Quantum Meruit

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Month: September, 2013

Tying Obamacare to the Train Tracks

Will Saletan at Slate discusses why the Republican threat to shut down the government over Obamacare is outrageous:

They’re planting the assumption that the reasonable, moderate, even-handed thing to do is to “negotiate” a “compromise” between the Democratic and Republican positions on the Affordable Care Act. What they’re hiding is the absurdity of the Republican position: that a law passed by both houses of Congress, fully debated in a subsequent presidential election, and unsuccessfully challenged in more than 40 legislative votes by the losing side should be subject to repeal, defunding or delay because a single party, narrowly controlling a single chamber of Congress, otherwise refuses to fund the rest of the government.

This is exactly right. When Rand Paul asks, “Why don’t we actually bring it to Congress and try to figure out how to meet somewhere in the middle?” he’s intentionally ignoring something important. “We”—meaning Congress—have already “brought [Obamacare] to Congress” in the form of a vote that passed the legislation. Radical Republicans like Paul and Ted Cruz want a do-over on Obamacare simply because they have more leverage now than they did in 2010. But it’s beyond disingenuous to pretend that this is the first time we’re having a necessary conversation about Obamacare. We had that discussion. They had their chance. Now it’s over. They lost.


Adopting Littermate Puppies: Don’t Do It

With cats, the more the merrier: littermate kittens entertain each other and wear each other out so a single cat isn’t clawing at your furniture all the time. Littermate cats are fine because cats are generally solitary animals and don’t bond with humans that much. Dogs are different. They’re pack animals, so they bond with each other. They’ve also been bred for 10,000 years to bond with humans.

Littermate syndrome breaks all of that. When you adopt two puppies from the same litter—or even two puppies from different litters that have been brought up together and are of the same age—they bond to each other more than they bond to their humans. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. Because they’re so bonded to each other, littermates experience tremendous anxiety when they’re separated.

So why not just keep them together? If they don’t like it, then why separate them?

First, one of the puppies will become dominant and the other submissive. This means that the submissive dog will generally be dependent on the dominant one and won’t have a chance to develop into his own doggy-person. The dominant dog, as well, will get an over-inflated sense of himself. He’s a badass compared to his submissive littermate, but once he gets out into the world, he’ll find that he’s not such hot stuff. Rather than learn how to socialize with other dogs, he’ll become frightened and wait for the opportunity to get back to his submissive buddy.

Second, the bond between the two littermates will be stronger than their respective bonds to their human and to other dogs. At their worst, littermates will ignore commands from humans and will spend all their time at the dog park with each other instead of with other dogs.

Sorry, that’s not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario happens a few years after you get them. The dogs become increasingly aggressive and fight each other, leading to actual injury, especially if they’re both male. They’ll also increasingly ignore their humans and run amok. Because why would they pay attention to humans when they’ve got each other?

The first rule of littermates is that you do not get them. The second rule of littermates is … well, you know. But if you have them already, the remedy for assuaging littermate syndrome is to separate them basically all the time. Separate walks, separate training, separate sleeping (and separate crates if you’re crate-training), separate feeding. You’re essentially working twice as hard to undo the reason why you got littermates in the first place; i.e., to keep them together. With littermates, you’re actively working to keep them apart.

And that’s dumb. It’s like the story of that famous wrestler who was drowning but refused to take off his heavy gold accoutrements as he flailed in the water. He died.

Once a dog is matured—that is, after a year or so—you can get another dog because the first one has bonded to its humans and has an identity all its own. There’s no problem with having multiple dogs, provided they’re in different stages of development.

The seed of this issue comes from experience. My friends were coaxed into getting littermates by a foster boarder. In retrospect, someone with dog experience should have known better, meaning this boarder was either negligent in not knowing about littermate syndrome; or, if he did know, really irresponsible in pushing littermates on them.

My friends had no idea what littermate syndrome was. For the first week and a half, they crated the dogs together (bad idea), let them hang out together all the time (bad idea), sleep together (bad idea), and walked them at the same time (bad idea). They noticed a lot of play-fighting, but chalked it up to “that’s what puppies do.” The fighting seemed more aggressive than the play-fighting at the dog park, but then they thought, “Well, dogs in a pack play differently with each other than they do unfamiliar dogs.”

One of the dogs injured himself (unrelated to fighting; he basically banged his arm into the wall while running really fast). Because the two of them fought so much, the injured dog had to be crated so that he didn’t further damage the arm. This is when we realized there was a problem: he howled and howled when he was put into a crate by himself. It wasn’t the crate; they had been in a crate before and did just fine, but they were together. It was only when one of them was separated from the other that the howling started.

They mentioned this problem casually to a neighbor who also just got a puppy. The neighbor mentioned that he and his girlfriend had thought about getting littermates, but the Humane Society they got the puppy from refused to give them littermates and then explained littermate syndrome to them. That’s where my friends first heard about it.

If puppies seem excessively bonded to each other, it might seem cruel not to take both of them, but the excessive bonding actually lets you know that something is wrong. In the future, it’s not like the dogs will be able to be together all the time. There will be times when the dogs will be separated: if one has to go to the vet, for example. This separation results in terrible anxiety that does the dog no good. They also need to be trained separately so that they each know how to respond to commands and also won’t be distracted by each other. And finally, problems will arise in the future that you can’t predict. Many of the articles we read about littermate syndrome ended with, “And I had to give one of them up.”

It’s possible to raise littermates, but it’s difficult and time-consuming. And the best option for everyone—dogs and humans alike—is just not to do it in the first place.

Sources of Actual Information


On ‘RoboCop’ and Telling a Story Well

Needless to say, spoiler alert.

The first RoboCop—as violent a movie as ever was made by Paul Verhoeven (or anyone else, for that matter)—was a great movie. It was great because it didn’t hold your hand and trusted that you could follow along without being told what was going on. In other words, you’re a grown-up, so here’s a grown-up story told in a grown-up way. Some of the best literature out there is “the best” because it invites your interpretation (for example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) instead of telling you what’s going on.

In the new trailer for the RoboCop remake starring Joel Kinnaman, the scientist character (Gary Oldman) warns of the new cybernetic cop, “The human element will always be present.” This is the kind of hand-holding that makes movies bad. That little bit of dialogue is supposed to clue you into what’s to come; i.e., the new RoboCop machine will have a 21st-century crisis as what’s left of his humanity tries to assert itself over his computer programming. But we didn’t need to be warned.

In the original RoboCop, we sat back and watched the movie unravel. Here is how Verhoeven, with a great script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, showed us a story instead of telling us a story.

We watched as RoboCop was born of a multinational corporation’s limitless greed as it attempts to build a law enforcement robot that it can sell to both the police and the military and also find a profit center in “spare parts for the next twenty-five years.” We watched as Alex Murphy was brutally killed. Yes, he technically died (as becomes clear when Johnson points out, while The Suits are debating whether to keep a perfectly functioning human arm, “He’s legally dead. We can pretty much do what we want.” The response from Miguel Ferrer: “Lose the arm”). In the remake, Murphy is still alive, but basically wheelchair-bound. That’s not as compelling (especially for the critics out there who want to make a Frankenstein comparison).

Then we watched as RoboCop’s latent humanity slowly came to the surface. First when his old partner, Nancy Allen, confronts him in a hallway and proclaims, “Murphy, it’s you!” Then, he drives back to his old house, only to find it abandoned and up for sale. Finally, he confronts the people who killed him. And they manage to recognize him, too. (“You’re dead! We killed you!” yells the bristly doctor from ER after RoboCop delivers one of his signature phrases: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”)

The story really comes to life through the directorial choices. In spite of Showgirls, Verhoeven knows exactly what he’s doing. The character RoboCop is revealed slowly: first, all we see are the heads-up display POV shots as he’s being built. There’s a vague reflection of RoboCop in a mirrored surface during this part. Then, when he’s finished, he’s brought into the police station, but can be seen only behind frosted glass. Finally, we get the full reveal when he’s led into the cage where he rests and ingests the “rudimentary paste” that keeps his organic parts alive (“Tastes like baby food!” Johnson gleefully exclaims).

Verhoeven isn’t done yet. RoboCop is deconstructed back into a person as quickly as he was constructed into a robot. When he’s betrayed by his maker—OCP and the nefarious Dick Jones (in shoes that no one but Ronny Cox could ever fill)—he’s attacked by his own police force. His visor is broken and we see a human eye inside the helmet. What? There’s more than just the chin? His humanity is slowly returning, revealed bit by bit just as his robot-ness was revealed bit by bit. And the audience is intrigued. Just how much “person” is there in that outfit?


Finally, before the last confrontation between the dad from That ‘70s Show, the dad from Twin Peaks, and the bristly doctor who gets crushed by a helicopter on ER (which, by the way, is a way better fate there than the one he suffers at the end of this movie), RoboCop takes off his helmet. He puts the drill in one side of his head, then the other. The bolts holding his helmet on come out. He tells Nancy Allen—his voice now devoid of the robotic reverberation it had when he first started stopping crime—“You may not like what you’re going to see.” It’s a moment of tension not unlike the tension the parents faced in W.W. Jacobs’ short story The Monkey’s Paw: Oh, god, what grotesquerie lies behind the door? Do I need to look away?

And then—boom!—cut to a close-up of what’s left of Alex Murphy’s humanity. He’s got a human face, for sure. But it’s encased in a robot’s head. He wears a sad expression, or maybe it’s just a blank expression. Do RoboCops have feelings? He refers to Alex Murphy in the third person and the past tense (“Murphy had a wife, a son, what happened to them?”), as though that identity belongs to a dead person.


But the pièce de résistance comes at the very, very end. RoboCop has just killed Dick Jones, the evil corporate executive who had been in cahoots with the criminals all along. He’s saved the president of the company, The Old Man, from being killed by Jones. The Old Man fixes his tie and says, as though a cyborg foils a hostage attempt every day in this building, “Nice shooting, son. What’s your name?” RoboCop does a quarter turn back to the camera and says, “Murphy.”


Roll credits.

That’s how you tell the story of a human who becomes a robot and slowly regains his humanity. The original RoboCop is excellent precisely because it’s not heavy-handed. No one is out there doing plot explication to let the audience know “This is about regaining lost humanity in an age of technology! This is about the military-industrial complex! This is a metaphor for corporations taking our humanity away!” This film is a representation of the old writer’s adage show me, don’t tell me.

This lack of finesse is what disturbs me about the new RoboCop. Admittedly, it is only 2 1/2 minutes, but throughout the trailer, I get a sense that we’re being told what’s happening instead of being shown what’s happening. And the expert hands that took us on Murphy’s journey from human to robot and back to human is absent; Joel Kinnaman looks like a normal guy wearing motorcycle gear. The original RoboCop was designed to look like a robot, not like a person. That was intentional. He’s not The Six Million Dollar Man; he’s basically a metal shell with a small amount of human inside. And that human, by the way, is jealously guarded until the final act, when the shock of seeing Peter Weller’s face again—albeit encased in that metal shell—puts the audience on notice that he’s no longer RoboCop, but “Murphy.”

Or maybe I’m an old man ranting about hating new things. If this new RoboCop is good, I will be pleased. If it’s not, then I will be sad.