Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Required Reading

There are many topics about which I feel very passionately, even if they don't affect me. One of those is abortion. I am adamantly pro-choice, and oppose passing legal restrictions such as parental/spousal notification, waiting periods, etc. I don't want to get into a full discussion of these topics, so I will instead offer a few questions for you to ponder: Who will these legal restrictions affect? Who would have an abortion without informing their spouse or parents? What is the result of making a woman who has decided to get an abortion wait longer? Discuss amongst yourselves...

The real reason I wanted to post about abortion is this article, which is getting a lot of mention in the blogosphere. It shows what happens when you have radical laws passed by well-meaning conservatives trying to protect a "culture of life." It really is a must-read. Here's a quote from the end: "I was there to see Carmen Climaco. She is now 26 years old, four years into her 30-year sentence. She has three children, who today are 11, 8 and 6 years old. [...] She'd had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks[...]. It's just that she'd had an abortion in El Salvador."

Friday, April 07, 2006


I just spent a little surfing time lookat at the IU Taekwondo (TKD) Club page. It is sometimes amazing how many memories and old emotions can come welling up quite unexpectedly. And it is always a mixture of the good and the bad.

First, I laughed when I read this on the FAQ page: "Pre-tests are required for black belt candidates [...] to determine whether you are ready to test for promotion, or if you should wait." First, let me say that I was ready. I got solid scores on all parts of my exam, and I know that I earned my belt the day of that test. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

In my black belt class, there were 5 other students. I've never taken the time to think about who should and who should not have passed, but it was made clear to us that day that none of us would be getting our belts that day. The first part of the exam is made up of forms, also known as kata or poomse. Forms are set movements where you demonstrate your techniques. In our style, forms are critical. If you don't know your forms, you typically fail your test regardless of the rest of your techniques. If you nail your forms, you will most likely pass. I nailed my forms. 100% solid. There was one person who was asked to repeat one of them because of a mistake. The other 4 had to repeat multiple forms. You could sense a growing tension among the instructors, and they held a private meeting after the forms portion. We found out later that the meeting was on whether or not to allow us to continue. They decided to let us finish, but no belts would be awarded that day. Eventually, we did all get our black belts, but I couldn't help but laugh at the new pre-test requirement. I know that my class was a contributing factor to that.

Then, I looked around some more, and felt a resurgence of anger that I have not felt in a long time. Specifically, it came when I read this: "Mr. Thomas [...] has been a club instructor for since 1998." Well, yes and no. To recap the order of events, my black belt test was in Dec. 1997, and we were awarded them in Jan. 1998. Late spring 1998, the offer was made to Mr. Thomas and me to become co-instructors of the TKD club. The long-time instructor (who provided most of my training) had 2 small children and was finishing up his Ph.D. thesis. He had a lot of other priorities and did a lot of flip-flopping regarding whether or not he could commit. The 1997-1998 school year, he was rarely available. Shortly after Mr. Thomas and I were selected to become instructors for fall 1998, a flurry of emails were exchanged on a discussion list until the list had to be shut down by the head of the martial arts department.

Mr. Thomas had made a comment about "when Mike and I are instructors," and my old teacher began a series of attacks on our qualifications. And when I say, "our," I mean that almost all of those attacks were aimed at me. They were baseless, as people who knew me pointed out. Yet, they were more than that. There were also attacks that were personal in nature and completely inappropriate. To make it even worse, there were people on this list who did not know me (they were alums of the IU TKD program and had schools of their own), but were close to my old instructor. Needless to say, my reputation in their eyes was tarnished, and they made it clear that they would not have been happy to work with Mr. Thomas and me as the club instructors. To this day, I cannot fathom all of the motivations of my old instructor. There had long been a turf war between him and the head of the martial arts department. Perhaps I was simply caught up in the middle of those politics. Regardless, I have never felt as betrayed as I did when I read those emails.

The resolution of all of this was the department head stepped in and took ownership of the club. Mr. Thomas and I became relegated to assistant instructor status. I wish I could say that we went on to prove my old instructor wrong. But the truth is, the damage had already been done.

I've always had struggles with confidence. As I worked toward and earned my black belt, I was turning the tide. I knew that my techniques were good. I knew that I could teach well. I knew that others learned from what I said, because I saw it as their abilities improved. And to have my old instructor, a man whom I deeply respected and admired, turn around and discredit everything that I had accomplished was devastating. I did well as an assistant instructor, but I had lost my enthusiasm for it. That was fall of 1998. By spring of 1999, I was gone. That was the semester that I dropped all of my classes. That was the time when I really began to understand that I had a problem with my self-esteem.

I wish I could say I've fixed the problem. Sure, I've made corrections. And as I've matured, I've come to be more accepting of my flaws and know that I don't have to be perfect in everything I try. But that doesn't mean I don't struggle almost daily with issues of self-worth.

As I said at the beginning, it's amazing how all of this can come to the surface in such unexpected ways. Similarly, it's astounding how something as simple as email can have such unintended consequences.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Loss & Healing

I've changed the title of this post several times now, despite not having written a word. I like this one. As some of you may know, today is the third anniversary of my Mom's death. It's hard to believe that it's only been 3 years. It feels like a lot longer than that. Yet, I still remember what it felt like when she hugged me. Or they way that she would playfully smack me on the cheek. It's hard to describe, but she would do these rapid little smacks at the rate of about 10 per second.

I think the last time I saw her alive was Christmas day 2002. I flew back to Vermont that evening because I had to work at Barnes & Noble the next day. I'm glad that my last memories of her were happy ones. On that Christmas, she had a 13 month old grandson, and she had her family there with her. There were plenty of smiles and love going around. On that day, everything about the future looked perfect.

Since that day, I've lost my Mom and my Grandma. One of my cousins has been diagnosed with breast cancer. One of my aunts had a stroke and almost died because of heart problems. My sister-in-law has had ongoing battles with a neurological problem in her leg. Life has been tough.

But also since that day, I've gotten engaged to the most wonderful woman. I've gotten into grad school and have started taking steps down the long path toward a Ph.D. I've learned to ski. I've gone skydiving. I've worked to deepen friendships that matter very much to me. Life has been very good.

So here I am, getting close to turning 30 and looking back on three years without my Mom. I wish I had some grand insights into the nature of life and what it all means, but I don't. I have learned more about how to identify the relationships that really matter and how to cherish each and every one of those. But I've never had any sudden enlightening moment. Each day that goes by is just that: another day. On the one hand, it means one less day that I have left to live, but it also means one more day of knowledge, experience, memories, and (hopefully) wisdom gained. That's the trade-off. I can't say that my Mom's death hurts any less now than it did three years ago. But it is easier to deal with that pain. I guess that's what healing is all about.

So, if you're reading this, here's my advice. Go find a loved one and give them a hug. Unfortunately, I won't see Brianne until tomorrow, so I'll just have to settle for giving that hug to the cat curled up on my lap.

Thanks, Mom, for 26 and a half happy years.

Net Neutrality and Regulation

So here's a new post for you. Amazing, huh?

I just read this article regarding the defeat of a Democrat-backed amendment proposal to require telecommunication providers to offer "Net neutrality." The idea behind Net neutrality is that telcos must focus solely on passing all bits through at the highest speed possible without regard for what the nature of those bits are. The telcos, such as Verizon and AT&T, have lobbied very hard to defeat Net neutrality. And, for now at least, they have won.

First, let me note that the defeat of this proposal does not outlaw Net neutrality. It simply does not require it. As usual, conservatives are applying the "free market" ideal without acknowledging basic facts. The article quotes Grover Norquist as saying Net neutrality regulation "would begin down the dangerous path of Internet regulation." I.e., requiring Net neutrality could lead to an overzealous FCC stepping in and regulating content, censoring controversial ideas, etc., etc. As usual, the free market ideal is the answer to everything. The government should not interfere.

The flaw in this thinking is that we are simply trading in one kind of regulation for another. Now, it is not the government who will be regulating content, but monopolies. When I lived in Vermont, I had one choice for cable access: Adelphia. If I didn't like their service, well frankly, tough luck. My free market choice was to submit to monopolistic price gouging or go without cable service. I did have other alternatives, such as Verizon DSL (another monopoly) or dial-up. This is far from the ideal of free market competition. What makes this especially bad is the fact that you have monopolistic interests as an intermediary to information access. A free and democratic society requires open access to information. This open access is incompatible with absolute free market capitalism, when monopolies interfere. In this case, a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, has a duty to intervene and offer a compromise.

I've been speaking about general access, but what do all these vague generalities have to do with Net neutrality? In arguing against Net neutrality, the telcos are claiming that their motivations are to prioritize certain services, such as streaming video, to make them commercially viable (see this article). OK, sounds reasonable enough, but what is the problem? And if it is really about providing better service, why are so many tech companies (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, eBay, Amazon, etc.) in favor of Net neutrality? The answer is money. In order to fund this prioritization, content providers would pay the telcos a premium access fee to use the high speed capabilities. Is anyone naive enough to think that SBC, Verizon, etc., will offer this premium access out of the goodness of their hearts?

What makes this especially laughable is that telcos are also service providers. Let's say Verizon decides to prioritize VoIP traffic. (I think they offer VoIP, but I'm not entirely certain. Assume they do for the purposes of this example.) Getting this premium access ensures that VoIP calls go through with more clarity. Obviously, charging a market-set premium access fee will benefit Verizon and hurt Skype. So if you live in Vermont with Adelphia cable access, and Skype is in California with Comcast internet access, you (and it will be you) now have to pay Verizon for your call to go through. Or Skype could choose to not pay the premium, and you would get worse service than if you had VoIP through Verizon. Obviously, this is a game that only benefits the telcos. It allows them to use monopolies in one market (control of the data transfer lines) to benefit their other services. This is exactly the reason that anti-trust legislation has long been on the books.

Allowing telcos to prioritize data transfer as they see fit will lead to increased costs borne by the consumer, increased barriers for small companies to compete, and further centralization of information control in the hands of large providers. Free markets are good when the economic theory aligns with the reality. In the case of internet access, that is not the case.