Monday, March 30, 2009

Another slow day at work

It's been a slow day. It's going to be a slow week. Word came down that I go to the journal effective April 6, so my current supervisor isn't going to give me any additional assignments before I leave. The ones in my In Box now are sitting there waiting for feedback from other reviewers before I can wrap them up, so I'm at loose ends for the moment.

I have started clearing out this cubicle. Sort of. I've been shredding files. I saved hard copies of every editing job I've done since moving into this cubicle in June 2007 -- I'm not sure why. Everything is archived electronically already. None of the files are sensitive, but I'm shredding anyway. A coworker takes the shredded paper home to use as mulch in his vegetable garden. It's an appropriate use. There have been quite a few articles that I've edited that came pretty close to being pure b.s., an attempt by the researchers to justify their salaries even though all they had done was re-state the obvious.

The new work space will be a cubicle, too, a fabric-lined box positioned far from any trace of natural light. I don't think it will be as spacious as this veal pen, and I may have to share it one or two days a week, so teleworking is starting to look like a viable option after all. I'm hoping it has some metal -- a filing cabinet, overhead cabinet, whatever -- so I've got a place to stick the magnets. Maybe that's a sign I've been in a Dilbert cage too long: I no longer wish for interesting work, new challenges, recognition, whatever. All I want is a place to display the magnet collection and an outlet for the illegal coffee pot. And more money.

Parking lot fantasies

Click on cartoon to see the whole thing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Pulitzer Project: Alice Adams

It's confession time. I knew that sooner or later I'd hit books I could not read, and this turned out to be one. Alice Adams won in 1922, garnering a second Pulitzer for its author, Booth Tarkington. Tarkington was an immensely popular author, and no doubt this novel struck some sort of chord with the American public at the time -- but I could not get into it.

The novel centers on its title character, Alice Adams. Alice is the spoiled and oblivious daughter of a middle class businessman, a man who apparently held some sort of lower middle management position but who is bedridden with an unspecified health problem when the book opens. The family has been living just slightly above its means, with both Alice and her mother behaving as though they're part of the wealthy upper class when they're not. Tarkington does a nice job of describing their house with its less than smart decor and vaguely shabby atmosphere. Alice goes to parties where she clearly does not belong -- the other young women she persists in telling her brother are her "most intimate friends" ignore her, the young men don't ask her to dance, her dress is out of style just enough to mark her as poor. She was friends with many of the young people at the dances when they were all still in high school, but now that they've entered their early 20s she no longer has anything in common with them. Still, she refuses to admit that her life is not turning out the way she thought it would.

The dance where Alice is trying desperately to act as though she belonged and that she's having a good time is the point where I gave up. As far as I could tell by skimming the remaining chapters, the book then proceeds to describe the family's continued slide down the social ladder: by the time the book ends, her father's dream of starting his own glue factory has been crushed, Alice's brother narrowly escapes being charged with criminal embezzlement, the family is taking in boarders, and Alice is about to start secretarial school and actually learn a trade because she's been unable to snag a husband. It's one piece of bad news after another.

I'm not sure why I found myself disliking the book as much as I did. When I looked it up on Amazon there were rave reviews. Some readers loved it -- they found the character of Alice to be "plucky." I thought she was pathetic and delusional. Here's hoping the next book on the list, Willa Cather's One of Ours, turns out to be a little more readable.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Blogging while female

Comrade PhysioProf has a great discussion going on about misogynistic behavior, the cluelessness of some males, and the hazards of blogging while female. No real surprises -- everyone knows the world is full of jerks whose only criterion for if a woman is worth having around is whether they'd want to fuck her.

It is one of the reasons, though, that quite a few women who blog use gender-neutral pseudonyms. As long as the asshats think the blogger might be male, they'll focus on the ideas -- as soon as they realize the writer has a vagina, however, the comments immediately shift into objectifying her. Doesn't matter if the comments are supposedly compliments (e.g., "Wow, you're hot") or insulting ("Fat ass"), either one is actually an insult because it's saying a cunt is more important than a brain. Very, very strange. I've never been able to figure out why some guys insist on wearing the figurative equivalent of an "I'm with Stupid" shirt with the arrow pointing at themselves.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Spring fever?

I've been feeling at loose ends all day. Had a hard time focusing at work, and am feeling kind of restless now. Maybe it's because it's Spring but I keep having this urge to clean. That is so Not Me. I am a fan of basic sanitation, and I will occasionally vacuum up the drifts of cat hair Cleo generates, but hardcore traditional Spring Cleaning? Washing windows? Dusting? No way.

My mother used to tell horror stories about spring cleaning, back when she was still living with her parents on the ancestral acres -- the house would literally be emptied, mattresses dragged outside to air in the sun, bedframes and springs painted down with kerosene to kill bedbudgs and other vermin -- which I find hard to believe existed to begin with, given the Finnish fetish for personal cleanliness abetted by frequent saunas -- and everything scrubbed or laundered. And all done without the benefit of electricity, because the REA didn't get there until after my mother was in her late teens.

Anyway, I started thinking maybe it's time for the S.O. and I to do a road trip up to the Blue Ridge as a cabin fever cure -- it would definitely beat giving in to the urge to clean -- so I spent some time today researching bed and breakfasts close to the parkway. The S.O. was asking before we headed for Savannah last month why we've never stayed at a B&B, so I figured I'd do some searching in preparing for the next trip -- even though I much prefer the consistency of Comfort Inn waffles to the dubious cooking abilities of some well-meaning amateur with haute cuisine delusions. The S.O. and I may never have stayed at a B&B as a couple, but I've hit a few solo in my travels.

The absolute worst breakfast I've ever faced in my life was at a B&B in Chico, California, when I interviewed for a teaching job there back in the 1990s. The room was lovely, and the older couple who ran the place were charming people, but she could not cook. The only bright spot at the time was knowing that it was the university paying for that hideous meal, not me. Had I been eating in the lovely anomynity of a hotel restaurant, I could have shoved the swill to one side without the risk of offending someone to her face and chalked it up to experience. But when this sweet little old lady was sitting right across the table from me asking if I liked the extremely strange omelet? I smiled, choked it down, and hoped fervently she wouldn't offer me seconds.

That B&B, though, did have quite a few redeeming features. The room was wonderful -- light, airy, simply furnished. So why can't I find a place like that now? Is there some sort of rule that the decor in every B&B in North Carolina has to resemble something out of a Thomas Kinkade acid trip? Aren't there any innkeepers out there who are into mid-century modern? Do they all feel some bizarre urge to tart up every room, fill it with clutter, and generally make it resemble something that not even my grandmother could love? Do they have any clue that they're driving a potential guest to consider Red Roof Inn as a viable option if only because I know that when I check into a Red Roof Inn there will be absolutely no extraneous crap? And why do they all feel compelled to do theme rooms?!

Maybe I'll go bake a pie. It'll burn up some energy, and thrill the S.O.

How I feel about Twilight being released on dvd

Tee shirt available here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The real reason we don't want Gitmo prisoners in U.S. prisons

I've been listening to C-SPAN this morning, it's been open phones, and one of the topics that keeps coming up when the wackaloons rant about President Obama is his decision to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo, Cuba. People are real freaked out about the fact that something like 12% of the released prisoners go back to their home countries and engage in jihad.

Well, I used to teach sociology so did a fair amount of reading in deviance and criminology, and 12% struck me as being an incredibly low recidivism rate. If the prisoners at Gitmo really were as hard core as the wackaloons insist they are, I'd expect the numbers of jihadis to be more like 50 or 60%. For comparison purposes here's a bar graph from the U.S. Department of Justice: As you can see, the trends were not good. At the rate U.S. prisons were going 15 years ago, in a few more years we should be to the point where recidivism is pushing 100%. Unfortunately, the quick Google search I did couldn't find more recent data. Still, I think it's pretty clear why we don't want anyone from Gitmo in a U.S. prison. We'd actually be better off just turning them all loose now, no hearings or anything. Right now a little over 1 out 10 detainees released goes back to engaging in terroristic activities; if we dump them into U.S. prisons to await trial we can look forward to that rate climbing considerably.

[I am, of course, being sarcastic. The real message embedded in the difference in the recidivism rates is that most of the detainees aren't recidivists because they weren't terrorists to begin with.]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

An encouraging trend

Who says there's never any good news? Apparently stock brokers and other white collar types are responding to the economic downturn by removing themselves from the gene pool:

With the Economy Down, Vasectomy Rates Are Up

Doctors around the United States are reporting a sharp increase in the number of vasectomies performed since the economy soured last year, with one noting that many of his clients are from the beleaguered financial industry.

Feeding the addiction

Kind of a strange morning on C-SPAN -- sane people calling in, at least so far. But I've only been listening for about 15 minutes so no doubt the tinfoil hats will come out soon.

The young republican who's busy defending Reagan's policies and/or legacy did manage to say something unintentionally hilarious: the government doesn't provide any jobs. That was right after he mentioned bloated bureaucracies. WTF? Does he think those bureaucracies are staffed by robots? I work for the government, or I thought I did. Apparently those 8 hours a day five days a week I spend staring at gray fabric cubicle walls don't count as employment.

Those cubicle walls could be changing to a slightly different shade of gray soon. I got asked if I'd be willing to do a detail to serve as a copy editor at one of the journals Large Nameless Agency publishes. It would, of course, entail a temporary promotion to a higher pay grade, so my mercenary instincts kicked in immediately. Now the only question is the start date, which depends on how much time the people in Human Resources claim they need to process the paperwork.

I actually interviewed for a transfer/promotion to that journal back around New Year's, but a colleague with more time in at LNA got the job. Turned out he didn't like it and is going back to what he used to do, so they're kind in a bind now. It was an odd feeling learning that the colleague had changed his mind, a mix of vindication (for various reasons I never could figure out why he applied there in the first place) and trepidation. Like they say, you should always be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's Spring

It may not start officially for another day or so, but once I start seeing anoles on the patio I figure Winter (or what passes for it this far south) is definitely over. (Photo from Google images)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The appliance purge has begun

A few months ago an unauthorized refrigerator and a couple microwaves were removed from a more or less common area on our floor here at work. Ever since then rumors have circulated that building management was going to conduct an office audit to see what other devices might be sucking electricity without the blessings of management. Apparently the rumors have become more substantial because the last few days have seen a lot of hand cart action as dorm-type fridges and microwaves make their way from offices to individuals' cars in the parking lot. The powers that be had better actually conduct the audit or there are going to be a lot of folks really annoyed at having removed something for apparently no reason.

Personally, I think a good solution would be to give this building an additional break room -- a couple more microwaves and another full-size refrigerator in a common area would remove some of the incentive for people bringing in their own appliances -- but that's never going to happen when there's a shortage of office space now.

[Digression -- I always feel like I should be including a Dilbert cartoon when I write about work, but can never manage to find one that fits.]

Monday, March 16, 2009

I get mail

A few months ago I described the joys of an old-fashioned hobby - pen pals - and some of the weirdness that lands in the mailbox as a result. Today I got the ultimate in convict correspondence:

The dude's last name is Outlaw.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Shameless self promotion

I finally got around to starting to stock my Etsy shop. I'm starting off with a few vintage dresses, and a vintage pattern. I'll be adding more dresses, patterns, and some jewelry over the next few days.

Wish me luck. Like everyone else on the planet, I could use some extra cash.

Sunday morning C-SPAN weirdness

I'm not sure why I do this to myself. I swear the tinfoil hat callers outnumber the sane ones about five to one. Of course, it doesn't help when they're being encouraged by some talking head who's insisting with a straight face that the reason the economy is a mess is all those dumb, black people couldn't tell the difference between a fixed rate and an adjustable rate mortgage. According to this morning's Republican puppet, the bankers weren't to blame at all if borrowers fell for their snake oil pitches. Whatever happened to the days when lenders were presumed to have the intelligence to determine whether or not a borrower had the ability to pay? Oh, right. Silly me. I forgot -- that philosophy vanished about the same time Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and the rest of them decided that they could sell worthless pieces of paper to each other and create nonexistent wealth. It was a Ponzi scheme on a massive scale, a fraud that could only continue as long as all the pieces of paper kept moving -- but once they stopped, the bubble had to implode, and now we're all suffering the consequences.

I did notice Barney Frank now has a co-conspirator in his plot to bring down America: Maxine Waters. It's absolutely astonishing how much damage those two Democrats managed to do during eight years of a Republican administration. Apparently whoever's in the White House doesn't matter at all because Bush and his minions were seemingly totally powerless in the face of the demands of two, count 'em, TWO congress critters. But, according to the rightwing talking heads, between Frank, Waters, and the evil organization ACORN, we're now all in deep doodoo and sinking deeper.

And, oddly enough, although poor aWol was totally powerless in the face of the determined efforts of a handful of Democrats, the same isn't true of his successor. It's now all on Obama. If he can't turn things around, it's not going to be the fault of Republican naysayers like Senator Mitch McConnell or Representative John Boehner. Nope. Totally Obama. Once there's a Democrat in the White House, Congress apparently becomes irrelevant. Democratic Presidents are apparently supermen, while Republicans are just pathetic figureheads, mere puppets with no real power or influence. Well, I'm not going to argue that one when it comes to aWol -- if that's how his own party wants to label him now, fine with me. Now if they'd only admit it was Darth Cheney pulling the strings. . .

I am also noticing, of course, the not-so-thinly-veiled racism many of the callers exhibit. They all seem to assume that every person being foreclosed is black and lives in some wretched inner city neighborhood where banks should never have ventured because "everyone knows those people don't pay their bills." One caller was practically spitting through the phone in anger that banks had ever been required to stop redlining. Yep, he actually blamed the melt-down on the crackdown on redlining around minority neighborhoods. If only the financial institutions had been allowed to continue discriminating, we'd all be fine now and, I assume, he could afford a new hood for the next Klan rally. The stupid, it burns.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Up too early (again)

Once again, it's a Saturday morning and I'm awake much, much too early considering it's my day off. No odd dreams or loud noises from next door or outside, so I'm not sure what kicked me awake at 5 a.m.

Until recently there'd be noise from the apartment next door, footsteps up and down their stairs, for example, or yippers barking first thing in the morning, but that apartment might be empty now. The occupants -- who a former neighbor was convinced were hookers -- have been in the process of moving into a two bedroom unit in one of the other buildings. The former neighbor was also convinced that there were "fifteen Mexicans living in there!!"

I'm not sure why he thought the number was that high, unless there's some sort of tacit assumption that any time you have Latinos in an apartment there has to be at least a dozen of them, all with their clothing still damp from swimming the river, but he'd tell this bizarre story about the younger guy living there being a really cold-hearted pimp who kept a whole herd of undocumented women and had them out working the streets of Atlanta until dawn. I kept wanting to ask "And how do you know this," especially when his apartment was several doors down from them, and ours was right next door. If there were 15 people in that unit, there'd have been a lot more footsteps up and down the stairs -- because the bathroom's on the second floor and the staircase is on the common wall. As far as I've ever been able to tell, the "fifteen Mexicans" consisted of four people, two chihuahuas, and a cat, all of whom seemed to keep perfectly normal hours. I doubt if there were more than that, because one of the first things they did when they started to move into the two bedroom place was throw a hide-a-bed sofa away.

I do find myself wondering if the management is going to have to replace the carpeting in that unit before they rent it out again. The people who just moved out weren't in it very long, maybe 7 months, but they did have those little yippers -- and yippers are notorious for being impossible to housebreak.

There seem to be several empty townhouses here at the moment. I'm not sure why as the rents in this complex are quite reasonable for this part of Atlanta. It's probably a combination of this being an older complex, it's not gated, and most people are looking for two bedrooms, not just one. Personally, I'd rather live in one of these older garden apartment complexes with some green space around than in a (theoretically) more secure, modern gated multi-story sterile human habitrail complex where the chief architectural feature seems to be a humongous parking deck, but that's just me.

Friday, March 13, 2009

PubMed as a weapon?

I learned the most amazing thing today. It's possible to use a citation database as a harassment tool. Unreal. PubMed is a service of the U.S. National Health Library, which in turn is part of the National Institutes of Health. It has references to gazillions of medical science articles that have been published in everything from top tier journals like the New England Journal of Medicine to extremely limited circulation publications. Most of the articles have titles that can put lay readers to sleep before they've gotten all the way through to the authors' names, e.g., "A structural equation model relating adiposity, psychosocial indicators of body image and depressive symptoms among adolescents." But there are exceptions -- and those exceptions form the weapons.

Like most on-line catalogs/databases, it's possible to request references be e-mailed -- it saves time in taking notes, means you don't have to print anything out until you're done doing your literature search, etc. However, it does not require that you provide the e-mail of the person making the request, only the address to which you want it sent. This means references can land in someone's mailbox with no clue why they're there.

Well, it turns out some of the uber-geeks here at Large Nameless Agency have turned PubMed into a weapon, a harassment tool, a device with which to rag on hapless co-workers. They've become adept at finding journal articles with titles that the target of their teasing can take personally. They then have PubMed e-mail the reference to the victim. Apparently some people freak out when they get e-mailed an article title saying, for example, "Mid-life and late life obesity and the risk of dementia." Possible translation: "You're fat and you're crazy?"

I am, as usual, having a mixed reaction to this. First, some people have way too much time on their hands if they're willing to carry on a feud to the point where they'll spend hours (because that's what it would take) trolling PubMed sifting through a gazillion possibilities to find just the right inappropriate reference to use to hit their targets' sensitive areas. There surely must be a more productive and/or efficient way of pissing people off than playing around with PubMed. Whatever happened to time honored methods like re-adjusting their chairs (you can drive people crazy by quietly raising and lowering the arms), convincing superiors to appoint those people to useless committees, or filling their cubicles with styrofoam peanuts if they happen to be out of the office?

Second, wow, talk about the ultimate in geekhood. It takes true nerdiness to think of using PubMed as a weapon to begin with. I'm in awe, absolute awe.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rationality on the Potomac

Long article in the Washington Post today about President Obama lifting the Bush administration's ban on embryonic stem cell research. For me, this is the key paragraph:
After signing an executive order lifting the funding restrictions imposed in 2001 by President George W. Bush, Obama also issued a presidential memorandum aimed at insulating scientific decisions across the federal government from political influence, ensuring that scientific advisers are appointed because of "their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology."
Having spent 8 years watching subject matter experts at various federal agencies being silenced and pushed into early retirement when the facts contradicted right-wing fantasies, it's nice to see sanity returning to the White House.

[H/T to Yellowdog Granny for the graphic.]

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Top 100 books

The BBC recently did a list of the 100 best loved books in the U.K. The list is kicking around on several different blogs at the moment, with people noting which ones they've read,and I'm joining the parade. It's an odd list, a mix of children's classics (Winnie the Pooh), adult mind candy (The Stand), classics (Pride and Prejudice) and the impenetrable (Ulysses). Here it is, with the books I've read in italics.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles'
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

What surprised me the most was that I hadn't read any of the Terry Prachett entries. I've probably read at least a dozen of his books, and not one is on this list. Overall, it looks like I've read 49; whether or not I'll bother looking for the ones I've missed is questionable. I can see reading Rushdie, but I never have cared much for Dickens.

Thinking about the economy

Started thinking about this song after seeing the homeless vet in a wheelchair begging at the intersection of Clairmont Road and I-85. Except he wasn't Vietnam era -- the kid looked to be in his early twenties. Really blond, really thin, and missing his left leg from the knee down.

Health care costs

I've been listening to a lot of bloviation regarding health care reform lately. Some of the arguments are patently illogical*, others are simply misinformed, but everyone pretty much agrees something must be done because health care costs are one of the things killing the American economy. One of the reasons the U.S. auto manufacturers moved production to Mexico and Canada was to avoid paying health benefits, which add over $3000 to the price of each car that rolls off a General Motors assembly line in the U.S.

Health care costs are also a major driver for bankruptcy -- I remember reading not long ago that over 60% of the personal bankruptcy cases filed in this country can be traced back to medical expenses. We keep hearing that the U.S. spends a lot more on health care as a percentage of GDP than other industrialized nations, yet we have worse outcomes: higher infant mortality rates, for example, and shorter life spans. The infant mortality rate in Sweden is 2.75/1,000 births; it's 6.3/1,000 here. The Swedes, with their evil socialized medicine, are obviously doing something better than we are.

We also hear a lot of garbage about what's driving up health care costs. Right now the favorite thing to blame, the handiest target, is the so-called obesity epidemic. It's fat people causing the problem -- if we can just get them all to eat lettuce leaves instead of Godiva chocolate everyone's insurance premiums will magically drop. Right. And squadrons of flying pigs will end the conflict in Afghanistan by shitting on the Taliban.

The things driving up health care costs are many and diverse, but fat people aren't one of them. The actual factors include:

1. Administrative costs. The typical private insurance company has administrative costs well over 30%. In contrast, Medicare's administrative costs run about 2% -- because, among other things, Medicare isn't paying out multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses to CEOs and upper management executives.

2. Technology, and the equivalent of an arms race between health care providers. Clinics and hospitals all want to have the latest toys, the most recent model of an MRI or a PET or CAT scan equipment. Once they've got them, they (a) have to steer as many patients into them as possible and (b) have to advertise like crazy to attract even more patients. Why settle for a $50 chest x-ray if you can persuade someone to get a $2000 CAT scan? In a sane world, hospitals and clinics would cooperate on high tech, there would be regional imaging centers, and economies of scale could be practiced. In our world (definitely not a sane one) every hospital pushes its own imaging center, every hospital administrator worries about paying for the damn thing, and all patients get pushed into having high dollar scans they don't actually need.

Even relatively low tech procedures are over-prescribed in an effort to help the hospital's bottom line. Example: mammography for breast cancer. American women are told to start at 40 and get one yearly; in most European countries they start them later and do them less frequently -- and the cancer detection and survival rates in many of those countries are better than here. (Of course, one of the reasons the survival rates are better is that patients in Germany or Sweden don't have to hold spaghetti dinner fundraisers to help pay for their treatments, but that's a slightly different issue than what drives up costs in the first place.)

3. End of life care/unnecessary and/or unrealistic procedures. This is a hard one to talk about, but the reality is the American fear of death is pushing health care costs up. As a society we spend tremendous sums of money on people who, to be very cold about it, are already quite close to the end of their natural life spans, no longer have much productive value to society (they're retirees), have enjoyed many good years already, and if subjected to medical interventions are quite likely to experience a diminishment in quality of life. Ask around. Every senior citizen can cite an example of someone they knew who had "routine" heart surgery (usually by-pass), sailed through the surgery just fine, and then suffered a post-operative stroke and is now in a nursing home. Statistically the surgery was successful (the patient survived), but it's a double whammy to health care costs: high dollar surgery followed by months or years in a skilled nursing facility.

Barbara Bush is a classic example. The woman is 83 years old, her aortic valve was following a perfectly normal pattern (stiffening with age), but rather than accept the inevitable (she's going to die eventually) and treating the problem the way it would have been not many years ago (learning to live with the shortness of breath, avoiding activities that aggravate it), she gets a replacement part. Well, what about the rest of that 83-year-old body? Assuming she makes it past the post operative stroke risk window with no problems, now that she's on blood thinners and anti-rejection meds (and she is, because once you've got a pig valve you're on both forever), her quality of life is dropping anyway. How long before she trips over a rug or bumps into a piece of furniture and discovers the joys of having been turned into the equivalent of a hemophiliac?

I've heard of people in their 90s having similar surgeries. Whatever happened to telling people frankly that they now have a condition that may limit their activities, yes, it's probably going to kill them, and here's some digitalis or nitroglycerin to help them manage until then?

One of the bogeymen of health care reform is the specter of "rationing." The argument is that if we had a national health care system, we'd have "rationing." Well, maybe we should. If we individually are too burdened by emotion to deal with reality, then maybe it's time for society to collectively to step in with a reality check that says, yes, it's sad that this particular person in this particular time and place is running out of time, but no one lives forever.

[*Patently illogical: The right wing line that "Health care is a problem best solved by the private sector, i.e., insurers and HMOs." Just who do the Republicans think is running the health care system now? It's been primarily private sector, the magic of the marketplace, for the past couple hundred years, and we can see how well that's all worked out.]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Pulitzer Project: The Age of Innocence

No mystery about why this novel won the Pulitzer -- Edith Wharton could write.

Having read the book, I now want to see the movie. If it's faithful to the book, the plot will be a tad depressing, but the costumes will be great. Just going by the DVD cover, though, I have a hunch Martin Scorcese took some liberties, starting with the casting, so perhaps the ending isn't quite as melancholy as in the novel.

Basic plot line is the classic lovers' triangle, a nice young man (Newland Archer) torn between two loves -- the boring girl (May Welland) he's engaged to (although he initially doesn't realize just how boring she is; he's young and naive enough to believe that she actually shares his interests in literature and art), and her exotic bohemian cousin (Ellen Olenska), a woman he knew when they were children, but who has in the intervening years lived primarily in Europe and married a Polish count.

The tragedy of their unhappy almost-love affair hinges on several points: first, Newland's engagement to May is announced the same night he sees Ellen for the first time since childhood; second, Ellen is still married to the count and her numerous relatives are horrified by the idea of divorce; and, third, Newland's a spineless twit and about as self-reflexive as a rock. He's infatuated by Ellen, but is too much of a coward to face that fact -- instead he pushes May into persuading her family to move their wedding date up. At one point May actually asks him directly if he's having doubts, does he want to break off the engagement, and, like an idiot, he says no. May turns out to be a lot smarter about where her fiance/husband's head is at than he is; she's observant enough to recognize that Newland has a bad case of the hots for Ellen.

Newland's second major blunder lies in his unwillingness to say what he's actually thinking to anyone. He thinks some fairly scathing thoughts, including some wonderfully funny sarcastic ones, but never opens his mouth. He's an attorney with the law firm representing Ellen's family, so when she says she wants to divorce her husband, Newland instead goes along with the family's wishes and persuades her not to file the petition, a really dumb move on his part considering that at the time he's still single. It's really hard to feel any sympathy for someone who manages to keep sabotaging himself as consistently as he does. He dithers mentally, he marries May, and then when after a couple years of marriage he finally decides that Ellen is the one true love of his life and and he' s ready set to chuck it all and run off to some exotic foreign locale with her (a prospect she's noticeably unenthusiastic about) May announces she's enceinte.

Ellen goes back to Paris, Newland sticks with May, and everyone lives stupifying boring lives for the rest of their natural days. Well, maybe not Ellen -- one gets the impression that she was going to manage to have some fun no matter where she wound up.

The novel is set in 1870s Gilded Age New York, among the wealthy upper class who lived in 5th Avenue mansions, dressed for dinner, and summered at Newport. Scandals are hinted at but never mentioned directly, and family is everything. It's a milieu Wharton knew well, having grown up in it. By the time she wrote The Age of Innocence she was at the top of her game, a successful writer with half a dozen published novels behind her. I've seen Wharton compared with Henry James, but to me she's less contrived and more readable. I enjoyed this book; of the Pulitzer winners I've read so far it's the first one where I can understand why it won.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Let it snow

Large Nameless Agency decided not to risk its employees' lives on icy highways today so we've got a three hour delay for work this morning. We need to get half an inch of slush more often. (Of course, if we did, it would lose its novelty value and people would learn how to live with it.)

What surprised me was hearing on the news about how many trees came down in the Atlanta area, and how many people lost power due to downed lines. I wonder what would happen locally if it ever snowed for real?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Random thoughts

I swear Atlanta has the worst drivers on the planet. This is the only major city I've lived in where quite a few drivers don't seem to have a clue just where it is they're going. Seems like every time I'm out and about I see what appears to be the classic Atlanta idiot driver maneuver: the left turn from the extreme right lane.

Yesterday was classic. We were on our way to the Container Store, cruising up Piedmont in the heart of Buckhead, aiming for the intersection of Piedmont and Peachtree (the Peachtree, not one of the 85 other Atlanta streets with Peachtree in their name). The Container Store is right on the corner so we were positioned in the extreme right hand lane, ready to turn right into the parking lot. We're almost to the corner when the driver of a white SUV in front of us apparently wakes up, says wait a second, I don't want to turn right! And cuts across four lanes of traffic to make a left on Peachtree. It was Saturday, so traffic was relatively light. . . so no screeching tires, squealing brakes, or crunching metal. . . but four lanes! Unbelievable. And I see this all the time -- people getting to intersections, being in a right turn only lane, and suddenly going, whoa, didn't want to go that way -- and whipping around to go in the exact opposite direction. And all without ever bothering to use their turn signals, of course.

There were Girl Scouts in front of the Container Store peddling cookies. The S.O. started mocking me because I had to stop to buy a couple boxes -- we had four boxes at home already because Girl Scouts accosted us in front of a Food Lion in Savannah. I told him to shove it. After all, I have enough restraint that the first four boxes are still unopened, unlike another buyer I spotted who had purchased multiple boxes of Samoas and ripped one open to get at the cookies before she even made it back to her car.

I always buy Girl Scout cookies. I was a Girl Scout leader. I've served my time in cookie hell. I still remember the semi pulling up in Tucson to drop off our troop's cookie order -- we had figured out how many cookies we had to sell in order to pay for Girl Scout summer camp for the troop members, arranged for a cookie stand in a shopping center, and then we adults got to stress for a couple weeks about whether or not we were actually going to be able to push that many thousands of boxes or not. We did, but being on the hook, however briefly, for $10,000 worth of Girl Scout cookies is not a fun place to be.

Tucson, incidentally, was the one Girl Scout council I've been involved with where when it came to the cookie sale every girl got the same sales recognition: a patch. No tee-shirts, no mugs, no Walkmans or other individual incentives for sales. That's always been the one thing I truly hate about kids hawking products, whether it's for school or for Scouts: the incentives that focus on individual greed or glory instead of focusing on the collective good. Other than the fact that the incentives put the focus on the individual rather than the group, a major flaw in and of itself, they are inherently unfair.

Anyone who's ever had a kid who had to do fund-raising (or did it themselves as kids) knows that every group falls into several categories: the rich kids, whose parents will buy X number of boxes of popcorn or cookies or pizzas or whatever it takes for their little darlings to get the top reward; the kids from humongous families who are related to everyone in town and have so many aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., that even if each relative only buys one box the kids get the top reward; and everyone else. The families that live way out in BFE land, so going door to door really isn't an option. The families on limited incomes, living from paycheck to paycheck, who can't afford to buy more than a couple boxes. The families who live in neighborhoods where they really don't want their kids going door to door peddling anything.

Interestingly enough, Tucson is also the one place where the average sales per troop member went through the roof. Our troop sold an amazing number of cookies, all without any parents having to bring order forms to the office or stock their own freezers. When it was a collective effort, we're all in this together and getting the same reward (in the case of our troop each girl was going to get an equal share of the proceeds to help pay for camp), the kids knocked themselves out. I was involved with a couple other councils after Tucson (we moved a lot in the '80s) but was never able to persuade them that the individual prizes were a bad idea. Of course, those were the days when the ethos of St. Ronnie dominated, individual greed was good, and it was hard to think outside that paradigm.