Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why private health insurance can't help but fail

An advertisement for United Health Care on television last night stated that they can provide high quality service because of their size. In other words, their group is large enough to buffer inevitable losses, should they be forced into actually paying a claim. They take in enough in premiums to pay their executives and managers, and the legions of telephone operators health insurance companies place between the customer and customer satisfaction, i.e. medical services actually reimbursed by the company.

If you believe the advertisement, all is well with the health insurance titan. As a corporation competing in the marketplace, it has gathered many customers. One can safely assume these customers have been gathered from United Health Care's competitors. Those competitors are therefore smaller, less able to withstand the stresses of being in business, and less able to offer tempting premiums (relatively speaking) in the health insurance field.

By the principles of business competition, these weaker players must fail or consolidate. Unless some artificial external force, like regulation, steps in to prevent United Health Care and the other players from duking it out everywhere in the country, market forces will prevail.

By the principles we've been told guide the level of premiums, the biggest company should be able to provide the best coverage. Let's ignore for a moment the temporary and misleading "introductory offers" a smaller company might use to gather customers who will later pay for their folly with a sharp spike in their costs. Just judging a company's value on the basis of size, the best health insurance company would have a nationwide monopoly and a group that includes every living soul. In short, it would be universal. But just when you think the socialists have maneuvered the free marketers into checkmate, remember two things: monopolies get broken up (at least according to legal technicality, if you're thinking of the oil and drug cartels), and private businesses will push for the most profit they can squeeze from the industry in which they operate. If that industry has no real competition, everybody has to fork out whatever the company demands. Introduce a competitor and you make smaller groups, pushing premiums up on the basis of the increased risk.

One giant group, insured by a non-profit entity, is the only approach that will control costs and cover everyone fairly. That's never going to happen in this country. I just wanted to remind y'all what you will be missing and why.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Ain't freedom grand?

One of the paradoxes of American freedom is that no one needs to feel a sense of national responsibility. As long as we can hire an army and make a little fuss over them, no one else needs to do a thing except for themselves. The fact that almost anyone with a choice chooses not to serve their country in that way should tell us all something about the desirability of continuing with conflict as a model of interaction. So far, that message has been lost. We continue to dare each other to back up our positions with brawn. This great nation boils down to my great country club. Who let all these poor people breed? Didn't anybody tell them that if they won't work for nothing we won't employ them?

The problems are always somebody else's fault. The fact that some of the finger pointing has merit makes it even more complex and contentious.

The only hope the middle class might have had in the face of this is that the producers need consumers. But as the manufacturers build up poorer nations by sending factories over there, they also create customers. Those new consumers, nearer where the goods are produced, have a little less money than the residents of former industrial nations in decline, but the manufacturers will save a bundle on shipping.

Durable change is always evolutionary, not revolutionary. A cataclysm may alter things in the geological world, but human nature remains human nature. In years, perhaps decades, the developing nations will have caught up to the previously developed ones. Only then might we deal with the inequities between labor and management. But even that remains questionable. Several factors could keep the debate from proceeding. To name but a few:

1. Industrial development in less advanced countries could finish destroying the climate balance that makes life itself possible.

2. Some jackass could start a bigger war than has been fashionable recently. Wars are great economic engines, but when the environment is already delicately balanced the impact of major destruction could tip thing over the edge even more quickly than careless industrialism. Idiots trying to preserve the status of a nation in decline might be willing to make an "all or nothing, live free or die" effort to put their faction back on top or go down gloriously in the attempt. Similarly, idiots in one of the countries that was never great and has no industrial future might feel like detonating whatever they can get their hands on.

3. Governments in the formerly great world powers could crumble before their form of social stratification has had a chance to spread uniformly around the globe. If communication and transportation degrade, local customs and superstitions will regain their former power to promote xenophobia. English is the language of aviation. It didn't need to be English, but that's how it worked out. If the spread of one language falters, everyone who is interested has to pick up another one, should a single candidate emerge from the ruckus. Will it remain widespread if people don't do a lot of flying? We're not that far from xenophobia as it is. Take away the ability of people to mix and mingle and we're right back to eating or enslaving strangers who crawl ashore from shipwrecks. The cute ones we might have sex with first.

Because everything you do makes a difference, but nothing you do matters, future generations (if any) will simply deal with whatever reality they inherit. If we go back to the level of the 17th Century, that's what the kids will breed in. That's the ultimate truth: if anyone is left to eat and screw, that's what they'll do. The rest is just ornamentation. No one planned in the long term to get us where we are. We're here because of a combination of short term goals and philosophies intended to be observed without end. That's not a long-term development plan.

No one explained this adequately when I was growing up. I doubt if too many people thought in these terms. I was taught short term planning and lifetime philosophies. Short term includes a whole human life span. Some people like to dwell on how brief that is (tick tock), but seldom go beyond the impact that has on retirement planning or how much time we get to spend hanging out with our friends and loved ones -- short term aspects again. Humans make a big deal out of themselves when, in geological terms, they're just a passing itch on the surface of the globe. This planet doesn't need us. Only we need us.

As far as national responsibility goes, we're better off without too insular a sense of national unity and purpose. Unfortunately, as national identity shifted to a particular flag waving above personal gain, we've been slow to accept the concept of the individual human living on the human planet and needing to take care of it. Too many of us have no sense of ownership or stewardship, depending on your inclination. Those who fear one-world government see only that. They recoil in revulsion from anything that looks like global leadership. And they are right to do so. Why should one-world government work any better than the many examples of messed up national, regional and local government? But we're stuck with each other. We'd better figure out how to balance all our competing wants before we are no longer able to meet our needs.

Evolution grinds slowly. It tends to hinge on physical characteristics. Species success depends entirely on creating future generations. We've got that down. Now we deal with the trickier problem of intellectual evolution. Signs of it are obvious. So are signs of resistance to it. The mere fact of an individual's existence and breeding readiness mean nothing to the future survival and prosperity of an idea. The idea needs minds in which to flourish. So humans, always cooking up something, keep experimenting. Because so much is theoretical, we argue and argue while physical effects of previous decisions continue to accumulate.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The 2010 election in a nutshell: "I got tired of waiting for your computer to download an important update, so I hit it with a rock."

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

November 2: The Groundhog Day of politics

I predict that no matter which party controls Congress at the end of today's voting (and any necessary recounts) we will see no improvement for at least two years --if then.

If the Democrats retain control, the Republicans will continue to obstruct them. As shown in the sabotage of the health care bill, even if something big does pass, it will be so mangled as to be completely useless.

If the Republicans win, they will do as little as possible to make things better to make sure the Obama administration does not get any credit for turning things around. The financiers of the Republican Party can weather considerable hard times to squeeze the majority of voters and get them to blame the wrong people, as usual, for their difficulties.

Once the Republicans assure themselves both Congress and the White House they can return to strip mining the country as they so happily did under George Bush. They have put themselves against government for so long that they no longer know how to run one for the good of an entire nation.

The vocal factions that want even smaller government will make sure that the debate includes lots of pistol-wearing and head stomping.

Don't like my prediction? Prove me wrong.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

About the labor charges:

You are purchasing an irreplaceable part of another person's life to perform a task you were unable or unwilling to do yourself.

Much of my job involves solving problems for peanuts. Some people obviously consider the tasks they bring us to be beneath them, while at the same time requiring skills they do not possess. These are the people who typically complain about how much our services cost. They have decided their lives are worth more than ours. Some of them might be surprised to hear it put that way. Some of them might acknowledge the fact and say that we are where we have put ourselves. But by rank-ordering people by their occupation we create a climate in which people on lower levels think only of getting above them at any cost. This does not translate into excellent job performance. Think instead of a camp full of prisoners of war trying every trick they can think of to tunnel out, go over the wall or sabotage the schemes of those who hold them. Not everyone who ends up on a lower rung "deserves" to be there.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Updating the technology

I'm writing this on a new-to-me iMac G5. My old notebook, the faithful HP ze5170 has been manifesting more and more ominous symptoms. I knew I wanted something that would do more tricks. When a Mac-savvy friend mentioned this unit she had been harboring I made the move to Apple.

I had been bilingual. The newspaper used Apple computers, and so does my wife. They really do have a knack for getting the software out of the way of creativity. My Mac-tech friend, who is also awesome musician Beverly Woods, fitted this thing out with a big honkin' hard drive and various graphics software. And I could lay the monitor flat and sleep on it. There's a lot of acreage here.

I picked it up earlier this week, but haven't had a chance to turn it on and load drivers for the resident peripherals until today.

I must now live up to it. My wife has a song project she wants illustrated.

After getting by on the netbook for so long it feels wonderfully roomy to have a full-size keyboard. I have to resume my dutiful attempts to learn touch typing.

I keep reaching for a touch pad that isn't there. But this is nice. Pretty darn nice.

Beginning summer with a chore for winter

Wood is not a heat source for the indolent. This summer I actually got motivated to make drying stacks from the unruly pile dumped from my firewood supplier's truck. What you see in the picture took nearly four hours. I have more to do, but I got tired. The job gets old long before it gets done.

Wood pellets have become fashionable, but pellets are a manufactured product. Their price and availability fluctuates radically. Pellets and wood chips also contribute to forest loss. They seem at first like a great way to use more of the tree, but the removal of slash and treetops from logged areas contributes to soil loss as more organic material is carted off and turned into carbon dioxide and soot in heating and energy systems instead of being left to rot.

Firewood won't work for everyone. If too many people used it, North America would become a desert in a matter of months. There are simply too many people. For now, it works for some of us. Other energy sources came to dominate for good reason. But there's no fuel like and old fuel, when it's right for the job.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The fan droned placidly

Members of the conservation commission attended the selectmen's meeting on Tuesday expecting to be criticized and possibly insulted for a decision they'd been forced to make based on inadequate information. We had not been summoned, but presented ourselves to report, as civil and rational colleagues, if the board had any questions or comments.

We are technically appointed by the select board. They could fire us and form a new commission if they chose. I do my best to help here, but if the town leaders decide that a less active and committed commission reflects the will of the citizens better, they have the power to take that controversial step. I can certainly find other ways to keep busy during the declining years of life on Earth.

We were not on the agenda. The board would only have received our decision that afternoon. We were there as a courtesy in case they wanted to address any of their concerns immediately.

Apparently they did not.

I had to leave before the end because of a previously scheduled personal commitment. Before I left I watched them govern for a while.

It's a strange little anti-government government. These people are paid with our tax dollars, which makes them kin to all in that position, but their caustic comments and eye rolls about the feds and state officials clearly showed that they do not sense it.

The chair of the board walks a convoluted tightrope above his constituency here in town. As referred to in an earlier post, the small population here holds the width of viewpoints held in the national population. We have tree-hugging socialists and gun-toting authority-haters. Interestingly, both these polar opposites get together to agree on the basics like road maintenance and other routine functions of the community before returning their customary scathing assessments of each other's mental competence.

The select board does not hold this place together so much as balance on top of the constant minor earthquake. The political speech is a caricature, the duplicity almost instantaneous, as people come forward who have very different positions. Politicians aren't lying, they're just trying to reflect the desires of whoever is in front of them at that moment. Sensitive to the entire audience, this board leans in an anti-government direction and praises property rights and jobs over environmental protection. The environmentalists are used to taking crap and being dismissed. Apparently we can take it and always will. The sad fact is, they're right. Short-sighted, selfish people who are willing to act out and destroy things always get attention over the small, the peaceful, and the hard to understand. If something is hard to understand, get angry at it and order it to become simple! And spout a catch phrase when you do it.

I don't say it's easy to govern, especially when you can face a room packed with angry neighbors. They also stop you in the grocery store, the post office and on the road. Not me, mind you. The board and commission on which I serve tend to function mostly ignored. But the selectmen are the headliners. They become the lightning rod. I've seen the chairman go from being a quiet but open person to someone not vastly, but noticeably, more guarded and angry.

Service to the people forces you to deal with everything about them. It either hardens you somewhat or it cuts you to pieces. That hardness does not have to be cold and cruel. It can simply be a measure of clinical detachment or prudent defensiveness. Or it can form a shell around a bitter center.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Local Control

Small town government is really depressing.

In the human race there's only a small pool of good leaders and another pool of leaders whose style falls more into the category of warlords and dictators. These two groups account for all the ideas the rest of us get recruited to support or oppose. People who possess fewer leadership qualities fill the management and labor positions. Some people try to stay out of social systems entirely.

So much for the general situation. Someone somewhere has compiled statistics on the actual proportions in the population. The idea that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people springs to mind, but that's a tiny fraction of the story. Leaders pick the work.

In a small population the smaller percentage of good leaders represents a minuscule actual number. They seldom hear praise, but complaints are often delivered face to face in unconstructive terms. Leading in a small town can be like leading outlaws or pirates. As long as you can maintain control in the ranks you won't be deposed. You have to show them victories and plunder and prove that you are still tougher than they are.

In some towns the veneer of civility may be thicker than in others. In this one the division between people with what you might call a global perspective and those with an intensely self-centered one is sharp. At this point there appear to be no swing voters. It all comes down to apathy. The ones who would choose not to be governed do their best to ignore government and remain invisible to it. The ones who believe government can be conducted civilly and productively for long-term benefits keep plugging away. But there aren't enough of them to fill all the necessary slots.

The present supreme leadership of the town seems unduly susceptible to pressure from the faction with very short-term goals. Unfortunately, small towns get run by people with the time to devote to it. The alternatives who have offered themselves for the position have all been demonstrably worse.

Petty people in positions of power present a particular problem. Some people fear rules because petty leaders can use them as power tools. But petty leaders who try to circumvent the rules end up doing worse damage to the system we are supposed to operate for the good of all. Sometimes the authority figure hung up on procedure is not just doing it to swing a big stick. Sometimes it really has to do with respect for the institution that is supposed to operate on a time frame beyond a single human lifetime. The system is supposed to outlive each of us individually because it serves us collectively across generations. Therefore it may have needs that supersede our short-term desires.

The 1960s brought about a great many good and necessary things. Unfortunately it also fed a culture of self indulgence and impatience that finds expression in such disparate ways as huge cars, suburban mansions, swingers' clubs and doomsday religions. Party or worship like there's no tomorrow. There's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The good things from the 1960s were a willingness to question authority at all levels and a sense of individual worth that can lead to a very responsible respectful society if you recognize that every self has worth, no greater or less than your own. It's hard when those selves choose to do things that range from annoying to abhorrent. No one said life was easy. It just gets hard in different ways as we learn more and more about ourselves and our universe. For every physical hazard we have reduced, a new ethical dilemma arises. For every technology that makes life seem easier we have a new set of unintended consequences to discover and mitigate.

I didn't ask for this. If I didn't have to work for a living I would happily just sit for days at a time, watching the mountains erode under the ever-changing weather. I've never felt the need to be constantly busy. But someone has to do something about, or for, the people who do. I have to walk into the arena of the pissing contest, umbrella in hand, and speak in defense of reason.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Cartooning is fiddling in the world of art

The world of fiddling includes hot players with extensive classical training and highly regarded performers with little or no formalized training. Likewise the ranks of cartooning include many who attended or even finished art school. Others have acquired skills mostly on their own to bring their ideas to paper.

Ultimately, the result is what matters. The formally trained practitioner in either art or music may have a bigger toolbox or a deeper understanding of the few tools applied in a given circumstance. I won't argue against a proper education. But as one who has evaded a full formal education I have to hope for the outsider as well.

Fiddling is music of the people. Cartooning is art of the people. I'm sure the first cartoon was an unflattering depiction of the tribal chief that led directly to the first commandment forbidding graven images and the first cartoonist to get stoned. Before Art was invented, people just tried to get a point across with pictures. You need me to draw you a picture? As art has developed, certain artistic people have collected advanced techniques to help them make a picture they find more satisfactory. At the same time, scribbling miscreants all over the world are doing crude renderings and eliciting huge laughs from their audience. I remember a few times in school when my friends and I could not inhale because we were trying to control our laughter during a class when someone had made or found a scribbled cartoon.

One of the best art teachers I've met was a fellow student at the first and only Center for Cartoon Studies gag cartooning workshop in 2006. I hope I would feel the same way if I encountered him as an undergraduate properly enrolled in one of his classes. All I can say is that right now what he says resonates with me.

Jamie Smith posts items about his teaching and cartooning endeavors at his blog, Ink & Snow. Here is a link to his profile information. If you wonder how it's done and how you might do some yourself, scroll through his articles. If you just want to laugh at his cartoons you can find links to take you to a bunch of them.

He did not get a college art education. But he is hardly uneducated.

One thing unifies successful people: they identify their core interest and refuse to be dislodged from it. The same quality afflicts many unsuccessful people who for various reasons fail to make it, but you seldom find a successful person who got there without trying.

I am a fiddler by temperament. I never took well to formal education even though I remained institutionalized for 17 years. I did not have the drive and the need to break out when I could remain subsidized and still pay attention only to what interested me in my immediate vicinity. My major regret is that I did not take more advantage of what I could have sniffed out. I don't really regret any lack of attention in the actual classes for which I registered.

Live and learn, the saying goes. Of course it's easy to pick alternate choices looking back. It really doesn't get any easier looking forward. You can make more rational choices but you can't control what comes from outside. You can only continue to follow your interests in the style that suits you.

When I started cartooning in seventh grade, I did not study it exhaustively. I did not understand the difficulty of the drawing process. Words and ideas came easily. They still do. The drawing comes as hard to me as prying notes off a page and hammering them one at a time like nails into my skull so that I can twiddle through 45 seconds of music. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I can come up with a thousand words far more quickly than I can produce a professional quality drawing to depict them. After looking at some of the cartooning blogs on the glorious Interweb, I'm not sure I have ever produced a professional quality drawing, regardless of what has gotten published, even though I got paid for some of it. There is some serious damn' art out there.

I scribble on.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sawing Down a Redwood Tree with a Nail File

My music teacher puts her adult students in her school recitals along with her other students. At least once a year we stand or sit before the assembled audience to perform what we've been practicing for a few months. Sometimes we only perform as part of a larger group made up mostly of children. At other events we have enough pieces of our own to rate a short section of the program in our own age group.

On Friday, May 21, we had two pieces supposedly ready, and then were scheduled to join the whole orchestra for a three-page finale number. It had a lot of eighth notes.

Your common eighth note doesn't look like much. One or two at a time they present only a quick hurdle to hop in the normal 4/4 world. But when they gang up on you it's a different story. And then there's cut time. Take your 4/4, chop it to 2/2 (that's two beats to a measure, half note has one beat), smear liberally with eighth notes, heat and serve.

One fellow striver in the adult group pointed out that you can cheat your way into it by counting it as a fast four, seeing as there weren't any half notes anyway. I do the same thing riding rollers to music. I'll subdivide a beat to find a cadence that keeps me in time to whatever is playing. It's a damn sight easier when you're strapped to pedals on fixed-length crank arms than when you're trying to find a series of unmarked targets with the fingers of your left hand while coordinating the movement of the bow held in your right.

Over the years I have avoided practicing when my teacher was at home because I did not want to subject her to student noises when she's off duty. Sometimes I can't help playing when she's home, because I have to get ready for one of these recitals. At other times she'll throw me a new exercise or book or show me a technique. Only recently did she actually tell me she prefers not to have to hear me struggle because she is so conditioned to respond. So now it seems more important to find other times and places to practice.

I don't like to be heard by anyone, really. The noises I make just aren't that good. It's supposed to be enjoyable, unless you're a really advanced modern composer for whom the academic exercise of a particular piece of music theory is more important than the listener's pleasure. Some of them seem actually hostile to the notion of listening pleasure. But that's a small group. I hardly qualify as an advanced musical theorist.

Now that the weather is mild I can practice in the garage. The mosquitoes can be a problem, but that may help with faster tempos. Also remember to stand between the hanging kayaks so you don't jam the tip of the bow into the bottom of a boat.

The recitals always seem to come a week or two sooner than I'm ready for them. This time I had put a lot of time into the long, difficult piece, which made the shorter pieces seem easier. If nothing else I figured our plucky group would knock those out of the park. On the longer one I had drilled the hard sections over and over, and tried to knit them together. Music in parts sounds weird when the parts are played separately.

Many of the parents in the audience know me from other activities. Others are strangers. Anyone who has a student in the program for a season or two finds out about the adult group, but not every child stays in it. Sometimes the audience includes nonplussed adults looking at the handful of people on stage who are their own age or older, but who sound like they're anywhere between 10 and 17 when they play. Who are we? Why do we put ourselves and our audience through this?

Some of the parents in the audience tried to learn with us. They understand the best.

When we finished this time I felt drained, and not in a good way. Every piece went off the rails at some point. We dragged it back every time, but I had let myself hope for better.

After every recital, our teacher tells us we did well. She listens for what went right and praises it. She always tells us to keep reading and find a place to jump back in when we fumble.

I look forward to a time when every performance isn't a continuous exercise in damage control. It's actually a mark of improving skill to know how to do damage control, but damage occurred nonetheless. If someone hadn't been playing the right stuff while those of us in the weeds were getting out of them, our detours would not have sounded anything like what the composer put on the page. Sure, the audience isn't looking at a score. Even if we're playing a scaled-down version of a popular classic, like the 1812 Overture, people might assume the part they've never heard is part of the rearrangement. But I know the difference. It wasn't supposed to be that way.

At one point in the 1812 on Friday, my teacher was playing my part along with me. I heard a mess start to my left. Suddenly the teacher was yanking on the downbeats. I didn't know if she was trying to get me to do something differently, so I hit turbulence. It turned out she was trying to get the cellist to hammer the downbeats. I don't know if the cellist got the message. The thing about these short versions is that they're over quickly. Right or wrong, finish together and look like you planned it that way.

Because my music teacher needs to put these events behind her as soon as they happen, I don't even have anyone to discuss my performance with until many days later when she might be willing to talk about it. I might want to groove on the fact that I found a note I could pedal on for a measure or two until I could jump back in, or that I worked out a shift to avoid having to work around my fat fingers crossing strings.

Musicians can suffer from a certain kind of jealousy or competitiveness, a hierarchical consciousness that makes them critical of concepts they themselves did not bring to the conversation. It's especially pronounced when a novice discovers a concept independently or learns it during independent research. Who am I, without a music license, to develop theories? A rare few seem to possess only a generous spirit, but maybe I simply have not seen them at their worst. Some have it really badly, others only display it under the right provocation. As with any insecurity, it rises and falls with the sufferer's general level of insecurity. I have to phrase questions carefully.

In the hierarchy of musicians, the known better musicians can expound with relative impunity, especially if they do so with charming humility. Even if they're arrogant jerks, if they have the chops to back it up they can be as snotty as they like. Musicians of nearly equal, completely equal or greater skill may engage to various degrees in the exchange of barbs, but the rest of you louts may only grunt along with whichever team you choose to support.

Free-range musicians can work on a personal style completely outside any of the established hierarchies and then break in as a discovery, if their music is good enough. And many of us just grind away as best we can. Anyone tramping through the musical forest who hears the sounds coming from my campfire will probably fade into the darkness and continue to search for real talent elsewhere.

"As long as you're enjoying it,..." my teacher says. Every teacher and most local musicians say the exact same thing. As long as you're enjoying it, keep doing it. Talking to Darol Anger after a Republic of Strings concert at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, a couple of weeks ago, I was joking around about my wretched skill level. "As long as you're enjoying it," he said.

It's a little hard to reconcile this "any number can play, DO try this at home" attitude with the supercilious response of some of the musical cognoscenti. It is important to know your place. So for the foreseeable future my place is the garage, and student recitals, local string band gatherings if I'm so inclined, and other corners and closets.

The violin is the hardest thing I've ever tried to learn. Fretless stringed instruments played with a bow demand the absolute highest level of coordination and precision. I may not possess it. But small successes lure me on and the music so far is fairly straightforward to decipher, even when playing it completely eludes me. I don't have to grapple with massive piano chords or the intricacies of multifarious picking techniques. I know for a fact I won't settle for three chords and high amplification. So I keep sawing away.

The music teacher is off at work. I can play in the house today.

Friday, April 23, 2010

SEC Officials Addicted to Porn

According to news reports, regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission suddenly started spending hours viewing pornographic material, just as the financial system was beginning to tumble into its collapse in 2008.

While this appears to be a scandalous, outrageous neglect of their duties, I wait for their legal counsel to put forward the only possible defense.

"These regulators were actually doing work-related research. They knew the economy was about to be completely fucked, so they were studying what happens in that situation."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Liberty Logic

If external laws and regulations enacted by your elected government keep you from doing whatever you want, whenever you want, you have been coerced into giving up your freedom.

If your own voluntary self restraint keeps you from doing whatever you want, whenever you want, you've been brainwashed into giving up your freedom.

The only way to know you are truly free is to rip, tear, grab, guzzle, reproduce and lay waste like there's no tomorrow. Even if you don't, you can be assured that plenty of people will.

Angry Sign Wavers

The words Tea Party make me want to take up alcoholism.

I don't like angry sign wavers, no matter what they represent. If your political position will fit on a sign, you haven't thought hard enough about it. If you're thinking, you probably aren't yelling. By extension, if you are yelling, you probably aren't thinking, unless your yell is tactically calculated to create noisy confusion to mask the advance of a more complicated agenda behind that screen of unthinking sign wavers you have recruited.

The only thing worse than an unthinking sign waver is a cunning one. They are most likely no more honest with their followers than they are with their adversaries. So don't talk to me about who is more likely to set us up for fascism or lead the country into ruin. What will lead the country into ruin is the preference for angry sign waving over well-reasoned plans, articulately presented.

Too many big words.


I could ignore it as long as it stayed on the television. I could drive past the shiny new Don't Tread on Me flags hanging from poles in front of scattered houses around the area. Then I heard one of my employers asking about getting a Tea Party tee shirt. If I have to listen to it every working day I may go insane.

I'm too responsible to go to work drunk. Honestly, though, when faced with the human race's ineradicable narrow mindedness and tendency to threaten violence over almost any disagreement I go home every night and seek the solace of ethanol.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

1.5 million years ago, humans developed conscious thought. This was immediately followed by the world's first bad idea.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Capitalist Leaders with Socialist Defenders

Looking at graphs on the Campaign for America's Future website depicting the federal deficit and the relationship of its rise and fall to tax rates and defense spending, I imagined a future in which a small private sector commands a large defense force made up of what used to be the working class. The system could work quite well.

The power class, the elite private sector families who control all wealth, would pay taxes only to fund a huge defense department. Since these wealthy families would control all real estate, and all other citizens would be employed by their government, the country would not need to fund parks, welfare or public transportation for the messy lives of free-range citizens who can't or won't afford their own cars, medical care and sprawling estates. As military personnel, the working class would receive a fair wage, uniforms, medical care and housing, as well as job training and assigned tasks. Even in wartime, military personnel get R&R. In peacetime it's just another job. Children would be raised on military bases, taught in base schools, using a standardized curriculum that would prepare them for the life of service ahead of them.

Assuming that the majority of people have no great ambition and don't really care what they do for a living, this would keep that large segment of the population occupied and controlled. The power class could then do what they wanted with the environment and the economy, because the dutiful military would not be allowed to bargain for better terms.

Success depends on good management to keep the military from taking over completely. It would depend on the perfect balance between threat and actual destructive warfare. Terrorism provides an excellent adversary to stimulate nationalistic paranoia. They really could do something tragically nasty. We don't need to be attacked by lizards from space. We have plenty of cold-blooded killers right here on our own planet. If we choose to focus only on that we can easily justify the militarization of most of our population to protect our wealthy minority.

The wealthy minority will see much more direct benefits for their tax dollars with a virtual mercenary army looking out for them.

The reason this won't happen is simple. The wealthy in this country won't want to employ everyone else in their citizen army. We will always have more people than we need. In the finest tradition of business, the bean counters will lay off the extra personnel, creating unattached workers again.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Early Monday Morning

The cats clustered nervously around the living room stove. A mysterious creature scrabbled in the stove pipe. I'm guessing the Easter Bunny got trashed at the after party and started dissing Santa Claus. This led to the inevitable challenge bet. Guess who lost.

I opened the clean-out door on the outside of the chimney. Two cats tried to enter, but pulled back quickly. When I inserted a mirror to look up and down, I heard a hissing noise. An unidentifiable appendage flicked up toward my hand, so I withdrew it. I draped an old towel over the lip of the door as an escape ladder. I'll check it later.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care Passes. Right?

Politicians are what we have made them. It's popular now to growl menacingly about the next election when things don't please us. Then we turn around and complain that they're always campaigning and they'll take funds from Satan himself to pay for the next election victory. Thinking is always someone else's job, and then we complain about how it gets done.

Because leadership in this country is a popularity contest every leader loses the ability to lead in the process of getting elected.

The private sector is no better. I've experienced the management style and social skills of a number of business leaders. They can be as loud, confident and wrong as Joe Biden is reputed to be. It's great to have their energy and their delicious money behind projects like a local bike route, but some of these go-getters make up in decisiveness what they lack in cycling experience and technical knowledge. And their egos restrict who they will allow to educate them.

A manager does not need to know how to do everything. He or she needs to know where to find the people who do, and how to motivate them to produce it. If the underlings don't do well with the overlord's personality, less gets done, or it gets done less well. Observers on the sidelines can simply watch the waves crash on the shore as the two forces interact.

Because the campaign never ends, politicians need to show miraculous results on questions that don't succumb to quick fixes, like health care. We needed to pass some comprehensive legislation a couple of decades ago (or longer), but we could dicker about it for 20 more years and never get anything better than we just got. So there it is. If it survives the court challenges already brought against it it will still be a deformed monster put together by the mad scientists of Congress.

Truly progressive citizens complain rightly that it doesn't go far enough. Conservatives complain that it exists at all. They say they want to do something, but they want to do it thoughtfully and, by their reckoning, "right." A good time might be several Congresses after all of them have retired as Taxpayers' Heroes and gone on to that great golf course in the sky.

Let's give the supporters of this bill credit for going out on a limb with it. They have much more to lose than the opponents, because things WILL NOT get instantly better. The opponents will have plenty of time to say "I told you so" before the next election. They can blame domestic turmoil on the failed bill rather than their own obstructionism.

Imagine some people clinging to a rock as heavy surf smashes them. Progressives say we should make a human chain toward the cliff and try to climb up to a more secure perch. Conservatives point out that only a minority of people are getting sucked into the ocean to die, whereas this hare-brained human chain project looks dangerous to them. The status quo is manageable.

The human chain requires more people than the progressives can muster. Every attempt to make the human chain with only the willing ends in disaster. The conservatives look on smugly as their prophecies of failure come true time after time. At the same time they inch higher on the rock, oblivious to the rising tide which will eventually crest above its peak.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

And the Grief Goes On

A month into the grieving process, the bereaved is like a Superball whipped hard into an empty room in a vacuum at zero G. Other objects and substances are injected into the room from time to time. Sticky items impede the ball or stop it completely, but inevitably something explodes and launches it again, up, down and off the wall.

Actually it's not like that at all. You can use physics to predict the motion of the ball, but you have no way to know which way the aching mind and heart of a human being will go next. You might predict with 80 percent accuracy, but the remaining 20 percent error is more than enough to make a situation worse. Grief amplifies every stress you already had, as well as dumping on its own unbelievable load.

At times she can be deceptively normal. Don't be fooled. The year is only a twelfth gone. And some vestige of the pain will be with her forever. Hopefully the random outbursts of anger and the harsh comparisons to the lives and luck of others will cease. There is no set schedule for these things, only some data on averages.

People have to decide early in life: do you want to be lovable and beloved, and leave a gaping, aching hole when you die, or be surly and cold, however useful and virtuous, so people are just as glad when you're gone?

I've tended to be clinical. Some view that as cold. I think of it as keeping a solid stance from which to offer genuine help, not just sympathetic emotion. I have to stay on balance as much as possible in a surging tide of unbalancing forces that can as suddenly turn into a placid sea, only to spew forth a monster from the depths that turns out to be a playful otter that gets eaten by a shark and a beautiful sunset leads to a black night and so on.

All the while, important decisions have to be made, as in any life. Advice from others who have grieved says to avoid making important decisions for as long as the random agonies are going on, but life doesn't wait. You can only make what seems like the best decision at the time. To those inclined to worry, there's always something to worry about. To those inclined to regret, the same principle applies, even under the best circumstances. You move forward even when you try not to move.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Opportunity and hindrance

I married my music teacher. While that has brought me many musical opportunities, it also keeps me from practicing as much as I might like. I hate to make student noises when she's trying to relax at home, so I tend to try to practice when she's away.

For the past week she has been in California at the American String Teachers Association national conference. She did a presentation on teaching adult beginners, which was very well received. She used a poster of one of my cartoons, which was also very well received. I am going to have to set up an e-commerce site so teachers can download cartoons for a fee. She set me a deadline some time in May.

Once that is up and running I suppose I can add sections on other topics. Obviously I have to learn some things.

While she's been away I have had an orgy of practice. I wish I could say it had made me a lot better, but it certainly hasn't made me any worse.

I still have trouble with paper training. Music tends to get into my head. I like to play while wandering around the house or standing in front of my computer speakers, harmonizing with drones on a collection I purchased from Darol Anger's website. The tracks play for about six minutes in iTunes. Oddly, it appears no longer to be available. Glad I got mine.

The drones help train the ear. They also generate some weird resonances. Each drone suggests a tune to me. I'll work the riff over and over until the track changes to the next one in the sequence. The change makes me hunt around for the musical relationships that work with the steady note. Or, if I like what I've been playing, I will start the previous track over again.

The Internet needs Tune Search, where you play the little scrap of tune you've picked out and it tells you what it's from, if it's from anything. If it's not from anything, congratulations, you're a composer! For the moment, you can only play it for a more experienced friend who might be able to identify it. But that risks embarrassment.

Eventually I have to put away the instrument and get to bed. I've had to work every day she's been away, so I should not have been staying up as late as I have. But then the house is quiet and cold. The cats do what they can. My natural restlessness when alone keeps me up and playing. I'm even plinking stuff out on the piano with one hand while brushing my teeth.

With a musician co-worker I was browsing mandolins on a website he frequents. When he bought a travel guitar there it came with a free mandolin. Crazy. But a fifty-buck mandolin sounds about like you'd expect when they can go for as much as $230,000. And we thought the one for a mere 23 grand was impressive.

Looks like a solid starter instrument will go for about $200. Just thinking. The cellist and I had both been thinking one might be handy. Tuned like a violin, it offers another platform for trying out some of the same tunes. And it's easier to play when slouched on the couch in front of the tube. Why fight it?

After six straight nights of practice my fingers are wrecked. But it's like when I finally got the Telemark turn. My legs were screaming, but I wasn't going to stop when things were finally working right.

Learning a difficult instrument as an adult is like trying to saw down a redwood tree with a nail file. You're only going to get it if you keep at it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Free Market Failure in a Service Economy

A sport shop in town sharpens ice skates. The owners invested thousands of dollars in a large, console-type machine to provide top-quality service to their customers.

Other businesses in town have offered skate sharpening. On the basis of price, quality and the intangibles of customer service, these establishments competed for customer dollars. Gradually, all but one gave it up.

The survivor, a multi-sport shop, balanced its offerings through the four seasons of each different year. It did not set out to have a monopoly on sharpening. That condition was an accident.

One customer, an accountant with several hockey-playing children and ample disposable income, decided he no longer wanted to pay the established sharpening business for their services. He invested instead in his own machine.

Over the years, he has developed a sort of client list among various skating groups. What is not clear is whether he is charging for his services or simply giving them away because he enjoys it.

If he is giving away a service another business has made a capital investment to offer at a professional level, he is undermining the free market. He takes unfair advantage of his position, having a comfortable income from another source, to reduce the income of hard-working people who don't have the same options he does. If he is charging a rate so low that no commercial establishment could match it, he's competing unfairly, using his other income as a subsidy.

From a standpoint of personal freedom, this guy should be allowed to do whatever he likes. But if his hobby involves legitimate services someone else has to charge for, its ripples travel throughout the financial world. In this microcosm you can see what dooms the fantasy of a completely free, unregulated market. Unpaid dabblers throw unmeasurable turbulence into the calculation. And they are but one variable.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The First Six Days

Helping someone grieve for one of the most important people in her life is especially hard because the thing you want most to give them is impossible to provide. You can't make it not hurt. You have to let it hurt and walk with them at their own pace.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The New American Eagle

A birdy with a yellow bill

Spoke to me from Capitol Hill.

It fixed me with a beady eye

and said, "If you get sick, you'll die

'cause Hell will freeze, it surely will,

before we pass a heath care bill."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

So Begins a Year

The cellist's mother died about 12 or 14 hours after the cellist arrived in Maryland.

Recovery from the death of a loved one or any other intense experience takes a year. If you've been through a rough patch, you may be in several overlapping years of recovery.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Bullet Not Dodged

The cellist's mother is dying. It is imminent. The cellist is leaving tomorrow morning on a flight to try to be there before it happens.

The process has lasted for years. It accelerates now. First there were the cystic kidneys, the same disease that will kill my wife. In the nick of time, a donor organ became available. Then it turned out the cystic kidneys had developed cancer. This happens. Chemo failed to stop the metastasized disease. Side effects accumulated. The family members have gone through the wrenching process of trying to come to grips with it.

Tonight she lies in the hospital receiving comfort care only, with a Do Not Resuscitate order. The final bullet cannot be dodged.

Everybody dies. I can't really call any way a good way, but some sure seem better than others. The one thing you can't deny is that you end up dead when your particular process is over.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Sudden Challenge

Several years ago we received a Jotul 118B box stove from someone who was clearing out some excess possessions. We put it in the garage because we already had a Taiwanese copy of a Jotul heating the house from the basement.

Comparing the two, the real Norwegian was clearly of higher quality than the Asian knock-off. When I moved the old stove to the basement in 1993, it seemed massive. It certainly isn't light. But it sounds like tin when you clank the side after rapping your knuckles (carefully) against the Jotul. I could just lift one end of the Taiwotul. I could barely lift one end of the Jotul.

The heavy beast sat in the back of the garage while I found many reasons to avoid coming to grips with it. Then last night as I stoked the Taiwotul at bed time I saw a hairline crack up the side of it. The side bulged very slightly but the crack was only a faint line. I didn't think the plate would split and dump hot coals onto the floor before morning. That didn't stop me from adding house fires to the list of short film subjects in a busy dream queue.

The Taiwotul served me for 20 years. It came with the house, so it wasn't new two decades ago. No hard feelings. The inner plates of the fire box have warped and broken. The chunks that had fallen off in later years had been small enough to blend with the ash I shoveled out every few days. I expected it to give out before much longer.

At least I had a nice day for all these maneuvers. I used a block and tackle to drag the Jotul into the center of the garage and hoist it onto the garden cart. Then I drove out to the hardware store to get a hydraulic jack and a hand truck.

Since the stove is a crucial part of the winter heating system, I needed to get this done. I wasn't completely sure the Jotul had all its parts. Because it is so heavy, it made just as much sense to go ahead and try to install it as it would to assemble it somewhere else and then knock it down so I could move it to where I needed it.

I moved the box without its legs. The box is so heavy, I feared that the mass would bend or break the legs if I leaned the stove too far over with them in place. Once I moved away from where I could rig the overhead tackle I had to do everything with leverage and the jack.

The actual move went smoothly. No one could have helped because the box is too small for two people to grip effectively. Two people couldn't lift it safely anyway.

With the box on the hand truck I installed the front legs. I placed the box in such a way that I could lower it onto its front legs with the back end elevated on a piece of timber. One grunt at a time I was able to lift that end and insert chunks of two-by-four to gain enough clearance for the bottle jack. With the jack I lifted the box high enough to block it up while I bolted on the remaining pair of legs.

The outlet lined up with the stove pipe better than the old stove. I thought I had it made. Then I noticed the light shining through the rusted-out bottom of the connecting reducer. Crap!

I'd already had to make a second trip to the hardware store to exchange a defective jack. Now I sprinted out again to get stove pipe parts to improvise the connection to the chimney.

Again I got lucky as the simplest piece did the trick.

With no manual I had to figure out how the internal parts fit together before I put the top plate back on the stove. Between the Internet and the Taiwotul I figured it out.

Once lit, the stove showed its quality right away. Superficially nearly identical to the old stove, this one draws better and more quietly. It heats quickly, despite the thickness of the metal and the intact inner plates. Within a couple of minutes it had heated the basement enough to allow the Monitor, which had done repeated long burns during the day, to shut off.

I didn't get anything else done with the day, but I can't complain. I would have been in a fix without a spare stove hanging around.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Smart People are Bad

It wasn't obvious for the first few thousand years. Smart people seemed to make things better. They invented new tools for hunting that could be used as weapons when tribes disagreed. They figured out how to use medicinal plants. They devised languages to convey information from person to person and generation to generation. They invented ways to protect ourselves from the weather, and travel farther with less effort. They gave the gifts of their intellect to people who hadn't thought of those things yet.

No one foresaw that this apparent rising slope of continuous improvement could be the greatest threat to species survival. But so it is.

Smart people invented weapons that enable smaller, weaker people to defeat larger, nastier ones. That works until the larger, nastier ones get the new weapon technology. Or various factions of smaller people decide to throw their weight around, enhanced by technology.

Smart people figured out how to harness various forms of energy. This led to coal mines. Coal mines used to be tunnels that swallowed up hundreds of lives, so smart people figured out how to destroy entire mountains to make a huge, open hole from which to extract coal. Coal is then burned to produce smoke. This smoke contains particles, acids and CO2, all of which destroy the environment surrounding the giant gash that formerly was a forested hill and the fume-belching power plant some distance away.

Smart people invented comfortable clothes that make living in cold climates much more pleasant for those with sensitive skin. They invented motor vehicles, fast ships and aircraft. It's great to be able to get around quickly. We can go visit Aunt Gladys on the other side of the globe and deliver shocking, awesome blasts of hellfire to enemies of our nation from high in the sky or far out at sea. And enemies of our nation can deliver their opinion to us by a number of incendiary methods.

If we could count on smart people to get us out of the jam their smart ideas have created, all would be well. Unfortunately, they have a poor track record in that regard, largely thanks to the larger number of less thoughtful types who are the primary beneficiaries of civilization's amenities. The vast majority of consumers of technology could not and would not have invented it, even if they learn to operate it (and bitch about it) after it has been developed.

It all came to a head on September 11, 2001, when some cave dwellers used a partial skill set to fly some jetliners just well enough to destroy a landmark building and do permanent damage to the national psyche of the United States. We are told by both the cave dwellers and the American intelligence industry that those attacks were just a down payment. The cave dwellers hope to use far more devastating weapons in a future attack.

We are told that the cave dwellers base themselves in the freest lands on Earth: failed states and lawless border lands where the rule of law is enforced by local chieftains and their armed henchmen. Libertarian paradise indeed. The cave dwellers do not establish schools and universities where someone might learn to develop advanced technologies. They use whatever they can piece together, whatever they can keep operating under the challenging conditions of their rustic existence and their fugitive lives when they venture into more scrutinized, civilized nations. Once they have destroyed their enemies, will they be able to maintain a high standard of living? Or will they bid a willing farewell to the technology they no longer need, which they could never have built for themselves in the first place?

If smart people had not invented weapons of mass destruction for their own purposes, these thieves of technology, these suicidal murderers, could not hold those weapons to our heads. They would be forced to fight more openly.

Meanwhile, civilization fouls itself with the waste products of its own rich diet. Anyone willing to take less sees it grabbed and gobbled by someone all too willing to take more. All this was invented by well-meaning smart people.

If small, smart people had not invented ways to hold off big, dumb people, big dumb people would have made small, smart people extinct long ago. No one would miss them if they had never been allowed to flourish. Anti-intellectualism, relentlessly pursued, would have brought stability that attempts at universal education never will.

Getting back on that track will be unpleasant and possibly completely catastrophic. It certainly won't be any fun for those trying to enjoy a few pleasant years before extinction, especially when the reaper shows up for them. Because so much firepower has been built in the last century, the superstitious idiots who want to use it have plenty of it to use, as soon as they manage to get their hands on it. And even of they don't, the needs of the "the economy" demand that we continue to despoil the planet anyway.

All this brought to you by human intelligence. We know so much, but so many don't seem to know any better.