Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Giftmas

The December holidays have evolved, in Euro-American culture, into a generically religious event. Giftmas seems like an appropriate name.

Giftmas is probably most prevalent in the United States. We are the kings of consumerism.

While many people complain about the commercial avalanche burying the solemn, joyous religious event that supposedly underlies all this celebratory activity, I have a problem only with the excess that seems to accompany every American demonstration of strong emotion. Excess defines the good life for many Americans. What is more good than Christmas?

The good of Giftmas is the warmth of human fellowship that supposedly accompanies our salvation. The flaw is that Christmas is a classic case of "I have good news and bad news." The good news is that you are saved from death by this cute li'l baby. The bad news is that assholes still rule the Earth, so not much has changed. You need to overthrow yourself and then take whatever the assholes dish out without stooping to their level. Meanwhile, the cute little baby is going to grow up to be a scruffy-looking adult who will preach inspiring sermons and get nastily executed by the assholes in charge. That sacrifice is supposed to complete the salvation formula.

Ick.

Since most human and animal emotion seems to have a biochemical basis, I am trying to figure out the biochemical basis for the Christmas spirit. No doubt the emotion predates the dispersion of Christianity. Is it rooted in this season in the northern temperate zone because of qualities of sun angle? Can it be that simple? All of winter lies ahead. We are hardly safe from the grasp of cold or the wounds of wind and weather. Yet somehow this moment marks a strong enough birth of hope to give imported Christian legends something to settle on. Aside from satisfying scientific curiosity, it probably doesn't matter.

People came into the shop all week, filled with unusual warmth. Some of them are normally scary rednecks. They don't seem like the type to get all gooey and warm over a soul-saving ancient infant or the fretful, warring creeds that child's life ushered in. No, the spirit of Giftmas lies upon them. They absorb and reflect its warm glow for a magical few days before returning to their more customary demeanor. They may identify it with the modern form of Christianity. They may be right, to the extent that modern Christianity (anything later than about 100 AD) is a big junk box full of whacked theology, accreted through the centuries with other useful bits of belief and ritual from lands it entered and systems it absorbed. The modern believer needs to look with unfocused eyes on the lighted facade of the beautiful church, listen to the sonorous pronouncements of benevolence and not poke too hard at any of it.

The modern unbeliever can enjoy the pretty lights and pleasant sentiments without the need to plug into the vast matrix of whacked theology. It's still nice to think of everyone getting along in warmth and fellowship. Like so many gifts, it gets used up, broken or lost by early January, but the reinforcement helps. The goal, getting along in warmth and fellowship, is a good one. It will save us from our destruction. We don't have to hug and slobber all over each other. Indeed, I would prefer not to. But we need to get along. Anything that reinforces the idea that we are all connected at a basic level helps to keep that goal near the front of many minds. So the basic concepts of Giftmas transcend specific faiths. And the rituals can be fun. Enjoy the food, the lights, whatever music you like, and the upwelling of generosity. Those are all genuinely good. What better gift could you want?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Morning broadcast

In honor of all the politicians on TV this morning, I'm having waffles for breakfast.

In other news: Tiger Woods pays minor fine, but faces multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by the tree. Tree claims damage to limbs, diminished desire and ability to pollinate due to post traumatic stress.

Monday, November 30, 2009

There's Good and Bad in Health Care Reform Bill

As summarized in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Senate version of the health care reform bill offers some signs of hope and some unacknowledged blunders.

It was inevitable that any bill would require all Americans to buy health insurance. In a true national system, taxpayers would be buying coverage through their taxes. In that way, premium increases would be buried in the huge, complex mass of all government spending. Personally, I would find that easier to take than a blatant, in-your-face bill from a private corporation completely unapologetic about taking your money and doing its best to provide nothing in return. But that's just me. Since the Senate bill appears to include a viable public option at this time, it means that we are not just being driven into the livestock pens of the present private insurance barons.

The penalty for failure to either buy insurance or establish a legitimate exemption is a very reasonable $95 a year for the first year, rising eventually to $750 by 2016. The good news is that I could pay $750 a year and still be saving vast sums compared to the premiums for my former do-nothing policy. Double that to $1500 for myself and my wife and it still adds up to roughly a quarter of our former annual premium. And that does not include the 20 percent annual premium increase we were getting slammed with just for managing to live to be a year older. So bring it on.

The Senate will allow states to opt out of the public option if they don't like it. What's not to like? And what Federal carrots and sticks would be used to promote the choice the national government would prefer to see the states make? All that remains to be seen. Any state politician pushing to keep health insurance in the robber-baron era would have a tough campaign.

The Senate plan actually dances around the abortion issue more creatively and responsively than the House version.

Then we get to funding. How do we pay for this system? Here is the summary from the Salt Lake Tribune. My comments follow in italics.

House » Leaders in the House plan to cover the cost of reform with a tax on medical devices and a 5.4 percent surtax on wealthy Americans (individuals making more than $500,000 or families making more than $1 million a year). They would also raise about $400 billion through Medicare, by reducing projected spending and trimming government subsidies to privately offered Medicare Advantage plans.

Reducing subsidies for Medicare Advantage shifts costs elsewhere, so taxpayers receiving the benefit of those subsidies will see an increase, not a decrease, in expenses. Reducing Medicare spending also potentially stresses the health care system by forcing it to replace those revenues with economies of its own. Maybe it trims fat. Maybe it has to digest an organ or its own muscle tissue instead.

Senate » Senate Democrats take a different route, funding reform with a series of taxes and fees, among them are:

» A 40 percent tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans in which premiums for an individual top $8,500 in a year, and run more than $23,000 per year for a family.

Oh yeah, grand idea. Do the revenue projections take into account that such a tax seems designed to drive customers away from those plans, drying up the tax revenue to be derived there? I also wonder how sick you would have to believe yourself to be to make a policy that expensive look like a good investment.

» A 1.95 percent increase in the Medicare payroll tax for people making more than $250,000 a year.

Sure.

» A 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgeries.

Here's where you want a 40 percent or greater tax. Not only would it turn vanity into a public asset, it might also serve to delay the extinction of the natural breast.

» Fees on insurance companies, medical device makers and drug manufacturers.

And then we pretend to raise funds while actually increasing expenses: Put a fee on an insurance company, medical device maker or a drug manufacturer this morning and it has been added to the price of said items with a little extra by this afternoon.

Like the House bill, the Senate also squeezes future Medicare payments and slices subsidies to Medicare Advantage, raising more than $400 billion."

See notes above regarding cuts in Medicare spending and reduced subsidies.

To fund health care and create incentives for healthier behavior, tax junk food, cigarettes, booze, gasoline and luxury cars, video games, giant televisions and extraordinarily comfortable living room furniture. Provide tax incentives to employers who provide facilities and corporate philosophies that support bike commuting. Provide similar incentives to employers that provide exercise time for employees. This includes workers who would typically get no such opportunities, like delivery drivers.

Based on the principle that freedom isn't free, anyone who decides to go their own way and retain an unhealthy lifestyle would renounce coverage, too. If they wanted to pay the huge premiums a private insurer would charge to cover a high-risk customer, that's their business. If they go uninsured, the fine they pay should reflect what their care will cost. That money would go into the health care funding channel. Most other funding should come from as far from medical care as possible so that it does not run the risk of making the problem of medical expenses worse.

My brilliant wife also proposes "medical testing clubs." Based on the model of fitness clubs, members could pay to join a facility that has all your popular testing equipment: MRI machines, X-ray, mammography, colonoscopy, lab work, you name it. As with fitness clubs, members could buy in at different levels to get access to more test or the option of more frequent tests. They can then take their results to the appropriate doctors for actual treatment if required. A medical testing club could run for profit at a reasonable margin without gouging the customer, because it is merely an information-gathering facility. Each test is a discrete financial event. It's not a potential financial sinkhole the way health insurance is. Since results are reviewed by physicians the customer consults after testing, liability for interpretation is spread over at least two entities' malpractice insurance.

20 November...0600

The sounds of a cat and mouse game had awakened us in the part of morning that belongs to the night before, but they had subsided. We drifted back into our dreams.

At 6, with dawn lightening the gray skies slightly, we heard the hunt resume. I had to get up anyway, so I bumbled around looking for the sheet of cardboard and the plastic container we use to trap and release our little visitors.

The cats had driven the mouse into cover in our bedroom closet. I pulled things out until Bonnie dove in to start the rodent running. The two other cat s and I joined in the chase. We all scampered around, maneuvering it next to the bed.

As I herded the mouse with the cardboard and the little tub, it darted from under my attempts to contain it. But then it came back, looking up at me as if to say, "you're taking too long." It made direct eye contact for a long couple of seconds before it hopped onto my foot and crawled up inside my right pant leg. It moved calmly, without hesitation.

By the time I was sure it was in there, it had begun to climb at the same calm, steady pace. Since it seemed neither panicked nor aggressive, I figured any containment was good containment. I walked toward the back door with a strange, stiff-legged gait so I wouldn't tighten the fabric over it and scare it into doing something we would both regret.

A steady rain pattered down on the deck off the back of the house. I stepped out into it and hastily undid my pants. As smoothly as possible while balancing on one foot and then the other, disrobing in a November rain, I removed pants, socks and moccasins. I never felt or saw the mouse leave, but it was not in the garments I wore or carried when I went back into the house.

All this before my first cup of coffee.

Next mouse hunt I have to remember to tuck my pants into my socks.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fiddleheads Music Camp

Taking a trip outside my comfort zone, I attended the Fiddleheads Music Camp this weekend with the cellist.

Comfort zones were the theme of the weekend.

Laurie's friend Melissa had urged her to attend this camp. Melissa is a violinist who has been exploring the fiddle genre and has been tugging the cellist into some gigs using fiddle tunes.  Both of them are classically trained.  Cutting loose and learning by ear can feel alien and risky. One incentive was the presence of professional musician Darol Anger at this year's camp.

The cellist tells me not to worry, just to play, because no one gets hurt when they mess up a piece of music, the way one might when crashing a bike, falling off a cliff, flipping a kayak or falling while skiing.  But the stakes get higher when you have a professional reputation, or even a strong ego involvement in amateur performance.  It probably feels more like an injury.

"I'm outside my comfort zone," Laurie said to Seth Austen, one of the instructors and a local friend.

"We're always outside our comfort zone," he said.  "It's just part of it."

"Let me just jump in here to point out that even if everyone feels like they're out on a limb, you guys are producing a lot more for it than someone at my level," I said. "You're reaching for the next level.  I'm just trying to get to square one."

We set out to push our limits.

After registration on Friday evening there was a big group jam session in the Geneva Point chapel.  The chapel is a big, uninsulated barn with a small stage at one end. It's all dark wood inside; a quintessential group-camp meeting place.  I hadn't brought a fiddle because I had come from work and Laurie thought I wouldn't get a playing opportunity.  I was happy enough to hide in the back of crowds.  Melissa and Laurie both offered me their fiddles, but I was too uptight.

Late in the jam, Laurie finally forced her fiddle into my hands just as the group started one of two tunes I actually know, Angelina Baker.  Hot damn! I let the brain go wandering while my hands fell into familiar patterns.  The inexplicable joy of producing music in a group dispelled every shred of anxiety.  And there was plenty of noise to cover my clams.

We did not stay on the premises at the camp, preferring to commute from home.  Melissa  stayed with us.  We had to get up and out in jig time on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but we had familiar beds (except for Melissa, but she got a private bathroom she wouldn't have had at camp) and we had excellent breakfasts.

The camp information had said "all abilities welcome."  Certainly everyone was very friendly and inclusive.   But just as the time trial is bicycling's race of truth, the musical performance soon separates musical abilities.  Some forms accommodate beginners better than others.

I headed for the session on Irish jigs, taught by Ryan Thomson, a.k.a. Captain Fiddle. Things started off promisingly enough.  Early on, he pulled out another tune to which I at least knew the A part, Egan's Polka.  He'd taught it to Laurie years ago, but she'd forgotten the B part by the time she got home and taught it to me.  She'd also forgotten the name.  So I got the name and the B part, and we trotted through the tune few times.

It went straight downhill from there.  The others in the class had been at this longer, regardless of their ages, and had picked up many of the scraps of music theory vital to the various forms of folk music.  They had a shared vocabulary and understanding that made even their fumblings more informed and directed than my complete groping.  I leaned on my instrument, watched and listened.

Feeling minor and diminished, I went to my next session, Learning a Tune by Ear, taught by Beverly Woods. Seth and Beverly often come as a set.  Their love for what they do and an equal love of bringing others into it make them one incredible asset to have in the neighborhood.  Since my commute to work will now pass their house all year, I hope to drop in often in my quest to make up for decades of lost time in pursuit of my own musical development.

Beverly's session was the best for me.  At least half a dozen classically trained musicians confessed to being "paper trained" and dependent on the formal approach.  Their competence was nullified by the unfamiliarity and intimidation of just letting it rip by sound and feel.  It leveled the playing field somewhat, because Beverly provided the theory we would need to proceed.  Only in the actual playing did their skill on the instrument give them an edge.

Much of the time we just sang the parts.  Most folk music started out as vocal music, so it tends to fall within vocal ranges.  By singing the notes one gets a feel for the intervals and rhythm, the overall pattern of the tune.  Words, if available, also provide a memory aid because they develop a verbal idea on which to hang the tune and meter.  Tunes that started from an instrumental basis may not sing as well, but trying to sing them still helps.

I came out of there feeling downright hopeful.

Next I'd planned to attend a session on basic theory, taught by Beverly and Ryan, but Beverly herself talked me out of it, urging me to attend a session on the blues, taught by Darol.  She may have been trying to kill attendance at the theory workshop entirely, so she could go to Darol's session. I willingly fell in with that.

The blues session was very informative, but totally packed, as all Darol's workshops were, and it was well above my playing level.  I hung in for scraps of it, and did manage to crack him up briefly with a spur of the moment joke from back row center, but I would have been better off as a music student to eat my veggies and go to theory class.  Six of one, I suppose.  When will I get to spend so much time in the same room with a player like Darol Anger? That was Beverly's logic.  Osmotically, subliminally, I may retain some musical tidbits that will emerge from my deep subconscious once I learn enough other stuff to be able to activate the memory files.

Melissa suggested I join her in the Harmony Fiddle workshop that followed, taught by camp organizers Ellen Carlson and Kathy Sommer.  They would be working around Miss Molly, one of two featured tunes for the camp.  Music files of Miss Molly and Shady Grove had been sent around before the camp for people to listen to.  It seemed safe enough, even though my work schedule leading into the camp had kept me from putting much time into music beforehand.

Things got too deep for me in a hurry.  I desperately needed to have attended the theory workshop.  My brain and ear overloaded so I couldn't process any more input with so little framework to fit it into. But Darol had been awfully fun to watch and hear.  The guy just exudes music constantly.  He did a quick run-through of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze that I would have recorded on video if I'd been sure I wasn't infringing on some intellectual property issue.  Laurie has used a Kronos-inspired version of Purple Haze in her classes for years.

Laurie appeared outside the classroom with fifteen minutes to go.  She'd bailed from another session.  We retreated to Seth and Beverly's Old Time Jam workshop in time to get in on the last tune.  Feeling somewhat reconstructed, we went to the chapel where the musicians were supposed to split into several bands to work on one tune each for the evening's  concert.  After that the ubiquitous jamming in small and large groups would resume.

Laurie and Melissa went to the band doing a Beatles tune.  I went for Seth and Beverly's gypsy band.  The other bands included Country, Latin, Cajun, Swinging Bluegrass and a "Mystery Band."

The gypsy band convened in too small a room to begin work on a Serbian tune called Ajde Jano.  It's in 7/8, which Seth and Beverly broke down into chanted syllables.  Using a three syllable word followed by a two syllable word repeated twice you get the length of a measure.  After trying various possibilities we settled on "Mandolin Fiddle Fiddle."

Seth also had the subversive notion to morph the traditional 4/4 tune Shady Grove into 7/8 as a little musical joke on one of the two "official" tunes of the camp.  Since Ajde Jano ends on A and Shady Grove starts there, we could slide into it sort of unnoticed.  Tweaking Shady into 7/8 called for some easy shuffle bowing.  The lead in from Ajde helped set that up so we found ourselves doing bow tricks that might not have been part of our toolbox before.  Don't think! Play!

When we tossed out suggestions for our band name, I said, "Balkan at Nothing." It was acclaimed the winner.  We went forth with our official entry (Ajde Jano) and our little secret (Shades of Seven Groves).

We got to borrow bassist Steve Roy for our band.  The bass made a nice wall on one side of me, while a row of hot young fiddlers, including Ryan Thomson's son made a nice screen in front.

The concert was a blast.  Since just about everyone in the audience was going to be on stage in the course of it, it had a communal feel you don't get at a performance where audience and artist are clearly delineated.  There had been much mixing and mingling in the jams, workshops, meals and conversations.  I met people I knew from other contexts (shop customers) and people I had somehow managed not to meet even though we live within a few miles of each other.  I was stepping out of my world.  It reminded me how I need to do that more often.  Even if I just expand my routine circle, I have to get out of the rut of work and rest and the same old crap.

The Effingham bus pulled out a little while after the concert.  The evening's jamming hadn't gelled yet, and we needed to get something like enough sleep before Sunday's early start.

Laurie, Melissa and I went to Seth and Beverly's workshop on Eastern European Music to start Sunday morning.  The others were interested in the material, especially as the genre is already more cello-friendly than much of folk, which have a tradition of fiddles and basses, leaving cellists and violists wondering what's wrong with them.  Trust the Jewish people to appreciate a good cello and provide a solid platform from which to approach the other forms of folk.

As an added bonus, one of the workshop tunes was Ajde Jano, so I was ready to rip. At least I was closer to the right note at the right time than on stuff I'd never heard or played.  Every little bit helps me, as well as being a blessing to anyone in earshot.

With nothing in the next slot specifically aimed at the novice fiddle aspirant, I went with Laurie and Melissa to another Darol Anger session, on Improvising Within a Tune.  I had no intention of even opening a case, but I figured I would again absorb some things that could come out of hiding in the future.

I sat, watched and listened for 15 minutes or so, while I cleared some dead wood off the memory card in my camera.  Then I actually did pull out my fiddle and pluck some of what I'd been hearing without listening.  Quite a bit of it was there.  It wasn't so much that I wanted to make a loud noise with my bow, but I could pick it out quietly while I listened to the more advanced skills Darol demonstrated and led.  Again I noted that I need those basic theory principles so I understand where a technique is going, and why.  I'd already picked out one of Captain Fiddle's books on just that subject.  I sat next to him as HE quietly bowed along with Darol's instruction.  We are all students forever.

This last workshop was followed by an open mic session in the chapel.  Anyone with the notion could sign up for a certain number of slots of stage time before the gang had one last jam, on Miss Molly and Shady Grove.  This was the time for some of the participants who play gigs or jam together to trot out their favorites.  It offered a nice variety.

More than one person has told me I chose a difficult instrument.  Certainly the highest echelons of violin and fiddle players do things I never will.  However, the same is true of a large number of merely good players who still blow me away.  I've seen this sorting occur in every activity I have pursued or closely observed.  Some people are amazingly good.  The best of them are usually very cool about it.  The ones I have met seem to have the attitude that we're all in this together.  Their hard work, combined with other qualities, have brought them to their exalted level.  They don't act like the lesser performers are less of a person because they have sorted out differently.

Usually, the real posturing jerks inhabit lower levels than outright awesomeness.  Is their attitude the thing that keeps them from greatness?

I detected no posturing jerks at Fiddleheads.

Competitive sports seem to attract more jerks across the board.  Competition depends on finishing with a ranking.  But even in those activities I have met very welcoming and inclusive awesome performers. They can duke it out with their peers while still being generous to the strivers. Maybe they are this way because they see the strivers as no threat.  I prefer to think of it as love of the activity and generosity of spirit.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Darol Anger himself shook my hand and commended me when I mentioned I had taken on the challenge of learning from scratch starting at age 44.  And 44 was a while ago. I can twinge about all the good practice time I've lost in those nine years.

"It's brave of you to do this," he said. "You chose a difficult instrument."  He spoke with warmth.  The handshake was a spontaneous gesture. Suddenly I felt better than a hopeless idiot.  And I was already going to buy one of his CDs anyway.  He didn't have to butter me up.  So I believe he meant what he said.

The difficult instrument bit scares me a little.  I like the fiddle.  I also know that bad violin playing ranks in the top 10 worst sounds in the world, sixth according to this poll: (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/jan/24/uknews.sciencenews).  This fact makes me careful about where, when and how loudly I practice, and how frequently and prominently I perform.  I know my place.

I do not see myself as a soloist.  When I was a preening young twit I had delusions of illustrious stardom in  vaguely unspecified accomplishments, but years of self-assessment have convinced me I function better in back rows and behind the scenes in most endeavors.  Music is no exception.  I hope to achieve reasonable competence given my late start.

The cellist puts me out there in recitals, in ensembles, thankfully, not naked and alone, center stage with a music stand and a terminal case of the shakes.  Ensemble play, whether classical or folk, really feels like the best team sport.  You have to do your own thing, but you're merging it with the others, more or less successfully. It's quite addictive.  Try some.

Clearly, from the comments in person and on the Internet afterward, just about everyone seems to have come away with the same feeling and the same desire to do it again soon.

Self-indulgent autobiographical prattle

I never had an inner child, even when I was outwardly a child. I had an inner middle aged, neurotic adult.

At ten years of age, I stood in the back yard, frozen with the fearful realization that I had no career path picked out. How would I ever pay for retirement?

That question remains. Experience has broadened my perception of what happens throughout the course of life, so the idea of working until I drop holds no more terror than the concept of dropping all by itself. No natural organism retires. Why should we be different?

Retooling the basic principles of human existence we could develop a system in which we take advantage of our numbers to lighten each individual's work load. No one would bring home disproportionately huge rewards, but everyone would get some work time and some free time. Place no limits on inventive and creative thought and work, since these generally carry a level of enjoyment beyond a daily grind kind of job. For the more mind-numbing kinds of occupation, keep the shifts and the schedules endurably short.

Of course the whole thing falls apart at the administrative level. Right now we make the rich the custodians of our major blocs of resources. Then we try to figure out how to pry some of it away from them when we need it. In a broader-based, more uniform prosperity, the representative government would end up controlling resources, supposedly for the betterment of all of us. Even if control fell to citizen groups independent of the elected administration, those would take on the quasi-governmental position now occupied by corporate boards. More directly responsive to the rank and file citizen, these controlling entities might succumb to pressure to make a different kind of bad decision than the typically narrow, greed motivated ones for which corporate boards are known today. Pristine holdings now reserved to the wealthy and their friends could become grubby, abused public spaces trampled by recreating masses with inadequate environmental knowledge and ethics.

The problems just keep multiplying from the simplest concept meant to make things better.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Private Charity vs. "Big Government"

A certain set of social commentators likes to disparage the notion of government programs to help citizens, holding up the few surviving helpful organizations funded with what look like non-governmental sources as the preferable alternative.  These are often religiously based and very specifically targeted.  They are presented as examples of how everything can and should be, once government is shrunk to the point of utter impotence.

Excuse me, but if you get rid of a lot of taxes, you get rid of the need for big tax write-offs, and much of the incentive for the kind of chunky charitable donations required to keep these so-called "independent" organizations alive.

The non-profits with which I am associated live hand to mouth.  Many efforts depend on government grants to supplement private donations.  They also depend on the whim and favor of regular donors who at any time might decide they have better things to do with their money.

Certain things, like the environment in which we all live and the health care needs of the growing percentage of people who fall below the financial threshold necessary to pay their own way are quite appropriate concerns for the citizen government of the nation. Quit thinking of government as a separate entity.  It's a job we all have to do, like taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn.  As soon as you distance yourself from government or let it distance itself from you, you invite more problems than stupid humans are bound to create even when they try their best.  The answer isn't just to make it cost less.  When was the last time the cheapest item on the market did the best job?

In a land with more than 300 million citizens, on a planet teeming with more of the same, there are going to be details to consider.  The task will never be finished until we give up on civilization entirely

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Why Universal Coverage is NOT Socialized Medicine

The Federal Government already acts as the purchasing agent for its citizens in a number of important transactions.  The best example is the US military.

Currently, the Pentagon consumes at least $534 billion of your tax dollars.  It's always been the big eater in the federal budget.  Has anyone called it "socialized defense?" Hell, no.  Even though the military services are in fact socialist societies, no one makes much of a time about that.  And that's not the critical factor here.  What matters is the way government expenditure interacts with the private sector.

No one can claim that government funding and involvement has stifled innovation or decreased profitability in the area of inventing exciting ways to devastate enemy nations.  Quite the contrary.  Competing for competitive bids, the military-industrial complex has supplied an endless stream of guns, bombs, missiles, tanks, aircraft that don't show up on radar, shrapnel that doesn't show up on X-rays, stuff with computers, lasers, gas, germs and trained dolphins.  Why should the response of the medical industries be any more restrained?

By making the government our negotiator and purchaser of medical supplies and services, we put the full power of the treasury to work for us.  Hey, we put that money there!  Let's get something back.

Private insurance is a mortally wounded business.  They're shot, they just haven't fallen down yet.  Here's why: a service provider can only be profitable if they can reasonably estimate their costs.  Sickness does not succumb to the same statistical modeling as death, for instance.  The stakes are higher.  A policy holder could become expensively ill.  The cost effective thing to do with someone who has started costing more than they're bringing in is to lay them off.  Private insurers hire legions of phone operators to try to hold back all but the most determined petitioners who have been denied.  It's frustrating and expensive for all concerned.  Putting them out of this dead-end business would only be merciful.  Euthanize the private health insurance companies!  They'll find someplace else to invest their money!  Corporations have diversified and evolved forever. If they're so crappy at business that they can't weather a complete market shift like that, we don't want them managing something as important as health care anyway.

There is no need to fear a non-profit, public funding source that will act the way insurance began: as a shared risk pool in which everyone pays a share and gets only such recompense from it as they actually need.  We're not furnishing someone's corporate suite, paying for their private jet or funding their weekend in Vegas. With a public, non-profit health insurance system, we're paying for health care, period. As a government entity, it HAS to operate under full disclosure (nothing classified in health care, UNLIKE the military).  We get to look at the books whenever we want.  When was the last time (or even the first) that a private insurance company invited you to do that?

The government can be frustrating to deal with.  Just remember that it is your government.  Take some interest beyond simply voting in the Candy Man and then throwing him out when he isn't perfect.  We have laws that give us tremendous access to what goes on in domestic affairs.  It isn't perfect, but nothing is.  And it isn't socialism.  It's our shared business venture as shareholders in the United States. Let's build it right and make it work.  We owe it to our investors.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A Bunch of People Shouting in the Dark

In the debate over health care reform on the Internet, you have to judge a person by what they write and link to, unless they post video.

Yesterday I let my temper get the better of me when I saw a comment under a post on a friend's Facebook page summing up anyone without health coverage as a lazy person who wanted a free ride.  Such an assertion had to come from either a rapacious neocon of the sort that has been laying waste to the financial services industry for nigh on 30 years, or an aging conservative who has been hating "hippies" for nigh on 40.

For some reason I envisioned the poster as a neocon female.  Its name was Dana.  Its chirpy tone reminded me of Republican housewives I know, who spout a good line about getting a job and pulling your own weight, but who are buffered from many of the realities of the quest to obtain and retain gainful employment.  As the conversation evolved, however, I began to sense that this was an older gentleman.  The femmy vibe probably has to do with the fact that the body produces fewer masculine hormones as a man ages.  At least he sounds like a young bitch rather than an old one.

It was joined by what seemed like a more verifiable young Reaganite.  The young Reaganites are not so young anymore, but they drew their greatest strength after the tenure of St. Ronnie from the ranks of people younger than I am, who became the most dedicated of the antihippies.  Many of them were the children of liberals who chose the neocon path as their rebellion against the parental non-yoke.

As the argument goes on it seems like a bunch of people shouting in the dark.  No one has more than a second.  Nuance is the first casualty.  Everyone just yells something pithy, hoping to pith off the other thide.  Thus will the entire laudable campaign fall apart, as both sides come to view it as a political liability.  It's another no-win situation.  "I voted against health care reform, but only after I voted for it."

Substantial reform is highly unlikely, however sorely needed.

This country is like a car speeding toward a jumble of fallen boulders.  Half the passengers are screaming to turn right.  The other half are screaming to turn left.  Only one direction is correct.  They will probably compromise by agreeing to plow into the boulders.  We may well end up with something too damaged to drive.  Let the younger generations build what they can from the wreckage.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Bottom Line

As management and labor tussle over dividing the pie, costs keep going up.  Each party in a capitalist transaction tries to make the best deal for itself, but everyone can't be a winner.  Participants toss the shit end of the stick at each other.  Dropping it outright is not an option.

During all of human development, some people have prospered more than others.  Sometimes the privileged have won their status by actual merit.  Often the favored position has been formalized so that a class of society gets it without a fraction of the original winner's effort.

In modern societies, certain job descriptions come with cushier perks than others.

All this adds up to a staggering imbalance in the use of the planet's resources.

We use economics to justify the imbalance, but our very own cherished system of competition could eventually lead us back to the natural model of subsistence farming.  At some point, executive talent will have to win a bidding competition to get a razor's edge of privilege in leadership positions rather than companies courting them with lavish inducements.  Life will be that cheap.

In the middle class, in small business, and down in the sweat-stained places where the real work gets done, people already understand subsistence.  It hasn't spread enough to be widely recognized.  We have a distance to go before it becomes obvious.  You have to use your imagination when you look at how products and services are offered on slimmer and slimmer margins.  Is profit an illusion? Has it always been? Is it just a loan against the future?

Everything in nature breaks even.  We are no exception.  If we're uneven, we can expect to be evened up.

When taxpayers insist that their children go to the cheapest possible schools, with the fewest possible amenities, they sense, even if they do not acknowledge, that no one has a right to do more than subsist.  They're asking their employees to do little better than break even.  It is most visible there, but many in the private sector feel the pinch as well.  Small business owners try to match the bidding power of large corporations.  Large corporations trim their expenses, often by ruthlessly shedding personnel.  The unemployed look for whatever they can find, often fetching up in small business or among the self employed.

Being your own boss doesn't mean you can always get the day off whenever you want.  The farm needs to be tended.

Monday, August 24, 2009

States' Rights in a Mobile Society

The United States was settled on more or less of a free market model. As settlers/invaders fanned out across the middle of North America, they set up shop wherever they could, often united on common philosophical ground. Restless souls kept moving while more settled settlers stuck around to set the tone for those who arrived later. In many cases, especially among religiously-based settlements, they became a known brand that attracted like minds.

As transportation and communication improved, people and ideas could come and go more easily. In a country that considered itself a great and unified nation, this movement of citizens and thoughts seemed like one of its better aspects. But it also diluted the unity of communities that might have lived in happy isolation.

Divisive issues have always stirred up debate in this country. It's only human nature. But now, modern technology gives us the ability to break free of traditional political boundaries.

Say you like the philosophies behind the laws and conventions of one state, but can't live there for any number of valid reasons. You should be able to claim citizenship there anyway, just as you shop for certain brands of product, patronize chain stores, follow a religion or otherwise link your identity to a larger one. Just as a global corporation will have a corporate headquarters somewhere, branded states will continue to hold the territory they now have, at least at first. More popular states will get more tax revenue and may buy land from less popular states that are strapped for cash. We could go from 50 states to 37, but they'd be proven performers with a solid customer base. We could even get down to five, or three, or two. Given people's love of their differences, though, that seems unlikely. We may go the other way, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned, and have a patchwork of numerous, tiny states.

We might even get to the point of individual statehood. Each citizen of majority age would BE a state. The sovereign state of Fred. The sovereign state of Angela. The sovereign state of Cletus. Each would levy taxes and pay for services and infrastructure within arm's reach.

Each state having a population of one, everyone would have to go to Washington (or wherever we'd voted to put the capital by then) or, more likely, vote on line on all major issues. If you didn't like your representative you'd know where to find him.

Okay, individual statehood seems unlikely. But absentee citizenship in branded states has its merits. Form your constituencies from like-minded individuals wherever they may be. We try to do it now with political parties, but that just mucks up the operation of government at state and national levels. Make the states themselves an intellectual construct instead of a physical space. It can't be much more fouled up than what we have. It might be jolly fun.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Panic and Anger Breed Panic and Anger

How many of the people joining the rage fest against health care reform are doing it just because they see other people getting upset? Whoever started the panic knows that these things take on a life of their own. Something spooks the herd. Once they're running, it takes a lot less to keep them running. Rumors flash among them. Bystanders start to run, too. They're driven by whip cracks and shouts, by imagined attackers in the dust cloud kicked up by their own feet.

Democracy in action. Voting with their feet against their wallets.

Everything is going to be all right. Individuals will suffer. You will be one of them sooner or later. In general, however, life will go on for somebody.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Partisan Pissing Contest Threatens to Drown Health Care Reform

An election is like a mountain climbing expedition. Funding comes from people who will never see the peak. Equipment is carried and messages are relayed by climbers who know they will never go high enough to be spotted with a telescope, let alone photographed in a triumphant pose beside a flag.

Many porters will labor just for a paycheck to ease their poverty, their lives barely improved by the success of the summit team.

On some of these expeditions, the team members don't even like each other that much. They do what they do so that their team will win. They lift their designated winner as high as they can and hope it's close enough for strength and skill to bridge the last gap. And then they all celebrate.

Most of politics takes place in the lowlands. The summits are metaphorical. The swamp is never far away. Whoever is king of the hill becomes a target for mudballs slung from the weeds where the losers dwell.

The opponents of health care reform have already succeeded in turning it into health insurance reform. The insurance companies know they can't provide quality care to a significant majority of citizens, let alone all of them, and still make a profit. Administrative costs alone must account for a large portion of the double-digit annual inflation of premiums. The paltry few percentage points of profit hardly seem worth it. So reforming that is like trying to wash a turd.

The saddest part is that the losing team in the last presidential election doesn't care one way or the other about health care. They only care about making Barack Obama lose at something. It might as well be this, because the issue is complicated enough to provide lots of entry points for scare tactics. If they can turn a constructive search for the best options into a contentious debate over ridiculous assertions they can befuddle and bore the American public into giving up the pursuit entirely. And then they can claim a Great Victory for their party against that young whippersnapper who managed to get elected strictly on the basis of grand-sounding, empty oratory.

Even if the effort to construct usable legislation continues, the partisans who play politics for points will need to gut it so the resulting product satisfies nearly no one. We've seen it before. We're seeing it now.

Before you get all wound up over this sort of thing, remember that opportunity only comes at a price. A lot of people have to lose for one person to win. If you want a chance to be that winner, you have to accept the possibility of losing. You have to extend that acceptance to your own health and life. Get rich or die trying.

In order for the American culture of opportunity to be truly fair, no one should get a hereditary advantage. Inherited assets not only should be taxed, they should be illegal. Everyone should start at square one. But then how would we maintain any great institutions? If we give a corporate entity a measure of immortality, how do we give it continuity of leadership without making it or another institution more powerful than any accomplished citizen? Whether anyone wanted to tackle that question or not, we have chosen instead to let fortunes pass and an elite tier of society wield power. Parents who bear children in the lower tiers must tell them that they have to take their chances. Get rich or die trying.

Because humans seem to have trouble grasping any value except monetary value, everything gets measured by that standard. Even something aesthetically or spiritually beautiful gets linked to money eventually. A starving artist's works may command far more in the years after the artist's death than their creator ever saw in life. Preachers of various spiritual disciplines receive financial contributions. Some of those preachers spawn institutions that outlive them. These institutions have a financial life. Great musicians hope to pull down a ton of money for gigs. Every thing of beauty or power has a price tag that can be manipulated.

Money can't keep you alive forever, but it can certainly help you put up a good fight. The struggle for money can destroy nature, love and whole societies, but we've made it the fundamental aim of our species.

Get rich or die trying. Give lip service to the value of the common folk, but what you're really grateful for is the fact that they're down there and not you. So the political fight for a victory on points doesn't really matter when we had no intention of doing anything benevolent in the first place. It's not a matter of nuance and detail. It's a fundamental acknowledgment that losers have to suffer. If you happen to be sick and you happen to fall short of a fairly high financial hurdle, something is so basically wrong with you that you will not be missed. Any one of you cheap dirt bags can be easily replaced. So suck it up.

I say this as a cheap dirt bag who has so far been fortunate enough to wiggle through any of the perils presented to me. I don't look forward to the one that does get me, but there's nothing I can do about it. Maybe I'll figure out how to get rich. Then I can live in my hilltop castle and empty my chamberpots down on the filthy dregs crawling up to seek my mercy.

E Pluribus Unum: out of all you dirt bags, ME. I got mine. Go get your own. If I feel nice I can give a little something to charity. Either way, you have to kiss my ass.

Isn't it about time we admitted that?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

Everyone complains about government spending, but the recent performance by auto dealers and the driving public when given a billion dollars to play with demonstrates what happens when we get to take part in it.

The government offered dealers a chance to give a big boost to drivers trading in gas guzzling junk. This would stimulate auto sales and remove wasteful vehicles from the road.

A billion dollars seems huge to most of us. It seems as big as a million used to. It's so vast you shouldn't be able to see the other side of it. So write those checks. Make those deals. Happy days are here.

The idea behind the program was no better or worse than any idea concocted by our citizen government. The original proposal called for four billion dollars. The senate whacked it back to one billion in an admirable move to conserve taxpayer funds. It was still a billion dollars. How often does the business person on the street get to dip directly into a billion in federal money?

So the auto vendors made deals, deals, deals! Free billion, folks! A billion! A THOUSAND MILLION! Wow! A bi--! Shit! It's almost gone!

In this case the program seems benign. I'd rather see the money go into circulation than into intricate killing machinery we hope we never have to use. It's just an interesting study in the citizen expenditure of public funds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Practical Matter, Political Process

A strange creature called health care reform takes shape in the hilltop laboratory of the mad scientist known as the United States Congress.

The problem is simple: how can we make health services effective, affordable and available to our citizens? You'd be doing well to get any two of those. With all the bickering and posturing, we won't get one. And it really only counts as a success with all three.

Costs of health care and health insurance are freaking legislators out. Many of them, and the vast majority of citizens, also have not fully separated the concepts of insurance and care. Therefore, many so-called solutions still cling to the fatal flaw of for-profit insurance on top of for-profit care.

Profit is supposed to provide a more effective motive than compassion to insure that high standards are met in all aspects of health maintenance and repair. Forget caring about the patients. Can I make a bundle off my expensive education and long hours? I suppose it's only fair. Health service providers have to deal with nothing but grody stuff. They are reminded constantly of the frailty of life. A little moolah helps keep them interested in case they lack sufficient dedication to the alleviation of human suffering.

If a new system requires every citizen to purchase private insurance, it does create the giant pool including everyone, which is supposed to spread risk and lower costs, but really all the private companies still face the problems they have with small pools and skewed risk percentages. So insurance costs remain high and insurance companies still have ample motive to deny care.

If a new system falls entirely under governmental control, funded by tax increases, profit motive is eliminated, everyone is included and the associated higher taxes replace the scandalous insurance premiums that used to be the norm.

Legislators opposed to meaningful health care reform claim to have the interests of the taxpayers in mind. Yet by saving the taxpayers from the evil of higher taxes to pay for universal coverage they throw those same taxpayers to the wolves of high private insurance costs.

How about this: Let anyone who can afford it buy health insurance or pay outright for services. Let health service providers refuse service to anyone who does not show proof of ability to pay. A lot of people would remain miserably sick. Many would die. It would cost the least amount of money in premiums or taxes. It would create jobs and stimulate the economy the way mass die-offs always do. Real estate will change hands. Goods and services will be bought and sold. The population will go down, easing strains on the environment, infrastructure and the food supply. Energy consumption will drop. Oil companies would have to learn to deal with it, but they would just jack prices with sound economic excuses.

An increasing death rate would justify attempts to raise the birth rate. Poke away, folks! Life is cheap and easily replicated! Raise your kids strong, clever and ruthless. They will need those qualities to survive and flourish.

To reduce fraud, everyone would have to carry an implanted device that gives health service outlets an instant financial status report. If you're dragged in unconscious from an accident, the hospital should not be expected to waste time on a deadbeat. First responders would have to carry the financial status scanners so the health service industry wasted the fewest resources on a patient with insufficient funds.

In borderline cases a patient might receive treatment until his or her financial status dropped below a certain threshold. At that point the poor loser would be thrown out. Clear that hospital bed for someone who deserves it!

One might think that children deserved special coverage. Debate that if you will, but admit it: aren't the children of the wealthy just that much better than the wretched spawn of the working class and the poor? Any child who manages to rise out of the clutter will appreciate and deserve the status and security earned against long odds. If they never make it, they probably wouldn't have done any better if they had been sucking tax money out of their betters.

When are the United States Congress and the American people going to admit that they feel this way and embrace a true meritocracy? We can't keep flailing around between half-assed socialism and half-assed hard-core money worship created by politicians more concerned with staying in office than with solving problems.

People who have been thrown to the wolves either outrun the bastards or end up as wolf shit. Either way, problem solved.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oh *&^% YEAH! What'd I *&^%*-in' tell you?

Research indicates that cursing lessens the sensation of pain, according to an article on Web MD.

We cursaholics know well the balm of the F-bomb in situations that deal both actual and emotional pain. Admittedly, some of us resort to these painkillers too frequently, but it's no different from abusing over-the-counter or prescription remedies.

Indeed, medical use of profanity may come in with the legitimization of medical marijuana.

"I want you to smoke one doobie every six hours and say $&^$^%#! *&%*&! @$%#&%! once every four hours. If you need to, you can increase the dosage of $&^$^%#! *&%*&! @$%#&%! without too many side effects. Just beware that while marijuana carries no risk of addiction, you may find $&^$^%#! *&%*&! @$%#&%! to be very habit forming."

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sound Financal Advice

This morning on the Disney Morning News, financial expert Mellody Hobson advised viewers to keep contributing to their retirement accounts in these troubled times. Put savings before purchases. Good, frugal principles.

Thrift is the enemy of economic activity. Money placed in an investment fund for the purpose of generating future income will be invested more or less successfully in profit-pursuing endeavors. That means it won't be spent on the purchase of goods and services now. Investment managers will take their best guess at what will be making money in the future. The companies receiving infusions of capital from investors may purchase materials and hire personnel. Eventually the money invested will make its way back into active circulation in one form or another. Initially, however, it appears to go into storage, like fresh water held in a glacier.

Perhaps this is a great metaphor for how we have abused economic principles to create floods of apparent prosperity at the cost of long-term stability. "Wealth creators" have gone at the glaciers of slow-moving assets with flame throwers and atomic bombs to blast loose big chunks for themselves. With no regard for the balanced processes at work, go-getters have gone and gotten for decades, not only unchecked but praised for their financial skill. Left behind is the wreckage of both economy and ecology. New industries are spawned to try to salvage both. The flaw in this is that we make our way inexorably toward a life of scavenging the dump. Recycling is fine. Sifting refuse for any useful scraps, on the other hand, yields diminishing returns.

Diminishing returns brings us back to saving for retirement. Mellody would have us squirrel away dutifully, hoping that the timing of our withdrawal from the workforce coincides with an upturn in the market. I know people who have had the misfortune to miss that timing completely. Oh well. Nothing's perfect. Sorry, guys.

In one small shop in one small town in one small state in one scratched and dented superpower, I have observed that people are not spending money. Are they investing it or just holding onto it? I can't say. We have seen our seasonal visitors for whom money is not a problem, but even they seem a little subdued. The rainy weather hasn't helped. We will never know what a difference the sun might have made. It wouldn't have hurt things. But the financial climate will remain cloudy even if the weather brightens.

You can't save money that's not coming in. Ten percent of a crappy income is a small sum. If the retirement account goes south, that money could go where lost money goes (no one knows). The idea of saving is good. It can shape a genuinely conservative attitude toward consumption even if you can't scrape up any actual cash to save. Try to remember in the good times how you would have been happy with less when times were bad. That approach does not put floods of wealth into tsunamis of prosperity, but it doesn't leave devastation in its wake, either.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Drink a pot a day, drink a pot a day, YAY!

New study shows that heavy coffee consumption helps combat Alzheimer's Disease. Jeez, how bad would I be without it?

Check out the details of caffeinated lab mice here. Be better at the rat race! Endorsed by actual rats!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pretty Things on the Table

As if the arrangement of yard-grown plants wasn't enough, Tylo, the Spot-Eyed Green Mountain Yard Panther added herself to the display.

The tall cylindrical metal object on the left is the grooviest pepper grinder ever. The cellist spotted the name Vic Firth on the package of this intriguing-looking device next to the pepper bunnies. The ears keep breaking on our pepper bunnies.

Vic Firth branched out from drumsticks to a wide variety of products including items for the gourmet kitchen.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Plucky Environmental Group Seeks Votes to Secure Grant

The Green Mountain Conservation Group, named for the centerpiece mountain of Effingham, NH, not the famous range in Vermont, has made it to the second round of an Internet popularity contest to secure a $15,000 grant. This money will help fund our programs promoting water protection in the largest stratified drift aquifer in the state. The watershed is a major contributor to the Saco River drainage, so water quality here also has effects through a large swath of Maine.

VOTE HERE, as often as the site will let you, through July 9.

Thanks!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Do the best job you can until you get caught

My employer called me "anal" again yesterday for my thorough and detailed bike assembly procedures. At least he didn't blow up angrily about it the way he has.

"You have a sign on the wall over there that says, 'It's ready when it's right," he said. "But I've seen everyone here make mistakes. Everyone." He repeated "everyone" slowly and deliberately, looking at me. For some reason my normal human lack of perfection is supposed to undermine my suggestion that we aim for a high standard of accuracy in our work. That is always his counter-argument, as if only a perfect being is worthy to instruct him or anyone else in our organization.

ANYONE CAN DO WHAT I DO. THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME BEING BETTER THAN ANYONE, IT'S ABOUT EVERYONE AIMING FOR A HIGH STANDARD. At least when you miss aiming high your shortfall stands a chance of being better than average. It's only bike mechanics, not anything that hard to master. Why not do it well?

In 2005 I gave up on reforming the organization, but I did not give up on myself or the customers for whom I work. Within limits defined by each situation, such as a customer's budget or desire to have things done really well, I do my best to provide good service.

When I assemble a bicycle I start a the back and work my way to the front, disassembling a lot so I can be sure it is really adjusted as well as its original quality allows. This is NOT the official policy of the shop, because the management feels that certain aspects of the factory assembly are good enough. They believe that the customers don't deserve the best we know how to do, only something that will "probably be good enough."

Let me stress that a thorough assembly barely takes longer than a careless one. Once you accept that you WILL do all the procedures involved in a thorough assembly, you are free to GET ON WITH THEM.

A thoroughly assembled bike takes seconds to prepare for a test ride and a few minutes to prepare for final delivery. It is far less likely to boomerang back within a few days of the sale because something went wrong with it. This assumes the customer actually rides it. Because many customers don't pursue an active cycling program right after purchasing the bike, many slipshod assembles can wander the Earth for years before they show any symptoms. That fact alone excuses a more casual approach.

When I first started this job as a temporary thing to tide me over until unspecified better things came along, I didn't care much about it. A few years into it, though, I saw the value of craftsmanship in self defense, if nothing else. I also see it as a way to make the world a more trustworthy place. I'll do my best. You, please, do yours.

Cynics will say it is pointless and hopeless. On many days I agree with them. But then, I suffer from depression. I try not to let that affect my work. However darkly I might view the general situation, I can't let myself take it out on specific people. The worst aspects of humanity are evolutionary qualities. I don't know if we can talk ourselves out of them or if we simply have to wait and see if we develop beyond them. I try to enjoy the simple things in life and hope I don't encounter any of the ugly people. I feel sorry for those who get caught up in our ugly exercises near and far.

Meanwhile I hunker in the greasy chaos and do the best job I can. No one has yet given me a good reason to do otherwise.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor

The morning news had a video clip of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor saying something alarming about the role of the court of appeals as a place where policy is made.

The lesson here is Never Think Out Loud. Anything you say can and will be held against you at some point. And people who don't believe in evolution don't believe a person and their ideas can evolve. Every blurt becomes part of the scriptural record, unalterable and damning for eternity.

This happens in any confirmation process. But some people are worse about it than others.

Despite all the muckraking and finger pointing, ideologues on either side seldom get what they want, which is a vending machine for party-line answers.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

This cracks me up

The Cadillac Escalade, a vehicle that might as well have seats upholstered with endangered species leather and the message "Drill Baby, Drill" permanently etched into the bumper, symbolizes conspicuous consumption and thoughtless disregard for a whole range of environmental, economic and political concerns. But this one has a conservation license plate.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Look at it this way

If aliens flew up in a space ship and said, "here's 41 trillion of your dollars. Let us destroy your planet," would you think that was a good deal?

How is that different from business leaders from our own planet saying basically the same thing?

Hey, if they've got the money I guess we have to let them do it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A New Direction in Appearance Consciousness

Watching some portly individuals outside the ski lodge today, I realized that humans labor at an insurmountable handicap because of their naked skin.

It doesn't take much to make us look unsightly when unclad. A few extra pounds, a few too many years gone by, and suddenly nudity is something to overcome, not celebrate, on the way to attempts at pleasures of the senses.

If humans were covered with lush pelts of soft, thick fur, like big kitties or cuddly bears, a few extra pounds would only add to our appeal. So instead of trying to devise yet another skin moisturizer, wrinkle remover or sure-fire weight-control program, medical research should focus on developing the fur-bearing human.

Likewise, the bony among us could benefit from the fuller figure and smoother contours provided by a furry coat. So there's something for everybody in this idea.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Times are hard! Gut the schools!

Hey, the financial picture looks bleak. How can we cut some fat out of the budget? I know: whack programs out of the schools!

They sure don't need crap like music and art. There's plenty of recorded music to entertain us in the few short years between now and the environmental destruction of the planet. Seriously: does anyone need much of an education when no one's really got a future anyway?

Interestingly, in a certain school district in Maine, not only is orchestra on the chopping block less than one year after they hired a highly qualified teacher to spiff up the program, but they're also planning to completely dismantle their technical school. Wait a minute. What happened to all that bullshit about math and science education, and educating our work force for the demands of the 21st Century?

Cutting technical programs seems like a none too subtle acknowledgment that our young people really do have nothing to look forward to. Cutting music and art is just gratuitous cruelty. Shove them toward their future with no skills and no aesthetics. How soon will it matter?

If you produce an ignorant enough generation, they won't even know they should complain. Even if they figure it out, they will have no ability to do so. So the system works!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Billionaires

Forbes Magazine reports fewer billionaires on its annual list of the richest people in the world, and smaller fortunes among most of the survivors.

Before you cry sarcastic tears or give way to genuine worry that this pool of potential benefactors has lost its ability to trickle down upon us, consider two things.

1. If they truly lost solid wealth based on genuine assets, that means someone else gained it. Find and follow the money trail to find out who has benefited.

2. If this is just shrinkage of perceived value, they never really had it to begin with.

Perceived value drives much of so-called wealth creation. In truth, there is no wealth creation. It's wealth fabrication. Perceived value drives the stock market up and down far more than real disruptions in the flow of actual resources do.

In times of trouble, many traded assets may change hands below their actual value. But some simply stand revealed as having little or no value. A smart money manipulator, seeing that people are paying ridiculous sums for fairy dust, might trade in fairy dust a little. An honest one won't extol the virtues of fairy dust, but simply ride the wave of other people's interest for a while. It is always easier to exploit people's folly than prevent it.

The shrinkage of perceived value is the scariest part of any economic downturn. That's the money that simply disappears. In the case of solid assets temporarily undervalued, it will return. If it was fairy dust, it has simply turned to actual dust and blown away.

The poor billionaires will weather this, if they have lived within their means. It's the same as with any of us, only with more houses, more cars, bigger boats and perhaps an oil company or two.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No Sign of Hell Freezing as Nation Waits for Decent Health Care

The Obama administration is using the time-honored tactic of fake motion to make it seem like they can come through on their promise of health care reform any time in the next eight years.

This article in the St. Petersburg Times has the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget telling congress it's up to them and all options remain open. That sounds like business as usual and a complete cop out. The insurance industry's lobbyists will continue to work Congress as they always have, dividing the votes enough to insure that nothing changes for the better.

All across America, citizens continue to follow the health plan they've been using: Don't Get Sick, Don't Get Injured.

My dentist subscribes to a service called Care Credit. My doctor might also. I haven't asked. It's a deferred-payment credit card that gives you a year to pay off your balance before a hefty interest charge kicks in, retroactive to the date of purchase. So it's basically a time bomb. Pay off in full before the deadline and you owe no extra fees. Fall short by a dime and you owe all the fees you would have owed at something like 23% interest. That's almost a full quarter of whatever price you needed to finance. The year is definitely some help, but if you get several balances open, each with its year, you'd better keep track of your payments to be sure you discharge each of these obligations before the magic date.

Games like this, as well as John McCain's token tax credit that would not have paid half of what a year's health insurance actually costs, and Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan requiring people to purchase their own health insurance if it is not provided for them are actually considered viable alternatives to a single-payer system covering everyone without all the arm wrestling with private corporations.

Private insurance companies have a profit-driven motive to deny care. As much as it costs them to employ legions of petty minions to stand between the customer and anyone who might actually approve payment for care, actually paying for care apparently costs more. Otherwise, why the legendary obstructionism? Why the scale of premiums that makes even catastrophic care basically unaffordable for people of moderate means over the age of 50? Yes, friends, as you age and are more likely actually to need care, you must bet more with the corporate casino even to stay in the game.

If we are being told to take our lumps and die of whatever befalls us, do NOT turn around and tell us, as Romney would, that we have to piss away what resources we have, buying fake coverage at scandalous prices. Toss us a token tax credit if you like, but quit trying to make us believe that it does more than half-close the spouting artery opened by health insurance premiums and health care costs. I'm being generous to say it half closes it.

Snide Republicans already lob partisan dung-bombs at Obama administration plans for any kind of spending. The usual opposition to a government of the people, by the people, for the people that actually shares the national resources to provide something useful to the people still wields its unchecked power.

Monday, March 09, 2009

I don't care if it rains or freezes...

Life in northern New England is a long-term relationship with fire and ice. Winter is when ice dams build up on roofs of houses that could catch fire the next day from a heating system malfunction. And, malfunctioning or not, some form of fire has to provide life-sustaining warmth while water freezes all by itself outside.

That bit about water freezing by itself really seems to freak some southern folk out. If you've only ever encountered the domestic ice cube in its protected habitat, your freezer, a face-to-face encounter with aqua glacialis in the wild can be unsettling. Born and bred Texans and Floridians scare their unruly children with tales of dark and frigid lands north of Dallas or Jacksonville, where the nights are long and all life is frozen to death eight months of the year unless it can find shelter before the first killing frost.

As in any long-term relationship, those in New England's cold embrace do consider divorce. But as long as you're in the relationship you have to work with it. Fire must be built and tended. Ice in its many forms must be moved to more convenient locations if possible while you wait for nature to remove it entirely. Anything you can't move you have to live with, drive over, or stand out from under.

When the snow stops falling today I have to shove some around to get through the next few weeks before we can expect a period of hub-deep mud on the way to what passes for warmer weather. We got a foretaste of it this weekend. Then winter snatched the month back from spring's weak fingers.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Life in Paradise

As the Obama Administration copes with reality, so do the rest of us deal with the logistics of our given climate and lifestyle.

Last week, the cellist and I, on separate days, reduced the snow load on our roofs in anticipation of more and wetter precipitation. That never arrived, so the roofs sit exposed to changing temperatures without the insulation of 10-24 inches of snow. We didn't think much about this until last night when the temperature dove steadily below zero.

On the northern face of the steep roof, ice had formed in a thick layer below the skylight. More than just a dam along the edge, this armor extends several feet up. The roof does not leak, but the ice and the materials of the roof itself react to the cold at different rates. Every couple of hours, starting at 1:30 a.m., the house thundered with a noise like a gas explosion. Since the living room stove has been acting a bit weird, we've been shutting it off when we go to bed or leave the house. It sat quietly when I got up to investigate.

As always when a noise awakens me, I wondered if I had really heard it. An aftershock sounded like a cat jumping down from a tall piece if furniture. It could actually have been a cat jumping down from a tall piece of furniture.

Two hours later we both woke from a lighter slumber when the house boomed again. I wondered if drifted snow had blocked the wall vent for the Monitor heater in the basement, leading to some sort of ominous backfire. I checked the vent with a flashlight. It was fine. I stoked the wood fire, turned down the Monitor setting so it would not come on, and returned to the nest. More aftershocks vibrated the house, but their exact location remained impossible to pinpoint.

The 5:30 blast clearly came from the section of roof I suspected. I had to get up anyway, so I went around turning on the heaters, feeding the cats and all the other routines of a winter morning. I haven't had much sleep, but that's how it goes. I keep promising to do better.

The temperature dipped close to 11 degrees below zero at dawn. The wind swayed the trees. Another day lay ahead, unexplored country in a familiar land.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Uh oh

If Barack Obama had to take the oath of office over again because of the mix up at the inauguration ceremony, that means all you people who fumbled your vows on your wedding day aren't really married.

That's it! Your kids are illegitimate! You're living in sin! Break it up!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Out of darkness comes light

Today the United States makes a significant step forward in cultural evolution with the election of the first chief executive of a race different from the room full of guys who stood together 230-odd years ago and launched this nation on its crazy course. We can all feel rightly uplifted by this acceptance that we should judge each other as human beings, not sorted into some sub-category.

Many factors contributed to bring this nation to the point where enough people would believe this at the same time and have the power to bring it about. Not the least of these is how bad the preceding executive has been. This takes absolutely nothing from Barack Obama. It says more about the sluggish, halting nature of humanity's trudge toward enlightenment. It takes big things to spur the first change in a series of changes long overdue.

If the attacks of September 11, 2001, had not occurred, George W. Bush would probably have been a one-term joke, an embarrassment like a big zit on prom night. The shock and fear the nation felt after the stunning blow delivered by foreign criminals in 2001 panicked enough people into mistaking Bush for an actual president that his reelection in 2004 was nearly guaranteed.

Granted, Bush and his administration were so bad that the election of 2004 was hotly contested and ugly. If he had really been transformed by 9-11-01 into a good choice to lead this country, his reelection in 2004 would have made more sense. But in a way it's a blessing he prevailed. We had to descend deeper into the morass of his creation to be ready to accept a very new choice in national leadership.

Obama emerged as a compelling speaker in the Democrats' losing bid in 2004. His eloquence and thoughtfulness spread the comforting image of a well-spoken leader. Such things were possible, if only we could hang on.

I did not choose Obama initially. He seemed a little young, although he is not the youngest to assume the Presidency. Initially his policies did not appeal to me as much as a little from this candidate and something else from that one. But as the campaign evolved, other candidates fell away. They have returned as advisors and cabinet nominees, which keeps alive the hope that the Obama administration will incorporate their good ideas.

Obama himself probably feels the responsibility of his historical significance as well as the burdens of the office itself. Let us not as a nation heap too much weight on the racial issue when the real duties and challenges of the Presidency will demand so much energy and attention. We did not elect a black man. We elected a person who appears to possess the leadership qualities we need to help us emerge from a tough time made worse by incompetent, corrupt and narrow-minded government. He happens to come from a different racial background than all of the nation's previous choices for more than two centuries. Judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. And that's how it should be.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another Reason to Question Our Established Conventions

This news story carried on Reuters reports that high levels of a certain kind of estrogen in women leads them to shop around for better mates even when they're in an established relationship. The suggestion comes from within their body chemistry.

From an animal standpoint it makes sense. A fertile, attractive female can attract better and better males, leading to offspring with theoretically better chances for survival and success.

Many of the conscious decisions humans have made about mating behavior over the years have dealt with known and logical indicators of status and success. This recent study simply provides further proof that the mechanisms are more automatic than many people may realize or wish to admit.

Guys, if you get dumped by that hot chick, remember two things: if you got to be there at all it's a compliment, and she didn't really have control over the decision to move on. Oh, and you're genetically inferior, so try to stay out of the way, okay? The hormones don't lie.

Employee Compensation

Our pay scales are generally upside down. Why should someone who gets to fly around in a corporate jet or sit in a cushy office make thousands of times as much as someone we ask to clean up the messes in public bathrooms?

Arguments for bloated executive compensation generally rest on the need to make our brilliant business tacticians feel good about themselves. They need to be able to schmooze and compete in the highest social circles. Start paying every one of them $30,000 a year while the custodial staff gets a quarter of a million to start and see if the highest social circles don't change abruptly. Suddenly the prize spot won't be the corner office, it'll be the broom closet.

Maybe our public restrooms will be cleaner. Shorten the shifts, sweeten the pay and watch those fixtures sparkle. Offer bonuses for better performance. We're already paying somebody a lot of money to do something. Maybe we've just been paying the wrong people to do the wrong thing. Re-allocate the budget to fluff up somebody else's account for awhile. Try it for a few years, then shift it again. I bet that will stimulate the economy much more than printing more money and stuffing it into the same holes we've been digging all along.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Drive Report: Pontiac Small Hippo

Now I understand why people drive so stupidly fast all the time. The soundproofing in the average sensory deprivation SUV is so complete, I thought I'd gone deaf. A smooth, heavy vehicle that feels solid and secure at 70 miles per hour feels like it isn't even moving at 40.

I definitely made the right choice yesterday, driving the little old Toyota Corolla with the good snow tires. All wheel drive does nothing for you when you're driving four cheesy tires.

On a snowy morning I will test the surface right after I pull out of my driveway, by jamming on the brakes and swerving, as long as no one is around. This lets me know what I might expect down the line and gives my reflexes a tune up before I need them. This morning I discovered that the anti-lock brakes in the Hippo feel like a nightclub bouncer throwing you off the brake pedal. "I'll handle this," says the muscly brute, shoving your foot away. "Sit down and shut up, pencil neck!"

It is as harsh and unpleasant as it sounds.

In the quest to make motor vehicles idiot proof, the auto industry has made them highly idiot resistant up to a point. Once that point is passed, all hell will break loose. In my favorite set of turns on the way to work, I decided to push things a little. The skimpy-treaded radials broke loose as I thought they would, causing the massive beast to lurch sideways toward the guardrail that stood between me and a pond. With officious whirring, clicking and grinding noises, computerized controls snapped into action to save me from myself. The result was not a snappy, skillful pullout, but a labored, slithering wallow back onto something resembling the right track.

These SUVs use lots of sophisticated computer equipment to compensate for the fact that they're really just rocket-propelled barges. If the automated systems can't overcome whatever pilot error has just been committed, the pilot has few options remaining. It's really easy to go too far.

Just dropping into the soft snow at the edge of the cleared lane elicited wallowing swerves. They were slight, but unsettling. It's ironic that a car like a Ford Escort or a Toyota Corolla with a weight around 2400 pounds has a more solid road feel than a supposedly capable truck weighing about 1200 pounds more. But think about it: the tires on the smaller car have a relatively larger bite on the road compared to the weight they are trying to keep on track. The little car sits lower and requires much less power to accelerate and much less force to steer or stop.

To help keep drivers aware of the fragile lives outside their cabin, auto makers should put some of that computer power to work on a system to reduce the cabin insulation and the sense of isolation at lower speeds. I thought at first this would be a simple matter of making the vehicles smooth and solid at highway speeds, but complete rattle traps at lower speeds. But this would backfire as people tried to stay at smooth speeds all the time. So the solution will have to be variable insulation or perhaps a constant nagging voice from the dash board.

"Slow down! Watch out for that bike! Hey, people are walking here! Oh god! You'll kill us all!"

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"Upgrade"

Because our spare car has become another casualty, my wife and I decided to rent a car for a week while the Ford is in the hands of the Gilford Guru. If the game runs more than a week we'll pursue other options.

The '95 Toyota unfortunately ended up in the hands of an unimaginative local mechanic who goes by the rate book no matter what. The collapsed strut the Gilford Guru could fix for about $180 got an estimate of about $400 from the guy nearby. And so it goes. The tow to Gilford would be prohibitive, so it may be "game over" for faithful Rusty.

The Gilford Guru did say he'd check out one last option for transporting the Toy before we write the official time of death. If Rusty comes back for another farewell tour it eases things considerably.

Meanwhile, the rental car. We signed up for an econobox, but the rental company upgraded me to a small hippo when I got there.

"Don't you have an econobox?" I asked.

"No," said the very nice rental guy. "We're upgrading you to the small hippo at no extra charge."

Before I could say anything he looked thoughtful. "Oh yeah, it will cost more in gas." Beat. "But it'll be great in the snow!"

He was very nice and I didn't want to be a prick, so I didn't say that I'd seen far too much ditch bait like this on its side with its summer radials in the air, and that I felt a lot more secure in a little econobox. They'd upgraded me, after all. Who wouldn't be tickled?

I remembered 2002, when my in-laws reserved a small SUV for four adults, an 11-year-old and all our luggage on a wedding trip to the Seattle area. That time, the rental company "upgraded" someone who didn't need an SUV with our car and stuck all of us in a Ford Escort. The best joke was that we met the people who got the upgrade at the wedding. They were telling everybody about how they arrived at the airport around mid-day and got such a nice treat from the car rental place.

Whoever got my econobox, wanna trade?

For now, I have to make a big sign to stick on the hippo, saying "Please don't hate me. It's a rental."

When the tranny comes out of the Escort I really want to get a catapult and fire it through the front windows of a certain Ford dealership. The Gilford Guru suggested a trebuchet was more hip, but I want something with a flat trajectory. I want that transmission casing to come in low and level, spewing burned fluid and small parts. I savor the thought of the explosion of glass shards and the sharp "whack" it will make when it hits the nearest display model.

The Guru said, "with a trebuchet, you could throw the whole car." As usual, I like the way he thinks. But the car was basically sound until the botched repair in Niantic. I hate to waste anything useful.

Until next time, kids, remember to get regular oil changes, check your tire pressures and never trust a dealership service department.

Cheerio!

Realities of Small Business

During periods of heavy tourist activity, the staff at the shops I work for goes without time off for the duration. Because we serve cross-country skiers, we work our hardest when everyone else is out of school or on vacation from work.

My employers tend to panic easily. They demanded from the beginning that I, their very first real full-time grunt, be available straight through the two weeks in February on which Massachusetts and New Hampshire schools close for February vacation.

We all soon realized that Massachusetts people may come to New Hampshire for vacation, but New Hampshire people usually get the hell away. We went back to taking our regular days off during the second vacation week in late February. That still leaves us working a 12-day marathon for the Massachusetts week.

Hell begins on the Friday leading into Presidents' Day Weekend. We run flat out until the end of Sunday the following weekend.

We get a foretaste of hell, ironically, around the holiday many people observe as the birth of the Son of God. If Christmas week is snowy, we're in the trenches. And Christmas can be worse than February, because the holiday falls on a specific date, not a movable three-day weekend. February vacation always runs from weekend to weekend. As eternal as it feels, it has a distinct pattern.

One may wonder why we don't add staff for the heavy periods.

In specialty retail, especially if you really care about your specialty, you need people who can work to a high standard, not just names on a schedule and mouth-breathers on the sales floor. Lord knows we get enough of those as customers. Although the schedule takes an increasing toll as we all get older, it still makes more sense to pay the overtime and work the stretch if we can manage it, than to try to rope in someone far less trained for a short hitch.

Small businesses don't have the luxury of extra personnel. Sometimes a specialty store like a bike or ski shop will develop a group of friends among the more addicted customers. These people can fill in sometimes. More often they can't. They have their own lives, which were well-planned enough to keep them out of a career in retail.

If things get really bad, a small business doesn't lay people off. It folds up. In the specialty arena, where service counts as much as sales, you have to reach a certain size to provide all the functions needed to survive. The next size down may be considerably smaller, like a single person in a tiny store front, doing his or her best to stay above water.