Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Telehealth can aid rural communities, cut costs

*First appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I had an interesting chat the other day with my friend and colleague who manages the state’s Broadband Connect Coalition, a group whose function includes mapping out ways in which increased broadband can improve the education, government, workforce, and healthcare sectors.

The leaders of the broadband group made a recommendation in 2011 that Mississippi ought to establish a trade association focused solely on health information technology, and the state obliged, albeit slowly. In 2014, the Mississippi Telehealth Association was formally established to develop telehealth policies and programs designed to improve healthcare outcomes.

When I think of telehealth, I envision chatting with a doctor via Skype. Turns out, telehealth encompasses much, much more. The federal government defines telehealth as the “use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”

In our state, the University of Mississippi Medical Center is a leader on telehealth issues. According to UMMC, residents in more than half of Mississippi’s counties must drive 40 minutes (or more) to receive specialty healthcare. This poses a serious challenge to ensuring our residents receive quality healthcare in a timely fashion.

Insert telehealth technologies. They can help bridge the gap for the residents who live in these rural areas (which is funny to say, since we’re a predominantly rural state). For example, UMMC has used online video technology to provide remote medical care, including services such as wellness care and disaster response, to more than 500,000 Mississippians since 2003. Their services include over 30 different medical specialties, such as cardiology, dermatology, emergency medicine, and stroke, and extend to more than 100 clinical sites.

UMMC telehealth services are available in all but six Mississippi counties. According to the Medical Center, Jones County-based telehealth services are provided by South Central Regional Medical Center.

Earlier this year, a first-of-its-kind telehealth partnership was announced by Gov. Phil Bryant. The Diabetes Telehealth Network, a public-private initiative including UMMC, North Sunflower Medical Center, GE Healthcare, Intel-GE Care Innovations, and C-Spire, is providing remote care management to diabetes patients in the Miss. Delta with an eye toward improving outcomes and reducing costs.

In 2010, 12.1 percent of adults in this area reported a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, and 293 died from complications related to the disease. Estimates from the American Diabetes Association put a $2.74 billion price tag on expenses related to diabetes management.

Participants in the Diabetes Telehealth Network will input daily information, such as glucose and blood pressure, onto specialized tablets provided to them through the initiative. This information provides clinicians a “just-in-time” snapshot of patients’ health status, allowing them to easily adjust medical care, schedule phone calls, or set up video chats with patients as needed.

While the program is ongoing and final results are not yet available, this initiative shows great promise in improving access to quality healthcare, particularly in underserved areas like the Mississippi Delta.

Information Week expects the telehealth industry to grow sixfold by 2017, as remote patient monitoring ramps up across the nation. As telehealth increasingly becomes a part of our medical infrastructure, Mississippi must be prepared to meet challenges posed by this new delivery system. Already we know these challenges include licensure issues, such as reciprocity of state licenses, as well as universal standards of practice.

With the right support, these obstacles are surmountable. Political leaders in Mississippi have thrown their weight behind telehealth as a legitimate solution to improving healthcare. Congressman Gregg Harper has been a leader, authoring the Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker have sponsored similar legislation in 2014.

Closer to home, the Miss. Legislature has also taken up the telehealth mantle. A bill passed in the last session requires health insurance providers to cover “store-and-forward” and remote patient monitoring at the same rate as in-person consultations. (Store-and-forward refers to platforms that allow providers to receive consultations from remote physicians on patient tests and scans.)

A study released this week and published in Telemedicine and e-Health shows that over a 14-year period, the use of telemedicine to manage chronic diseases yielded “clear benefits including fewer and shorter hospital stays, fewer emergency room visits, less severe illness, and even fewer deaths.”

With the ability to improve outcomes faster and cheaper, it’s no wonder telehealth is getting the attention of healthcare experts, industry publications, and policymakers.

Provided the technology continues to work as expected and keeps a sharp focus on patient care, telehealth – and all that it encompasses – is good news for Mississippians.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My thoughts on corporal punishment

*First appeared in the Sept. 17 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Adrian Peterson had a bad week. He’s been indicted on charges of child abuse related to whipping his son to the point of bleeding. Peterson, who plays professional football for the Minnesota Vikings, is fighting the charges. He’s told several news outlets that he was disciplined as a child in the same way and “never intended or thought [injury] would happen…I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser.”

Is corporal punishment child abuse? It depends on your perspective – and, in Peterson’s case, both the jury and injury.

According to news reports, parents are allowed in every state to use corporal punishment as a means of discipline, so long as the force is “reasonable.” Mississippi law stipulates that reasonable corporal punishment will not cause serious bodily harm, such as bone fracturing, permanent disfigurement or scarring, internal bleeding or trauma to any organ, brain damage, and impairment of any bodily function.

Roughly 19 states allow corporal punishment within public schools. In Mississippi, teachers and other district personnel may reasonably use “physical force as a means to maintain discipline and enforce school rules for self-protection or for the protection of other students from disruptive students.” It’s up to school districts to decide whether or not to employ this type of punishment.

Back to Peterson. His case will be handled in both a court of law and of public opinion, and that’s the genesis of this column. I don’t care to opine on his specific case (particularly as I don’t know all the details), but I’ve been amazed by the immediate rush to judgment on both sides of the paddle.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on corporal punishment.

The Staples Household believes strongly in corporal punishment. As a child, I was often on the receiving end of this type of discipline. Switches were my mother’s specialty, and she’d even “allow” me to pick out my own. My father offered no such choice. His trusty belt sufficed.

I was whipped so many times that I don’t remember specifics. What I do remember is that the punishment system was rigged in my brother’s favor, as he never got as many whippings as I did. (Perhaps the bigger question, then, is not whether corporal punishment is child abuse, but whether it is evenly distributed among siblings. I’ll volunteer for that case study.)

All joking aside, corporal punishment in my family didn’t do irreparable harm to my brother or me. It didn’t make us violent madmen. It served its purpose quite well: We broke the rules, and we paid the painful price. Did it completely stop us from disobeying? No, but we defied the laws of Papa Sam with a more acute sense of the risks involved.

Because of my upbringing, I don’t raise eyebrows when I hear a child has been whipped for disobedience. That’s just a normal part of childhood, based on the sum of my experiences.

But I don’t agree with those who contend all forms of physical force used on children are “reasonable.” Obviously, if you break a bone or disfigure a face, you’ve gone too far. There are some limits, and parents should be held accountable when they exceed those boundaries.

On the other hand, I don’t agree with the over-reactive group which believes all forms of corporal punishment are abusive. I don’t believe that whipping children (in a reasonable way) is cause for a lifetime of therapy or requires an immediate reporting to childcare services.

Extremists on both sides irritate me. I’m not a parent, and I’m not advocating for either child-rearing strategy. It’s up to each family to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Sure, I’ve got my biases. I grew up thinking most of the kids who didn’t get spanked were brats, and most of the parents who didn’t spank their kids were pushovers. I also got exposed to irony at a much earlier age than the non-spanked kids who never heard their parents claim, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

However the Peterson case pans out, I hope we’ll remember that Adrian Peterson’s parenting strategy is not a bellwether for corporal punishment in America.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Paying my last respect to Terry Brown

*First appeared in the Sept. 10, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

My friend Sen. Terry Brown passed away last week after a brief but intense battle with lung cancer. Doubtful many people in the Jones County area know Sen. Brown, but his life – and legislative legacy – is one worth knowing. I hope to pay him one last respect by sharing a few memories.

It’s hard for me to imagine a legislative session without Sen. Brown – Terry, as he was known. His bass voice booming through the hallways, Terry wasn’t one for quiet entrances. As a wide-eyed teenager, I didn’t know what to think about him when we first met several years ago. Is this guy crazy? Does he always yell? Can he really help steer legislation through committee?

The answer, I soon learned, was yes. He was in fact a little crazy (and proud of it, you see); he always shouted (Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says Terry never had an “inside voice”); and his ability to garner support for legislation was virtually unmatched.

He was one-of-a-kind in every sense of the phrase.

Terry represented Lowndes County in the Legislature, serving most recently as the Miss. Senate’s unanimous choice for President Pro Tempore, which is a Latin term that basically means he was second in command. Prior to the Senate, Terry served in the Miss. House from 1988 to 2000.

I got to work with Terry when he was chairman of the old Fees, Salaries, and Administration Committee (it’s been reconstituted as the Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency Committee). Terry’s committee oversaw bills that would remove agencies from the regulations of the State Personnel Board, which Gov. Barbour thought – and Terry agreed – would help streamline government.

Terry would make sure this bill passed his committee and the full Senate floor, only to watch it die in the then-Democrat majority House of Representatives – year after year after year. No matter, though, because he thought it was the right thing to do. Let’s shove it in their face, he would say. Let’s make them answer questions as to why they don’t want to save taxpayer dollars.

Terry could be abrasive, that’s for sure. But his brusque nature was rather endearing once you got to know him. On more than one occasion did I hear someone exclaim: That senator just cussed me! On more than one occasion did I hear the response: Who, that giant fellow over there? Yeah, that’s Terry. I think it means he likes you.

Terry liked to give people nicknames. For coastal residents, the nickname was simply “fish-eaters.” The nickname caught on, and now several coastal residents (particularly legislators) refer to themselves as “fish-eaters.”

Terry referred to me as “nerd.” Everything I did was prefaced by “nerd”: Nerd reading, nerd walking, etc. Everything I used was a nerd utensil: Nerd pencil, nerd pen, and, my personal favorite, nerd canister (this was in reference to a water bottle I used).

He called the shots just as he saw them, and he was usually right.

Politics were important to Terry, and he was as conservative as they come. Yet his jovial nature and unique sense of humor endeared him to his legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His funeral was attended by as many Democrats as Republicans – one last testament to the bipartisan nature of his engaging personality.

Gov. Barbour told the Clarion Ledger that he knew Terry since the Fordice administration, that he was one of his most faithful supporters, and that Terry supported him even in times “when maybe his own inclination was not the same as mine.”

Terry was one of the most loyal people I knew. He was loyal to Gov. Barbour, loyal to Lt. Gov. Reeves, loyal to friends, and most of all, loyal to his constituents back home. He’s a big reason why Columbus has had so much economic development success in recent years, including major employers like PACCAR, Airbus, and Severstal.

One of my favorite stories about Terry was told during his funeral. Lt. Gov. Reeves recalled that Terry helped him on the campaign trail several years ago. One day they were speaking at a Republican women’s club, and Terry introduce the candidate as follows:

“Now listen here. They made a mistake in letting you women vote, but as long as you’re going to vote, I hope you’ll pick my man Tate Reeves for Treasurer.”

It reminds me of what Gov. Barbour said: Terry could be “so impolitic, but was always fun and funny. And if he thought of something and it was politically incorrect, he didn’t let that stop him from expressing it.”

Terry was a skilled legislator who was respected by his peers in both legislative chambers. He made friends easily, was liked by all, and was an institution unto himself.

Terry’s legislative seat will be filled and his position in the Senate will be taken. But Terry Brown – the man, the legislative legend, the legacy – will never be replaced.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A few positives in a sea of negativity

*First appeared in the Laurel Chronicle newspaper on September 3, 2014

It’s hard to watch the news without observing a local tragedy, an international crisis or, as of late, both. The constant barrage of negativity does a number to my psyche and, I imagine, yours. The world’s on fire, they say, and we’re starting to believe them.

More often than not, the steady stream of bad news is a byproduct of the phenomenon of 24-hours news coverage. Frantic car chase in a city 500 miles from you? Stay tuned; we have details on the suspect’s sweater vest. Infectious virus located on an isolated island? Stay tuned; we’ll give you thirteen ways your neighbor may be infected.

I don’t often watch the talking heads, but only because I doubt I’ll hear news that isn’t designed to push a certain agenda. (If left unchecked, my cynicism gets the best of me.)

But cynics aren’t part of the solution to any problems. The endless news cycles may drown us in information, but at least we’re (probably) more informed at the end of the reports. An informed citizenry is a powerful one, so in some ways keeping up with the goings-on of local, national, and international events is a civic responsibility.

That being said, today I have no desire to impart with you any snotty political jokes, no tales of tragedy, no problem to analyze. I’ll simply remind you about a few positive things happening in the Magnolia State. This is what you might call a classic “feel good” piece.

Last week, it was reported that Mississippi women fared pretty doggone well in a new study on women’s equality. WalletHub found that 25 percent more women hold a bachelor’s degree, making us the state with the highest education gap tilted toward women. In our state, women tend to live, on average, about 20 percent longer than men, which is another piece of good news (for half of us, anyway).

Mississippi’s ranking on the “education and health” component was top of the nation. That’s great news, ladies.

A Gallup poll measuring well-being recently found that Mississippi was among the top eleven states that had made the steadiest improvement in this area since 2010, when the recession officially ended. Gallup measured things like emotional health, work environment, and life evaluation. In other words, we’re happier.

The Tax Foundation observed in a recent study that the real value of $100 in Mississippi, where we enjoy lower cost-of-living than elsewhere, is about $115. This means we can buy more stuff with a Benjamin than those unfortunate dwellers of other states. Wonder if those Labor Day sales are still ongoing?

Good news isn’t just at the statewide level; in fact, Jones County had its own flavor of a positive (and historic) event last week. The South Jones Braves football team saw its female field goal kicker, Mary Kate Smith, perform flawlessly in her first game with the team. Even this former Northeast Jones Tiger thinks that’s pretty cool.

Speaking of tigers, I’m reminded of the baby boom going on at the Jackson Zoo. In 2014 alone, the zoo has welcomed a new Sumatran tiger cub, a baby springbok (similar to a gazelle); a beaver kit; red wolf cubs; red river hog piglets; and even a baby orangutan.

There’s nothing more feel good than the birth of baby animals, so I had to throw that in there, guys. Come on. No laughing.

Is this column a bit silly? For sure. But perhaps it will give you something positive to think on next time you watch a missile soar across the cable television.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Government gets in a tangle

*First appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Think the Republican Party mantra of “smaller government” is empty rhetoric? I’ll bet you’ll reconsider that skepticism after watching “Locked Out: A Mississippi Success Story,” the twenty-six minute documentary on hair braiding regulations in Mississippi.

You read that right. “Hair braiding.” Granted, this isn’t the first profession that comes to mind when conservatives bemoan the onerous nature of government overreach. Yet its unique story best exemplifies the impact a government regulation can wreak on a business, an entrepreneurial spirit, a community, and a culture.

More than ten years ago, Melony Armstrong of Tupelo decided she wanted to earn an honest living by hair braiding, a skill she’d learn from an expert in Atlanta. According to her husband, Pastor Kevin Armstrong, Melony had this epiphany after having her own hair braided. “I thought to myself, her hair is that tight she must have lost her mind,” Pastor Armstrong recalled in the documentary.

For about six months, Melony practiced her profession on mannequins inside the couple’s home (much to the annoyance of her husband). When she felt confident enough to braid hair professionally, Melony took the next step by seeking a license through the Mississippi Board of Cosmetology.

And that’s where the story gets interesting. The Board refused to license Melony, telling her that she needed to attend a board-approved school for at least 18 months (which cost about $10,000, by the way) before she could legally open her business.

“The law discouraged me,” Melony remembered, particularly in a state like Mississippi where, at that time, you could become a tattoo artist, firefighter, police officer, and a hunting instructor “in less time than it would have taken…to get a cosmetology license.”

Aghast at this cost-prohibitive requirement, Melony sought other options. Ultimately, Melony’s passion took her from a salon in Tupelo to the Mississippi State Capitol, where she was able to garner legislative support to reform the restrictive laws.

According to the documentary, the reforms worked: Immediately after the law went into effect, more than 300 people received their licenses to professionally braid hair, and over 45 salons opened across the state. In 2005, Melony Armstrong opened “Naturally Speaking,” the first licensed salon of its kind, at a licensing cost of about $25 dollars.

The impact of the law change on Mississippians isn’t rhetoric; it’s real. The law “opened up a new hope for me that maybe someday I can [open a salon],” said one woman interviewed. Another woman observed the law change gave her “a reason to want to be a business owner…it was not a dream anymore. I could actually step out and do it.”

Melony’s story is compelling because it’s easily understood. She had a dream that was essentially unachievable because of senseless government regulations. Because of her efforts, the laws were reformed in favor of business. Notably, deregulating the industry had broad-based support. Even Democrats agreed.

Democrat Representative Steve Holland is featured in the documentary, explaining that he “just didn’t sense where the government should intrude…in something as culturally-based” as hair braiding. Democrat Senator Hillman Frazier said he wanted to make sure hair braiders had a “free market system and that people would be able to make their trade based on the economy.”

Unfortunately, Melony’s success is the exception, not the rule. Hers is a local perspective on a national problem. As a June Forbes article succinctly notes, “wrestling down federal spending and taxation won’t suffice anymore. Regulations are equally as punitive.”

The column references a Competitive Enterprise Institute study which calculated the cost of federal regulations to be about $1.86 trillion annually – more than half the size of the President’s recent $3.9 trillion budget proposal. If U.S. federal regs were a country, it’d be the tenth largest (between Italy and India). Localizing these numbers means the typical family pays about $15,000 per year on regulations, or nearly one-quarter of household income.

That’s outrageous.

Onerous government regulations harm business. They choke innovation and break entrepreneurial spirits. When Republicans champion fewer government regulations, Democrats shriek about Big Business and Crony Capitalism. What they don’t mention is the local impact of burdensome regulations – like requiring 18 months of classes and $10,000 in costs before obtaining a cosmetology license.

No one thinks that’s a good idea – not even Democrats.

BONUS - Here's the documentary referenced in the column.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mississippi migration (and we’re not talking butterflies)

*First appeared in the Aug. 20 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

As a region, the South is enjoying faster growth than any other, and politicos are taking note. The increased population growth means more electoral prowess, and whichever party controls this region will have a significant political advantage.

Although the South is typically seen as a safe-haven for Republicans, population growth among these states means more demographic diversity. With more people comes more viewpoints, and that (probably) means the southern color palette will feature various shades of purple. That alone will be interesting to watch.

Smart strategists pay attention to these migration patterns, and politicos don’t have a monopoly on this data market. The relocating of people from one state to another is big business – and big bucks – in the economic development realm.

Mississippi policymakers, here’s some information worth a noodle.

A century ago, 86 percent of Mississippians were born in Mississippi, according to information compiled by The New York Times. In 2012, less than three-fourths – or 72 percent – of residents were born in-state.

“About 60 percent of Mississippi’s domestic population growth since 1980 has been driven by migration from other states, and the share of state residents born in the state has never been lower,” according to The Times.

I’ll rephrase: Never in our state’s history have we seen a larger share of residents who were born outside our borders.

Depending on your perspective, this can be something of a wake-up call. It’s positive that Mississippi’s slow-as-molasses native population growth has been offset, at least to a certain extent, by domestic migration. That’s mighty nice of you folks who have relocated to the Hospitality State.

That being a Mississippian may become less about birthplace and more about residency can be another positive for our little slice of southern heaven. As the Hospitality State, we’ve got a duty – nay, a cultural obligation! – to welcome others into our ranks. We must be practical on issues like immigration, recognizing the economic, cultural, and social impact of those who help sustain the rural nature of Mississippi’s economy. We must likewise recognize that our state economy could use an infusion of top-tier talent – such as college students who wish to study in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - regardless of where they were born.

Yet even these beliefs won’t be enough to sustain future growth. Migration, whether foreign or domestic, isn’t the sole economic savior we sometimes hear about on television. In fact, we don’t even need to look outside our state to spur an economic revival. But it’ll require that Mississippi do a better job retaining homegrown talent.

For years, we’ve heard about “brain drain,” but only in recent years have I begun to appreciate what this means for the future of our state. Mississippi is a net exporter of college graduates, which means our state’s best and brightest minds tend to leave – or at least, don’t enter the workforce – over time.

The Mississippi Brain Drain Commission characterizes this phenomenon as having a “detrimental effect on Mississippi’s economic development and quality of life,” citing the fact that college grads tend to have children who also graduate college; are less likely to use public sector services; and generate more tax revenues over a more sustained period of time.

In other words, these are the people we should be encouraging, pleading, begging (choose your word) to stay in Mississippi. These are the folks who can contribute to an economic renaissance, yet too many are leaving our borders for surrounding states. The grass is greener, they say.

The political rub, as I see it, is this: The state has made an investment in the education of these Mississippians, and, like a business, we ought to maximize our return-on-investment (ROI). The question is: How do we do that?

Honestly, I’m not sure. My experience with college-age kids is they aren’t enamored by lofty public sector-driven initiatives, nor do they seem to care what some wonk in Jackson thinks about their lifetime goals. “Working and raising a family in Mississippi” is an antiquated notion when you’re 18 and looking to explore the world.

We’ve got to reach them on their own turf, and that starts with a cultural shift in our own thinking. Mississippi isn’t the place it was 50 years ago, and we’re slowly beginning to take pride in ourselves. We are now getting second looks from companies looking for low taxes and skilled workers. We’re getting serious about education reforms, which means a more desirable environment in which to raise a family.

Those of us who have chosen to live and work here have a responsibility to seek out younger minds and encourage them to do the same. It’s like any political campaign in that someone you know and trust is more likely to sway your opinion than someone you see on television.

So let’s focus on our college graduates and send a unified message that Mississippi is a great place to return after they’ve explored the world. And heck, maybe we’ll eventually have to modify that bumper sticker I see everywhere: “American by birth. Mississippian by choice.”

Your worldview in 140 characters or less

*First appeared in the Aug. 13 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

You’re looking for news, any news. Who wrecked their car while texting and driving? What country just banned Justin Bieber from performing? What’s the latest craze in the cat video world? What elected leader had a major gaffe on live television?

If you’re like me, you’re part of the estimated 19 percent of online adults who find the answers to all these questions – and much, much more – on the social media site known as Twitter.

Twitter 101 consists of five parts: First, your name on the network is called a “handle” and is always preceded by the “at” sign. For instance, President Obama’s twitter handle is @BarackObama. Second, the people who subscribe to your account on Twitter are called your “followers.” In this case, @BarackObama has 44.9 million followers.

Third, the messages you send to your followers are called “tweets.” (Related: Your messages can be “retweeted,” which is sort of like forwarding an email you received without changing any text.) Fourth, and most importantly, your tweets cannot be longer than 140 characters. This can be challenging for the verbose among us. In literary terms, Twitter’s a playground for Hemingway but a curse for Faulkner.

The fifth and final part of this Twitter lesson is the hashtag, which I previously called the number sign. Typically, hashtags are used to note the subject matter of the tweet. Here’s what it looks like: “I’m explaining social media. #TwitterLesson”

Twitter serves as sort of a clearinghouse of information: You can get a lot of real-time information in not a lot of words and decide instantly which stories to further investigate. It’s a system that feeds my generational need for instant gratification and one that I suspect will have devastating impacts on the future. Alas.

Twitter is not only useful for news, but it’s also highly entertaining. Politicos, journalists, elected officials, and others use it to share their platforms, report on legislation, “live-tweet” (tweet about something in real-time) events, and, on occasion, argue amongst themselves.

If you’re not on Twitter, here’s a snapshot of what you’re missing.

Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) tweeted a picture of his visit to the set of The Hollars, the Miss.-based movie directed by John Krasinski of The Office fame.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (@TateReeves) had a little fun with his account during the Neshoba County Fair by using the hashtag “#TaterTots” in reference to his supporters.

In late March, House Speaker Philip Gunn (@PhilipGunnMS) showed Jones County a little love by tweeting a picture with a basketball signed by the Jones County Junior College men’s basketball team, which won the national championship. (#GoBobcats)

On the other side of the aisle, Democrat Public Service Commissioner and rumored statewide candidate Brandon Presley (@BrandonPresley) invited his followers to a community center gathering to hear him sing country music. He’s really got this populism thing down to a science.

Jones County native and head of the Mississippi Democratic Party Rickey Cole (@RickeyCole) tweeted his observation that “the nasty little habit of petulance masquerading as ambition sooner or later leads to irrelevance.” Twitter’s as fine a place as any to be mysterious and philosophical, I should add.

Journalists thrive on Twitter, too. Sam Hall with the Clarion Ledger uses it to post links to his stories, to defend those stories,* and to engage in general commentary.

*The New York Times declared last week (via Twitter, of course) that no one wins a Twitter fight.

Sam (@SamRHall) recently posted a picture of a nasty Facebook message he had gotten from someone about his coverage of the Miss. Senate (#mssen) race. In understated sarcasm, Sam called it a “delightful message from a reader.”

Political cartoonist Marshall Ramsey (@MarshallRamsey) is more than amusing. He tweets about politics, weather, running, and other things, like the first day of school. From his Twitter account: “Planning for D-Day, also known as the First Day of School. Praying going on. Plus some swearing. And vomiting. Ramp about to drop.”

The network is a mashup of politics, news, jokes, snippy comments, and virtually anything else you want it to be. After all, no two Twitter accounts are the same. You control which news sources to follow; you control which accounts to read. In other words, you narrow your focus to the people and organizations you want to follow, not necessarily those you need to follow.

In the end, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it appears to be the wave of the future – for now. So, now that you’ve gotten a better handle on Twitter, why not take the next step and get an actual “handle”?