My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

V for Vacuous

Having come back home to my Tivo at last, I have been able to catch up on the new "V." Obviously I record everything because I have a two year old who believes TV sets are for watching videos and who doesn't realize anything is broadcast live except for baseball games. So prime time at my house starts at about 10 pm if it starts at all. So I finally watched the end of ABC's boring-assed remake, and when it was done I switched to 1984's "V: The Final Battle" which I have out from Netflix at the moment.

And I have to say, the '80s version was better, and that says something good about the world for a change. I mean, in the 80s, America becomes an alien-occupied fascist state like Vichy France, while our new alien overlords steal all of our water resources and shrink-wrap non-cooperative humans as a food source. They also engage in some truly scary mind control "conversions" where they perform a procedure on anti-alien humans which brainwashes them and turns them into collaborators. This reflected the world of the 1980s where we all felt threatened by immanent nuclear annhilation and totalitarianism. When I was a kid, I seriously doubted that I would ever grow up, believing the Cold War would turn hot and destroy the world at any moment.

By contrast, today's "V" features sleepers cells of aliens disguised as humans who may engage in terrorist acts or distribute some poisoned flu shots. Aliens come with a fleet of high tech spaceships floating over our major cities, and that's all they've got? Big deal. The problem here is that we live in much less scary times. Sure, 9/11 was frightening and tragic, but it certainly wasn't the end of civilization as we know it. If that's all the terrorsts have, then they are no the existential threat they have been made out to be in some quarters. It's terrible when terrorists blow stuff up and kill a tiny fraction of a percent of the population, but it's not really a menace to your way of life. Spain, Israel, Turkey etc. have all dealt with stuff being blown up by terrorists without being destroyed by it, and there's no reason the US couldn't do the same. All this is just to say that the military threats posed by todays world are simply not as great, and as a result, a TV show updated to be "relevant" today's world is simply not as scary as one influenced by the Cold War and World War II before it.

Thinking about this, it really struck me that all this talk about "unprecedented threats" and color coded terrorist alerts are just completely overblown. If there is an existential threat to our way of life, it comes from climate change and our dependance on world-destroying fossil fuels, not from terror cells with silly facial hair. All Al Queda can do is murder a few thousand people. Sad, but you'd take it over nuclear annhilation or fascism any day of the week. They're certainly not a threat of a magnitude that should provoke us to restricting civil liberties, spying on our own citizens, or resorting to torture or imprisonment without trial. If those extreme steps were not necessary when faced with the Soviet Union, why on earth does anyone theink they are necessary now?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Apparently they're giving them out like Halloween candy now

You could call it a WTF moment. I mean, I like Barack Obama and all, really I do. But a Nobel Peace Prize? For what? He hasn't done anything yet. His goals are right on, and if he managed a peaceful resolution to the Iran nuclear confrontation, finds a way to get out of Afghanistan without it collapsing back into full scale civil war, negotiates an arms reduction treaty with Russia, passes climate change legislation and negotiates a global climate treaty, and facilitates a lasting peace agreement in the Middle East creating a Palestinian state, then yeah, sure I suppose he'd deserve to be a Nobel laureate. But he hasn't done any of that stuff yet, and do you really believe all of those things will actually get done? Because I didn't think the prize was just for good intentions.

Hell, in some ways Bush had fairly good intentions too, his means were just awful and anti-human. The President of the United States has a lot of power to make things better, so a lot should be expected before you give one a Nobel. I mean, aren't we still at war? Aren't we still holding a bunch of "detainees" we basically kidnapped and now have no idea what to do with, at Guantanamo and CIA facilites around the planet? Or did that change in the past week while I've been too preoccupied with the baseball playoffs and my own health issues and vacation plans to pay any attention to the news?

The President himself, from my inbox:
To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize -- men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

But I also know that throughout history the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.

That is why I've said that I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.
I'm glad he realizes he doesn't deserve it, but I wish he had declined it, saying, "I am puzzled by this decision" or something like that. It's not that I don't like Obama or support most of his goals, I just think giving the award out like this devalues the award more than honors the recipient.

I understand that you have to give out the Oscar every year even when there were no good movies, and maybe nobody has done that much for peace in the last year. It's certainly possible, you certainly hear a lot more about people blowing stuff up than working for peace. But obviously, if stuff is on fire, the media will be there. But I don't think that changes my point, if you give the award out without it being earned, then you end up devaluing the award.

Friday, October 02, 2009

It's Official. We Suck.

Photobucket Where's Mine?

Wow, wasn't expecting that. After all that buildup and the Olympics issue dominating local political discussion for months, we don't even make the final round. Not even sure what to say about this as I started the day really expecting to win. I'm not sure why, a week ago I would have told you, "it's Rio, silly," but this week I've been feeling certain it was going to happen.

Sorta like this time last year when I thought the Cubs were going to take the pennant for sure.

Here in Chicago, there will be ramifications, a loss of confidence in the city's future, and questions about whether our Mayor for Life will actually run again in 2011 (I'm guessing yes, after a period of introspection). And that was a lot of money that won't get spent here, I was hopeful that an Olympics would lead to increased federal spending on infrastructure here. Probably that was a pipe dream anyway.

On the national stage, however, this is probably a good thing for the Obama administration, since the Chicago 2016 was basically a committee of Obama's friends and political backers. Any scandal or inefficiency or delay or nepotism would have been dragged around by the Right and the Press in an attempt to sully the President's reputation with it. Too much cronyism could have been turned into Obama's Whitewater scandal. Now Chicago 2016 as a story will die out in a few weeks. Not that I think the bid was more corrupt than any other - Madrid's bid was headed by former IOC chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch Torelló, Marquess of Samaranch, a former Franco crony who's no stranger to scandal (remember how Salt Lake City bought the games in 2002?). The reason Madrid lasted so long was basically that Samaranch has more clout with the IOC than just about any other figure, and his personal appeal carried more weight than Obama and Lula da Silva put together. So why did Madrid fail to win if they were so connected? Probably their bid was not good enough on the merits.

And the same was true of our bid. Honestly, it lacked vision. Daniel Burnham, the author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago who is regarded as a founding father hereabouts, is famous for saying "make no little plans" (among other things). But this plan, it was little. Since Burnham's day, Chicago has been home to Big Architecture, and its build environment is marked (some might say blighted) by all of the architectural ideas that have come and gone since - Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Stanley Tigerman, Rem Koolhaas, and all of their pallid imitators. Beijing was almost a dare, with its Water Cube and Bird's Nest. But the Chicago 2016 bid, as it was, lacked vision, and lacked the memorable design that would impress our image on the world. Instead, we got a low budget bid with a disposable stadium and largely existing facilities and infrastructure. We weren't even proposing much in the way of enhancements to public transit. And I'm telling your, our transportation infrastructure can't even handle a Cubs game and a drizzle at the same time. The Olympics? Fageddaboudit.

So, it's probalby sour grapes, but I'm feeling like maybe it's better not to win rather than to be unfavorably compared to Beijing.

Today's earworm: Chicago by the Tossers has been stuck in my head all day. For a song I have only heard once, live, it sure is sticky.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Well that didn't work

Apparently today was world car free day. In practice, traffic was awful, the worst it's been since the traffic jams returned after Labor Day. So bad I abandoned my first route to work in favor of a second route that ended up being worse and resulted in my being late to work on a day I was sure I'd be early. The bitch of it is, Chicago's transportation infrastructure really is more or less adequate for the core task of getting people to work in the morning and home in the evening. That's why traffic really isn't that bad over the summer, when most rush hour drivers are actually on their way to work, and a large share of workbound commuters are using public transportation (my office, unfortunately for me, is not located in the central business district, but in another neighborhood, much like the one where I live except less affordable - and being neither downtown nor suburban, it features neither easy transit access from home nor parking). But every year once Labor Day weekend is over, the horrible traffic meltdown returns. The reason? Public school is back in session.

I haven't heard this discussed enough when people talk about planning, or at all really. But the largest cause of Chicago's horrible traffic jams is people driving their kids to school, not people driving to work. For one thing, if you work in the central business district you can probably find another way to work other than driving yourself alone in your personal automobile. The infrastructure, as I said above, is designed to help you achieve this. But faced with abysmal test scores and the resulting environment of selective enrollment and charter schools, few middle class parents are actually allowing their kids to be (mis)educated at their local public school, which is typically right down the street from their houses. Instead, they have picked the public or private school they feel best fits their children's needs and yet will allow them to attend, regardless of where it's located, and then resigned themselves to driving them to school every day and then driving to work. Part of the reason is the relative rarity of yellow school buses in Chicago - but then, how do you design a bus route that transports kids from neigborhoods all over the city to your school? And the existing public transit system, while adequate for transporting workers from many neighborhoods to work, do not allow for crosstown transportation of school children in less than two hours if neither the child's home nor school are centrally located. Such a route would typically involve several bus transfers as well, potentially leaving school age children standing by a busy street in a crime ridden neighorhood for up to 20 minutes several times a day - not an ideal situation.

So our substandard education system is directly negatively impacting the environment and our quality of life in a way most of us don't seem to recognize or understand. There's probably some deeper insightful point to make here about modern society or something, but I'm tired and I just don't have it in me.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sprain - Part 2

Right on cue, the big evil corporation that "provides" me with health insurance has decided to screw me over. It's as if someone out there (probably an evil web-based insurance company AI) heard me typing
And anyway, while it will be great to have a public insurance option to cover the uninsured, I have no intention of ever using it for myself while I can get employer-subsidized private health care.
and thought to themselves, "hey, it sounds like we're not doing enough to make this guy suffer." So within 24 hours I get a call from the physical therapist's office.

Tuesday morning I had my initial PT session with a friendly therapist named Jamie. Basically, she repeated the stress tests the Sports Medicine Genie performed last week (Does this hurt? How about this? Okay, how about this?), then attempted to yank my arm all the way out of its socket. Oddly enough, that part felt pretty good once I got used to it, since it apparently took the pressure off my bursitis for a moment. Seriously, as in "my bursitis is acting up." When did i get so old?Afterwards, she gave me some odd activities to do at home, including dangling a can of soup from my limp arm and making circles in the air with it, and pulling on a giant rubber band, and scheduled me for several more weeks worth of appointments.

Today they called and said my insurance company had told them that I didn't have a primary care physician on file, and that therefore my referral from my primary care physician was not on file. Since this made no damn sense at all, I called my insurance company. After spending ten minutes or so in voice mail hell, I reached a fairly rude woman in Plano, Texas who told me that my primary care physician was in their other HMO network, but not in my HMO network. I asked why they were mentioning this now, since I've been on this plan for nearly two years and have gone to the doctor several times within that span. She said - seriously - that they have a computer program which randomly selects claims for . . . I wasn't taking notes, but I think the term she used was adjudication. She said that most claims were paid automatically, but a certain number were randomly selected to be scrutinized and my number came up. Now that they've actually looked at the file, they have noticed for the first time that my primary care physician is not someone in their network, and now I have to pick a new one. Since my doctor is not my doctor according to the insurance company, her referral to the physical therapist is not valid. In fact, she said none of the claims should have been paid in the past, but we would just "start over going forward."

This is, on top of everything else, clearly a lie. I mean, they way my doctor got to be assigned as my primary physician was, I picked this plan out of three offered by my employer, I looked up my doctor on the insurance company's Web site, then called the insurance company's registration number and dialed in the ID number I found next to my doctor's name on the insurance company's Web site. So clearly, at one point my doctor was part of my network and subsequently she has been dropped. But according to Texas lady we have always been at war with Eastasia. . .

What I suspect happened is that the insurance company was happy to ignore me as long as my premiums kept getting paid and I didn't need any particularly expensive care. Once I was injured, they went through my records looking for a reason to delay or deny care, hoping if they caused me enough trouble I would go away.

So Annoying Texas Woman told me to get a new doctor and ask them to give me a new referral to the physical therapist. This, of course, is never going to happen. None of the doctors offices I spoke to today refer to the clinic I went to on Tuesday, they all refer only to specialist within their own hospital networks. Evidently some kind of elaborate kickback scheme is in place where by specialists bribe medical practices to refer to them, possibly the doctors are part owners of the firms etc. Anyway I will have to go to an appointment with a new primary physician next week, who will probably refer me to a new Sports Medicine specialist within his own network, who will then repeat the same examination again (Does this hurt? How about this? Okay, how about this?), and then, a couple weeks later I will start physical therapy again at a new, less conveniently located clinic. So several people will get paid unnecessarily, and the insurance company won't end up saving any money by harassing me.

Of course, my shoulder will continue to hurt like a bitch in the meantime, but nobody in the medical industrial complex seems too concerned about that. Some "centrist" politicians have raised concerns that if health care reform passes with a public insurance plan attached, this will be "unfair" competition that may drive private health insurers out of business. To me, that seems like a feature, not a bug. I mean, do people seriously think adding Annoying Texas Woman to the unemployment rolls is a reason not to do reform? Again I will direct your attention to this:
In Japan, waiting times are so short that most patients don't bother to make an
appointment. One Thursday morning in Tokyo, I called the prestigious orthopedic
clinic at Keio University Hospital to schedule a consultation about my aching
shoulder. "Why don't you just drop by?" the receptionist said. That same
afternoon, I was in the surgeon's office. Dr. Nakamichi recommended an
operation. "When could we do it?" I asked. The doctor checked his computer and
said, "Tomorrow would be pretty difficult. Perhaps some day next week?"
America has "the best health care system in the world?" Whoever told you that is your enemy.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009



So I hear the President made a speech tonight.

Full disclosure - 0ne thing I regret about taking a couple years off from blogging is that I didn't really write down anything about the whole campaign thing. It's sort of a damn shame because I started this blog to write about the election we lost and everything it dredged up about America, culture, values, religion etc. Then obviously I kinda got sidetracked. But I think the 2008 election cycle, while it certainly dredged up a lot of garbage as these things do, also revealed a lot of promising things. For my part a knocked on a lot of doors - Iowa, this time, Dubuque and Waterloo, places I discovered I really like. I wish I had pictures to post. The energy and tone of the campaign, as well as the stated political goals, were a profound mix of inspiration and practicality, the right message and messengers at the right time. I say this to let you know that I'm a sort of a diehard supporter, to give you context for what may well be a solid week of critical posts.

Because right now I'm frustrated with the guy. Not really with the policies - outside of the refusal to investigate torture, which I do believe is wrong and sets a dangerous precedent. But honestly I haven't given much thought to foreign policy and security issues in the last few months. On domestic policy, I'm actually lined up pretty closely with the Administration. For example, unlike lots of vocal lefties, I'm glad the Administration is not pushing for "single payer" health insurance. I don't want "single payer." The country I'm vaguely familiar with using this approach is Canada. And while Canada's health care system is probably better that the US, that's only because our health care system is really lame. Canada has the second most expensive system per capita to the United States, and in other ways seems like it's better that the US but worse than every other industrialized democracy that is not the US. And in this country, if there's only one insurance provider in the country, you just know they're not going to pay for abortion services or indeed much reproductive health care at all. It's just too politically explosive here for a plan to ever pass which actually paid for that stuff. And that won't be the only health issue that gets to be used as a political football. Remember Terry Schiavo? And anyway, while it will be great to have a public insurance option to cover the uninsured, I have no intention of ever using it for myself while I can get employer-subsidized private health care. I hate the bureaucracy (yes, Virginia, there would be less bureaucracy with a government plan, look in your heart you know it's true if you've ever tangled with an HMO or PPO over what they will deign to pay for) but like having choices.

No, what actually is pissing me off about the Administation is how incompetent these people appear to be. Which is frustrating because while I had tons of policy differences with them as well, the rank incompetence was really what drove me batty about the Bush Administration as well. I'll be bitching a bit about implementation tomorrow if I get the chance, but today what sticks in my craw has been the shocking political incompetence, a complete misreading of the political currents in which policy proposals need to swim, and from a team that really seemed to understand these things just a short year ago.

Here are some facts that everyone who pays attention to politics should be aware of:

  1. Ever since Clinton the American right has thrived by using cultural identity politics to convince a solid majority of white people that liberals are dangerous "other," alien, subversive, "anti-American," possible traitorous. The Bush "Administration" used this as a key element of its governing strategy. There was no reason to believe Republicans would stop this behavior in the minority. It's all they've got right now, frankly.
  2. Decent health care reform that gave everyone guaranteed coverage and ensured that no one would go bankrupt because of illness, lose their coverage because they lost their jobs, or be denied coverage because of an existing health condition would be extremely popular. It would change the nature of the relationship that Americans would have with their government in ways that would not benefit Republicans or the Conservative Movement. They know this, people. To answer the perennial political question, they are evil, not stupid. Had the Obama Administration been able to pass comprehensive health care reform quickly during the "honeymoon" period Democrats would have stood to pick up even larger majorities around the country in 2010, and go into post-census legislative redistricting from a position of great strength. In other words, they'd be in political power for a generation. No sane Republican politician would allow this to happen if they had anything to say about it.
  3. Following on from the point above, a bipartisan health care bill is impossible. Hell, the GOP wasn't even willing to go along with a bipartisan economic stimulus package. It had to be substantially weakened and made much less effective (by reducing the amount of aid to states, thus forcing pro-cyclical cuts to state budgets to offset new Federal spending) to get the tiny sliver of Republican support it needed to escape the Senate - and one of the Republicans who voted for it had to switch parties afterwards to avoid losing his primary. It's just not in the self interest of any Republican politician to support a Democratic health care reform bill.
  4. Republicans are therefore going to try to kill any proposal, attack it as Socialistic or Death Care or whatever. This is what they do. Making concessions to make the bill more palatable is just not going to work, they are going to make the same attacks whether they are true or not. Whatever it is, they are going to call it evil, immoral and Communist. Center-left Third Way proposals are going to be attacked with the same vitriol as more robustly liberal proposals. It's not about the policy, it's about holding together and expanding their coalition based on cultural identity politics.
  5. The right lost the last election and lost pretty badly. So while there are not many possible legislative parters on the right, the right is somewhat marginalized in Congress, with both houses dominated by a Democratic coalition of the center and the left. The only compromises that need to be made are among Democrats. Attempts by the Administration and even more so by Senate "moderates" to build a coalition including some Republicans have been foolish, not only because the GOP has not incentive to play along, but because these attempts have alienated many Democrats, angry about being cut out of some theoretical center-right legislative alliance. The real goal of Senate "bipartisanship" has been to falsely cast the position of these "moderates" as the conciliatory center of the debate, when in fact they represent its right flank. The real compromise needs to be worked out between Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh on the right and Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Caucus on the left. The President's original blueprint for health reform occupied such a spot in the center, not the center of the national "debate" but the center of the Democratic party. Attempts to "compromise" with the GOP are really attempts by the most conservative Democrats to bring the plan closer to their own position. And the Administration got played by these guys and lost control of the agenda.

So I hope the President gave a good speech tonight. I don't know, because I forgot about the time zone thing and tuned in at 8 pm, right as he was finishing. But whether or not he did, he needs to figure out, and quickly, that it's the Democrats' right flank he needs to be putting pressure on to make concessions, not the left flank. And if they won't get 0n board, then screw 'em. Who cares if we lose those seats. If they won't vote for the President's agenda, then "we" don't have those seats anyway. And we don't need them. Bush's Medicare expansion passed the Senate with something like 54 votes. It's not true that 60 votes are needed. And in a year nobody will care how a bill was passed, only if it's a good bill that helps Americans get their health care needs filled. Because it's not how popular a law is on the day it passes that matters, it's how popular the law is on election day. And on core practical issues like the economy and health insurance, the public knows more about what's working than the isolated media elite do. To win on this turf, you need effective policies. Winning the news cycle on a Thursday fourteen months before the next national election isn't actually worth very much. But policies that work matter. And if my side is incapable of delivering policies that work, then they will deserve to lose.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Get Off My Lawn!

Drove this morning through all the back to school traffic. This system of roads is such a socialist crock. I mean why do we need the government building all these roads? They're obviously not building them in the right places, am I right or am I right? Or what's all this traffic about? Look, individual citizens are perfectly capable of paving their own driveways, and maintaining the sidewalks on their stretch of street, right? I mean except for that guy who lives at the corner of North Shore and Bosworth . . . So there's no reason to think they can't build their own damn expressways if they like them so much.

So that's my plan - Just let people build their own damn roads. With the government involved, because you want to go visit your grandma in Cleveland, I have to pay part of the bill! And that's socialism! Socialism is bad, people! Socialism kills! If you want to drive to Cleveland, build your own damn road! I don't want to pay for it anymore! I'm never going to drive to Cleveland! I don't like Cleveland! It's too damn cold.

/sarcasm - I think.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Yesterday I went to the doctor to have my shoulder looked at. This is very unusual behavior for me. Normally I avoid doctors the way a pickpocket avoids the police. I don't think they're going to do anything really bad do me, but there's no reason to go looking for trouble. So evidently (and I'm really not "in touch with" my body, so I don't have much more to go on then you do) I was in a great deal of pain on Thursday when I actually called the doctor and asked for an appointment. My regular physician directed me to call a sports medicine guy directly and make an appointment, and foolishly I believed this meant I should call the sports medicine guy directly and make an appointment. So I did.

ntense nausea inducing pain aside, there was no way they could see me before Monday, so Monday it was. By Monday the pain had subsided quite a bit, but I'd already asked for part of the day off and couldn't bear the thought of actually working instead (it's been an intense month at the office) so I went anyway. At first i did a double take when I was given the address, since it was the street address of my son's pediatrician and I had never seen any trace of a sports medicine specialist loitering around the waiting room amongst the snot-nosed toddlers and desperate looking couples huddled with their tiny baby-in-Graco-pods. But I went there somewhat secure in the belief that my doctor would not send me on a complete wild goose chase.

Sure enough, when I walked through the front door, I noticed that the small "airlock" anteroom between the automated glass doors to the outside and the automated glass doors to the waiting room, there was an elevator door. This struck me as odd, because before yesterday I would have sworn up and down that the doctor's office was in an ugly modern one story brick medical building. But I pressed "up" which was my only choice, and rode the old creaky elevator up to another floor. It deposited me in a hallway with no markings. I walked down to the end of the hall and found a medical practice, but not the one I was looking for. Walking back to the elevator, I noticed a black sign with tiny white writing on it next to the elevator door. My sports medicine guy's name was one of those listed, and the number 202. I looked back down the hallway, the place I'd found was marked 210. About a third of the way down the hall was the only other door, which was so nondescript I'd assumed it was a supply closet. But when I peered in, I saw a small waiting room with a receptionist sitting behind a glass window. On the window was a small sign that read simply "202." Next to the window was a door that led to another hallway and more offices and examining rooms than could possibly fit in a supply closet on the roof of of the pediatrician's office. This had to be the place.

I thought I was doing well, arriving ten minutes early and having already downloaded the requisite paperwork from the Web and filled it out in advance. But I was greeted by an attractive and exceptionally tall woman of indeterminate Central Asian ancestry who informed me that while I had been referred here by my doctor, she hadn't given me a referral, which meant that I was missing a specific piece of paper in my file. She told me if I didn't have that specific piece of paper in my file before the doctor saw me then my insurance company would refuse to pay the bill. Since out here in the real world the only reason I came to the magic sports medicine closet was because I'd been told to by my doctor, I had to assume that the only purpose for this specific piece of paper to exist was to create a frivolous pretext for the insurance company to deny a certain number of claims. I ended up sitting in the waiting room for about an hour while the two doctors' offices called back and forth and debated exactly which piece of paper would convince the insurance company to reluctantly pay its bills.

Before I found out about the paper scam, I had believed that the mysterious elevator and magic sports medicine supply closet were only visible to patients with a referral due to a spell cast by demonic insurance company lawyers. But that was clearly delusional thinking on my part. I mean, seriously, why would the insurance company do that? It would go against their entire business model. They want you to see the guy without a referral, precisely so they can deny your claim! No, it's clear to me now that the Sports Medicine Genie has cast a spell on his own magic supply closet to conceal himself from potential patients whose insurance companies won't pay him. An elaborate scheme to be sure, but easier that trying to collect on medical bills from public employees whose insurance plans have denied their claims.

Speaking of the Sports Medicine Genie, he was a shorter, friendly, shaven headed man also of indeterminate origin, but probably not the same indeterminate origin as his lovely assistant, who interviewed me first. After I told her the story of my injury (which amounts to "my shoulder hurts, I have no idea why or for how long"), she left for a whild and then brough in the Genie and repeated my story to him, verbatim, as if I were not there. After which he poked and prodded me for a while and made me perform what amounted to Stupid Human Tricks for a few minutes, some of which I'm convinced he was just doing to make me look ridiculous so the two of them could have a laugh at my expense after work when the walked down the street to have a beer at the Old Town Ale House. In the end, he told me I have a rotator cuff sprain, an injury I associate with pitchers who have just been signed to multi-year deals with no-trade clauses, not with thirtysomething men who pull their flailing two year olds out of the carseat the wrong way. I need physical therapy to make the ball of my shoulder joint stay in the socket the right way, or so I'm told. That sounds painful, but if it makes my shoulder thing go away I suppose i'll do it.

He wrote a prescription that's only good at one particular clinic, at which his assistant is also employed. Now tell me how that works - doesn't it sound to you like he's referring to a business he also has a stake in? I'm not saying he's not right about my particular case, or that he personally is doing anything corrupt. I would never imply such a thing about a powerful genie who has an office in a magic supply closet. Who knows what other supernatural deeds he's capable of if aroused? But this kind of situation seems rife with potential conflict of interest, and incentives that perversely reward prescribing unnecessary treatment. No wonder the insurance gnomes are reluctant to pay. . .

I told you that story to tell you this one, as Bill Cosby used to say. (Still does, for all I know.)

Today I was reading blogs online (apparently I felt my blood pressure was getting too low) and I came across an excellent piece on health care in the Washington Post. And it ain't often you come across an excellent piece in the WaPo these days, not since they fired most of their reporters and replaced them with Random Non-Sequiter Conservative Opinion Piece Generator Software (sometimes referred to as "George Will") designed by the American Enterprise Institute. The piece is called 5 Myths About Health Care Around the World and you should read it, because there's a lot of babble and blather floating around the mediaverse about health insurance and health care reform, and you probably don't actually know as much about different systems of health care provision as you think you do. I didn't.

At the beginning of Page 2 I came across this gem:
In Japan, waiting times are so short that most patients don't bother to make an
appointment. One Thursday morning in Tokyo, I called the prestigious orthopedic
clinic at Keio University Hospital to schedule a consultation about my aching
shoulder. "Why don't you just drop by?" the receptionist said. That same
afternoon, I was in the surgeon's office. Dr. Nakamichi recommended an
operation. "When could we do it?" I asked. The doctor checked his computer and
said, "Tomorrow would be pretty difficult. Perhaps some day next week?"

What huh? I try to imagine any American health insurance company allowing that. The mind boggles. And yet:
In France and Japan, you don't get a choice of insurance provider; you have to
use the one designated for your company or your industry. But patients can go to
any doctor, any hospital, any traditional healer. There are no U.S.-style limits
such as "in-network" lists of doctors or "pre-authorization" for surgery. You
pick any doctor, you get treatment -- and insurance has to pay.

Yet this system is cheaper than what we have in the United States, and results in a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality. Like just about every developed country. But isn't the Japanese system, you know, all Socialist and un-American? Actually,
many wealthy countries -- including Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and
Switzerland -- provide universal coverage using private doctors, private
hospitals and private insurance plans.

Bet you didn't know that either. I happen to favor a "public option" as part of a health care reform bill, primarily because I think it will achieve the same result as subsidizing private insurance coverage, only cheaper. After all, insurance companies are going to find a way to turn some share of a public subsidy into pure profit by raising prices to match the subsidies, which will make publicly funded private insurance more expensive than it needs to be. But a fancy new plan with a fancy new name like AmeriCare isn't the point of health reform. It's just a means. The goals are:
  • Guaranteed Issue: this means insurance plans would have to let you buy in, and would have to cover "pre-existing conditions," which is a good thing gramatically as well as health policy wise. I mean, what purpose is that "pre-" actually serving there? Why not just call them "existing" conditions? And that's just one example of the kind of waste that's built into our current system that could easily be eliminated.
  • Community Rating: that means that plans would not only have to give you insurance even though you're sick, they wouldn't be able to charge you rates much higher than everyone else. But wouldn't they lose money on you if they had to do that? you ask. It's called risk pooling, people. Another word sometimes used for this concept is insurance.
  • National Minimum Benefits: Right now there is a patchwork of state regulations governing what kind of minimum benefits have to be included in basic plans. This results in a near monopoly in some states, but if you allowed for insurance plans to compete nationally without minimum standards on the national level, all the plans would just move to the states with the wimpiest regulations, like the credit card companies do. This would prevent situations like the one we had after my son was born, where we had a health care plan which had an annual budget for well baby care which was so small it was used up by the first round of immunizations. (We were able to delay the third round until after the new year when we could switch to a new plan. But I'm still pissed we had a year where we paid for a health care plan that refused to pay for any actual health care. I'm looking at you, Blue Cross PPO.)

These are the actual issues that the media should be talking about. Instead, they continue with horse race coverage like they did during the election. Who's up? Who's down? Who's cheating on his wife this week? Is it bias? Or is it just the result of cost cutting moves in which media outlets fired all their investigative reporters and replaced them with cheaper, easier to maintain evil robots. Or with bloviating center-right talking heads. So hard to tell the difference these days.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Make it a Bud Light!

Oh, c'mon now. Is the American public so stupid as to fall for this crap? Don't answer that, I'm trying to hang on to my last shred of patriotism here. But please, aren't we over that "I'm defined by my consumer choices" garbage? Do some of us really still think membership in the "elite" is defined by eating arugula (in which case the elite is heavily concentrated in Midwestern farm states . . . ) rather than, I don't know, the posession of unfair, unearned power and privilege to manipulate outcomes to one's own advantage at the expense of the non-elite?

Okay, now that I've made my obligatory disclaimer, I'm goint to dive into this morass myself, since like our national media I am cursed with an attention span too short to actually learn anything about a substansive issue. I am talking, of course, about the faux brouhaha about the President's choice of beer, and the respective beer choices of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department the other day at the "beer summit" to discuss race relations. Gates and Crowley, you might remember, had the misfortune of getting into a heated argument that resulted in Gates' being arrested at an opportune moment to be used by those forces opposed to national health care reform to change the subject. I won't comment on the arrest itself because I really don't give a shit. I am neither dumb enough to yell at a cop, nor naive enough to believe that a white suburban cop is going to treat a black guy the same as a white guy. I suspect that both men would annoy me immensely if I ever had a beer with them, actually.

No, what's interesting here is the beer. Not the fact that Crowley had a Blue Moon (American-Canadian, but Belgian Style), Gates changed his choice from Jamaican brewed Red Stripe to Sam Adams, and the President had a Bud Light. No, the interesting thing is that someone is taking this seriously enough that Steve Dahl is blogging - er, writing - about it in a prominant location in today's Tribune. First of all, there's the fact that the Trib has Dahl writing about what passes for "serious news" at all. I mean, you have to give Dahl props for Disco Demolition. That was awesome. But causing a really hilarious riot one time does not make one a real journalist. Beyond that, though, there's the content. The assumption that the choice of one's beer is meant to make a statement about oneself. That may be true, but what difference does it make where the beer was made? It seems obvious that there are three classes of beer, mass market domestic, import, and microbrew. They mark one, respectively, as working class or faux working class "regular guy," worldly/striving middle class, and beer snob/wanker. I count myself firmly in the latter category, most of my favorite beers are from microbreweries in Michigan. If I were invited to a National Beer Summit, I think I'd bring Bell's Lager of the Lakes. Sort of a classy, understated, self assured beer. Although I'd never turn up my nose at a Guiness. Mmm, Guiness. But I digress.

The important thing here isn't that Blue Moon is a Coors product half owned by a Canadian firm, it's that it's a Belgian-style microbrew and Crowley is trying to show he's a sophisticated guy from Cambridge and not a dumb thug (the two things are obviously not mutually exclusive in the real world, but bear with me, we're talking about the Mediaverse here, AKA the Dumbosphere). I'm pretty sure this is the case, because Blue Moon does not actually taste good. It's way too fizzy and sharply bitter, the kind of thing you don't really like but all the cool kids are drinking it and you drink it to be cool, not realizing that all the cool kids are doing the same thing.

The Red Stripe is from the Caribbean, symbolizing black power or someing I guess, although I've always associated it with punk rock shows, which is where I am when I drink the stuff. Or drank, I guess, since I never get out to punk rock shows anymore. For some reason. My toddler would probably love them, and even though he doesn't have hearing loss now, he pretends to whenever I say something he doesn't want to hear, like "Bath Time!" So the only reason not to take him to see the Bad Brains or whoever's uncool and antisocial these days is that it would be past his bed time. . . Red Stripe, in my opinion, tasted better than Bud Light but not enough better to justify the price difference. Sam Adams is ordinary but pretty good beer, the brand credited with starting the whole movement towards brewing beer that actually tastes good, right here in America! I'm not sure what Gates is saying here, it's either "I'm really a sophisticated Boston college professor, not a Black Power radical at all, just another case of mistaken identity!" or maybe it's "I would like a beer that actually tastes good." Nah.

As for the Bud Light, I am reminded of those happy superficial times a decade ago when people were saying they wanted to vote for the candidate for President they'd most like to have a beer with (never mind that by all acounts night that started by having a beer with George W Bush, back before he quit drinking, might well end with him punching you in the face). While that was an inane moment in our history, I remember it fondly if only because i did have a beer one time with Barack Obama, back when he was neither President nor US Senator, but a state senator representing my old district who had one foot in the upcoming Senate primary. He came to one of the great parties my wife's nonprofit organization used to throw before the economy got so depressing. He was funny and engaging, and didn't seem like a normal Bidenesque windbag politician at all. In fact, I changed my prospective vote from Chico, whom I didn't really like that much anyway but I knew someone on his campaign, to Obama as a result of having met him. Actually I told the cab driver on the way home I had just met the first Black President and then threw up on my beautiful handknit scarf, but that's another story. The point of this story, to the extent that there is still a point here somewhere, is that the guy was drinking Bud Light. Back then, trust me on this, the media was not covering what beer the state senator from Hyde Park was drinking. So my own suspicion is that he really likes the stuff, for some reason. The Bud Light motto could be "beer that doesn't let taste get in the way of getting your buzz on." Bland, bland, bland, bland, blah.

Unrepresented in the whole National Beer Debate kerfluffle is the fourth estate of beer, which we generally refer to as "the cheap stuff" or perhaps "piss." Milwaukee's Beast is perhaps the best known brand of the cheap stuff - Icehouse comes to mind as well. But the best loved brand of the cheapstuff here on the North Side is Old Style. Hell, the neighborhood dive bars don't even publicly display their names half the time, they just hang out a white sign with the Old Style logo on it, and "cerveza fría" or a bunch of consonants that allegedly say the same thing in Polish. (Sorry buddy, that doesn't translate as "free beer." Better luck next week). It's the perfect drink for a North Sider because a) it's not really from here, it's from Wisconsin, b) it has sort of a foul taste but we're proud of it anyway, and c) it can often be found sloshing around the bleachers at Wrigley field. So it's sort of like that clueless but friendly guy who lives in your condo building and engages you in bizarre conversation while you're trying to take out the trash. But Obama would never be seen drinking the stuff. It's one thing to be faced with the dilemma of looking like either an effete snob or a poseur wannabe regular guy. But a Cubs fan? Never.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why Not Al

Well, Why not?


In a further sign that our society is blurring the line between the media and reality, Al Franken has been declared the winner of last year's Minnesota Senate campaign by the Minnesota Supreme Court and will be sworn in soon as the 100th Senator. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy about this. I mean, Norm Coleman always struck me as a serious wanker, and worse, he's a Republican. But a couple things bother me about this. Not least the fact that from my perusal of Blogistan, it seems to me that all Republicans and conservatives were quite convinced that Coleman's arguments were valid without really knowing what they were, and and all Democrats and progressives seemed to accept that Franken's arguments were true, without really knowing what they were. This constant wrangling and litigating over elections without giving much thought to who actually got the most votes and whether that should matter makes me worry that in the future the United States might end up dysfunctioning a lot like places like Honduras, in which all parties decide politics is a zero sum struggle for power, the rule of law be damned.

But in addition, there's the strange case of "Why Not Me?" the 2000 masterpiece of political parody documenting Franken's fictional rise as a candidate, election, and subsequent fall from grace in a storm of meth addiction and mental illness. It's a good indication of why I'm not a real blogger that I searched the condo this evening and was incapable of locating this book and finding a suitable excerpt. At this point I've given up. But one piece I remember was his sort of prescient bit about winning the fundraising battle by operating a 900 number that combined campaign information and phone sex. Now that's what I call social networking. Needless to say upon reading the book, which I highly recommend because it's laugh out loud funny, I said to myself, "well this guarantees that Al Franken will never run for political office."

Bearing in mind that this is the same state that once elected a professional wrestler as Governor, this is still prettyfar out there. But about that whole Jesse Ventura thing: I once asked my uncle, a longtime Minnesotan, about how Ventura managed to get elected, and he admitted that he'd voted for the wrestler himself. I asked him what the hell he was thinking. We were on the deck of a cruse ship in the Carribean, believe it or not, during what members of my family have since come to refer to as "the Titanic Incident." He balanced his Cuban cigar on the railing and took a sip of his Manhattan. Finally he said, "you don't understand who else was running."

In this case I think the same logic applies. Welcome Senator Franken. Why not?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Naked Hiking Day

Not quite sure what to think about this. The governor of South Carolina disappeared for several days. His wife indicated that the family didn't know where he was, and reports were that nobody in state government did either, yet he had not taken steps to have the Lt. Gov or somebody step in and assume executive powers.

So obviously I figured he must be in rehab for his crack addiction or something, and people were covering for him. He does seem a bit . . . addled, so I figured a little rehab might be in order.

But then, we heard that he'd gone for the weekend to hike the Appalachian Trail. Now that made sense, too. I mean, I see why he'd be lying about hiking this weekend, seeing as how Sunday was Naked Hiking Day. If Gov. Sanford had really been hiking the Trail this weekend in secret, it seemed likely that he'd been doing so in the buff. Oddly, this made me like the guy a little more, although it also made me grateful I wasn't hiking anywhere near him, since he comes off as kinda creepy, you know?

Then, of course, he throws a press conference (that he was 45 minutes late for) in which he claims he was in Argentina having an affair with a "dear, dear friend" he met on the Internet. With whom he apparently spent "hours" driving along the shore in Buenos Aires, even though there are barely 2 miles of waterfront highway in the city. How slow was he driving? Or perhaps we should be asking, is "driving along the shore" some kind of conservative politico slang for getting a blow job in a parked car?

What I do know is this is two scandals in two weeks involing hypocritical conservative politicians who claim that letting gay people marry each other would undermine the institution of marriage. Ensign and Sanford belong in the same club as Newt Gingrich, who famously left his wife while she was recovering from cancer to marry his mistress, whom he later also divorced for a younger woman with whom he was having an affair, and then converted to Catholicism and claimed that the drive for same sex marriage was undermining the institution. I've got news for you guys - something is, in fact, undermining the institution of marriage, and it's - you guys!

But don't be sad, conservatives. Here's a fine, reasonable response from our good buddy Grover Norquist to give you some perspective:

“I disagree with the idea that this shows problems for the modern Republican
Party,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a group that applauded Mr. Sanford’s attempt to refuse some federal stimulus funds earlier this year. In reference to the fiscally conservative philosophies of Mr. Ensign and Mr. Sanford, he joked, “I think instead it shows that sexual attractiveness of limited-government conservatism.”

You see? Everything's cool. Because the sexual exploits of middle aged white guys are not morally offensive, the way, say, a happily married gay couple would be. It's just guys out having fun. No harm, no foul. Because personal "morality" is a construct designed to keep low status, unimportant people under control to keep the social order intact in order to preserve the power and privileges of the elite. There's no reason to keep the elite under control, for heaven's sake. They can do whatever they want to whomever they want to. That's the whole point. The only thing offensive here is the unfairness of the Liberal Media in being mean to these guys. Leave poor Mark Sanford alone!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More health care bitching

You'd think that a policy which has the support of more than 70% of the public, that the President ran on as a candidate and won, would have a decent chance of becoming law. Unfortunatelu, several "Democratic" Senators seem to suffer from a compulsion to split the difference between what the public wants and the maximalist demands of big corporate donors. As a result, it's likely that health care reform will either not pass, or be so watered down that it will leave millions uninsured while failing to reduce costs. "But it will drive insurance companies out of business to offer an affordable, quality alternative" is actually taken as a legitimate argument by some of these clowns. This is bizarre - if firms can't compete because they are more bureaucratic and topheavy than the public sector, than, um, they suck. So why should I care if they get outcompted?

Friday, June 19, 2009

America Ain't Ready for Reform

At heart, I think people - or at least sane people - all want the same things. Among these are absulute power over everything, and to live forever and never die. Also love, sex, tasty food, and victory for your local sports team etc. but I really feel that much of human motivation is a semi-conscious groping for immortality and absolute power.

Now absolute power, as far as it goes, the problem is as the movie says - "there can be only one." Since the odds are slim that it would be you, most of us in the modern world have decided that it's better nobody than somebody else with the absolute power, and have arrived at some form of democracy as the second best answer.

But as for immortality, that's a different story. Back in Buddha's day the only choice was to achieve a state of mind where you could forget that old age, sickness and death existed, but in the modern world we are coming intriguingly close to finding a cure for these things.

Which brings us to health care reform. I just don't think we are defining this problem the right way. The way I usually hear it talked about is, "health care is too expensive," meaning too large a fraction of our economy is the health care system. I'm not sure what this means, and I don't think I agree. You don't hear too many people complain that too much of the economy is the automobile industry. You don't hear too many people complain that too much of the economy is the software industry. In fact, when these industries grow, it's "good news," and when they shrink and lay people off, it's "bad news." You don't even hear people complaining that too much of the economy is the adult entertainment industry. But health care? Too big. I don't get it.

I get that the fact that many people can't afford coverage.

I get that the US has crappier outcomes than other developed contries in terms of infant mortality, cancer survival, diabetes, etc. These things are legitimately problems.

If you re-state the problem as we're not getting our money's worth then I'll agree with you. But just saying "we're spending too much on health care," I don't get it. What are we supposed to be spending money on instead? Big screen TVs? Bigger houses? New cars? WHY?

The answer you usually get is that spending on these things is economic growth and creates jobs. But isn't the same true of health care? I mean, doctors and nurses and phlobotomists have jobs, don't they? Isn't that economic growth?

So here's my health care plan/economic recovery plan/stimulus package. We convert all of the slack resources of the economy into health care, and launch a Manhattan Project/Moonshot type program to eliminate old age, sickness and death. We could stop building homes and TVs and cars for a whild and just do medical research all the time, and treat all the sick and disabled people in the world with really top flight medical care.

You think I'm being facetious, but let me ask you this - do you think it's reasonable, or even sane, for Senators to be backing away from universal, quality health care because it's too expensive? The problem here is that the country has been infected by the conservative trope that people know how to spend their money better than the government does. I call bullshit. You don't see the government spending all its money on malt liquor and Swank magazine and conducting the people's business in a trailer, or an abandoned apartment building on West 69th, do you? The economy is in crisis because people did completely stupid shit with their money. Do you seriously think that individuals spending their money on Hummers and flat screen TVs, and then borrowing someone else's money to buy a mini mansion they know they'll never be able to make payments on, is a better use of their money than high quality health care for everyone? Would you rather add 30 productive years to your life, or be able to buy new games for your Play Station Portable? If you really think consumer spening is a better use of our resources than medicine, you are probably an idiot. Or a "libertarian."

How many libertarians does it take to change a lightbulb?

None. If they can't manufacture a light bulb themselves in their very own bomb shelter, they'll just live in the dark and be "free."

But I digress. The point is, health care uber alles. If you don't have your health, you don't have anything. Once Congress sees the light and enacts my health plan, I will release my plan for achieving absolute power. Keep watching this space for more details.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


My Great Aunt died on Friday. I don't have anything witty or clever to say about that. She lived in the same house in Brooklyn since the early 1960s. It was a refuge to me as a young child living not so far away in New Jersey. I felt at home there, safe and accepted for who I was in a way I never really felt back home in the burbs. She was my grandmother's sister, I guess you could say she was a surrogate grandmother at the time since my real grandparents were all back here in Illinois. She encouraged me to read and write and explore music. When I was very small, we had a book and an accompanying 45 record she made of children's songs - she had been an elementary school teacher before leaving the field to pursue acting. You may have seen her on TV - she did some recurring guest spots on several soaps, did a recurring sketch portraying the mother of a late night talk show host, and once did a commercial with Sean "P. Whatever" Combs. There were supposed to be more spots, but after the first one she heard some of his music and did not approve.

Back in the day, my aunt worked to integrate New York - she and a white friend would go to a restaurant and make reservations, then a black couple would show up later to claim their seats. You don't think of New York as a place that had restaurants that refused to serve black people, but that's because you don't really understand how much times have changed. Nobody young really does, I guess.

Although a young radical, in her old age she was the first person I ever heard describe herself as a "neocon" which she defined as "a liberal who's been mugged." While I don't agree with everything she ended up buying into, I completely understand her support for Giuliani. A longtime New Yorker who depended on the subway to get around, she felt intimidated by the lawlessness of the late 80s and early 90s and felt it limited her mobility and thus her ability to accept roles in the theater that kept her out late at night. Whatever you want to say about some of the methods used, by the late 90s everybody felt safe taking the subway home again. My values of tolerance and diversity do not extend to armed thugs and gangbangers either.

Even when we disagreed about stuff she was always interested to find out where I was coming from. If it weren't for her I wouldn't value my own mind enough to write about stuff. I wish I'd spent more time with her as an adult. I'm glad I got to see her several times the past decade since my brother's been in New York too.

Anyway, she was a big influence on me and now she's gone. The circumstances were awful and the way our society treats old people is often a disgrace, but honestly it wouldn't make much difference to me if she'd died under the "best" circumstances. Death sucks. I hear that healthy people are able to integrate death into their understanding of life, accept it and move on. I want no part of it. The human condition is a tragedy. The only way to understand it is through art, the thing itself is an incomprehensible mess.

She was strong. She was funny. She is gone, and the world is poorer for it.

Deep Thoughts on Iran

Go Reds! Beat State!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Driving with Bonzo

On our way home today, driving north past Wilson we passed the Buddhist temple in the building that used to house the Paul Revere Chapter of the American Legion. Every year they put up a giant lotus behind a statue of the Buddha to celebrate the Buddha's birthday. This was only a couple months ago, so Bonzo remembers. "Happy Birthday, Buddha!" he says as we drive by. Then he starts to sing the song we made up back when the birthday display was up:
Happy Birthday, Buddha.
Happy Birthday, Buddha.
Happy Birthday, Bald Fat Guy,
Happy Birthday, Buddha.
Hey, it's a long trip home some days. Anyway, at the end of the sound, Bonzo starts to blow, like he was blowing out candles. I tell him if you blow out candles for the Buddha, you have to ask, "Where does the flame go when I blow it out?"

"Where did it go?" he asks. "Where did it go? I don't know!"

Then: "There it is! It's right there! It's right there! I found it! I found the Buddha, it's RIGHT THERE!"

Many years from now, perhaps I will be enlightened.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


That obnoxious noise is actually the sound of a website under construction. Soon there will be something here. Slowly the beast awakens. Slowly the dark ones return to their old citadels along the fringes of the World Wide Web. That which was dead shall rise again.

We have been busy. We have created life. Life! We made it from string cheese and carrots and pie and love. We have been busy nurturing it, raising it up, preparing it.

Now it wants things. "Daddy, we need a robot," says the creature, after watching the first third of WALL-E. So much he has yet to learn. I would tell him that robots look all shiny cool, but eventually they always rise up to destroy their creators, but he's to little to understand.

For now.