the biggest box office hit of the year and won seven Oscars. The film is most famous for the performance of Harold Russell, who really was a soldier in the war and who really did lose both of his hands. Russell's character feels like less of a man and he has trouble connecting with his old girlfriend from before the war. A poignant scene shows Russell taking his shirt off and showing his girlfriend and us in the audience how he was fitted with prostheses. He remains the only person to receive two Oscars for the same performance, one for best supporting actor and another special, one-time award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”

My favorite film of this era is one that does not fit the mold of milquetoast action and plot. Attack features Eddie Albert as a cowardly American captain who only got his rank because he is the son of an influential judge back home. He attained his rank because a corrupt colonel played by Lee Marvin wants to get in good with the judge after the war. The men under them all hate both Albert’s and Marvin’s characters, but they have to obey orders, even when Albert’s incompetence leads to some of them being killed unnecessarily. The disgruntled soldiers are led by Jack Palance, who plays a master sergeant who has seen a lot of action and is a better leader than either the conniving colonel or the wimpy captain. "Attack" is by far the most cynical World War II movie made before 1980 I have ever seen, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not well known or widely available, but if you get the chance to see it, take advantage of it. It’s well worth your time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Four eras of World War II Movies, Part 1: The War Years

World War II has been the backdrop and setting for movies since it began in 1939. Since there are very few of us alive any more who actually remember or experienced the war, most of the world’s conception of the war comes from film, either documentary or dramatization. When I was younger one of my goals in life was to see every World War II movie ever made. Of course now I realize, especially when looking at this massive list, I’m not ever going to realize that goal.

But I have seen my fair share of WWII movies, maybe more than my fair share. And I have noticed that they generally fit into four eras. There are some that don’t quite fit, of course, but for the most part these categories work. This series focuses primarily on American films.
The first category is the War era. These were films made during the war, from about 1940 (remember the U.S. did not officially enter the war until December 1941, but it was obvious we supported the Allies from the beginning) until 1945 or so.
It is unfair to blanketly state that all the films from this era were for propaganda purposes, but I’m going to say it anyway. The government did not expressly tell the movie companies what to make, but they did apply pressure to make sure the movies were helpful to morale, both of the troops in the field and the people at home. They were to portray Americans and the rest of the Allied nations positively as they bravely stood against the evil hordes of the enemy. For the first couple of years the war went very badly for the Allies, so the films that showed action tended to portray small army units or a single navy ship defeating their enemy at hand. The overwhelming majority of these movies are so unmemorable that they are almost impossible to find these days.
The more memorable movies from this era are the ones that portrayed civilian life in some form or fashion. Lots of movies were made that depicted someone being falsely (or rightfully) accused of being an enemy spy, but lots of filmmakers successfully used that premise to make a thrilling movie. The unsubtle implication of these movies was that there may be spies all around us, and we must be ever watchful.
The best movie from this era is the one that I consider the best movie ever made, Casablanca. It might not jump to mind immediately as a blatantly propagandist film, but there are some key elements. The most obvious element is the celebration of the French as loyal allies. The reputation of the French took a beating when Germany swiftly defeated them. The propagandists were going out of their way to show that while France might be in enemy hands, the French people were still with our side. In the film, even though the hero, Victor Laszlo, is Czech, he seems to know French well enough to loudly lead the group in singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And in the end, the events of the film were enough to persuade the neutral Captain Renault to join the Free French.

Also notice the multitude of characters from various Allied nations portrayed in the movie. I already mentioned that Laszlo is Czech. Ilsa is from Norway, Karl and the funny old married couple are from Denmark, Sacha the bartender is Russian, Ugarte is Romanian, and then there is the plucky young married couple from Bulgaria. All of these countries were victimized by the Germans during the war.

Another film from the war era that bears mentioning is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. This film was actually made in 1940, before the U.S. joined the war. Chaplin, a Jew, portrays a character obviously a send-up of Adolf Hitler. Chaplin had more insight into Hitler’s evil than most of the leaders of Europe did. It plays like a propaganda piece now, because we all agree Hitler was an evil man. But in 1940 there were plenty of Americans who thought of Hitler as a popularly-elected Kaiser Wilhelm, a narcissist with delusions of greatness. Chaplin’s film took great courage and vision in a time when Hollywood lacked both.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


"Ragamuffin" tells the life story of Rich Mullins, a legendary figure in popular Christian music. Mullins was an unlikely candidate for stardom. He avoided the spotlight, he had some unconventional ways, and he had a number of personal problems. This movie spends a little too much time dwelling on these problems and unconventional ways, though, in my opinion. This movie is a must see if you already know and love Mullins' music, but I doubt if it wins him any new fans.

The movie starts with his life on a farm in Indiana. Mullins had a strained relationship with his father as a young boy. He would rather play the piano or sit in his room and write about his feelings while his father wanted him to carry forward the family farm. The scenes between a young Mullins and his father are the most important scenes in the movie and are referred to over and over throughout the rest of the movie.

As Mullins grows up, he enrolls in a Christian college. His roommate and his family adopts Rich and Mullins views his roommate's father as the father he never had. We in the audience follow Rich as he makes his way through college, scraping by as a musician. He struggles not so much in the attempt to get noticed as in his motivations for performing. Everyone notices his immense talent, but Mullins feels more comfortable ministering to small groups and private individuals than he does with singing to large audiences.

Despite his misgivings, he eventually does make it in the world of Christian music. His first hit was the writing and music credit for "Sing your Praise to the Lord," a big hit for Amy Grant in the early 80s. Soon he finds himself on tour with Grant. The record company executives are trying to groom him for stardom, but he is just as likely to spend the weekend at a youth camp on a Navajo reservation in Arizona as he is to show up for Amy Grant's next big concert.

Even after "Awesome God" makes him a headline act on his own, he still has problems living the life of a Christian pop star. He obsesses over a girl who has moved beyond him, he rubs churches and people in the music business the wrong way and struggles at times with alcohol. In the low point of the movie, after watching his best friend's dad die of a heart attack he shows up drunk to the funeral.

At this point in his life he meets Brennan Manning, author of the moderately successful book "The Ragamuffin Gospel" (with Mullins' endorsement it went on to be a Christian bestseller in the mid-90s). While not excusing his sins, Manning works one-on-one with Mullins, helping him work through his issues with his past and his family, who he hasn't seen for years. One particularly engaging scene is when Manning advises Mullins to write the letter he wish he had received from his father. who by that point had passed away. The movie ends with a portrayal of the fateful car crash which ended his life in 1997.

Before the end credits roll, the movie informs us that Mullins determined to live his life as simply as possible. He instructed his accountant to only pay him the average income of a typical family. The rest was given to various charities, churches and foundations. This would have been an interesting plot point to make Mullins' portrayal more sympathetic. The story tends to wallow too much in the dark periods of his life. The movie was made with the cooperation of Mullins' surviving family, so we have to believe this was the movie they wanted. In fact Mullins' brother is featured in a short interview in the special features and appears in the audio commentary, something I am looking forward to hearing. (Yes, I'm the geek who listens to DVD commentaries.) The story hints at controversy he aroused some churches he ministered in, but it does not dwell on that, and I think that is a positive choice.

The actor who portrays Mullins, Michael Koch, actually sings the songs on the soundtrack, as opposed to recordings of Mullins. Koch does a very good job with the music, and is acceptable in the speaking role. The acting in general is above normal for a low-budget, Christian movie. The performances are just as good or better than in the Kendrick brothers' (Facing the Giants, Fireproof) films. The performances are good, the music is very good, but in the end it doesn't feel very inspiring or uplifting. Not that it has to, I don't guess, but it's definitely not your typical Christian movie in that regard. I enjoyed it because of the music, but if you're not familiar with his music you might not get much positive out of it.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Two Changes That Would Revolutionize Obamacare

As I wrote yesterday, I’m willing to be optimistic with regard to Obamacare, even though I am a conservative. I believe it has the potential to make our health care system better in a few years than had we stuck with the status quo. I’m not totally sold on it, for sure, but I’m also sure it’s not the linchpin that sends America over the cliff into a socialist nightmare.
All that being said, there are a couple of serious flaws that I think would be better served by more freedom-based solutions rather than government ones. The first would be reforming the exchanges. I would do this in two ways. Let me start off by saying the concept of the exchanges is actually quite the conservative idea. All the controls and limitations imposed by the ACA are not, but that's something that can be worked out. Don’t know why conservatives think consumer choice in a competitive market is somehow bad – I guess they do because it has the president’s name on it. But there are a couple of problems that need to be addressed.
The first problem is having the government involved at the front end of the process. I understand it was set up that way to help with the low-income subsidies. But that could be done simpler by the individual after they have found the plan they want. The problems with the web site would have been alleviated for the most part if people could find the coverage they need for themselves and then inform the government after the fact to obtain the subsidy. The government could have provided information to the various insurance companies beforehand so they could give prospective clients guidance as to how much of a subsidy they could expect.
The second aspect of the exchanges that needs to be addressed is the elimination of state insurance regulations. Here in Alabama, most people could only choose health care plans from one company, the same company that insures more than 90% of state residents. One of the problems was that Alabama chose not to set up its own exchange but to allow the federal government to do it for them. Not the most conservative-minded move by a GOP-controlled state. But the main problem is the state insurance board’s regulations are set up for the benefit of the one company, and the federal exchange had to abide by those regulations. I have heard several people blame Governor Bentley, a doctor by trade, for setting up the state to benefit one company, but the fact is those regulations have been in place for a long time.
The ironic fact is that had the ACA gone farther to remove the various states’ insurance regulations and established one broad set of regulations that applied equally to everyone, the exchanges would have been more successful and people would have had more choices. Think about the car insurance market. You can’t watch TV anywhere for 15 minutes without seeing a car insurance commercial. They offer all sorts of discounts, “vanishing deductibles,” cash back for no incidents, etc. How can they do that? Because there are practically no regulations in any state on car insurance, besides minimums for liability coverage. I know car insurance and health insurance aren’t exactly the same thing, but conservatives should be pushing for more consumer freedom within the framework of Obamacare instead of demanding its repeal and doing more damage to consumers. When consumers and providers are free to choose, they come up with creative solutions that provide benefits for both.
Alabama or any other state with a Republican governor and legislature could have decided they were going to customize their exchange with the best possible conservative ideas, and they would have become a shining example to the rest of the states as to how to implement Obamacare effectively. But no, they ironically decided to opt out of the process, allow the federal government to do it for them and then complain about the results. But at least they were able to go to those GOP fundraisers and proclaim they were fighting the president’s agenda. A more effective fight would have been to turn the tables on him and implement freedom-based ideas.
The second problem I have with the ACA is the expansion of Medicaid that went with it. This does nothing to streamline the medical system. It discourages the upper tier of the low-income population from participating in the exchanges. Medicaid is a cesspool of bloat and waste, and has been pretty much from the beginning. The expansion of Medicaid is actually counter-productive to the goals of the ACA, or at least its stated goals (I’m not convinced that the president’s goals are not to work toward a single-payer system).
A better solution would be to lower the top income threshold for Medicaid and allow those at the top of that income bracket to obtain heavily subsidized insurance plans from the exchanges. This would save taxpayers a lot of money. Whatever the government would underwrite for the premium subsidy would be much less and be spent more efficiently than if they were allowed to remain in Medicaid.
Beyond that, for the poorest of the population Medicaid should take more of an HSA format rather than the single-payer system that it is now. Poor people are not stupid. If given the incentive, they will opt for cheaper, more efficient health care solutions. For example, if we assigned them a certain amount per year based on family size, income and overall health and let them keep 25% of what they didn’t spend by the end of the year, there would be repercussions all over the place, most of them good. The taxpayers would still be footing the bill for these people’s care needs, and we would need to reassure them that everything they need would be there in the event of a catastrophe. People I have talked to in the health care industry will tell you that Medicaid patients are the worst for coming into doctor’s offices and emergency rooms for minor complaints. They do this because they can – Uncle Sam is going to foot the bill.
These two changes would do wonders to meet the stated goals of the ACA: to reduce the burden of health care on consumers and the health care system. We don’t need a bloated, inefficient single-payer system. They do seem to work in small, compact countries, but the US is a vast, diverse country. There are flaws in the case studies presented by liberals, all of which involve countries much smaller and with a more compact population than the US. A single-payer system would be as devastating for the entire country as the current single-payer system is for the poor and for veterans. That’s not the solution. The ACA is, perhaps unintentionally, a nudge in the right direction, but only if conservatives are willing to take advantage of it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why Obamacare May Not Be As Bad As You (or I) Think It Is

I am an unabashed conservative/libertarian who doesn’t see the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as being the end of the world. There. I said it. You can cancel my membership in the C/L club if you wish, but before you do, I want you to hear my reasons for guarded optimism. Some might say that this article is late, since the ACA is already being implemented. But until the GOP gets off its never ending drumbeat of “repeal, repeal, repeal,” a voice like mine is going to be relevant.
Everyone in the U.S. for decades has admitted that there are serious problems with our health care system. I, like most conservatives, blamed the increased role of government in the system as the primary culprit. I still view it that way. But an idealistic, John Galt approach of “I refuse to claim power over you, not even for the moment before I set you free” is not going to work. Government got us into this mess, government will have to get us out.
For many years, conservatives have said that one of the main problems with the American health care system is that people had no way to gauge costs. If you had insurance (and most people who needed it or wanted it had it, no matter what liberals said) you just went to the doctor, paid your small co-pay and that was it. Yeah, you might look at the bill afterward and laugh about a $50 charge for your big souvenir water mug, but that wasn’t your problem. The insurance company paid for all that; that’s what you were paying them for. Meanwhile the cost of insurance to your employer or you directly kept going up and up, paperwork costs for doctors and hospitals kept going up and up, and the percentage of the bills that were actually getting paid was going down.
For better or for worse, Obamacare addressed this problem. The majority of people have higher deductibles and co-payments now. Pricing is way more transparent. Given a few years, people will become more personally invested in their health care choices and needs. They will be more aware of the costs of medical care, and will take notice when they are overcharged for things. It might be unpleasant to deal with that reality, but we conservatives are all about dealing with unpleasant realities, right? Liberals are the ones who deal in blissful ignorance. Blissful ignorance was all the average consumer of health care in this country had to deal with for decades. Obamacare is changing that. Personally, I think that is a change for the better.
It’s kind of like President Bush’s reform of Medicare about a decade ago. At the time, I was opposed to it. I still think the expansion of prescription drug coverage was a bad idea, but that’s not the point. I remember getting angry the first few years every fall when there would be an endless stream of commercials promoting the Medicare supplement open enrollment coverage. But then it hit me: Bush’s plan gets private companies in the business of underwriting and paying portions of Medicare that would have been paid for by my tax dollars before. That was actually a very conservative move, ironically one of the few conservative policies Bush actually implemented in his term of office.
And people are engaged with it. All the ads we will see this fall will encourage seniors to consider their options carefully. “Consider?” “Options?” That sounds pretty conservative to me. It sure doesn’t sound like a monolithic government imposing its will on the population. By all accounts, Bush’s reforms have actually reduced government outlays for Medicare. Hopefully, in time, as the rest of us become more engaged with our health care options we will see our costs go down through ACA as well.
Are there problems with Obamacare? Yes. I still believe the individual mandate violates individual rights, but the Supreme Court said it was a tax, which doesn't really make sense. Besides that, what I find most troubling is the way the Administration has chosen which parts of the bill it wants to implement and which it doesn’t. That sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the country. Letting any administration choose which laws, or which parts of laws, it wants to enforce and which it does not is a surefire recipe for injustice and anarchy. Is there a danger that people will be so angry over the higher costs that a liberal administration will step in and implement a single-payer system like the Clintons pushed for 20 years ago? Yes, there is, and conservatives need to be on guard against that. Are there other problems? Yes, and my next article will address two that I think need to be corrected immediately.
Most of the conservative criticism you hear about Obamacare these days has to do with the new higher out-of-pocket costs. I’m just not convinced that higher out-of-pocket costs are necessarily a bad thing. The more people realize what their health care actually costs, they might be more willing to forgo that trip to the emergency room for some penny-ante thing and instead pick up some bandages or pain medicine at the store. Or they might skip the unscheduled trip to the doctor when the little one has the sniffles. This would not be a bad thing. One of the reasons medical care has been so bad in this country is because people were flooding the system with minor problems because they weren't paying for it, the insurance company or Medicare or Medicaid was paying for it.

We conservatives need to be honest brokers. We need to challenge the Administration when we believe it is misleading the American people. We need to present our own ideas in a compelling, honest way. But we also need to be more concerned with doing what is best for the country rather than scoring political points. I understand that we have a different vision for what is best for the country than liberals do, and that is fine. We ought to be true to our vision. But hunkering down and waiting for the current administration to be over is not good leadership, nor is it true to our vision. And neither is pretending every detail in the ACA plan is a disaster, when if a Republican president had proposed many of the same concepts we would be defending it nonstop.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Mutineer's Tech Tips: Cloud Services

We live in an interconnected world. This interconnectivity has nearly made physical, portable computer storage obsolete. I can barely remember the 5 ½” floppy disks. I certainly remember 3 ½” floppy disks. Even up through my college years, if you wanted to take any type of file with you, you had to have some. I say “some” because the most those things would hold was 1.5 MB. That seems kind of ridiculous now, but that was the world I and most people over the age of 30 lived in. Then some folks for a short period tried to use CDs for portable storage. Yes, it worked, but the CDs weren’t reusable (unless you got the expensive disks and you had an expensive CD+RW drive) and it got to be cost-prohibitive really fast. The most recent iteration of portable storage is the USB stick – thumb drive, jump drive, whatever you wanted to call it. Those are still around, of course, but they’re not exactly flying off the shelves because more and more people are using cloud storage services.
With cloud storage, a provider allows you to store your files on their Internet-connected servers. The files are available whenever you need them through a Web portal, through a connected folder on your computer, or through a phone or tablet app. Very convenient, although there is the risk that files stored in a cloud service may be vulnerable to hackers and to government intrusion. If you keep that in mind, you probably won’t store your tax returns and other important electronic documents in the cloud. Beyond that though, storing casual photos and basic documents in the cloud is perfectly safe.
I’m going to list the services my wife and I use and describe the advantages and disadvantages of each, in my experience. Keep in mind these are all free services.
DropBox has been around for a long time, “long time” being relative, of course. It offers 2 GB of free storage. It’s very easy to use, and it’s the most flexible. You can store practically any kind of file and access it easily. DropBox is ideal for pictures, PDFs, and other files that work in multiple formats. My main issues with it have to do with the way I use cloud computing. I use cloud storage a lot through a web browser. The other services I use allow you to access and edit files directly through the browser. This isn’t possible with DropBox because it’s not tied to one of the main computer services companies – Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc. The other issue I have with Drop Box is the simple fact that 2 GB is not all that much storage. Yes, you can upgrade for a relatively low price, but I’ll admit to being a cheapskate when it comes to computer services. If there’s a workable, free (or less expensive) alternative I’m going to take advantage of it.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts you might be surprised to see this here. My wife does have an iPhone, and we have iCloud installed on her Windows 8 computer. It works pretty well, much better than iTunes works on Windows. I’m sure it works much better between Apple devices. Apple does offer a web version of iWork (Apple’s suite of office programs) that you can access through the iCloud web portal, but I didn’t really care for it. However if you are an Apple user, I understand that iWork on the web offers a great solution for opening Microsoft Office documents and easily converting them to iWork format. I don’t know any specifics of how much storage iCloud offers for free.
Google Drive offers 15 GB of free storage to anyone with an Android device or a Gmail, Google + or Chrome account. At this point, that includes almost everyone who uses the Internet. Google Drive is great for collaboration with documents. Lots of businesses and individuals use Google Drive this way. You can share a document with multiple people, they can make changes, and those changes show up on everyone’s version of the document instantaneously.
Unfortunately the final product of that collaboration has to be converted to a regular document before it can be shared with the world, and that’s the main issue I have with Google Drive: it is completely web-based. Even when you download the folder to your computer, when you open the document it opens up your web browser instead of taking you to an office program. There are some workarounds, but they require a lot of extra work. Yes, you can e-mail Google Docs, but all it sends is a link instead of an actual file attachment. If you’re sending a prospective employer a resume, you don’t want to take a chance and hope they understand Google Drive. You want to send a document attached that the person can open with their regular office program.
I use Google Drive for my Sunday School lessons every week. It is great for simple documents like that: they are accessible anywhere, storage is simple and everything saves automatically. But it’s limited in what it can do. And Google is changing the way mobile devices access Google Drive, so it’s probably going to be worse in the future.
OneDrive is Microsoft’s answer to iCloud and Google Drive, and it is spectacular. Over the past few years Microsoft hasn’t done a lot of things right, but OneDrive is a welcome exception. It offers 7 GB of free storage, which you can bump up to 10 if you connect your phone (doesn’t matter if it’s iPhone, Android or BlackBerry) and allow OneDrive to automatically store your pictures. You access OneDrive with the same e-mail and password that you log in to a Windows 8 PC, tablet or phone or your Xbox Live or Skype account. If you don’t have any of these, you can set up a free account.
OneDrive allows you to create documents in docx, xlsx and pptx formats right from your web browser. You can share them via e-mail or link on the web like Google Docs, or you can download the folder to your computer (the folder downloads to any computer, not just Windows 8) and they show up as regular documents in your directory, which you can attach to any e-mail or edit with Microsoft Office or a competitor like Kingsoft Office that saves files in the “x” format. All you have to do it hit “save” in Office and the changes are automatically saved to your OneDrive. OneDrive also offers mobile apps for all platforms. You can e-mail documents from the app, but you must have either Microsoft Office or a third-party office app to edit files.

Microsoft Office – Word, Excel, PowerPoint – remains the world standard for documents. Office is a huge money maker for Microsoft, and with OneDrive it looks like they’re giving away the store. But one has to assume that OneDrive is a big part of Microsoft’s strategy to remain the undisputed leader in documents. Over the past few years Google Docs, iWork and the open-source alternatives Libre Office and Open Office have chipped away at Office’s dominance. People started figuring out that, at least on their home computers, they didn’t need the expense of Office to produce high-quality documents. OneDrive is a solution to at least keep more people using Office’s formats. When more people out there are using Office’s formats, the more entrenched Office remains in the long term. Seems like a sound strategy to me. Certainly more sound than limiting access for non-Windows devices and/or forcing people to buy expensive software.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Mutineer's Tech Tips: Browsers, Part 2: Maxthon

In this mobile era of browsing, you need a suite of browsers. It's not enough to work well on the device in front of you. It needs to communicate and interact with the browsers on your other devices. Yesterday I wrote about a browser suite that has great functionality but poor connectivity. This article is about a browser with amazing connectivity but poor design:

The best thing about Maxthon is its amazing interoperability. Maxthon is a Chinese company that only in the last 5 years or so began offering web browsers in the Western market. They are way down the list in terms of market share, but they are on the cutting edge of browser technology.
To access most of these cutting-edge features, you need to create a free “Maxthon Passport” account. You are prompted to do this when you download the browser. I’m a big believer in cloud computing, whether it be DropBox, Google Drive, OneDrive or the endless list available out there. I understand the security risks, but I guess I prefer the convenience of the cloud over the fear of exposing my resume, Sunday School lessons and pictures of my dog and random stuff I find funny to Uncle Sam.
Maxthon offers the capability for two active pages open at one time on your computer.

With the account set up, you can do all sorts of cool things. Lots of browsers, including Firefox and Chrome, allow you to share your browser history from one platform to another or open your last open tab from one to another. Maxthon is light years beyond that. It offers what it calls “Cloud Push,” which allows you to push the web page from one browser to another. It opens automatically on a different device with a linked Maxthon account. Just a couple of weeks ago I was wanting to show my wife something on my computer. I was in my office, she was sitting in the bedroom. I didn’t want to drag the laptop into the bedroom, so I just “cloud pushed” the page I was looking at to my Nook. All I had to do was pick up the Nook, turn it on and open up Maxthon on my way to the bedroom. Boom, there it was, by the time I walked through the door into the bedroom. No searching through a menu, no waiting for it to sync. It was all instantaneous. I use this feature between my laptop and my phone all the time.
Maxthon also offers free cloud storage. I honestly don’t know how much storage they offer for free, but I do know I downloaded some free mp3’s the other day on my laptop to my Maxthon cloud account, and from there I downloaded them to my phone where I will use them for some new ringtones. All together the songs were about 25 MB, so it has to be more than that. Any time you download anything on your computer or mobile device, it offers to save it to the cloud. This comes in handy for sharing things between devices, or if you downloaded, for example, a document template and something happens and you need to revert to the original. If you saved it to your cloud, it will be right there instead of you having to find the web site again to re-download it.
Maxthon for the desktop (this includes Mac OS X and Linux) has a couple of other unique features. First, it offers unique tools to instantly download pictures, videos and other media from web pages. For example, any time you see an embedded video in a web page, a box automatically pops up that offers you the option to download it. No right-clicking, no clicking through to the host page. Second, pun intended, Maxthon also offers the unique option of two-pane browsing. You can have two active web pages open at the same time inside the same window. No switching between tabs or windows. This comes in handy when I’m looking at my online banking account in one pane and our budget spreadsheet saved in an online cloud account in another pane.
Maxthon's mobile start page leaves a lot to be desired.

A couple of things really annoy me about Maxthon, though, that keep me from using it exclusively. One is its klunky interface. If you look at the screenshot, it looks like something out of 2002. Just about the only thing that’s missing is those cool comet tails shooting by the Netscape “N.” The mobile version isn’t any better. Look at the ugly boxes on the speed dial page. You can’t even pick the colors. Everybody knows Yahoo should be purple, but not Maxthon Mobile, which assigns colors to the boxes based on some internal, random formula. Sometimes it will inexplicably download an icon, which looks a little better, but not much. The mobile browser also does not allow you to press down on the back arrow and give you the history of all the open pages in that tab. This has been basic browser design for years. They have fixed the phone version, but the tablet version has a teeny-tiny "x" button to close a tab. It's almost impossible to do. I usually end up reopening the tab I don't want to see or accidentally opening a new tab, which is not what I want to do either.
Another problem with Maxthon is rooted in the fact that it is primarily a Chinese company and new in the Western market with a small market share. It has very few extensions for the desktop version, and many of those are targeted for a Chinese audience. In fact, if you look at my desktop screenshot above, you will see one of the little boxes on the left side has a Chinese icon. That’s the only extension I could find that allows me to share pages to Facebook. I don’t know what the symbol means in Chinese, but it works.

Maxthon is now where the future of computing is headed. It has great features not found in the more popular browsers. No doubt the developers at Chrome, Firefox, and Safari (does Microsoft even have developers working on Internet Explorer? Maybe in a closet somewhere) are working on many of the same options, like downloading to a cloud or sharing web pages instantaneously across devices, that Maxthon offers right now.  But unless you really need or want to try out its unique capabilities, I really can’t recommend Maxthon to you. If you’re happy with the way your browser looks and feels when you use it, switching to Maxthon will be a jarring experience. I definitely recommend Maxthon to power users, but for light browsing the extra stuff is not worth giving up a simple, familiar user experience.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Mutineer's Tech Tips: Browsers, Part 1: Opera

Most of us spend a good deal of our computer time in an Internet browser. Sure, we have documents and spreadsheets and such at work or school that take up a lot of our time, but when we are on our own time, most of us open up the web browser, start with Facebook or Reddit or Yahoo and then see where we go from there. Your web browser is one of the most important tools on your computer. You have a wide variety of choices for web browsing, but most people use the one that came with their computer or they download a favorite like Firefox or Chrome.
Of course the web is everywhere now with mobile devices. And while apps certainly take up a lot of our screen time on those, there is still nothing like a simple, fast web browser when you need to search or if a friend on Facebook posts an article you want to read. In this post and the one to follow I want to introduce you to a couple of browsers I use every day that you may or may not have heard of but that might improve your online experience.
Opera is the number 5 browser among conventional computers worldwide, so it’s not exactly unknown. But given that the top 4 have 95% or more of the market, it’s not exactly a household name either. Opera took a big step last year when it dropped its unique web-rendering engine, the software that properly interprets and displays web sites, and went with the engine found in Chrome. This move eliminates the issues Opera used to have with some web sites. I experienced this myself with earlier editions of Opera. If you used Opera in the past and were frustrated by these problems, it might be time to try it again.
This is my Speed Dial start page on Opera on my wife's computer.
Opera’s key feature is its “Speed Dial” page. Lots of browsers have a page that shows your recently-viewed or most-viewed pages when you open a new tab. Opera goes way beyond this. You can customize what web sites you want to feature and order them how you want them. Be warned, Opera wants you to use the speed dial feature so badly that it does not use an ordinary bookmark menu. You can add one with extensions, and you can see the bookmark bar under the address line.
What makes Opera’s Speed Dial unique is that you can download extensions that work exclusively in the speed dial page. For example, I have a Facebook extension that allows me to see my notifications without actually going to Facebook. There are literally dozens of these that let you look at your e-mail, check stock prices and sports scores, and more all from your start page. It’s a cool feature that no other browser has. The speed dial comes loaded with a Google search bar on this page as well, but as you can see I eliminated that. You can choose any search engine you want as your default in the main address bar.
Opera’s mobile offerings are fantastic as well. I have an Android phone and a Google Play-enabled Nook. Opera is my main browser on both. The tablet version is particularly fantastic. I have other browsers on my Nook (including the one I will mention in tomorrow's post) but I rarely use them because Opera is so good. Opera’s browser for iPhone and iPad is called Coast. It’s gotten rave reviews, but you must remember that Apple downgrades access for third-party browsers on its mobile devices, so I wouldn’t blame you if you stuck with Safari. I also wouldn’t blame you if you took a leap out of Apple’s “walled garden,” but that’s another issue for another time.

Opera's disappointing attempt at cross-platform interoperability.

The one problem I have with Opera is its complete lack of interoperability between platforms. I’m sorry, but a page with links to your stored favorites from your desktop browser doesn’t cut it in 2014. That message in the yellow box has been the same for nearly a year. And it wasn’t any better before. In a day when all of the most popular browsers operate together quite well, this is terrible. I don’t know how well Coast interacts with the desktop Windows or Mac versions of Opera, but I doubt it’s much better.
In summary, if you like the speed and simplicity of Chrome but don’t want your whole online life to revolve around Google, you should definitely consider Opera. Yes, it lacks some really basic options on the cross-platform front, but if you mainly use one device or if you don’t really care about interoperability and you want something that works well on the device in front of you, Opera would be a great choice.  

Check back tomorrow for my other recommendation!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Mutineer's Tech Tips: Browser Extensions

I guess I’m what’s considered a dinosaur in this age of the mobile web: I’m still a web browser guy. Even on my phone I’d rather use a web browser for basic info and searches rather than an app. My next tech tip will have to do with a couple of my choices for browsers, but today I’m writing about browser extensions.

What are browser extensions? Most people don’t know what they are. Unfortunately the most common extensions are those awful “toolbars.” Those were (and are) a drag on your computer and a security risk. If you have them in your browser, take steps to get rid of them. Now. 

This may be extreme, but one toolbar is one too many in my book.
A browser extension is basically a mini-program that you add to your browser that offers a unique feature or service. It can be anything from a link to your e-mail to an app that lets you expand pictures or text in a Web page. Practically all of them are free, which is a bonus. Here are a couple of basic extensions that I won’t go without now that I’ve gotten used to them:

Ad Block
Ad Block Plus

These two basically do the same thing: in my experience, one is just about as good as the other. These programs block ads everywhere on the Internet. And not just box ads at the top and bottom of pages either. They block ads on Facebook, they shut down those annoying autoplaying videos and even block the ads at the beginning of YouTube videos. Either of these are great products, well worth your time.
One of the most important things these programs offer, ironically, is the option to not block ads on certain pages. If you have a particular web site you like to visit that you want to support by clicking on the ads on their page, you can do that. If somebody is offering you great content, you should take advantage of the opportunity to support them by clicking on their ads, especially if you are interested in the ad. Both of these extensions place a stop sign icon next to the address bar where you can change the settings.
Add This

Most of us are active with more than one platform that allows us to share information: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Google+, Pocket (you really need to try Pocket), etc. Plus some of the old-timers among us still use e-mail to share stuff. It’s annoying to copy and paste a link, especially when the address is a really long and random combination of numbers and letters. Add This fixes that. It lets you customize the services you use to share web pages, videos, etc., and you can post them with just one click. Very handy. I use it a lot.
Will these work with my browser?
If you click on the links, there should be a download button. You can click further into the page to find if there are issues with your browser. Here is a rundown of the top four browsers and links to their extensions page:
Internet Explorer

IE doesn’t have a lot of extensions. Most of the extensions for IE are either from Microsoft itself or from other corporate entities. Or they are malware/adware/bloatware and will actually hurt your computer in the long run. Microsoft is very protective of its IE code. Unfortunately that mindset actually works against IE users in the long run. They discourage legitimate innovation while at the same time encouraging hackers, thieves and worse to try to exploit it because of its large market share.
I would encourage you to stop using IE altogether, but that’s another discussion for another time.


Both Chrome and Firefox have a wide variety of extensions. You can find extensions for things you never knew a web browser could do. It’s honestly fun to just go browsing through these pages and see what they offer. Both Chrome and Firefox encourage creativity among users, and their openness is rewarded by a flock of helpful apps. It’s still safest to stick to the official “app stores” for extensions, but if you find one from a service or Web site you trust, I would be less afraid to download one in either of these  than in IE.


I’ve used it some, but I don’t know as much about Safari as I do about Windows browsers. Apple used to offer a fine version of Safari for Windows, which I used a lot, but they dropped it a couple of years ago. It appears they have quite a few extensions as well. Worth checking out for sure, or you can download Chrome or Firefox for your Mac, as practically all of the extensions work on both Mac and Windows, and there are some Mac-specific extensions. Safari is certainly a much better browser than IE, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with it exclusively.
One word of caution: too many extensions will bog down your browser’s performance. Chrome and Firefox have hundreds of extensions. My advice is to find a few that really do improve your web browsing and stick with those. The ones that turn your Facebook different colors or give your browser a cool skin might be fun for a kid, but if you’re like me you want to get things done online, not look at interesting gewgaws in your browser.