Saturday, November 10, 2007

Video games: "M" for "mentally stable"

It’s connect-the-dots time at The Oregonian again.

Dot A: A sentence from a story on the front of Thursday's Metro page. The story carries this headline: “Inside the mind of a school shooter —Warning signs/ An FBI expert offers police and educators insights into preventing a school tragedy.”

The expert is Terri Royster, a supervising special agent with the FBI Behavioral Science Unit based n Quantico, Va. Royster says that parents should be the first ones to notice unusual and potentially dangerous behavior in their children.

Here is Dot A: “She encourages nosiness, especially if the child spends excessive time playing violent video games or reading violent books.”

Note her concern is with time spent with violent video games and books and not with the violence per se.

(Question: Is the Bible a “violent book”? Ever notice strange behavior from people who read the bible “excessively”?)

On to Dot B, in the next day’s Oregonian.

This one is a review by one Doug Elfman of the “gruesome” video game, “Manhunt 2." Elfman reports that the game is so violent that it was banned in Britain.

Then he writes, “Britain banned a fun game,”

In an editorial note at the end of this glowing review, we learn that Elfman is an “award-winning columnist” who writes regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times, apparently, as you will see, in a moral vacuum.

In any case, Elfman goes on to describe the “fun” you or your teenager (who must be “mature,” but who’s checking?) can have role-playing “Danny.”

“’Manhunt 2’ starts with Danny’s sneaking behind an evil henchman and slipping a suffocating plastic bag over his head. Danny’s vision blurs red. ‘I killed him,’ Danny says. ‘I feel sick.’ Then he pukes.”

Fun, huh?

Here’s another sample: “The ever-escalating panoply of weaponry at your fingertips begins with a syringe and plastic bag; it advances to knives, meat hooks, baseball bats, crowbars, bricks, a pistol and a gun whose bullets set men on fire. Sometimes, you chop off heads with a fireman’s ax, then carry the head around on your belt loop.”

What a kick. The fun just never stops.

As noted this game is rated “M” which means you have to be “mature” to watch it. So who decides what mature is? Go here for the Entertainment Software Rating Board's (ESRB) mushy definition. (With Agent Royster’s caution in mind, better that “M” stand for “mentally stable,” but I digress.)

If “Manhunt 2” is intended for “mature” players, we seem to be teetering on the edge of an oxymoron.

Biased but needed definition: A “mature” person is anyone with the emotional maturity to reject role playing the obscene violence found in “fun” video games like “Manhunt 2.”

In other words, if you play this game and find it “fun,” you are immature and can’t play it. Which, come to think of it, is probably why Britain banned it.

I don’t know what the editors at the Oregonian think of all this except they choose to print it. They lay the Royster story and the Elfman (love the name, by the way) opinion out on journalistic platters and leave it to us to pick and choose.

The chance is remote that we will read both and connect the two.

Here’s a sodden idea: Put Special Agent Royster in the same room with “fun”-loving critic Elfman, and see where the conversation goes.

Here’s my greatest fear:

Royster: “Well, Doug, as I say, I don’t have any problem with the violence in the game. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. But parents and friends should be careful that the players, ‘mature’ though they be, don’t play excessively and start behaving strangely. Watch out for severed heads on belt loops, ha, ha. Also associates might be advised to keep syringes, plastic bags, rifles, pistols, baseball bats, bricks and meat hooks locked up, just to be on the safe side. You never know where a little ‘maturity’ might lead.”

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Regence returns my call

I got a call back today from three executives at Regence Blue Cross. They were responding to my complaint about their Medicare Advantage supplement’s premium jumping 67 percent for next year.

A couple of days ago here on the Red Electric, I recounted my experiences with Regence MedAdvantage customer support . Because I wasn’t satisfied, I decided to track down one of three Regence executives I happened to be seated with at a recent Community Health Partnership honors banquet. I phoned and left a message for one to call back.

All three did, on a pre-arranged conference call. I was impressed.

We talked for about a half hour about the surprising jump in the premium from $45/mo. to $75/mo. You may recall that the customer service representative told me that premiums for the non-profit are based on claims from the previous year.

Last year was not a good year, insurance-wise.

My executive trio told me that there’s some discretion in setting premiums, and they readily admitted that the hike for next year is hard to swallow, but necessary.

I joined the program early this year when, at reaching 65, I became eligible for Medicare. If I had joined in 2005, the year the Medicare Advantage programs began, I would have a different perspective on next year's increase. Amanda, my customer service rep, told me that premiums could drop, but, because she had only been on the job a year and a half, she didn’t have a clue whether they ever had.

Fat chance, I thought.

I was wrong.

My conferees informed me that indeed the rates had dropped. My $45 premium was the low over four years. In 2005, the premium was $79, in 2006 it was $72. It turns out that 2006 was a very good year, as Frank Sinatra used to say, so management decided to pass the savings on in 2007, hence my $45 premium, which I took to be the norm.

So my advice to this august group was to level out the peaks and valleys of the premiums to avoid the appearance of a bait and switch. In the highly competitive health insurance industry, low rates are a selling point. That $45 snared me.

“We don't like to whipsaw our members," said Mike Becker, Regence vice president of public policy and community affairs. "Leveling out the premiums is exactly what we’ve been talking about,” chimed in Alison Nicholson, manager for individual sales.

Good, I replied.

I had a few other ideas, which I won’t bore you with and which you probably won’t be interested in, at least until you turn 65.

Suffice to say, I feel better about Regence Blue Cross — for now.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Benefactors make anonymnity condition of gifts

Memo to the Portland School Board, City Commissioner for Parks Dan Salzman and his fellow City Council members, Portland Park's Director Zari Santner, City Council candidate Amanda Fritz, Latinos for renaming Interstate Avenue after Cesar Chavez, the Schnitzer Family in all its parts and anyone who trades in naming rights and "recognition opportunities" as a condition of philanthropy and politics.

We could be seeing the start of a trend to ego-free giving and participation. It resurrects the old notion that "virtue is its own reward."

Here's a story about benefactors who gave a few million to their alma mater on the condition that they wouldn't be recognized by having their names plastered on their gift. You read that right: Would NOT be named.


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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fixing for a MedAdvantage/health care fix

Since turning 65 earlier this year I have entered the uncertain world of Medicare. Stories about Medicare, it seems, are part of the lore of aging.

My transition from my pre-senior Kaiser Permanente coverage to Regence Blue Cross MedAdvantage was seamless back in February, when I entered seniordom.

I signed up for the Regence program because it looked like a pretty good deal at $45 a month, plus the $93.50 I pay monthly for Medicare.

But about a month ago I realized that each year I would be buried under a blizzard of fliers from competing Medicare Advantage programs, which envelop and supplement Medicare’s spartan coverage. No doubt Regence has been out trying to woo other seniors away from their own coverage and over to the Blue Cross/Regence program.

Of course the advertising blitz comes at a price, born by us, the enrollees. The marketing campaigns have absolutely nothing to do with our health care. Trust me, they don’t do this in Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand and Canada.

Then, in the middle of this flurry of brochures and sales pitches, I received in the mail my “2008 Annual Notice of Change” from Regence. That’s innocuous sounding until you realize that the primary change was in what I would be paying.

Starting January 1, my monthly rate will go from $45 to $75.

I blinked, but my eyes did not deceive. That’s a 67 percent increase. Over the year, I will fork over an additional $360 to Regence. An extra dollar a day.

Did someone say “bait and switch”?

Suddenly I realized why I was getting all those fliers from the competition.

Fortunately, I can afford to pay more. But where will this stop? Will Regence gouge me another 60 or 70 percent next year?

And what about all those folks who can’t afford the increase?

“Fixed income.” means exactly what it says, “fixed.” I’ll bet the CEO of Regence isn’t on a fixed income.

The health care system clearly is in a fix and needs desperately needs one.

I decided to give Regence a call.

My ploy was to play stupid. “There must be some mistake,” I said to poor Amanda, a Regence customer services representative who answered the phone. (Good news — she didn't sound as though she was fielding my call in sunny Bangalore.)

“You have to understand we are a non-profit company," she explained. "We base our rates on what we paid for claims in the previous year. If we save this year, our premium will go down.”

“Will it go back down to $45?” I asked.

Amanda, wouldn’t commit.

“Has it ever gone down?”

Amanda didn’t know. She’d only been a customer rep for 18 months, but, she added, “A lot of people don’t understand how insurance works.”

“Well,” I said, “either Regence isn’t making itself very understandable or I’m beginning to understand all too well.”

She agreed that the rate increases were tough to budget for. I suggested that Regence customers be warned well in advance that big rate hikes like this one were possible, even inevitable.

She said she would pass my “excellent” suggestion on to her supervisor.

Finally, I asked her whether she had been getting many calls like mine.

Oooooh, yeah,” she said wearily.

Weep, Lyndon Johnson, who signed Medicare into law in 1965. Clearly the days of free or low-cost medical care for seniors are numbered, at least under the Bush administration and probably under any administration beholden to the insurance industry.

And, looking to 2008, which candidate is least likely to be so beholden? Here's a clue. Watch for others.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Doris Gunn remembered

Doris Gunn's smile often had a playful mischievousness about it. If she suspected you of being susceptible to her thinking, her grin took on a hint of sly conspiracy. She was about to weld you to what was on her mind.

There was always something on Doris’s mind.

For behind her good humor and ease with others, burned a passion for reform that warmed all she met.

She was a spirit on fire for a better world.

Her fire went out, after 84 years, early in the morning of Oct 30 while she slept.

Family and friends gathered at her son’s house near Capitol Hill School on Saturday to recount the many ways Doris touched and inspired us.

Parked outside was her old white Ford Escort station wagon, a tired, old stallion bereft of its knightly driver.

It was plastered with peace and alternative energy bumper stickers, badges of honor. “I’m for Solar Energy and I vote!” read one. “War is not the answer!” proclaimed another.

The car still bore Oklahoma plates (888 MGS to be exact) even though the car and Doris had been in Oregon for five years. She came here because she wanted to be near her family. Here, she found a spiritual home.

Those of us from Hillsdale met Doris not long after she arrived here. She wanted to be with like souls and, laser-like, she sought them out.

She liked action. We first met her in the Hillsdale Farmers Market — her kind of place. When we decided to hold peace walks to Multnomah Village and back, Doris joined us. Her pace was understandably slower than ours. We adjusted. With Doris, you adjusted, always. In her good-humored way, she was irrepressible.

She grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, in an upper middle-class family. She lived most of her adult life in Oklahoma where she raised her three children. She is survived by them, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Her background left her with a hybrid Southern/Oklahoma accent, a down-home wisdom and a raw sense of humor.

At the gathering, we learned from her children that Doris had run for lieutenant governor of Oklahoma in 1970. If it was a surprise to us, it was a shock to her husband back then when he learned about her candidacy in the newspaper. Years later, their lives divided and they divorced.

In the Democratic Party primary, she came in fifth in a field of eight. But, oh, to have heard her on the stump!

Doris was never, ever at a loss for words. Her children recounted how she would fill the phone answering machine with seemingly endless monologues and lectures. She would always end them with a curt notation of time and date.

She opposed the construction of a nuclear power plant near Tulsa and became involved in the Karen Silkwood trial. Swept up in the ‘60s civil rights movement, she spearheaded the integration of the Oklahoma City’s public schools. John noted her children were among the first whites to attend an integrated school there. The Gunns chose to live in a predominantly black neighborhood. She fought for the rights of native Americans in the state, for the welfare of the blind, for the Equal Rights Amendment. She belonged to the NAACP.

She was a prolific writer of letters to the editor and guest opinion columns. Her children spread Xeroxed samples of her writings out on the coffee table before us.

“Phyllis Schlafly’s mind twisted about World War” was the headline on one long letter written in 1983. “As a woman whose brother and several friends were maimed and murdered in World War II,” Doris began, “it is impossible for me to understand Phyllis Schlafly’s belief that war is jolly good for men but bad for women and children.”

A 1986 opinion piece in the liberal Oklahoma Observer bore the headline: “Righting America’s Wrongs” and began: “I have decided not to lie down and die of despair at the disgraceful behavior of my country. I am a U.S. citizen as Ronald Reagan and his space cowboys are citizens.”

The thought of Doris ever lying down in despair is not possible. Three days before she died, she directed her children to go to the post office to mail the actor/activist Ed Asner a letter opposing nuclear power. Because they didn’t or couldn’t always do all she told them to do, she insisted they return with a certification that the letter had been posted.

When she wasn’t writing for the media, she was hounding them to do their job. She was known to command networks in New York to come out to Oklahoma to cover one story or another.

In 1996 she wrote in one of her letters to the editor: “We are all one and can do a part in restoring the commons: common good, common decency, common sense, common courtesy, and common bonds to all life.”

On the table in front of us was a petition she had been circulating in the month before she died. It called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Also on the table were scores of greeting cards she had bought over the years but never sent. They urged peace, harmony and citizen involvement.

Before we left, we passed around the petition and signed it. I chose seven cards from the pile. Yesterday I sent the cards and copies of the petitions with our signatures on them to the seven members of the Oregon Congressional Delegation.

I included a brief explanatory note. It read:

The friends and family of Doris Gunn, who died on Tuesday, Oct 30, have signed the enclosed petition in memory and honor of her passion for social justice and peace. Doris had prepared this petition and bought the card we also enclose. Doris’s passion was to make the world a safe and just place for her children and grandchildren — for all children and grandchildren, forever. We ask that you make her cause yours by supporting HR-2647, the Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act. For the Doris Gunn petitioners,

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Inequity in Oregon

When I think of America's grotesque income inequity, I think of hedge fund managers or shamelessly rich corporate CEOs back East, whose moral bankruptcy is reflected in their compensation's being 400 to 500 times what their average worker makes.

Here in Oregon no such thing could happen, right?

Don’t count on it.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy has looked into what has happened here over the last few years.

The recently released results aren’t pretty.

For an elite group of Oregonians, the New Gilded Age has arrived. For nearly everyone else, this is a tarnished era of stagnation or worse.

For more, take a look here.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

A hike into autumn

Late this afternoon I took one of those walks from our porch that soon have me deep in the quasi-wilderness up the hillside. The network of roads and paths drew me farther and farther from home so that I ended up being gone well into dusk and deep shadow.

For some of the walk my iPod provided a sound track. Bossa Nova’s syncopated lilt carried me along at first. Then I shut it off and listened to the sylvan stillness and my footfall,

Finally, after an hour of trail trudging, traffic on Terwilliger Parkway intruded.

I scrolled to Gene Harris’ lilting “Autumn in New York” as I walked along the parkway, thinking of my own first autumn in New York so long ago, in the fall of ’64.

I was in Peace Corps training at Teachers College, learning Swahili. We lodged at the old Paris Hotel on Amsterdam Avenue, 30 blocks from the Columbia University Campus. Occasionally I’d forsake the rumbling underground A-Train to treat myself to an ambling, leaf-shuffling stroll through Riverside Park.

Harris’ piano (the album is "Blue Gene," if you are interested) brought back memories of those long ago walks on the park's broad arcade. The moms looking over their toddlers at play in the sandboxes. The dog walkers. Roller skaters. The listless Hudson River. Leaves pin-wheeling down.

Autumn in New York.

Autumn on my walk today was patterns and signs. The rhythm of lingering leaves, notes on nature’s staff. A November melody on the black, meandering branches. Slanting sunlight filtered and flickering through yellow and orange.

The jarring 1-800-GOT-JUNK sign along the well-used Fairmount “linear park.” (Here’s a company with no shame.) A walk down Trail 1 on the darkening eastern slope. A worry about invasive ivy and then relief at happening on downed, trail-side piles of vines that volunteers had hacked and pulled from the forest.

A sign inviting hikers to pitch in on the first Saturday of the month. I made a mental note to help.

Street lamps now lit the the parkway and cars cruising its curves. How far I’d been lured by this beguiling autumn evening. I turned for home, back up the darkening hill. The day melted into darkness and night.

We'll soon be left with bones of trees invisibly preparing for rebirth. In that damp cold of December and January, we must find solace and warmth in the promise of spring.

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