Tuesday, May 21. 2013
Woke up screaming, around noon today: leg cramp, high up my thigh. My wife ordered me to stand on it. Good advice, but I couldn't find my way out from under the covers until she pulled them off. Finally swung my legs over the side, tilted out of bed and steadied myself leaning against a dresser or something. My mouth was parched, so I asked for some water. A couple sips dissolved the residue that had gummed my jaws together. I stumbled to the bathroom. The sharp pain subsided, leaving a sore knot. Put on some socks and pants, and ventured downstairs. Good thing we put that new stair rail in.
Not a typical day, but most days have something unpleasant sooner or later. The dry mouth is an everyday occurrence. Back in the winter I tried going without antihistamines, but my sinuses only got worse. Now that the skies are thick with pollen (plus whatever else the recent onslaught of storms dredged up) I'm doubling up on the over-the-counter meds. For many years I took a prescription super-dose of Allegra, but the insurance company dropped that from their formulary so we tried the loratidine and I eventually started supplementing it with benadryl. Nothing works. I haven't had a completely clear breath through my nose since 1986, on a vacation to Cape Cod.
Among the unpleasant tasks scheduled for today is another formulary problem: Blue Cross/Blue Shield [MA] and/or Express Scripts have decided that the two anti-cholesterol meds I take now require physician override paperwork, so my prescription renewal has been held up. (And because Express Scripts canceled my "auto renewal" on those prescriptions unawares to me, I'm real close to running out of both.) What they want, aside from my death, is to force all their "customers" to switch to generic atorvastatin (Lipitor), and when you look at the price tags of Crestor and Zetia you can see why. Those drugs are "protected" by patents which allow their "owners" to charge whatever the market will bear, and the pharmaceutical companies do just that, ruthlessly. Changing their formulary rules is one way that bulk buyers like Express Scripts can fight back against getting gouged, but in doing so they inflict real costs as well as hassles onto physicians and patients. In my case, to get the same results I'm currently getting will require recalibrating my statin dosage upwards -- several visits and tests -- and expose me to further side effects, not that any of those things matter to the insurer.
If I could wave a magic wand and fix one thing, it would be to get rid of patents. There are lots of bad things about patents, like how they increase the cost of innovation (obviously by involving lawyers), and how they disincentivize others from improving patented inventions, but the worst aspect is the "reward" of monopoly rights. Free markets work precisely because they are free of monopoly. One could come up with some regulatory scheme to limit patent rents: for drugs, you could assign royalties for generic duplicators, which would allow for some measure of competition around a higher cost point while still rewarding the patent holder's development efforts. But that would mostly make the patent process more political, and perhaps even more litigious. Better to get rid of patents altogether, then put public funds into "open source" research and development, which manufacturing companies could then build products on -- less potential gain, but also less cost and liability.
Patents work in various ways in other industries, but the effects are much the same: they subvert capitalism by promoting monopolies; they push research into dark secrecy, often hiding flaws until it's too late; they reduce incentives for others to offer improvements; they add legal costs, both to file patents and to defend against them; they can be assigned or sold to parasitical trolls; they lead to an increasingly inequal world where a few "owners" extort rents from everyone else. What they don't do is stimulate innovation, or even do a very good job of rewarding it. Many innovations occur to multiple people independently, and many more would if research spaces weren't so compartmentalized by corporate interests. And most patents fail to pass the basic test of unobviousness. In drugs, for instance, all it takes to get a patent is a new molecule -- something that chemists create all the time. Take away the patents, the monopoly pricing, the ridiculous marketing budgets, and all of that and you'd wind up with a world where Express Scripts had no reason to make doctors jump through hoops to get away with prescribing the drugs they regard as most fit for their patients. And that would be one less hassle for me on a day that has way too many of them.
Much of my politics, by the way, is driven by a desire to reduce the amount of unnecessary hassle I -- and by extension other people, since I figure that we're all pretty much alike -- have to deal with. One facet of this is that I don't get all worked up over "personal responsibility" -- the great bugaboo of the right. They think that people prove their personal worth by overcoming adversity, so they back policies that create a lot of it (like our current health care system, or our "education" and "justice" systems), although most of them wind up being races rigged by the rich for the rich.
Much of the day I try to process some music, and today hasn't been very productive. I woke up not only in pain but bleary-eyed, something that happens a lot. Today I have a lot of trouble copying down info from the microscopic print on CDs -- looks like my eyes will end my music review career before my ears do (although my grandfather and father lost most of their hearing by close to my age). Also had trouble concentrating: took me four plays of Christian McBride to get a little squib written down, even though the album was pretty obvious. Will Calhoun got two plays. Played Black Host twice and held it back for tomorrow. Listening to Daft Punk on Rhapsody as I write this.
One thing that slowed me down was interruptions. The HVAC guy came over for a Spring system check, so I watched what he did, thinking I could do all but the pressure test myself, and picking his mind on how to install a new condensate pump -- a project I keep procrastinating on although I've had all the parts for about a year now. Didn't start that but did knock off one little project that's been sitting around for a couple weeks. I have a little space in the downstairs half-bath between the vanity and the back wall; hard to get to, but wide enough I thought I could slip in one of those roll-out baskets they make for under-sink cabinets. I bought the unit and built and painted a bracket to hold it a couple weeks ago, but the space is so hard to reach it would be hell to secure -- and indeed it was, as every possible approach involved painful contortions. I couldn't get one wall anchor in, or get close enough to see why. (Probably hit a stud, which otherwise would have been good news.) And I left the wall side sitting loose on a pair of corner braces -- I would normally have screwed them tight but couldn't negotiate the angle. Still, pretty sure it's solid enough, so I felt like I got something done today.
And wrote this little "day in the life" screed -- more therapy for me than info for you. Some of this may just be inevitable wear and tear, but much of the hassle seems unnecessary. And the more I struggle with nuissances, the less good I get done.
Tuesday, October 23. 2012
Music: Current count 20578  rated (+2), 647  unrated (+4).
Had a visitor from last Monday evening to Thursday morning, so spent most of my time with her. Thursday I shopped for groceries and prepped for a cookout. Friday drove to Arkansas with my sister to see our cousin, Elsie Lee. Saturday we did our cookout:
Surprise I don't have more recipes available, since most of these are dishes I've fixed many times, including on similar cookout trips.
Left Elsie Lee's on Monday. Stopped for dinner with one of her daughters in Springdale, then drove on to Bristow, OK, to see some more cousins. Got in late Monday, but stopped to see Duan and Harold (and his wife Louise) today, before driving home to Wichita. The three cousins are aged 79-87. Their children (my first cousins, once removed), of which I saw four, are closer to my age, but a bit younger. All on my mother's side. She was passionate about keeping track of her scattered family. I'm not nearly as adept, but do treasure those connections, and try to make some variation on this trip once or twice a year.
It is very wearing, though, as I more and more feel my age. Drove 900 miles, most on two-lane roads, some on gravel. Made one cemetery stop: the resting place of two uncles, one set of grandparents, and parts of two previous generations, as well as a few others I recall -- Dow Cotter (1881-1960) was probably the oldest person I ever met.
I added a few new favorites to an old travel case to listen to music in the car, so nothing ungraded. Took a notebook computer, but never went anywhere with an internet connection, and never turned it on. Read a little, watched too much TV (with way too many political ads, mostly from Missouri), ate too much, slept too little.
Friday, June 1. 2012
I've had several people older than myself tell me that they always read the obits because that's where people they know are most likely to show up. The unspoken corollary is that if you don't people you know are likely to slip on by unnoticed. Sometimes someone will tell you when someone you know dies, but often that's not the case. For instance, I only found out about my uncle Bob's death (July 20, 2004) a year or two later, when I dropped by his son's business and asked how his dad was doing. I knew Bob had some health problems (and that he was 79), but had no idea how grave they were, nor was I aware that he had moved back to Wichita from Las Vegas a few months before. He called me in January, 2004, and told me that his second wife, Nellie, had recently passed away. My wife had seen both of them in Las Vegas a few months before, and the year before that we had driven to Las Vegas to get married -- Bob and Nellie were our witnesses, as well as guides and hosts. That was my fourth trip to Las Vegas, and each time I sought them out. They, in turn, flew to Wichita for my father's funeral in 2000.
Actually, worse than not hearing when he died was not knowing he came back to Kansas. Having driven half way across the country to see him, I certainly would have trekked to his son's house in El Dorado, or to the Veterans Hospital in Wichita, where he spent his last days. He was two years younger than my father: in many ways his mirror image, in some his mirror opposite. I had known him every day of my life. When I had my worst problems as a teenager at home, I ran away and sought shelter at his house. He always meant a lot to me, and never more so than the last few times we talked. I should have paid more attention, but that's true of so many people -- even of my parents, who demanded (and got) vastly more attention.
I've generally avoided going to funerals, and doubt that I've been to more than a dozen, including my first wife in 1987 and my parents in 2000. The first I can remember was a great-uncle, Dal Cotter, in 1960 -- a miserably hot day in Arkansas, with what seemed like several hundred people unable to cram into the church. The second was my grandfather, another hot day in 1964. I managed to miss the next two important ones in my family: Lola Stiner (my mother's oldest sister) in 1968, and George Hull (my father's older brother) in 1969. A few years later I left Wichita, putting more distance between myself and my family. I barely noticed as my mother's siblings passed on: Clagge (1974), Ted (1981), Murph (1990), Ruby (1992). My grandmother died in 1987, but I hadn't seen her since about 1974, so that seemed more like a data point. I returned to Wichita in 1999, and my parents died in early 2000, as the passing of the older generation took on for me a greater poignancy, perhaps even nostalgia.
Since 2000 I've been to three family funerals: Bob Burns (2003) and Zula Mae Reed (2007) were cousins close enough I made a point of seeing when I could. And Yona Julian (2007) was the 36-year-old daughter of a very close cousin, and granddaughter of an aunt I visited often. I felt like I should have attended the funeral of Edith Hixon (my mother's last surviving sister), but the family played it down and the distance (San Jose) was impractical. Edith wasn't able to attend my mother's funeral, so we drove to see her in Arizona -- a better option than the funeral.
Still, the main reason for reading obits is information. One name I saw recently was Billie Appelhans. She lived two doors from us until I was about thirteen, then moved to the west edge of town. Her oldest son, Terry, was two months younger than me, my closest friend all that time. I only saw her a couple times after that -- most recently at my mother's funeral, where she came up and challenged me to identify her. (I couldn't.)
All this is a prelude to noting the obituary I recognized yesterday:
Last time I saw Glenn was when he came over for dinner, along with his wife Lucille, her son Don, and his wife Karen. (Don't have it in my notebook, but judging from mail seems to have been June or July 2005.) I made something Chinese, and dinner seemed to go nicely. I had only seen Glenn a couple times before, but I've known Lucille and Don all my life. She was married to Uncle Bob, and Don was their only child, a year older than me. Theirs was my second home for a few weeks in the mid-1960s, but I rarely saw them after they broke up (sometime late-1960s) and Bob married Nellie. Lucille had been a stay-at-home housewife, but on her own got a job at Beech Aircraft. There she met Glenn. She also befriended my mother's sister Ruby, who had worked there at least since the 1940s, and who was also divorced. For some time after that, most of what I heard about Lucille was from my mother griping that she was driving a wedge between her and Ruby. But at one point I asked my mother about Lucille, and we drove over to their old house, where she was living with Glenn. She recognized me immediately, and made a big fuss over how happy she was to see me.
The big surprise in the obit wasn't that Glenn had died. It was that Lucille had "preceded" him. I had missed that in the obits (December 20, 2010; she was 83), and no one told me. I had been thinking about her a lot recently. One time while driving around I tried to find the house, but didn't know the number and nothing looked familiar enough. Last week I took two DVDs of home movies that my father made, mostly 1956-67, with me to Arkansas and showed them three times. They jump around a lot, but there are 10-12 sequences with Lucille in them, half that many with Bob, a few with Don, and lots more with other Hulls -- even if you don't count my nuclear family -- that Lucille would recognize. I've never shown them to any of the Hull relatives. Would have been fun to show those and talk about those times.
There have been other people recently I've thought about and looked for, only to come up with an obituary or death notice (FamilySearch turns out to be useful for nailing down dates, but little else). Johnny and Hildegard Kreutzer were my parents' closest friends when they got married. We went to their house on the far west edge of town at least once a week into the early 1960s. There are several pictures of them in the DVDs, as well as pictures of the rabbits and the dog they gave us. I spoke to Johnny briefly at mother's funeral, but never followed up (other than driving around and not recognizing their house). Turns out that Johnny died in 2007, age 91, followed by Hildegard in 2008, also 91.
Another person I talked to at my father's funeral was Sister Rose Agnes Gehrer. I'm not sure exactly how we're related, but I recall going to visit some distant cousins named Gehrer in Wichita. My grandfather had a sister named Agnes Hull (1903-47), and she married Otho Wade (1891-1972), and I believe they lived on the same farm that great-great-grandfather Abraham Hull homesteaded in the late 1860s. We went there a few times when I was young: looked like somewhere the Dalton Gang would hide out in, with a broken-down house on one side of a gulch and a dozen small cubby holes on the other -- I think they were dug out to shelter sheep, but they always looked to me like they'd be perfect for rattlesnakes. Zula Mae took us to the homestead last time I saw her. We drove through a field carpeted with grasshoppers, and the roof had caved into the house, but other than that it was quite recognizable. Anyhow, I think the Gehrers are somehow related to Otho, but at any rate Rose Agnes was close to Zula Mae, so I figured it would be good to follow up and keep track of her. However, I lost the contact and never did. And when Zula Mae died, I found out Rose Agnes was already dead (turns out, a couple months earlier in 2007).
All this got me to wondering who else had passed away that I didn't know about. My cousins on my mother's side are all older than me, ranging from Ken Brown at 68 to Orbrey Burns at 87. I just saw three in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and heard of several more. There are some more I'm in more or less regular contact with, and others I'm not, so I tried searching out the latter. Some I couldn't verify one way or another -- not many significant computer profiles in that age group (I seem to be the only one with a blog, for instance). But I did verify that two of Edith's four had passed: Joe Ben Hixon (in 2009) and Verdell Hixon (in 2011; obituary here). I only remember meeting them once, circa 1960, when they brought Edith back from California for a visit. (I may have seen them in 1956, when we drove to California, and/or before 1952, when they still lived in Oklahoma, but I don't recall anything that far back.) I had heard that Joe Ben and Verdell were estranged from their mother, and at one point talked to their sister about it, but don't recall the details. The obit suggests that Verdell was gay, something I never had a clue to.
I didn't appreciate this for the longest time, but I come from a very interesting family.
Wednesday, May 9. 2012
The blog suffered some sort of mishap today: basically a configuration file vanished and had to be rehacked by hand. I haven't yet restored it to its former glory, but thought for now I should post a notice. I will return to it as I get time and inspiration.
Update: Disabled a couple of event plugins that were mucking with the stored HTML code, and reset the theme to my personal standard, so now it looks like we're pretty much back. Added an "HTML Nugget" block to the top left -- something I've been meaning to do for a long time, although I still expect I'll have to tweak the wording. Should be a general description for the website. The main thing driving this isn't clarity. It's that facebook likes to grab the first bunch of words it reads when you link to something on the site, and hitherto all it's come up with was a laundry list of links.
Thursday, February 23. 2012
Thought I should note that we made it back home to Wichita -- a couple days ago, in fact. Did what we needed to do in Detroit, and hopefully won't have to do anything more. Probably means I'll never go back there, which in some ways is a shame: lot of things about the area I wound up enjoying, although I can't say as I enjoyed any of them this time. (Didn't even manage to get to Book Beat or Streetside Records, now conveniently next door in the same strip mall as my late father-in-law's favorite deli -- The Bread Basket, which we did get to.)
Unwinding here has been very slow, but I figured I should at least post something. Listened to nothing but oldies on the trip. (I packed a case of new jazz then left it at home.) I've been playing the new Floratone since we got back, but can't make up my mind on it. Finally popped it up and wrote two jazz notes this afternoon -- records I needn't bother with ever again. Then turned to Rhapsody and became indecisive again, this time over Imperial Teen and Sleigh Bells. On the other hand, we did get out to see two Oscar-nominated movies we hadn't managed to find time for previously: The Artist and The Descendants. Missed the "last chance" for The Iron Lady tonight, a subject as distasteful as the also-missed J. Edgar (although I was more intrigued by what Eastwood might have done there).
Saturday, January 21. 2012
Should probably take more pictures. Definitely should figure out how to manage them better. But I have a few here that represent some everyday work around the house. This first one is a 12x8 shed I had built in the backyard. I've been moving more tools out to the garage, and in doing so the garage was getting cluttered, especially with lawn equipment that I wanted to move out. A shed seemed like the right solution. I've long fancied building something like that, so I spent several weeks researching shed designs. Bought three books on the subject, plus I have a lot of general construction books. Then when push came to shove, I found a company that could build something very much like what I wanted, and do it a little cheaper and a whole lot faster. So they put up the shed, but I figured the least I could do was to build the ramp up to the door -- the door was about 10 inches above ground level, since the whole thing was on skids. I wound up spending about half as much to get the lumber delivered as they would have charged. And it took weeks to build -- admittedly, mostly waiting for breaks in the cold weather. It's built out of decking planks on top of a frame built out of pressure-treated 2x4, 2x2, and 1x4 lumber, itself sitting on top of paving stones. Underneath that I spread out some "weed block" plastic, put some fiberglass edges on both sides, and dumped 100 lbs. of gravel on it (not really enough). The front edge rests on a slice of vinyl garage door trim, so none of the wood rests on the ground. Still need to do a little more work on the edge. (Still plan on painting the shed, too. At least I did get a coat of sealer down on the ramp.)
Second photo is another backyard project, which would have been visible in the first had it been done then. Here you see the detached garage off to the right of the top picture, and a bit of the driveway. When it rains, water drains to a low spot in the driveway about 4-5 feet out from the garage, and pools up unless it can flow off to the side. The previous owners dug a trench leading off to the left, then turning back a few feet away from the garage until it hit a low spot. I've redug that trench four times in the last decade -- often during heavy rains, which at least is nice in that you get instant gratification when it starts draining. However, the trenches always fill up, so I figured a better solution would be to install a catch basin and dig a French drain to route and absorb the water. The basin is a foot-cube plastic box positioned to pick up the runoff. We then dug a trench about 18-20 inches deep, lined it with gravel, and ran about 25 feet of 4-inch perforated plastic pipe from the basin. In the picture, you can see the basin and some of the pipe surrounded by gravel. Afterwards, I covered the gravel with "weed-block" permeable plastic sheet, and filled the dirt back in. (I say "I" but most of the work in digging and filling the ditch was done by Tom James, a friend who does landscape work for a living.) Haven't had any rain since we got it done, but this should work.
Third picture is a new CD case in our bedroom. This was actually the second stage of a less visible project. For years I had stacked four small CD cases on top of the dresser, which the weight was destroying. To salvage the dresser, I took it apart, glued and clamped the fraying top piece, and reinforced the top with metal brackets. But it didn't seem like a good idea to move the cases back, so I built something that could be attached to the wall. The CDs you see are the ones from the old units, so capacity is up (although it can easily be filled from current stocks). Messed up and made the left unit a bit too high -- the floor slopes down from the right wall, but I wound up misjudging it. I thought I'd try painting this unit instead of leaving the wood tone, and I've used this black paint on a number of projects, but white might have been a better choice. The decor is still pretty much what came with the house. That'll be another project some day.
Finally, fourth picture is a small dinner I made last night. I've had a duck in the freezer for quite some time. Saw a recipe in Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen and figured it was worth a try. I slow-roasted the duck for 3.5 hours the night before, and made the base for the olive sauce. Last night all I had to do was to pop the duck under the broiler to crisp up the skin, and add the olives to the sauce. When I looked for some sort of veggie accompaniment, a "roasted root vegetables" recipe in Nancy Harmon Jenkins' The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook seemed like just the ticket. The recipe itself it complicated by beets and winter squash, which I'd just as soon do without. So I wound up with sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, a rutabaga, a couple parsnips, an onion, some leeks, garlic, herbs and olive oil, roasted in a hot oven for about an hour. A little parsley on top, and that was it.
Tuesday, November 8. 2011
Felt an earthquake last night. I suppose I've gone through similar events in the past but never noticed before. But there I was, looking squarely at the monitor screen while the house rumbled in the background. I looked around for confirmation: soon found a page that the USGS -- you know, the much loathed, ever wasteful federal government, although for anyone who's read as many John McPhee books as I have they may be your favorite corner of the behemoth -- listing every M1.0+ earthquake in the US (plus a few, it turns out, in Mexico, and probably Canada too) that's occurred in the last seven days. My event wasn't there at first, but a few minutes later it popped up: Magnitude 4.7, depth 5 km, distance 9 km from Prague, OK (44 miles due east of Oklahoma City), 08:46:57 PM local time. The map showed 28 earthquake events in that area over the last 7 days: the largest a M5.6 on Sunday which I hadn't noticed but other people had -- probably why I was conscious of the possibility. California hands will scoff, of course -- judging from the 7-day report Alaskans even more so. Wichita wasn't listed in the distances table, but we're about 180 miles away. At that distance the rumbling lasted about 10 seconds and didn't manage to relocate even one CD. Indeed, the house shook less than it did when the USAF -- a part of the aforementioned federal behemoth that I'm much less fond of than the USGS, in part for this very reason -- buzzed the neighborhood with a low-altitude B-2 flyover (accompanied with a tornado-like roar).
Rained all day yesterday -- officially 1.75 inches, leaving us still officially droughtstruck, 9.5 inches down for the year -- with high winds stripping yellow leaves from the trees and occasional raptures of thunder. Same system produced a tornado in Oklahoma -- something rare (but not unheard of) for this time of year. This at least felt familiar, like a Boston nor'easter except coming from the southwest. Rain has continued into today, turning to snow in western Kansas and eastern Colorado. I hoped to build a ramp for the new shed this week, and start painting it. Maybe toward the end of the week, assuming I can find some way to get the lumber home. (My usual help isn't; seems like everyone has troubles right now.) Did manage to caulk a bit before the storm -- felt good both to get that much done and to get away from everything else.
Got up this morning to face a pile of mail giving me more tasks to do on top of things I'm already way behind on -- some already irate over my non-responsiveness. (Probably not as irate as I am over cases where I'm waiting for some direction.) Also happens to be a day when I have unfinished library books due, another reminder of my inability to keep up. And, not atypicaly, I'm playing a record have no real interest in hearing much less writing about. I feel like I've descended into some weird reality where the earth moves faster than people. Maybe even more purposefully.
Thursday, October 20. 2011
I spent the last four days observing the notorious US health care system in action. My wife underwent surgery, and I mostly hung out, observing. I had been reading more than my share of nightmare stories, but it all went about as well as it could. The case was complicated, but the surgeon and her team seemed to understand it and appreciate the intricacies. The surgery itself went quicker and smoother than anticipated, and the projected three day hospital stay was cared for with patient confidence. There were a few problems that cropped up -- too-frequent oxygen saturation warnings, nausea coming out of the anesthesia -- but they were recognized and sorted out. The nursing staff was far more attentive than I recalled from ten years ago when my parents had extended hospital stays, or my wife's previous surgery when she was booted out of the hospital with unseemly (and as it turned out unfortunate) haste. The room was private, and I was invited to stay as long as I wanted -- 24 hours a day. I even found the nurses asking if there was anything they could do to help me. I managed to be present pretty much every time a doctor came by, and every step was intelligibly explained. It helped that my wife was fully cognizant of the whole process, and always knew what she needed to work on when to make progress. In short, it was pretty close to ideal: the way a hospital should work. No doubt the bill was damn expensive, but I didn't get the sense of wasted effort or overtreatment.
It no doubt helped that the surgery was a well understood procedure, and that the treatment was very closely aligned with it. My wife had no significant illness going into the surgery. That is, for instance, a very different situation from the one where my father entered the hospital with MDS, being treated by a staff of cardiologists who had no idea what they were up against, who made one mistake after another before they finally dumped him off on a doctor who had a clue. Or I could dredge up other cases from my own limited personal experience. (E.g., when my father spent four days in surgical ICU due to a lung infection that defied their treatment until it was fully cultured and identified. Or when my father-in-law was prescribed a drug for an eye problem but given a drug that crashed his blood sugar level, which then resulted in several days of unpleasant tests investigating his presumed hypoglycemia.)
Still, it isn't hard to imagine lots of things that could have gone wrong here that didn't. For one thing, the hospital had instituted a software system that tracked drug doses and interactions -- probably the samd system the VA hospitals are famous for: it slowed the nurses down repeatedly scanning patient and drug barcodes, but it eliminates errors that elsewhere are astonishingly frequent (I recently read as much as one per patient per day). The ratio of nurses to patients was higher than I had ever seen outside of an ICU. We never had to wait more than 1-2 minutes after calling a nurse, and they were never in an excessive rush to go elsewhere. Occasionally I would step out into the hall and see one at a computer . . . looking at what appeared to be continuing ed materials.
I suspect that this was a rare case where business competitiveness served to improve the care level: well-insured patients could choose to come to this hospital vs. the other competitor, and for the types of surgeries this particular ward handled there was enough profit to be made to reinvest some in quality service. So to some extent you can chalk this experience up as a victory for the American system (although as my wife is on Medicare I don't give any credit to the private profit-seeking insurance companies). Still, this doesn't argue that health care reform is not necessary. Rather, this reminds us that a reformed system has to maintain this sort of quality level, and to extend it more evenly and equitably. And it reminds me that it can be done, for even if this particular case represents a shrewd business decision on how to run a wing as a profit center, one key reason it succeeded is that the people working there were free to serve without having to constantly recalibrate their actions in favor of padding the business' bottom line.
Personal note: we're back home today. My wife still has a ways to go to get back to normal, but that seems certain to happen in due course. And I need some sleep, but that too will happen.
Saturday, August 13. 2011
Did all that Tea Party horseshit even happen? Or was it just a fake media event? I've read two books on the subject -- Kate Zernike: Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (2010, Times Books), and Jill Lepore: The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History -- the former claiming it's a big deal and the latter contrasting myths and historical facts. Someone will no doubt do something more systematic in the near future, but unless they get into who paid for what and why you won't really have much. On the other hand, one thing you do have is Michele Bachmann, who rose from backbench Republican to media star almost wholly on her claim to be the Tea Party's political voice. Which is one reason why the Tea Party was nothing more than mass hallucination: if not, someone would come forth to discredit her.
Bachmann's presidential campaign is an improbable one, but she's already all but knocked out her two closest competitors: her fellow (and senior) Minnesota Republican, Tim Pawlenty, who looks confused and pathetic trying to outflank her on the right; meanwhile, although early on she was dubbed "Sarah Palin's stunt double," she stole that role so completely Palin rarely bothers even to phone it in.
Let's start with: Mat Taibbi: Michele Bachmann's Holy War.
Taibbi flips through her biography: born Michele Amble in Waterloo, IA, but grew up in Anoka, MN. In her teens, parents divorced; mother remarried, expanding her family to nine step-siblings. Found Jesus at 16. Attended Winona State University, where she "met a doltish, like-minded believer named Marcus Bachmann. After college, they moved to Oklahoma, "where Michele entered one of the most ridiculous learning institutions in the Western Hemisphere, a sort of highway rest area with legal accreditation called the O.W. Coburn School of Law":
They then moved to Stillwater, MN, "where they raised their five children and took in 23 foster kids." She worked for the IRS, then quit in 1993, edging into politics: "she didn't become a major player in Stillwater until she joined a group of fellow Christian activists to form New Heights, one of the first charter schools in America."
There follows the story of how she came to run for the Minnesota State Senate in 2006, which I won't try to straighten out. Taibbi's uptake:
Taibbi complains that "since then, getting herself elected is pretty much the only thing she has accomplished in politics," but follows with a long story sequence showing that while she hasn't passed any laws or legislative things like that, she has garnered a whole lot of press, and fares as well with the bad as with the good.
In other words, her Tea Party credentials are largely self-made, but who's going to challenge her claim? Charles Koch? Not very likely given that the Tea Party is allegedly a grassroots movement, led by no one. But Bachmann's used it to claim a level of legitimacy that she'd never have otherwise. Taibbi argues that she has a chance:
Now we can move on to Ryan Lizza: Leap of Faith: The Making of a Republican Front-Runner. Lizza starts off getting on Bachmann's chartered jet from Washington to Iowa.
As for the candidate:
Long story ensues, the upshot being that she managed to get most of her personal story wrong. Then biographical background, follows Taibbi above closely, except adds this bit:
In 1975 she enrolled at Winona State University, met and married Marcus Bachmann. In 1977 they "experienced a second life-altering event" watching a series of films by Francis Schaeffer:
Schaeffer, by the way, is a key figure in Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. Although Schaeffer was absolutely rabid on abortion, he turned out to be rather soft on homosexuality, so his followers wound up picking and choosing. His son Frank Schaeffer, who directed the films in question, later had second thoughts, writing Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Lizza continues:
That is, by someone much like Barack Obama. Lizza cites Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity as developing this worldview further:
As Taibbi notes, Bachman went to O.W. Coburn School of Law in Oklahoma:
In 1986, the Bachmanns moved to Virginia Beach, where Marcus "earned a master's degree in counselling at Pat Robertson's C.B.N. University, now known as Regent University," and Michele studied tax law at the College of William and Mary. They then moved back to Minnesota, where Bachmann worked for the I.R.S.
Such concerns over education got her into politics (as Taibbi also relates).
There is a section here on "Michele's Must Read List," including a biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins, who argues that African slaves brought to America were "essentially lucky" -- after all, what better way to be saved by Christianity?
Bachmann, meanwhile, takes pains to stake her candidacy on the treasured word "liberty":
Alex Pareene has a review of Lizza's piece:
Goldberg recounts the same bio, including pivotal appearances by Francis Schaeffer and John Eidsmore, winding up in politics.
Not that this means anything, but Bachmann did manage to win the Ames Straw Poll, although Ron Paul ran a close second. Rick Perry would have come in sixth on write-in votes, which is more impressive looking at the people below him (Romney, Gingrich, Huntsman) than those above him (Cain, Santorum, Pawlenty). Elsewhere I read that Perry got 99% of the write-in votes, which means that others (like Sarah Palin) could have split no more than 7 votes.
As for 9th place finisher, Thaddeus McCotter, the first I heard of him was when I was researching a record called Mad About Thad (a Thad Jones tribute), and ran across a website called Mad at Thad (McCotter). By the way, I thought John Bolton was running. Has he given up, or is he just batting below the McCotter line?
Saturday, January 29. 2011
Nice weather today, up around 70F. I screwed some standards into studs on the north wall of the garage, hung some shelf brackets onto them, and stacked some spare lumber on them. To get to the wall, I had to move a bunch of leftover OSB, which slipped into the sheet lumber rack I built last time we had some decent weather (about six weeks ago, if memory serves). Don't have enough brackets, but that can be fixed with a shopping trip. Cut up some of the OSB to make a table top, which I attached to a base cabinet unit we had scrapped from the kitchen a couple years ago. Not real happy with it: the OSB had swollen a bit on one edge -- must have picked up a bit of moisture -- making the tabletop a bit uneven, but will do for now.
Bigger news is that we were finally able to move the last of the living room lumber pile out to the garage. I had bought 24 sheets of plywood to build cabinets and bookcases with, and eventually used all but a few odd scraps. What was left was one full sheet of 1/4" not-quite-plywood, a possibly thinner sheet of composite, and three 1/2" sheets of OSB, some of which came with the plywood. Moved those out to the sheet rack in the garage, picked up the plastic sheet underneath it all, and swept up two-plus years of dirt. Result is we have the living room floor back. Feels like a milestone, the end of the kitchen rehab project. Can't say there won't be further work/changes: want to swap out the phone, and a light switch. I'm tempted to add some more pantry racks. And I'm still not happy with the weird angle on the refrigerator box (but don't have any idea how to go about fixing it). And still need to move stuff up and down, settling on how best to use the available storage. But all that will be in a new era; the age of reconstruction is over.
Friday, October 8. 2010
Got back from out little fall trip to the upper midwest. Thought we'd go to Detroit then loop back through the Upper Peninsula to Chicago, but went to Chicago first and looped back through Minnesota. Didn't actually get into Chicago. Just stopped to see a couple of Laura's cousins northwest of the metropolis. Drove up through rural Wisconsin, missing both Madison and Milwaukee, which meant we saw a lot of signs for the GOP's idiot savant, Paul Ryan. Hit Lake Michigan north of Manitowoc, then bounced back inland to Green Bay, up the bay coast to Escabana, then across the peninsula to Marquette. From there we drove west through Ashland and Bayfield, WI, to Duluth, then back down our familiar I-35. Was cold and windy early in trip, but warmed up midweek, was pleasant and sunny all the way; nice for framing the fall colors and brilliant lake views.
Didn't do much this week. Was sheltered from news. Read a little. Wrote virtually nothing. Played music in the car, but mostly old stuff -- packed a case of real classic material. One thing I will say is that it didn't look or feel like we're in the midst of a huge recession, even though we certainly are. This surface sense of normalcy more than anything else doesn't bode well for the Democrats, and that at least partly shakes my conviction that in the end people will reject the notion that anything worthwhile can be accomplished by turning Congress over to the Republicans. I don't get the sense that people recognize the depths of crisis that could result -- one big part of this, of course, is that the Democrats aren't responding as seriously as conditions warrant.
Friday, June 18. 2010
Matthew Yglesias: The Kobe Canard and Lakers Win: Don't really feel like writing about much of anything else right now, not that I'm real stuck on this either. NBA basketball is the only sport I follow much at all any more, and I watched more this year than usual -- most of all of the finals, some of most of the semis, nothing in the regular season although I occasionally glance at the standings and some of the boxes. My team allegiance is variable: the closest to automatic (when applicable) is the Knicks, but I liked the Pistons more lately, and somehow never seem to look fondly on the Bulls, Spurs, Heat, or Lakers. As for the Celtics, well, recall the Pistons. When I moved to Boston I meant to give the Celtics a chance. That first year I watched them on TV about 20 times -- all road games because they'd shake you down extra for home games -- and they seemed hugely overrated. (This would have been 1985-86, when the Celtics were 40-1 at home, so they would have been 27-14 on the road. They won the finals that year, beating the Rockets who in turn had eliminated the Lakers.) In particular, I never saw Larry Bird play a really good game, which didn't prove that he was vastly overrated, but made me a skeptic. I never again cared for the Celtics until I watched the 2006 finals, where a very different team -- Paul Pierce was a KU star, and Kevin Garnett was a guy who had been cursed to play his career with a losing team -- won me over (of course, they were favored to be playing against the Lakers).
Aside from Rajon Rondo, who's exciting but sloppy, the Celtics are older and creakier this year, and are probably finished as contenders (Allen and Garnett are 34, Pierce 32; Bryant is 31, Artest and Odom 30, Gasol 29, Fisher 35), but they came close this time. Freaky turnovers and a big foul shot differential cover the difference, with both teams shooting poorly -- as one who doesn't follow the game closely, I have to wonder if recent changes in defense rules are responsible for so much contact and so much emphasis on wild, acrobatic passing and shooting. In any case, this seems to be a much more rough and ragged game than I recall from watching Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. This style of play makes it look like neither team has the discipline or rigor to compete with many of the past championship teams -- for instance, Jordan's Bulls and Thomas's Pistons -- but it's also possible that the new teams would simply terrorize the old ones.
My impression, nauseatingly reinforced by exposure to the idiot announcers, has always been that Kobe Bryant is way overrated. He takes an awful lot of really difficult shots, ones that virtually anyone else would pass off. But he also makes more of them than you'd imagine possible, and he is very fortunate to draw a lot of fouls in the process, which is how he turned 6-24 shooting into 23 points. I wound up more impressed with him this year than any time I've seen him in the past. Maybe that's maturity, or maybe the game has just sunk to his style. In any case, he was the Lakers' MVP because their system wouldn't give anyone else the touches. (By comparison, the Celtics had no MVP because they rotated to the hot hand -- most consistently Pierce, but not necessarily so.) Where this puts Bryant in the history of the game's great players is nowhere. Still, his career numbers, including field goal percentage, look a bit better than Pierce's over virtually the same span, which suggests he's better than I thought -- just not great like the announcers keep proclaiming.
Monday, March 8. 2010
I heard last night that Charley Colbert died, in Philadelphia, following a lengthy and, I gather, rather gruesome illness. Hadn't thought about him in many years, but we worked together in the early 1980s at Varityper in NJ -- an AM International division that made typesetting equipment. A year or two before they hired me, Varityper set up its software engineering department to use a DEC PDP-11/70 and UNIX 7 as its development platform. This was back when UNIX was a research project, available from Bell Labs as unsupported source code. My career as a software engineer was to no small extent based on what I learned from reading the UNIX source code -- I learned a lot about how to structure programs, as well as a fair amount about the personalities of the various researchers who contributed the code. Charley was the shop's top UNIX guru: he built the system, kept it running, and was the guy everyone went to for answers -- at least everyone who could deal with a manner that was, uh, abrasive and haughty. My basic tactic at that stage in my career was to seek out the smartest people I could find and glom onto them, and Charley was one of those people. And once you got past the initial intimidation, he turned out to have a wicked sense of humor -- not to mention a vocabulary he chalked up to his time in the navy. I never saw him again after I left Varityper -- or was it after he left?
Seems like a lot of people passed through or by my life over the years, mostly in brief time slices at various jobs where they are very familiar for a while but quickly disconnected. Every now and then you wonder whatever happened to them. It turns out that it's surprisingly hard even to track them down on the web. There are about 25 Charles Colberts hooked into LinkedIn, but none of them look right. I found an obit, but it was for a Colbert who died in Indianapolis early this year. About the only one I've tried who shows up first on a Google search is Tom Hull, so I guess I have to wait until they search me out (as a few have done). Meanwhile, here's a post for the real, as far as I'm concerned the one and only, Charley Colbert.
Friday, February 19. 2010
I hauled a bunch of tools down to the basement today, and stripped off the tarp that had been covering the dining room table. Then I made dinner, not the first since we got the countertop finished but the first sizable affair: originally expected seven, then had three cancels, so added two more, then the cancels showed up anyway, giving us eight at one time, plus one more straggler later. Plenty of food, anyway. I decided to do Ruth Reichl's "family dinner" from Garlic and Sapphires: roast leg of lamb, scalloped potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts, but since I had mascarpone in the refrigerator, I replaced the last-minute chocolate cake with tiramisu. Roasted the lamb in the gas oven, and did the potatoes in the electric. The lamb came out a bit mixed: well done on the outside, rare near the bone, both quite tasty. The other dishes were slightly underdone, but close enough. Everyone was pleased.
The dinner conversation was dicier. Someone referred to Koch -- not clear whether the company, which has a long track record for environmental lapses, or the brothers, who rank among the top five families who bankrolled the far right's think tanks -- as evil, and that snowballed into an intemperate argument about capitalism vs. socialism and/or capitalism vs. democracy, as if both pairs were necessarily antipodal and exclusionary. One low point was when someone asserted that there are no socialists any more, a point a third or more of those around the table would take personal exception to. And there were others, just less clear. I can't go back and rehearse the points, but as someone who rarely manages to get a word in, I can at least make my points.
The first is that socialists within democracies -- including most of Western Europe and excluding the likes of Stalin and Mao -- have always supported democracy with individual rights including a broad right to property, and have usually supported a vibrant, open market system where the primary actors are capitalists. The few exceptions to the latter point tend to be archaic, as these days hardly anyone objects to a well regulated free enterprise system. In fact, it is not unusual for socialists in power to spend more energy maintaining the viability of capitalism than to advance worker interests -- France under Mitterand being one of the more obvious instances. (Obama, of course, doesn't come anywhere near qualifying as a socialist, but his instinct, like FDR's, to save capitalism by reforming it is something nearly all socialists share.)
So my first point is that socialism and capitalism are not incompatible: socialism is in fact built on capitalism, only reformed to mitigate the excesses that capitalists are prone to. Another way of putting this is that there are many variants of capitalism; consequently, it is a fallacy to speak of capitalism as requiring specific historical traits that turn out to be inessential, such as child labor, suppression of labor unions, a free hand to pollute, immunity from torts, or price fixing. It is just as easy to imagine a capitalist system where workers are guaranteed basic rights, where externalities (like pollution) are limited by market mechanisms (like cap-and-trade), where countervailing powers ensure that markets are transparent and competitive. It probably doesn't help when either side labels such reforms as socialism, but it isn't crazy: we live in a world where social values matter, even more than profits or self-serving freedom.
The argument here goes back to the Koch brothers. As near as I can tell, they -- and their privately held company -- hold two sets of closely related but asymmetrical political ideals. On the one hand, they are extreme libertarians -- Bill Koch, for instance, ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket. My first encounter with Koch was when I worked for a Wichita typesetting shop and wound up doing several jobs for them: retyping the books of Murray Rothbard. Someone tonight pointed out how we routinely expect services from government like firefighting -- and as such how we have to have some kind of government, even if a restricted one. Rothbard, of course, disagreed: he saw no problem in each individual or company contracting with its own favored firefighting service, or failing to do so would suffer the consequences of receiving no help in fighting fires. (Rothbard had even nuttier ideas, like contracting with private services for money and justice.) In this vein, the Kochs became major backers of libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute.
On the other hand, the Koch's company took a more pragmatic tack, making the right contributions to the right politicians to garner the favors of a government effectively controlled as an oligarchy. In this regard, the Kochs act much like any other oil company, seeking tax breaks and regulatory favors: their big payoff coming early in the Bush administration when they were able to consolidate and dispose of more than a hundred environmental pollution cases. The Kochs' libertarianism is especially ironic here: their company is utterly dependent on the powers of government to establish the property rights their business would be nothing without, yet they deny that the public that makes their business possible should have any authority to limit the damage their business can do.
The more I read into the "irritable mental gestures" that pass for thought on the American right, the more struck I am by how narrow and selfish the individual interests championed are, and by how paranoid they are in ascribing the consequences of failing to get their way. Kim Phillips-Fein's Invisible Hands: The Businessman's Crusade Against the New Deal starts off with the story of how the Du Ponts turned on FDR: one point was when one of the Du Pont brothers discovered that three of his black servants had quit his employ in favor of government relief jobs. From that point onward, every time a businessman fails to prevail, especially over a worker, he accuses the government of driving not just toward socialism but all the way to totalitarianism. It never occurs to them to compromise to respect other people's rights -- the only right they can imagine is their own. It's sad that anyone believes them, but the Kochs are by far the richest guys in these parts, their company is not nearly as stupidly run as their ideology, they have a big payroll, and many people are inclined to suck up to the rich and powerful, or to cynically let them have their way.
Saturday, November 14. 2009
Got back from my week-long driving trip, a loop through Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Saw four cousins, ages 66-84, and my last aunt remaining on my mother's side of the family, aged 94. Only one of my stops had a working internet connection, so I've mostly been out of touch -- which I can't say I missed. Didn't listen to much. Didn't even get much reading done. Was good to see them all, to talk about old times, and to remember other mutual loved ones, not least ones no longer with us. We went to two cemeteries, where three of my mother's seven siblings are buried.
One thing I want to note is that, with little or no encouragement from me, all four cousins were strongly opposed to continuing the war in Afghanistan. One was a political science professor with well tuned liberal sensitivities who came of age trying to stay out of Vietnam. Another is nowhere near as savvy but picked up a populist edge from her father back in the Great Depression and has rarely if ever been fooled by a war pitch. The other two are more surprising: Oklahoma vets from WWII-Korea, one devoutly religious with a bunch of active military in his family, the other a hard-working butcher who owned his own business. Both felt strongly that we have no business over there, and that if Afghans want to fight we should just stay out of their way.
I'm not sure this consensus holds for subsequent generations. I didn't go around canvassing, but did hear one blanket condemnation of all Muslims and I got a lecture on premillennial dispensationism, something I've heard reports of but have rarely (at least since my paternal grandfather died) been able to associate with otherwise sane acquaintances. In fact, there is an awful lot of ignorance and misinformation going around, backed by unshakeable confidence in sources as dubious as Fox News and the Word of God. That anyone ever manages to see through all that fog is remarkable, mostly hinging on simple concepts like "we have no business being there" or "other people should fight their own wars."