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."
Wednesday, October 28. 2009
Got some spam from Cadence/North Country today where they announced they're setting up a "Friends of Cadence" program where overly flush donors can underwrite Cadence magazine subscriptions for unspecified but presumably worthy recipients. I subscribed to Cadence for many years, accumulating large boxes of them mostly unread, unorganized, and increasingly inaccessible. When they bumped the price up and cut the frequency down to quarterly my subscription lapsed. In fairness, the interviews are valuable, and the reviews are numerous even if few are reliable and most are only marginally readable -- they do at least provide lots of raw data for jazz prospecting. Sometimes I think I should break down and subscribe, but then I remember how difficult they've always been to do business with -- the only way I know of that works is the phone -- and let it slide. Last time I had such an inkling I offered to trade them a column for a subscription, but got turned down by Bob Rusch -- rather rudely, I thought, although it's hard to tell what he really meant to say. Cadence/North County used to be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in avant-garde or just plain out-of-the-mainstream jazz, but these days they can almost always be avoided. Their Cadence Jazz and CIMP labels used to be very productive (although CIMP insisted on some audiophile standard that was often hard to follow on my ordinary stereo equipment). I haven't gotten anything from them since the last time I renewed my sub, so I'm way out of date. (Rusch offered to send records for review in the Village Voice, which I can't guarantee. What I can assert is that if I don't hear them they won't make it to the Voice Jazz Consumer Guide.)
The links for the Friends of Cadence is here. Note: it's a PDF file, presumably so you can print it out and fax or snail mail in -- told you this wouldn't be easy. I have no idea how they plan on deciding who the recipients should be, but if you think it's worthwhile to support them in this way, I wouldn't mind getting back on their subscription list, and a subscription wouldn't be totally wasted on me. On the other hand, if I really thought it was worthwhile (and could figure out how) I'd subscribe to it myself. This really is an example of what economists call the principle of indifference: the price point where buying something promises so little in return that one no longer cares.
The sad thing is that Cadence's review and interview archives would actually be a nice thing to have up on the web, properly indexed and handily searchable. It would greatly add to the world's store of information on a lot of jazz that remains way under most folks' radar. You'd also think it would benefit companies that sell obscure jazz records, not least Cadence/North Country. It would also be a project that could legitimately attract contributors, because it would involve giving something back to the community. I've brought this up in the past, and even offered to work on it. Their response has always been that doing so wouldn't make them any money, which is true as far as it goes. I wouldn't bring this up except every now and then they make a pitch for help from their friends. They may even deserve it. But like everything else, they make it awfully difficult.
Thursday, August 13. 2009
I remember seeing a common office knick-nack, a little sign that reads "A clean desk is a sign of a deranged mind." I always recalled that when I'd go in to talk to the VP of Human Resources when I worked at Xyvision: his desk was always spotless, though less a sign of derangement than one of someone who didn't have any real work to do. My desk was never clean for more than a few minutes. On the other hand, it has rarely gotten so oppressively deranged as it has in the last few weeks/months. I do plan on cleaning up real soon now, but I thought that first I'd immortalize this mess, if for no other reason than to make future messes feel less guilty. It should also serve as a cautionary lesson for anyone toying with the idea of reviewing records: the more successful you become, the more unmanageable your living/working space.
This is where I work. It's a space roughly 10-feet square -- actually the back half of our nominal living room. There is a chair in the middle, which somehow managed to evade the camera. The pictures are all more/less cropped on top: the shelves go further up, with much more of the same. Also missing are a few thousands more books and CDs scattered in virtually every room in the house. The top row looks north and east. There's more room to the east, and for that matter more pile on top, but I wanted to get the floor, which is where my current pending CD baskets are, and the file with all the hype I haven't thrown out or filed yet. The north desk is where I do most of my work, including writing this. There's an old CRT monitor that I'm stuck with until it dies and I can get a spacesaving LCD, and two computers under the desk, a router, a UPS to the side, a lot of junk and crumbs. The shelves on the desk include some reference books, and further up are more shelves full of CDs. The bottom row is the northwest: a big bookshelf unit mostly with computer books, except now it's been taken over by CDs. On the floor, more baskets, mostly empty CD cases I packed for the trip and haven't gotten around to putting back together again. Finally, the south/southwest view, with my old stereo cabinet -- one of the few things left from my first serious carpentry binge -- on the right, a desk covered with stuff that belongs in the CD shelves above it, an LCD monitor (the old CRT died last year), two more computers underneath, a couple of printers and a scanner that isn't hooked up. The five CD cases on top of the desk should have all of the good jazz I've CG'ed in the last few years but it doesn't fit. It completely covers a window. The first thing I need to do is to clear off the surfaces, which means moving a lot of CDs to other spots in the house. I still haven't mastered the art of disposing of excess CDs and books, but that's something I'm going to have to work on, because the current rate of expansion is unsustainable. I do have some space elsewhere in the house -- we've built a lot of shelf storage in the last year -- but once that's gone I've sworn I'll live within that space.
Tuesday, July 21. 2009
I took my car into the bodyshop of a big Ford dealer here in town -- had a minor accident on the vacation, no one hurt, the car was empty at the time -- mostly because my cousin runs the shop. Not sure it saves me any money or gets me a better job, but at least it's an excuse to see a guy I practically grew up with and don't see often enough. Cordial chit chat, a bit about the insurance check, then he drops a comment that if I parked it in the bank to get some interest, Obama would just tax it away anyway. I didn't have the presence of mind to point out that I'm not in a tax bracket where I have anything to worry about from Obama. I doubt if he is either, but he's caught hold of a virus that's been going on around Republican America. I noted the same virus -- the same off-the-cuff remark -- from a cousin in Idaho, who worked most of his life as a welder and electrician and lives now on a small pension and social security: there's no doubt that Obama's tax proposals will come anywhere near him, but he thinks so. He even went on to explain that he thinks Obama is out to undermine US sovereignty so we'll wind up subject to a "new world order" -- I tried explaining how the only US presidents who ever talked about such things were named Bush, but that did little good (other than to evoke a few snorts about Bush).
These two people are decent, generous, upstanding citizens; people I've known most or all of my life, people I like a lot, people I can talk to for hours about almost anything else with pleasure. (That is, we're not talking about my wingnut uncle here: the guy who thinks that the current recession was caused not by the subprime bubble but by the recent downturn in capital executions. Actually, if you can steer him away from politics he can be funny and charming too, although it's kind of hard to do.) You can't just explain Obama's actual position to these people. They're convinced he's out to tax them, and to do all sorts of nefarious things to them -- needless to say, the Idaho cousin fears Obama is after his guns. (A big job, given that there are more guns and more dead animals in his house than I could count.) There's no real reason to these assertions. They're just things these people are convinced of, and nothing you can say will phase them.
You run across similar things in the press, picked up or spouted from talk radio or the usual suspects in Congress, but it's shaking to hear them repeated by real people. What I find most disturbing isn't how little they understand but how certain they are of what they think. I suppose I'm especially ineffective at rebutting them because there's very little with Obama that I'm certain of. I think he's made a lot of little mistakes, but it's never been clear how much of that is conviction and how much is pragmatism. Still, the range of uncertainty here is far outside what the right is charging. Clearly, if he wanted to nationalize banks, he wouldn't have bent over backward to avoid doing so. If he wanted to raise taxes he wouldn't have stuffed so many tax cuts into his stimulus bill. If he wanted to socialize medicine he wouldn't have put anything but a public option in his health care bill. If he wanted to gut the armed forces he wouldn't have increased spending on them. Those are all things that not only could he have moved further to the left than he did; they are things he could have made a real strong case for moving to the left on. He didn't. I can't tell you why, but I am pretty certain that the reason he's not moving to the left on these and many other issues -- indeed, he's beating a retreat on civil liberties issues like Guantanamo -- is most certainly not that he's busy working to destroy the established order in the United States of America.
Cass Sunstein has a new book out called Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide which argues that groups become more polarized and extremist when they only talk to themselves. Anyone who's been to sectarian leftist meetings in the 1970s has seen this effect, but never on the scale of the right today -- either in terms of the size of the group or its derangement from reality. For instance, the bestselling book in America today is a hysterical rant by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, titled How Obama, Congress, and the Special Interests Are Transforming . . . a Slump into a Crash, Freedom into Socialism, and a Disaster into a CATASTROPHE, or Catastrophe for short. Quoting from the "product description" at Amazon:
I suppose when I was young I might have been tempted to respond, "I'd like some of what he's been drinking," but now I just want to leave the room. In theory I like the idea of respecting all points of view, of interacting with all sorts of people, of making an effort to at least see where they're coming from. That is part of the reason I enjoy visiting the right-leaning segments of my extended family -- rest assured that there are also left-leaning segments. But some arguments just flunk the most basic of sanity tests. They're beyond being taken seriously.
Wednesday, April 29. 2009
It looks like Borders is killing off their CD and DVD sections in most or all of their bookstores. At least the two in Wichita are affected. I'm not sure how much of a loss this is going to be. (For that matter, the store on Rock Road looks doomed, ever since a much expanded Barnes & Noble moved in less than half a mile away. Moreover, rather than fighting, they seem to be keeling over: cutting hours, selling off surplus from their already inadequate stock, and now killing off the music section.) I've bought next to no music there ever since they opened: the prices are too high, and the selection is middling -- better than Best Buy, but not by much, even as Best Buy shrinks. The west Wichita store used to be useful for listening, but after their equipment stopped working I stopped bothering.
I've been into both Borders since their closeout sale began, buying a total of one record: Sufjan Stevens' Greeting From Michigan. Went into their east (Rock Road) store today and finally bought a pile at 50% off:
Newman and Santogold are two 2008 albums I heard on Rhapsody and may have underrated -- at least according to Christgau. Nine Inch Nails is another Christgau CG record. Also heard the Lowe reissue on Rhapsody, which I had no problems or complaints with -- but then I owned the original UK as well as the US LP release, plus all the wonderful extras they packed in. I wrote about it for Recycled Goods, and it was the ice cracker, the record that convinced me that I was going to buy something. The Ramones reissues supersede old vinyl that I may or may not have -- great records, and cheap today (the first one cost me $3.99). Didn't have anything by Francis, and this one seems about right. I figured NYC Salsa for remedial research, but once I opened it up I found the doc to be pretty measley. Toughest call was the Sinatra: he's definitively before my time, has never been a touchstone, and hasn't repaid my occasional listening efforts (unlike, say, Nat Cole). I also have a sizable chunk of the set already -- 4 or 5 albums, less than half, plus a 2-CD compilation that presumably hits them all. Still, it's stuff I figure I should take seriously, by all accounts prime (unlike his Columbias, or the more voluminous, scattered, and declining Reprises). Slim little box with each CD in an LP-styled sleeve. Quite nice, and something of a bargain.
Turns out I could have picked up the two CDs I bought at Best Buy earlier in the week:
The Ry Cooder-produced Staples record is another I heard on Rhapsody and have long yearned to own. A friend discovered it independendly and had been raving about it to Laura, so that brought the point home. And everyone tells me Allen's second album is great -- I spent the day with it in the car, cycled it twice, and they may be right.
This is all unusual behavior for me in recent years: I keep track of purchases as well as stuff that comes in the mail, and at least 5 of every 6 weeks (maybe 9 of 10) have no purchases. My desire to buy records has just been drained out of me. The single biggest problem is that there are no local stores to go to. I stopped at Best Buy to see if they had the new Dylan album on sale -- they didn't -- but unless we're talking about someone like Dylan they won't have it on sale, and I long ago fell out of the habit of buying new at anything approaching list. (I bought Living Things from them a while back, but it was $9.99 list.) Best Buy will rarely stock at much as 20% of what shows up on Christgau's Consumer Guide (much less my Jazz CG) and most of that will be at prices I can easily beat on the web. Barnes and Noble and Borders (until now) have a slightly larger selection for higher prices. The only other record store in town is the CD Depot used chain, which is so lousy I've given up browsing there.
But I'm also pretty exhausted from all the stuff I get in the mail, and I'm perpetually frustrated by the problem of where to put them. The year I spent with Rhapsody let me hear records I was curious about without having to find money or shelf space for them, and that may have been liberating. Some records I rated that year I would certainly like to have, but thus far I've only bought a tiny number of them -- some very high rated 2008 albums that I haven't bought yet include: The Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride; Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark; Old 97's, Blame It on Gravity; James McMurtry, Just Us Kids; Tokyo Police Club, Elephant Shell; Conor Oberst. I had a chance to pick up Old 97's and Hold Steady's Stay Positive today, and didn't bother.
Of course, I didn't use to be like this. For many years I spent countless hours in record stores. When I lived in Boston I'd go to one store or another 3-4 times a week; in New Jersey it was more like 2 times a week. When Yesterdays and Wherehouse existed here in Wichita I'd hit them (two stores each) at least once a week. And when I'd travel record stores would be prime destinations. In fact, I used to make day trips to Oklahoma City 3-4 times a year, on average hauling back 20-40 CDs each trip. (Made a similar trip to Kansas City, but it was longer, more work, and less productive.) Back when Yesterdays and Wherehouse closed out, I bought hundreds of CDs -- that's a big part of the reason I have 700+ unrated CDs in the database, many from then still unplayed. I remember thinking that at least when I'm retired and poor I'll still have more good stuff to listen to than I'll have time left. I'm not sure that that time hasn't already come.
I used to want to listen to everything, record my thoughts, and build up a database for reference to share my experience. Those sentiments drove me to the far corners of my taste. As the Sinatra purchase still shows, I'm not over such sentiments, but I'm having a tough time making it happen. I'm being pulled in both directions: thinking about getting back into Recycled Goods and trying to run it as a state-of-the-art survey of reissued/newly discovered music history instead of as what it's been the last year-plus: the lint at the bottom of my processing stack. Also thinking about finally building that reference website. (I figure MediaWiki might do the trick -- sort of my personal, idiosyncratic Wikipedia of music.) On the other hand, I despair that I can even do Jazz Consumer Guide justice, and (perhaps more importantly) I doubt that the interest from publishers like the Village Voice is up to the job.
Good news is that I figure the kitchen will be fully functional in another week: i.e., the dining room table back in place; the dishes, pots, and cooking utensils unpacked and accessible; the pantry restocked; the tools and paint cans finally packed away; the shelves loaded up with at least the cookbooks. I may not have everything finished the way I envision it -- still don't have the stainless steel peninsula around the stove, some of the planned slide-outs; the extra drawers under the pantry countertop. And I may not move what's left of the wood pile from the living room: certainly the scrap can go downstairs, but the 4-5 full sheets of extra plywood may just stay there until I think of something else to build. Hope to celebrate with a dinner for the people who helped me build it all. More on that later.
Thursday, December 25. 2008
Christmas came and went with little ado this year. The family focus that my mother always insisted on faded with her death in 2000 and collapsed with my brother moving to the Portland area. Last year we tried to force it, leading to chaos and some hurt feelings. This year we just let it slide. His family grouped in Portland. We stayed here. Sara Driscoll, a longtime friend from Boston, came in on Christmas day. For the evening, we pulled the food processor and a frying pan out of the basement, diced a couple of onions, shredded five potatoes, mixed in six eggs, some salt and black pepper, and fried up a batch of lattkes. My sister came over, but not her son, so we had dinner for four. Served lattkes with sour cream, salt-cured salmon, salmon roe, and some store-bought applesauce -- I had made fresh last year, but could really do without it. Besides, the kitchen is wrecked, almost everything is stored away, it was enough just to do that much.
We scarcely exchanged any presents this year. I figured that as a quiet testament to the growing depression, although lack of energy and the difficulty of coping with all the unfinished projects had much to do with it. Obviously, we are conflicted about this: the new kitchen is a big expenditure, something we sometimes joke about as our own stimulus plan, but it doesn't come ready-wrapped; most of the real cost is labor, and most of that is yet to be done. Having a Hannukah meal for Christmas is more ironic than anything else. Neither holiday has any religious significance for us, and their linkage in any case is nothing more than coincidence of calendar. Reading about Hannukah over the holidays, I was again struck by the bloody single-mindedness of a holiday celebrating mere military triumphalism as divine act -- a consciousness that has returned to Israel, an effect of the will to shed blood for power to dominate others. That, of course, is wholly alien to the Judaism that developed in exile, which has long offered us an outsider's perspective, a witness and rebuke to the cruelties of power and dominance spread across the globe by the crusading (and often just opportunistic) West.
Of course, Hannukah's military legacy has nothing to do with the holiday's popularity. Most people just see it as a complement to Christmas, embodied in the generic "happy holidays" greeting which reduces holy war to sociable mingling. For us, it mostly serves as a reminder to gather together and fry up a huge batch of lattkes, slather them with sour cream, decorate them with bits of salmon. Strip all the symbolism away and you're still left with something.
Thursday, October 30. 2008
Woke up this morning in a motel in or near Princeton, IL. Got here late last night, after slogging through yet another interminable Chicago traffic meltdown. Couldn't see much then, but peeking through the window this morning reveals blue skies over a sea of bright yellow cornstalks, with the occasional John Deere logo in the background. Will drive back through Iowa, so should see more of the same. Will also see dozens of manufacturing plants, since people still build things, as well as grow things, in this part of the country. Michigan was like that too, on an even larger scale. Admittedly, I saw one huge building with a "space available" sign out front (550,000 sq. ft.!), and a few more in worse shape, but most of the factories I saw looked functional.
Taking a leisurely drive. Will be back in Wichita Friday, to face a dead computer and a mountain of mail.
Saturday, October 11. 2008
I've been totally offline for seven days now. Drove to Detroit, where I've been working on my late father-in-law's house, trying to convert it into my sister-in-law's house. Several changes are most evident, starting with being in a house with no newspapers. There is TV, but not anything I've been able to, much less cared to, watch. So I was rather shocked yesterday to sit down in a restaurant and notice the TV showing Dow Jones figures down around 8500 -- a drop of a couple thousand since last I noticed. Couldn't touch base with the internet until today, due to a wiring snag we haven't solved so much as worked around. In any event, I've been too busy to worry.
Should be here another week, maybe two. Built a fence. Installed seven vinyl replacement windows. Hopefully the new kitchen floor will go down tomorrow, followed by new base cabinets, counter top, sink, dishwasher, stove. Interesting work. I never understood how chain link fence worked before, but it's pretty obvious once you look at it closely enough to build one. I've watched people install windows before, but not as closely as when doing it myself. Tore down the old kitchen tonight, an act of deconstruction literally as well as semiotically -- not to mention archaeologically. This follows a couple of weeks of working on my own house, and will be followed up by several more.
Needless to say, no Jazz Prospecting this week, nor next week. Couldn't even put up the usual notice last Monday. Packed some stuff, but haven't listened to much: Bobo Stenson's piano record has been good late evening fare; I've dabbled in François Carrier's digital box a bit, enjoying what I've heard; managed to play the new MOPDTK on the way up, and it certainly has strong moments; old Nik Bärtsch records have become comfort fare. That's about all I recall.
Finished Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, which was better than I expected. It helps a lot that he gives the left credit for spearheading all movements toward social justice, instead of just carping about how the left were undeserving even when right. He also tees off on the general-admiral ranks of the military. I'd say that the problems go much deeper, but that's a much needed start. Started James Galbraith's The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. Looks like a tremendous book.