Thursday, April 28, 2011

Corruption in perspective

Top Executive Demoted After Booze Binge read the Reuters article syndicated on Yahoo! News earlier this week:

Chinese oil refining giant Sinopec has demoted a top executive who bought 1.6 million yuan ($245,900) of wine and spirits after details of the purchase leaked onto the Internet and sparked an uproar over extravagance at the state-owned firm. Sinopec, which is Asia's top refiner, said Monday that it had demoted Lu Guangyu, who was general manager at the company's operations in the southern province of Guangdong, for "seriously harming Sinopec's image." [...] Some of the bottles cost almost 12,000 yuan each -- far more than the average Chinese earns in a month.

Not pretty. That sounds like betrayal of a public trust to me ... telling, isn't it, that the offense is reported not as doing a bad thing, but harming a company's image? Sigh.

Putting the yuan to dollars and U.S. to China comparisons in some perspective, we might start by noting that 12,000 yuan is a bit over $1800 these days. To wrap our heads around the assertion that this amount is what "the average Chinese earns in a month," we'd naturally want to ask how the sum compares to what the average American earns.

Well, turns out that more than 1/3 of people in the U.S. over 15 years old (i.e., of work-eligible age) earn less in a month than the cost of just one of those top-notch bottles of Moutai, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (2009). Just like "the average Chinese." Outside small cities, the U.S. median is barely a shade over $1800/month ($1829.91) according to the same survey, which puts that sector of Americans-who-earn pretty much in a dead heat with "the average Chinese." It's a small world after all.

On the same day the quoted article from Reuters was datelined, I happened to attend a presentation by some astrophysicists who work at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs, called New Light on Dark Energy.

Stay with me here.

There was a lot of talk about how astrophysicists sift through evidence to test theories of how the universe works, particularly whether the universe is expanding or contracting (latest evidence suggests it is expanding, and the expansion is accelerating). The evening's details are more than could possibly fit in this blog post, but I mention it because the astrophysicists talked a lot about how they identify data applicable to interesting problems from all the other data that gets collected by big, expensive instruments like the Hubble Telescope and projects like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. A primary concern of astrophysicists, then, is to separate signal from noise.

I'd like to suggest that thinking about top executives of Chinese oil firms who spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars of (state-owned) resources on expensive booze is related to this very problem: separating signal from noise. It's weird convergences like this -- attend an astrophysics presentation in Berkeley, read about a corruption scandal in China -- that gives birth to blog posts. At least this blogger's posts....

And so:

Matt Taibbi reported in the 17 Feb 2010 issue of Rolling Stone that in 2009 Goldman Sachs "set aside a tidy $16.2 billion for salaries and bonuses -- meaning that Goldman employees were each set to take home an average of $498,246," this only a few months after the bank repaid billions of bailout funds advanced by you and me, through our sycophants in Washington. Oops! I mean, our democratically elected government. Taibbi's article explained how Goldman Sachs and their ilk pawned bailout funds into massive, unproductive, some might say fraudulent profit before squaring the books with Uncle Sam:

Borrowing at zero percent interest, banks like Goldman now had virtually infinite ways to make money. In one of the most common maneuvers, they simply took the money they borrowed from the government at zero percent and lent it back to the government by buying Treasury bills that paid interest of three or four percent. It was basically a license to print money — no different than attaching an ATM to the side of the Federal Reserve. "You're borrowing at zero, putting it out there at two or three percent, with hundreds of billions of dollars — man, you can make a lot of money that way," says the manager of one prominent hedge fund. "It's free money."

Something to think about, isn't it? That too sounds like betrayal of a public trust, don't you think? Want more? Lots more? Read the article.

Or just sit back, relax, and check out Taibbi's take-no-prisoners rhetoric excerpted right here on One Finger Typing:

A year and a half after they were minutes away from bankruptcy, how are these assholes not only back on their feet again, but hauling in bonuses at the same rate they were during the bubble? The answer to that question is basically twofold: They raped the taxpayer, and they raped their clients.

Each of those average Goldman Sachs thieves -- oh! I mean employees -- could have used their own, individual 2009 "earnings" (and I use that word with profound reservation) to buy all the liquor Lu Guangyu paid for with his state-owned oil giant's funds ... and would have still had half his/her loot left.

Anybody have a count of how many of the Goldman Sachs employees were demoted for their parts, individual or collective, in causing a world of economic pain in order to feather their own nests???

Perhaps you remember when the NY Times reported in early 2010 that:

No one was crowing about their big paychecks at Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York on Thursday. Despite a record 2009, the bank announced that it had set aside only $16.2 billion to reward its employees.

Did this news make you feel sad and sympathetic for those poor, suffering, unable-to-crow Goldman employees? Have you ever noticed that "Goldman" is an anagram of "Goldamn"?

Here's Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times a few weeks ago on the theme of big paychecks:

If it is "socialist" to believe in a more equal distribution of income, what is the word for the system we now live under? A system under which the very rich have doubled their share of the nation's income in 25 years? I believe in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Isn't that an American credo? How did it get twisted around into an obscene wage for shameless plunder?

Good question, Mr. Ebert. Ain't America great?

China's still got a loooooooooooooooooong way to fall if buying liquor at $1800 per bottle out of a state-owned enterprise's funds is the worst their executives can do.

(It's not, of course. Lu Guangyu may well be a scumbag, but he's only the sort of scumbag who gets sacrificed publicly to divert attention from the crooks in charge. Noise, you know, floated in the media in order to drown out the signal. That never happens here, right?)

Thanks to Mark Bussinger for the Moutai photo obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau meets Paradise Lost

A few days back I saw The Adjustment Bureau, a movie in which Matt Damon plays a candidate for the U.S. Senate and aspirant to the presidency, in theaters now. The movie's conceit is that there has pretty much always been a corps of 'adjusters' who tweak 'accidents' and incidents when we hapless human beings stray off The Plan to which our lives are required to adhere in a pre-determined, no-Mary-there's-no-such-thing-as-free-will sort of way. The film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Adjustment Team, published in Orbit magazine in 1954.

Sometimes I go to the movies as a sort of neuronal colonic. I guess a lot of people do that kind of mental flossing with television, but, well, I've got my limits.

The movie was okay. There were parts of it I really liked, actually. Parts of it were flat-out ridiculous, but hey, that's just the sort of irrigation I paid for, matinee price.

What was ridiculous? Oh, the usual boy has to have this-particular-girl hyperbole. Chase scenes out the wazoo. The stiff, bureaucratic, Wim Wenders angel knockoffs are all stiff and bureaucratic, except for Harry, the one bureaucrat who has a heart, and helps the hero, and -- guess what? -- the actor cast to play him is the only African-American with a non-incidental role in the Bureau. Get it? He's different! [There's some wish-it-were-clever nodding to the Philip K. Dick original here: aspects of the role played by Harry in the movie are played by a black-haired dog in Dick's story.] No disrespect to Anthony Mackie, who played one of the most engaging characters in the film, much more so than Mr. Damon's tired working-class-bad-boy-claws-way-to-top-then-spurns-it-all-for-love role.

"Why do you people care who I love?" asks David Norris (Damon)

"It's not about her. It's about you," explains heavyweight Adjustment Bureaucrat Thompson (Terrance Stamp).

"Sigh," sez' me. That kind of sums up the flavor of formulic that made the movie so much less than it could have been. Here, from Tad Friend's "Funny Like A Guy" in the 11 April 2011 issue of The New Yorker, is what I'm talking about:

The Bechdel Test is a way of examining movies for gender bias. The test poses three questions: Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man? An astonishing number of light entertainments fail the test.

Guess which film, playing in theaters near you even as I type, fails the Bechdel Test in this viewer's humble opinion?

But -- to be fair -- there were some seriously sweet bits too.

I kind of liked that the off-stage character who passes for God in the story is referred to as The Chairman by his bureaucrat minions.

And the location location location? Cinematographer John Toll was given all the leave he needed to make love to New York with his camera. I think it might have been the sexiest depiction of the best island on earth since Woody Allen's eponymous Manhattan.

Then there was the sucker-punch at the end. Now this one's going to be a reach to depict in a few words, and the reasons I found it so compelling might just be my own personal ... idiosyncrasy.

[Spoiler alert!!!]

It's the end of the film. There's been a(nother) big chase scene, the heavyweights pursuing David Norris and his girl, Elise Blunt, through a New York that's full of magical doors that lead from downtown to MOMA to Yankee Stadium, just step on through. (I think it was Yankee Stadium. I've never been, but you figure if it's a ballpark in a movie set in New York ... apologies to Mets fans, I'm not really a sports guy.) Anyway, they've worked their way up a stately high rise (a digitally enhanced Metropolitan Life North Building) and are standing on an observation deck high over the cityscape -- as if the Depression-truncated building had been built to its originally intended height. It's a gorgeous view, and Harry is explaining the laughable reason that -- all of a sudden -- everything's going to be okay. (On the laughable question: Elise -- the girlfriend character -- passed her 'test' and co-earned permission for the lovers to live happily ever after. Wanna know how? By ... wait for it ... trusting her guy and doing exactly what he told her to do. That's right, Bechdel's nightmare.) In the end David Norris asks how he and Elise are to get down off the high rise. Harry says, "You can take the stairs."

"You can take the stairs."

I went tingly all over. Wanna know why?

Because -- here's the stretch part -- I am just certain that the end of John Milton's Paradise Lost inspired that line. And the thought, sitting there in the movie theater, brought all the disparate tropes of the film into line: the bureaucrats assigned to "adjust" individual lives, the clear filmic reference to Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), the no-questions-asked allegiance to The Chairman ... and that the most interesting of these angel-bureaucrats is the different, disobedient one who helps the hero, causes him to understand the real terms that underlie the world's workings, but in the end is helpless to keep The Chairman from sending the lovers back to the old mortal coil. Just like John Milton's Satan, the most compelling character in the tale. And so:

They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Do you buy it? "You can take the stairs" vs. "with wandring steps and slow..."?

Well, I guess Milton casts a long shadow still, at least in my literary landscape.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ann Packer reads from Swim Back to Me

New York Times bestselling novelist Ann Packer read on Sunday evening from her new collection of stories, Swim Back To Me at Books, Inc. on 4th Street in Berkeley. I've only read the first couple of pieces from the collection: a novella titled The Walk for Mankind, from which she read on Sunday; and a short story called Molten. Ann has a keen eye and a sharp ear for the characters she portrays, and a compelling talent for placing her characters in excruciating moral circumstances, in which no direction is "right." I couldn't put down The Walk for Mankind when I got home after the reading. I didn't sleep until I finished it.

I went to high school with Ann, in Palo Alto -- we graduated in the same class -- but between high school and our 30-year reunion, we hadn't been in touch. That 30-year reunion was just weeks before the release of Ann's second novel, Songs Without Words, which I read soon after it hit the bookstores; as I did her award-winning first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Ann was gracious when I mumbled something about having published only a few short pieces. I appreciated that. If you've attended one, you know how high school reunions can be.

I don't recall whether I knew Ann in 1972, the year in which The Walk for Mankind is set, when we were in the 8th grade at Terman Junior High. But I did take part in the fundraising event that gives her novella its title and that forms an element of its concept.

It was an early instance of the kind of thing people do now when they participate in rides and walks to raise funds for AIDS or cancer research. The participant accomplishes some physical feat, like walking 20 miles or biking from San Francisco to L.A., and solicits pledges of donations toward the cause in question. The pledges might be a fixed amount or might be tied to how fully the participant accomplishes the walk or bike ride. In the Walk for Mankind we collected pledges for how much a donor would give for each mile of the walk completed. If you pledged five cents per mile on my sign-up sheet, you were promising to contribute a dollar to the cause if I finished the whole twenty mile course, but less if I wimped out partway through.

An author might riff on Stanford & Palo Alto community participation in the Walk for Mankind in 1972 from any number of angles. Ann mined the material and evoked the era and place admirably. And she's gotten some terrific reviews, from the Miami Herald to the Boston Globe to the SF Chronicle to People Magazine ... so I won't pile on in that vein.

At the reading on Sunday, my own mood was set by her story's time and setting. That's only natural: I lived when and where The Walk For Mankind happens. While the characters were Ann's inventions, I could see some way behind the fictional curtain into the neighborhood where she lived (around the corner from my best friend's house), and it wasn't hard to recognize some of the character types in her tale. If there were direct correspondences between her characters and particular people I knew, I didn't see those. Judging from her answers to audience questions and my own experience in this vein, there's often a correspondence between aspects or traits of a character and people an author has known, but it defeats the fun & purpose of writing fiction to map directly from a real person to a fictional character. An author of fiction wants elbow room. If she wanted to write biography, that would be another endeavor entirely.

But after listening to Ann read, and vividly remembering the Stanford University campus and environs where I too spent much of my adolescence, the questions that the Books, Inc. audience asked struck me as ... awfully intimate. Though many had heard her interviewed on KQED's forum two days before, most didn't seem to know that Ann had set her novella in a neighborhood she called her own in 1972, so they likely had little idea how close to the mark their innocently-meant questions landed. Many wanted to know how she had come to choose and breathe life into her characters, her setting, the events of her narrative. Where, one asked, do you get all those details?

Ann answered gamely, admitting she was the age of her main characters in the year the novella is set, even joking that she once lived in the house inhabited by Richard Appleby, the novella's narrator. O, I fidgeted then. Was that a joke? Or was Ann really confessing that Richard was a proxy for her teenage self? Or for her brother, the journalist, author, and playwright George Packer?

My own guess? All the above. Like relations between actual people, relations between authors and characters are complicated.

But in the barrage of questions that boiled down to "how did you do that?" I decided not to ask the question I had in mind. The audience evinced an engaged curiosity about how an author pursues her craft, which seems like something you might expect at a book reading. But from the start Ann had noticed me in the small crowd -- she acknowledged the presence of "old friends and new friends" when she came to the podium -- so I felt that if I asked whether she tends to start first with theme, plot, or character as she conceives new work, she would feel too much on the spot ... she would hear the question as something like, "on which of the faculty and friends from our childhood, and which of their foibles, are you tattling?"

I didn't want to go there.

But I am looking forward to reading the rest of Swim Back To Me.

Ann Packer will be reading tonight at Bookshop Santa Cruz, and will be on tour in the midwest, on the East Coast, and back in the Bay Area through early June; see her author events calendar for detail. I have blogged about George Packer's work in Time History and Human Forgetting, posted in May 2010.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

Monday, April 18, 2011

Toxic fundamentalism here at home

Jon Stewart brought to my attention a massive brouhaha over just-about-nothing: Toemageddon, he called it. This master of damning juxtaposition tells it like it is in a hilarious six minute sendup of something that's really not funny.

Come to think of it, that's Stewart's specialty. Here's how the Chicago Tribune summarized the kerfuffle:

A J. Crew ad that shows a mother painting her little boy's toenails pink has sparked a storm of Internet outrage, with much of the vitriol directed at some pundits who swiftly criticized the online ad and asserted such behavior might make a boy question his sexuality.

"Dr." Keith Ablow is an FoG (friend of Glenn, Beck that is) and one of the pundits in question. Here's some of what he had to say in his column J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity:

Well, how about the fact that encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil -- not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts?

Let's take a look at that sentence. I'd rather set aside the boneheaded misapprehension of racial identity that follows as Ablow digs himself into a hole. If you care to be outraged, you might consider following the link. I don't even want to quote that garbage.

I'll focus instead on "suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth." I think what Ablow must have meant by "the [gender identities] they got at birth" is 'the gender identities that correspond to the physical structure of their genitals,' presumably as evaluated by responsible adults at the scene.

Given that, at birth, a human individual is starting out with what she or he is issued in the way of physical equipment, "got at birth" has to refer to physical traits and not social constructions, behaviors, or choices, except for those imposed by those pesky responsible adults. The infants don't have a say at the time. The infants aren't yet equipped to articulate anything about the social constructs into which their personalities fit or don't.

But morphology isn't what "gender identity" is about. Ablow's bio on the Fox site says he's a psychiatrist; he ought to know better.

Merriam-Webster defines "gender identity" as:

"the totality of physical and behavioral traits that are designated by culture as masculine or feminine."

Not just physical. Physical and behavioral. In totality. And not "masculine" or "feminine" in some Platonic ideal, engraved-in-stone sense ... but "designated by culture."

To the degree it is understood, then, gender identity is something rooted in physical and psychological and social components -- the last of which, minimally, is influenced by circumstances and individuals external to s/he who has the gender identity in question. So Ablow is correct to imply that infants are assigned a gender at birth. It's a far shakier proposition, though, to assert that this assignment is infallible or static or objectively defined. After all, the traits that define masculine and feminine are designated by culture. A slippery business indeed. At least as slippery as nail polish.

What Ablow is really saying, then, is that he doesn't like certain influences on gender identity. Or certain choices. Painting a boy's toenails is (a) in Ablow's view an influence on the boy's gender identity; and (b) the kind of influence Ablow doesn't like.

The first of these is questionable at best ... cf. Jon Stewart's video, especially the bit about Chuck Liddell, about 5'40" in.

The second ... well, it would be a bit silly to refute his idiosyncratic nonsense in a rational fashion, especially after Jon Stewart showcased it as the nuthouse drama that it is. Go on, watch the clip...

So ... why should anybody care what Dr. Keith Ablow thinks?

Because, alas, he doesn't just think, he influences. And there's something toxic about panicked, rigid attachment to gender roles like that advocated by this over-degreed pundit. Specifically, the kind of "suggesting" Ablow advocates kills people. Suffocating individuals under socially-constructed notions of acceptable gender identities that do not fit them leads to misery, conflict, violence, and death.

No, I do not think that's an exaggeration.

If you didn't see Making a world where queer kids thrive when I posted it in November, I invite you to read it now. The post is about a rash of young men who were driven to take their own lives last year because their bigoted culture (that would be our bigoted culture if you live in the U.S., as I do) imposed expectations around sexual and/or gender identity that couldn't be reconciled with who they actually were.

I regret to say that the section of that post titled "Being a good parent" prefigures Toemaggeddon ... it describes parental rigidity that is ridiculous and frightening, much like the rigidity Dr. Ablow is "suggesting": parents who get whacked out when a five year old child dresses up for Halloween as a cartoon character and his costume doesn't meet their narrow and brittle conceptions about gender identity. For Halloween, yes. Five years old. That's what I'm saying. As told, the tale does benefit from the strong, certain, eminently sane perspective of the adult parent quoted in my November post.

You'd like to wish people would learn.

UPDATE: If I read the news before posting this blog today, I would have included further evidence of the toxicity of environments advocated and encouraged by Keith Ablow and his ilk: a study published today online in Pediatrics magazine concludes, as the Associated Press puts it, "Suicide attempts by gay teenagers -- and even straight teens -- are more common in politically conservative areas that lack school programs supporting gay rights, a study involving nearly 32,000 high school students found." Can't make this stuff up...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

News cycle, information glut

Japan made it back onto the front page of a lot of American newspapers this week. It's not as if the unraveling nuclear disaster ever got "better" in the month since the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March. It's just that this week the officials in charge of such things raised the 'ranking' of the nuclear power plant crisis to the highest level of an international scale, on a par with the worst such crisis ever, at Chernobyl in 1986.

Slow motion disaster is background news. Escalation puts a crisis above the fold (or, in this day and age, above the scroll horizon). Were you tracking the fact that there are, very unusually, street protests in Tokyo around the nuclear crisis and the risk that last month's earthquake and tsunami have surfaced? Not a lot of media focus on that...

Libya: we in the lower reaches of North America are paying plenty of attention to Libya because the U.S. has CIA boots on the ground and both U.S. and NATO planes are flying attack missions. It's a war, and each day it becomes more clear that the U.S. is backing revolt against a merciless tyrant (we knew that going in) by a weak and disorganized opposition (optimistic strategists hoped otherwise).

Syria's got a war on too, and there the balance is tilted even more heavily toward government "security" forces in tanks against protesters who do not seem to be armed at all ... and there's not much in the way of journalistic witness either.

Egypt? Tunesia? Yemen? Conflict, betrayal, dictatorial recidivism are all still in play. But there's only so much that fits above the fold.

I've been meaning to write about Bradley Manning, the Pfc. being held in the military brig at Quantico under conditions that, "according to 250 of America's most eminent legal scholars [...] are illegal, unconstitutional, and could even amount to torture," as the U.K.'s Guardian reported over the weekend. The U.S. government's torture of Pfc. Manning -- accused of passing classified material to Wikileaks -- has been the topic of protest and many newspaper editorials. But I haven't pushed his imprisonment and treatment to the front of my to-blog-about queue because ... well ... because ... it's overwhelming how much truly awful news there is to assimilate.

And the deficit hoax? The attempt by one major U.S. party to destroy the government and the failure of the other to defend it? Not going there. Not today.

A colleague brought a Gartner article to my attention the other day: 'Big Data' Is Only the Beginning of Extreme Information Management. Here are a couple of sentences that caught my eye:

Big data has such a vast size that it exceeds the capacity of traditional data management technologies; it requires the use of new or exotic technologies simply to manage the volume alone. But processing matters, too.

The article topic is not what the context of this post might lead you to think. The Gartner authors are discussing how businesses and other organizations ought to approach management and analysis of very large data sets -- from consumer spending and web-surfing patterns, to massive sets of scientific data -- the sort of big data that is more and more regularly the basis of big business decisions.

But ... yeah.

The vast size of big data about what's happening across the globe is blowing my wetware's data management fuses, right and left. And it ain't all about taking in data. It's about processing too.

The Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego explained in a research report:

In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes. These estimates are from an analysis of more than 20 different sources of information, from very old (newspapers and books) to very new (portable computer games, satellite radio, and Internet video). Information at work is not included.

Um. Go back and read that last sentence. That one really makes my head spin. I work in information technology. Tracking and organizing information at work is pretty much what I do. And keep in mind: the GIIC report analyzed information consumption two years ago. Nobody imagines those numbers are going down, right?

Given the 21st century information glut, how is a citizen to participate responsibly in democratic governance? Reader suggestions welcome......

Thanks to Kitamura Yayoi for bringing the Tokyo anti-nuclear street-protest to my attention; and to the Argonne National Laboratory for sharing the included photo of its IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer on Flickr.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Flowery front yards in Berkeley

It's disappointingly easy to find gloom and doom in the news, no matter the channel. When that gets to be too much, even for me -- and I know I can get pretty gloomy -- I take a walk.

Berkeley is a good city for walking. I think I must have said it before, but it's still true so I'll say it again: there are people on every block who put thought and care into their front-yard gardens.

Years ago a former neighbor in my building made a summer project out of landscaping our front yard, which he organized around a lovely flowering tree whose name I can't remember for the life of me. J-- has long migrated across the bay, but the tree he planted flourishes. Absent his attentive pruning, what was once a modest ornamental has grown like gangbusters. Here's a photo from the sidewalk, and a closeup of its flowers.

Walking around town at this time of year the sidewalks are fragrant with wisteria and jasmine, roses are blooming, poppies bob in breezes, lilies blossom on every block. Flowers whose names I can't begin to guess burst from my neighbors' lovely yards. As I track friends and colleagues in the midwest and on the east coast who are just now edging out of winter, I am reminded how lucky we are out here on the left side of the country.

Here are a few of the photos I took along some of my regular routes over this past weekend.

I never thought Alexander Pope and I shared a world view, but as I walk down the sidewalks and stop to smell (or photograph) the roses, I have to concede there's pretty solid proof he was right about one thing: Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Thanks to all my green-thumbed neighbors...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

G.O.P proposes a death panel plan for health care

You've undoubtedly heard about Rep. Paul D. Ryan's (R-Wisc) plans for Medicaid and Medicare, which ultimately aim to leave each person and family to shift for themselves when it comes to health care. Under the plan Ryan put forward as the Republican party's point man on budget, if you've got enough income or assets you get modern medical care sufficient to address your medical needs. If you don't have enough money to pay your own way, the federal government won't help you enough to matter.

What will that mean in reality? It will mean that millions of people for whom our nation, the world's wealthiest, currently provides care will be left on their own to grow sicker and die sooner. So much for compassionate conservatism.

Remember Sarah Palin's "death panel" canard? C'mon, you couldn't have forgotten a propaganda blitz that was voted the biggest lie of 2009 by ", the nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning Truth-O-Meter run by the St. Petersburg Times." The G.O.P. broadly, deceptively, and despicably applied the "death panel" canard to national health care reform measures enacted in 2010.

Well, in the words of dead former-president Ronald Reagan, lying on the topic of health care in 1980, there [they] go again. This time, though, the death panel is the Republican majority of the House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Ryan.

The mild and reasoned summary from the NY Times:

But while saving large sums for the federal government, the proposals on Medicaid and Medicare could shift some costs to beneficiaries and to the states. [...] if, as many economists predict, health costs continue to rise at a rapid clip, beneficiaries of these programs would be at risk for more of the costs. [...] About half of Medicaid recipients are children. Nearly two-thirds of the money spent on Medicaid benefits is for low-income people who are 65 and older or disabled.

Compare that to a response that does not pull its punch, from Steven D on Daily Kos:

So you won't have insurance worth spit if you to make it to 67. You will die earlier than you should so rich people can receive more tax breaks. I think the Republicans had a word for that back in 2009 when they opposed health care reform: Death Panels. Well, that usage was a lie. The health care reform act contained no "death panels" who would decide who would live and who would die. But the Republicans in Congress and anyone else who supports the elimination of health care is acting in effect as a death panel. If their bill passes, and Medicare is eliminated, guess who would be selected for "early retirement." Well unless you are filthy rich and can afford a gold plated health care plan, the people selected to die early and suffer great misery while awaiting that early death from lack of sufficient health care would be you and me.

And, also excerpted from Daily Kos, another, from Joan McCarter:

Let's reiterate a point here -- a quarter of Medicaid spending goes for long-term care for the elderly. If Medicaid is not there to pick up those costs, it falls to families. There's already an explicit tax hike for the middle class in Ryan's plan. Taking Medicaid funding from families with disabled children and parents and grandparents in nursing homes compounds that. Plenty of middle-class families only remain middle class because they're spared crippling medical and long-term care costs. A decade or two of the Ryan plan, and there will be no more middle class in America.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan said on Tuesday morning: "This is not a budget, this is a cause."

Daily Kos diarist Giles Goat Bay wrote in response to Ryan's assertion:

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives are not there to govern. They are not there to make and defend tough choices. They are not there to hammer out a deal that would require genuine shared sacrifice. In short, they are not there to deal with reality. They are there as ideologues.

That's what it looks like to me too.

Here's an opinion piece featured yesterday on the front page of, in case the NYT and Daily Kos aren't sufficiently fair or balanced for this post's readers. From yesterday's The Federal Budget Crisis Hoax, by Sally Kohn:

[...] the extent of the federal budget crisis as a whole is being wildly overblown to scare us toward drastic measures rather than rational solutions. [...] big corporations and their lobbyists have literally been manipulating our government --- both Republicans and Democrats --- to grease the wheels for big business while putting up more and more obstacles for working families, small business owners, homeowners, etc. [...] And so, at their behest, politicians of both parties --- as well as the media owned by the very same big businesses --- tell us that the government is broke and our debt level is unsustainable and, therefore, we’re going to have to cut things like unemployment benefits and funding for public school teachers. Wall Street doesn’t care.

Ms. Kohn quotes economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), so I will too -- with a special shout-out to readers who imagine that my habit of quoting Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman implies he is alone in his expert judgement:

[...] deficit hawks have gone on the warpath insisting that we have to start worrying about bringing the deficit down. [...] This is, of course, complete nonsense. Larger deficits in the current economic environment will only increase output and employment. In other words, larger deficits will put many of our children's parents back to work. Larger deficits will increase the likelihood that parents can keep their homes and provide their children with the health care, clothing and other necessities for a decent upbringing. But, the deficit hawks would rather see our children suffer so that we can have smaller deficits.

Pander to the rich. Leave the poor to die in squalor. That's the cliff over which the G.O.P. wants to drive a nation they would rather damage than govern.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Advice to a new student at Cal

A woman with whom I went to high school sent a note the other day via Facebook. Her son had just been accepted to UC Berkeley; freshman admission decisions were posted a few days before. It's no mean accomplishment to gain admission to Cal, and my former classmate has good reason to be proud. Her son is "thrilled" and was watching my correspondence with his mom "with a big smile on his face." He has every right to be proud too.

But in her role as a mom my classmate also expressed concern about the potentially overwhelming size of the public university for which I work. (She herself studied at Stanford, a perfectly respectable little university, about which I will make no disparaging remarks ... that would be childish.)

She asked my advice about how her son ought to "navigate" the school in order not to find himself lost among the tens of thousands of students. That's a good question. So -- as an alum, a community member of several decades, and a campus employee -- I offered two pieces of advice. Now that I've had a few days to ask around about the question, I've appended another to the end of this post.

-- Two Pieces of Advice --

Find small communities

Here's the thing about big schools: nobody knows everybody. Nobody does everything. What people do occurs in communities of common interest and activity. Ditto for who people know.

A new student might be fortunate to fall into friendship with people living in his or her freshman dorm; if s/he's really lucky, s/he'll become good pals with a roommate. There's easy, instant community. Works for some, not for all.

There are plenty of other possibilities. Maybe my friend's son will pledge a fraternity. That's never been an interesting possibility in my world, but ... different strokes. As it happens, a mutual high school friend of mine and the mom who wrote last week attended Cal and joined a sorority. It wasn't what you might think: there are plenty of Greek houses beyond the Animal House stereotype. Our mutual friend loved it. She's still great friends with some of her sorority sisters, women she makes a point to see every year, more than a quarter century after we graduated.

Yep. I'm that old.

Anyway. More possibilities:

Community can be found in all manner of places, not just among people with whom one lives. Maybe my friend's son will get involved in campus politics, or national politics, or international politics, or Berkeley city politics (which often pass for international politics in the news media). Maybe he'll audition for an a capella group, or play intramural sports, or join the University Symphony Orchestra or a Jazz ensemble, or learn to play the carillon mounted in our Campenille. Maybe he'll worm his way onto the staff of the Daily Cal or the Heuristic Squelch (Cal's humor magazine) or contribute to the Berkeley Fiction Review or Berkeley Poetry Review. The Cal Corps Public Service Center offers opportunities to tutor kids in public schools in the East Bay, challenge poverty, and get involved in the Peace Corps among dozens of possibilities rife with opportunities to form community with undergrads committed to working for a better world; over 4,000 students volunteer in any given year according to the campus Facts at a Glance web page.

The big picture? Come fall term, the campus will be his oyster.

My friend's son and every other incoming member of the class of 2015 should think about how to factor life outside classes into a well-rounded schedule. With a bazillion options out there, the first extracurricular groups and activities a new student explores won't necessarily be the one s/he chooses to stick with. So my meta-advice on finding small communities is this: it's important to feel free to change your mind. You're in college to explore. Don't let anybody stop you!

Go to office hours

I was not a joiner as an undergraduate. Yes, I made friends, mostly through the good luck of who ended up on my dormitory floors the years I lived in Putnam Hall ... and there were friends of friends too. But I took almost none of that advice about finding groups and activities when I was enrolled at Cal. I studied. Frankly, I was something of a nerd, what can I say? Books are still my friends!

Importantly, though, I did go to my professors' office hours. A lot.

Here's the thing, which kind of shocked me at the time: most students didn't visit their professors even though all comers were welcome. Were my classmates intimidated? Too busy partying? Did they fail to get how valuable an opportunity we'd been granted to spend time with smart and articulate faculty?

Beyond the shock of realizing most undergrads didn't bother with office hours, it shocked me to discover that professors and graduate teaching assistants were hungry for students who wanted to talk about the subjects we were studying. Now, mind you, this is not the same thing as students who want to talk about how they deserved a better grade on that paper, or about precisely which material would be tested on a midterm exam. No. The faculty were not so eager to help students limit studying to a lazy minimum. The faculty were and are teaching because they're truly, seriously, deeply into their fields. They want to talk about their work.

For example:

I took a creative writing course from the late poet Thom Gunn, then a craggy middle-aged man who came to class in a leather motorcycle jacket and spoke with a soft but assured British accent. I didn't know much about who he was when I signed up for the course. At the time, there weren't many creative writing courses on offer in the English department, even for students in the major. He was teaching one of them.

Partway through the term I figured I'd look Professor Gunn up in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. I found his work in a section that began on page 2,483 of my edition, deep into the "still living" section of the tome. I was puzzled by some of the references in Moly, a poem written from the perspective of one of Odyssesus' shipmates in Homer's epic, whom Circe has transformed into swine.

So I showed up one day during Gunn's office hours and after a bit of small talk told him I wanted to ask a few questions about his poems. To my deeper-than-Moly puzzlement, he expressed surprise -- and clearly felt flattered -- that I'd bothered to seek out his work and read it attentively. He was warm and forthcoming, and eager to talk about language and resonance in poetry.

I'm not sure I appreciated what a rare and fine experience that was until years after the fact, but I sure am glad I put myself in its way.

-- And another thing --

I had brunch with a first cousin and his daughter over the weekend. The daughter, my first cousin once-removed, is a junior at Cal. She's studying art practice. When she's not buried in projects and papers, she's a nimble conversationalist in wholly enjoyable coffee klatches at a café we both like, across the street from the campus. I told her about the friend whose son will arrive as a freshman in August, and asked what advice she would give from her perspective.

I was gratified to hear that my own suggestions seemed on the mark to a current student. And then my cousin recommended something I didn't know about: Freshman Seminars. From the program's website:

UC Berkeley’s Freshman and Sophomore Seminars provide an unparalleled opportunity for faculty members and small groups of lower-division students to explore a scholarly topic of mutual interest together, following an often spontaneous flow of dialogue and interchange in the spirit of learning for its own sake. By taking a seminar a student becomes an active member of Berkeley’s intellectual community. [...] Students are encouraged to choose their seminars based on the pull of intellectual curiosity, a desire to explore enticing and even unfamiliar realms.

Not something we had when I was in school (the program started in 1992). Back in the old days, freshmen and sophmores longed wistfully for the day we'd have enough units to be permitted to enroll in upper division courses, which is where seminars offered escape from lecture halls filled with one or two or five hundred fellow students. Yes, we had small discussion sections led by graduate student teaching assistants, and some of those were terrific ... but it would have been double-plus-terrific to interact with faculty around a seminar table instead of via binoculars and the post-lecture scrum around the podium.

Thanks, cousin, for the tip.

So in summary:

  1. Seek out your communities.
  2. For the love of knowledge, visit your professors during office hours.
  3. Don't miss your chance to enroll in a Freshman seminar.

Welcome to Cal!

Thanks to "Introvert" and WikiMedia Commons for the image of the UC Berkeley campus, circa 2005.