Sunday, January 22, 2012

Snow Glow

When we were all kids, nothing could be more wonderful than a snow day. Well, maybe two snow days. It's of course a nightmare for parents who have to get help with your kids. If you live in Seattle, though, you probably can't get to work either. LA people will then call you sissies. That's coming from the city that has five-hundred car accidents every time it rains.
The landscape doesn't change more than when it is covered with snow. Trees are lined with white, lawns and roads become soft and inviting carpets of joy. Everyday objects are covered with the stuff like blankets. The jaunts of animals are etched for all to see.

I am loathe to trample the smooth perfection of a clean blanket of snow. Once I get started though, I lose control of my hands as they are nothing more than catalysts for snow's instinctual desire to form balls and leap into flight. Some of the balls mature and grow large on a random walk across the yard then stack one on top of another before acquiring vegetables, sticks, and designer accessories.

As much as a snow day can raise the spirits, a snow night is an atmosphere to relish. When the sky is overcast, the reflective ground cover shines light into the clouds. A soft glow seems to cover the whole city, and objects in unlit corners of the neighborhood become visible at night. More light than a full moon. A delightful end to a delightful day.

Sooner or later heat and sun to liberate those water molecules from their interlocked lattices. The glow disappears, we get back to work. Enter the slush.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Begin the Winter Doldrums

At last, you've left the confines of your family—or your family has left your confines, and you box up the menorah and ornaments and Christmas lights, and set that old, young pine tree on the curb to be recycled into mulch for brothers and sisters with equally short lifespans. Decorations come down, you go back to work or working at finding work, holiday cheer dissolves into mundacity, and we wait for the next celebration of life.

For most of us living in seasonal areas, these are the two months that we wait before we see the first buds on the deciduous trees, bulbs start to sprout up, and winds that don't chill to the bone. The only breaks are commemorations of a civil rights leader, a pointed ovoid reputed to be fashioned from porcine dermis, and a few presidents. It's the time to hunker down and get good work done before the weather can draw us from our burrows.

But it's not all bad. While the whole world is in hibernation, rocky mountain slopes are covered in microcrystalline ice that provides a soft, low-friction medium for the controlled descent of the nordically inclined. One can enjoy a stroll through forests that are dead quiet; not a cicada or sparrow to break the tranquility. There are a few months before having to hear about clothing sales. Coffee shops go back to their regular background music of new age, jazz, and classical.

If you're Chinese, the fun's just starting. Replace those Christmas trees with ornamental mandarin trees. Cover your windows and walls with paraphernalia for the next year's animal. Trade red envelopes with money. Gather all your family and eat delicious food (at the right times depending on your family's rituals). Shoot off firecrackers! By the time the fifteenth day is over and you've finished the lantern festival, it's only a few weeks until cherry blossoms.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Not so fun things that have happened around me on non-Singaporean public transit

There has been a lot of concern recently in Singapore about the conditions of public transit and train faults. I'm here to reassure readers that in most fundamental aspects, Singapore's transit system is far above other systems in the fundamental aspects. It's not to say that people shouldn't seek to constantly improve. As a professional, I'm all about learning, adapting, and improving. However, it is pertinent to enjoy the benefits of today and not fall into a cycle of pessimism under the guise that somehow we live in the worst of times. Therefore, I will compile this list, bullet point style, of experiences I've had on non-Singaporean transit systems:

  • Last Monday, on a New Jersey Transit train out of NY Penn Station, I was delayed for half an hour in the train in the station due to emergency track repair. Not knowing exactly when the train was taking off, and with a meeting to go to, I couldn't leave to grab the lunch that I had earlier passed up for expediency.
  • A few days before, I walked by the A,C,E stop on 125th. There was police tape all over the corners and cops milling around. Somebody was shot in the station.
  • In Paris: Strikes. Nuff Said.
  • Every few days there was a suicide that would shut down one of the lines for a while.
  • My last day working in Paris, I took a Subway car from hell whose emergency breaking system automatically activated immediately after reaching full speed five stops in a row.
  • In Paris: Average about one solicitation for money from some poor soul for every ten minutes of transit riding.
  • Coming from the Paris airport with heavy bags, we were forced to leave the train because of a fire. To catch the replacement train, the PA kept telling us to cross under to different tracks, but the operators seemed to be changing their minds several times while we were dragging bags back and forth.
  • Also on the Metro, a man appeared to faint over me, then reached and grabbed a woman's iPhone while she was talking on it and ran off just as the door closed. I believe iPhone theft gets you the death penalty in Singapore.
  • There's often smelly people on the Paris trains. I mean smelly like roadkill wrapped in moldy carpet. The worst was a drunkard passing out and voiding his bowels and bladder on the train. Ooh fun.
  • On San Francisco's BART, it's so noisy in parts that you need ear plugs.
  • It's rare to find a part of a Paris train that doesn't have graffiti and scratched windows on it.
  • The Beijing trains are so crowded that I can only describe them as squishy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Leading GOP (and Tea Party) candidate for CO governor joins the fruit and nut brigade against transportation choices

The leading candidate for the GOP nomination for the Colorado governorship is speaking out against U.N. control of our cities. At issue is the ICLEI, the International Council for Local Environmental Issues, a UN group of mayors and cities for discussing and sharing ideas on sustainable development and good practice. Dan Maes is giving the mayor of Denver heat for instituting several initiatives to encourage bicycle riding including a new bike sharing program that is similar to the successful Velib system in Paris.

Maes, at the rally July 26, took aim at Denver's bike-sharing program, which he said was promoted by a group that puts the environment above citizens' rights.

The B-Cycle program places a network of about 400 red bikes for rent at stations around the city. It is funded by private donors and grants.

Maes said ICLEI is affiliated with the United Nations and is "signing up mayors across the country, and these mayors are signing on to this U.N. agreement to have their cities abide by this dream philosophy."

The program includes encouraging employers to install showers so more people will ride bikes to work and also creating parking spaces for fuel-efficient vehicles, he said.

Apparently sharing ideas with other cities and international cities in un-American. Apparently, spending some city tax dollars on programs for people who choose not to use cars and not to use the roads is tantamount to installing communism in America. Apparently if a UN organization hatches a good idea, and some of our cities decide to adopt it, we are signing over our rights to the UN. We are free Americans with choice and freedome and we have the right to drive automobiles. Other methods of transit, nope, those are outlawed by the constitution...or something...

"At first, I thought, 'Gosh, public transportation, what's wrong with that, and what's wrong with people parking their cars and riding their bikes? And what's wrong with incentives for green cars?' But if you do your homework and research, you realize ICLEI is part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty," Maes said.

It has to be assumed that if a city decides not to use an idea hatched in this special UN organization, black helicopters will rein down and UN troops will suck our brains out with straws. They will enforce the non-treaty with the same super world power that stopped the genocide in Sudan and took nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran and N. Korea.

While this appears to be a kooky argument, what must be taken seriously is how many politicians (usually on the right) look down upon any sort of transportation infrastructure that does not involve an internal combustion engine. The whole issue of transportation alternatives like bikes and rail is that they give us choices, where cars are only one choice and one that is expensive and marred by traffic. And since a bicyclist is still a tax payer, one should demand that tax money is not only spent to subsidize driving. If we stopped subsidizing car infrastructure and made the system pay-as-you-go, the other alternatives would look a lot more popular. Having the government pay for only one choice sounds a lot like the communism that paranoid crazies have been accusing of the Democrats.

The subsidies for motor vehicle travel are numerous and fully supported by conservative policies. This is, sadly, another area where somehow I am at odds with conservatives when the issue itself should transcend the conservative-liberal spectrum. With crazy arguments like the above, how can I be reasonably expected to listen to the other side?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Karl Rove Still Master of Propaganda

Last night, Karl Rove, former Bush adviser and architect of the Bush years--and what a success those were--was heckled out of a book signing for his literary triumph. His response to the vibrant protests:

Rove, who defended his administration's stance on several controversial issues in heated exchanges with other critics, said the interruptions reflected the "totalitarianism of the left."

"They don't believe in dialogue. They don't believe in courtesy. They don't believe in First Amendment rights for anyone but themselves," he said.

Though ironic, this statement reflects what Rove has been doing all along with the Bush administration. Basically accusing his opposition of doing exactly what he is doing; it is so maddening because the counter argument is, "no I'm not, you are." It's a first strike of propaganda that was a basic principle dating years back, the bigger the lie the better. Rove is an excellent liar.

During the Bush years, protest was squashed at any public appearance by Bush. They were rare, but when the audiences were chosen, they were required to promise fealty to the conservative right and master Bush. Talk about a lack of first amendment rights; these were public speeches by our President.

Rove is a master at using an offensive strategy of outright bullshit that is so far from reality that it is almost impossible to formulate a response.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What The Olympics Decision Means for President Obama

Jack Squat.

This wasn't his bid for the Olympics. It was Chicago's and also in a way the whole country's pitch to let us have the games for another round. And out come the headlines that Obama is human. Where'd that come from. If he wasn't human, he wouldn't need secret service people to investigate nutty people inspired by talk show hosts to do harm to public officials.

This is all about ego, but it's not what we think. President Obama has an overinflated ego, that's for sure; but the fault lies not with him, but everybody else in this country. Whether conservative or liberal or none of the above, people give him the ego because they are all interested in watching him. What is an ego besides a sense of self-importance. And the media and us have given it to him. He can't do anything without creating a media circus. It's not his fault that he can't get a burger or meet a dying colleague without a hundred cameras in tow. The nation is obsessed with him, and whether he likes it or not, he knows that people listen (selectively in some cases) when he speaks.

The hilarious part of it is that Obama gets more conservative press than liberal. The conservative media doesn't just report that he's getting a burger, they focus on the mundane details like if he asks for dijon mustard. Then that ties into some circumspect logic that he hates America. Matt Drudge pumps up Obama's ego by constantly obsessing about him and how every unfortunate turn of events is somehow his fault. Lou Dobbs does it by declaring Chicago's loss as "Obama's defeat." Town hall screamers do it by declaring health care reform "Obamacare," when really, we've been talking about similar and more liberal reform for four decades.

The irony is that the liberal part of America just wants things done. They aren't obsessing that Obama is doing it. Of course, the more left leaning of us cheered that Obama stood up and told us we need health care reform. That's because we want him to put in an effort for causes we find just. Of course we want to hear what he has to say on a number of issues, we are most likely to agree--though in many cases we do not.

It's the people who don't like him that prop up his ego, so that they can criticize him for it. If he gives a speech, and the media turns to report it, it's the media who is helping him. If every story on Lou Dobbs mentions President Obama, that's him trying to tie Obama into everything under the sun. Obama has never declared interest in controlling everything. That was Bush when he famously said, "it would be easier if this were a dictatorship." Somehow Obama is an oppressive leader by suggesting things he'd like to see in legislation, then letting congress draft the legislation (they are doing such a shoddy job, I'd like him to step in again, but I'm sure he would just like a bill that he can sign). Bush was the one who force-fed legislation to the rubber stamp Republican congress.

I have no doubt that President Obama gave the Olympics his best shot because he thought it was in the interest of the nation to host them. I was never under the illusion, and I'm sure he wasn't either, that his word would guarantee the Games for Chicago. People who don't like him make him out to be an arrogant dictator so that they can hate him further; and they can also laugh when things don't go his way, under this strange impression that he had until then gotten everything he's wanted. If that were the case, we would already be reaping the benefits of an organized, humanitarian, option rich, and fairly priced health care system.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Insurance Reform Now, Part I

As the deadline approaches, many are questioning why we need to rush to pass reform. Make no mistake, our perilous financial state demands that we reform how we pay for health care. Why has this debate shifted from health care reforms to insurance reform? Because it’s in the financing where our system is failing us. What you pay for health care services is more like roulette than accounting. And insurance is at the heart of our system’s financial failures in addition to the uncertainty and care denials that give health care consumers a raw deal.

In the US, we spent about 15% GDP on health care. This is the highest figure in the world, and almost 50% higher than runners-up Switerland and Germany. Estimates show that this year the US will spend 18% of our GDP on health care. The startling figure is that in terms of overall health outcomes the United States does no better than the countries that cluster around the 11% GDP range like Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany…So in fact, somebody is getting a raw deal here.

We know that the US has many of the most advanced health care centers and the best technology available. We also have rigorously trained doctors who work long hours and are devoted to their practice. Given those facts, we should either have less expensive, more efficient care, or better care that results in better outcomes. Some people probably do have great outcomes, when they can afford to get the care they need, it turns out to be really good. But for others, they are getting sub-standard care or are getting ripped off.

Why should Americans, who live with the “freest” market, with no organized care, be getting the worst deal in the world. The prices for most other goods are set by market forces: food, restaurants, gas, property, electronics. These prices are generally the same in terms of quality except where there are some subsidies, of which there are a few in 1st world countries. However, the free market has failed for health care and health insurance.

In most states, for the private consumer of insurance, there are one or two choices. Imagine having just two parties to choose from when deciding on elected officials… Heh, well there you go. Hold your nose and choose the one you think is “best,” and prepare to be disappointed. When you end up with a broken leg or get cancer, you may or may not get what you thought you would to cover your medical bills. If you are lucky, you will have your care covered, but maybe the wheel will come up double zero and you get the “pre-existing condition excuse.” Maybe you thought you could use your doctor, but he turned out to have gone out of network, and you get to pay 50% of the bills for your orthopedic surgery. How can one make a good decision if they don’t even know what they are getting? Can Adam Smith’s invisible hand operate if it is also blind?

If the system worked well, you would submit your bill for services that a doctor said were essential to bring you back to health, and an insurance agent would quickly look to see that it was signed by the doctor and quickly pay off the bill. Instead, there is an entire bureaucracy using your premium dollars to make your service as bad as possible. Once you get an expensive malady, the insurer has no reason to care if you are satisfied or not. Now, with a choice of many insurers, one could read reviews of different providers and there would be competition in customer service if they wanted anybody new to sign on. In reality, with virtual monopolies (or duopoloies), you don’t have a choice, both can collaborate to be equally stingy in payouts, and if you become an unsatisfied customer, you can switch providers but if you manage to succeed in changing, you will never get coverage for anything related to the now “pre-existing condition” that was so poorly treated by the other insurer.

Let’s go a little further shall we. Many of us have coverage through our employer. Here, your health care is subsidized by the government by virtue of it coming out of pre-tax employment benefits. If you are unfortunate and have to purchase coverage for your and your family, give Uncle Sam his due first. Here, there is probably not much consumer choice as you are stuck taking what your employer gives you. It’s probably better insurance and a better deal; but don’t get fired, or you will only be able to keep that great deal for 15 months under COBRA. And you will have to pay through your nose to commission the help of an evil terrorist organization bent on taking over the world. And once it’s over, hope that you don’t have any health problems when you want to pick up one of the privately available providers or you will be denied. Great choice there.

So the market for health insurance doesn’t hold a candle to a free market. There is low consumer mobility, lack of choices, and light competition. There is also a lot of uncertainty in the services that are provided, a lot of subsidies, and a lot of overhead. Remember, health insurance is like paying for services before they are rendered, so the financier benefits by paying out as little as possible.

This is only the insurance part of health care financing. In the next installment we will look at the free market failures of pricing, billing, and compensation.