Monday, December 31, 2007

Affordable Health Care

I've been going through the Divided We Fail site's list of candidate statements on where they stand on the various issues of affordable health care. This is an interesting site: nobody called the candidates and asked them questions. It's excerpts from their web site articles and speeches that relate to the Divided We Fail issues. You have to give AARP credit for a lot of research to dig all that out and post it, with links.

I notice a certain lack of detail on the "how" in all these fine statements. Everybody says that health care will be "affordable", and no one will be able to refuse you for a pre-existing condition. (They're not dumb, they know what the issues are.) What I don't see is how the candidates expect to compel the existing health insurance industry to sell health care insurance policies if they don't think they can make a profit on them. You can make laws and rules that say, if you're going to sell health insurance policies, they have to meet these criteria; but what happens when all the major vendors say, we can't make any money at that, we withdraw from that market. They've done it before: there are areas in the hurricane belt where certain insurance companies won't sell homeowners' insurance any more. They're not really interested in "insurance" as it was originally developed; they only want to play the game if the dice are loaded so they can always win. The only way to do this is to take profit out of the medical game altogether and run it as a subsidized public service.

The only one who comes right out and says, we're going to have universal publicly financed health care, is Dennis Kucinich; and he may be a fine man but he has about as much chance of winning this election as he has of being elected Pope. John Edwards at least admits that "the health system could evolve into a single-payer plan."
Single-payer is ultimately the way we have to go; otherwise we can't get away from the insurance companies trying to squeeze out every last premium without ever paying out on a claim.

Divided We Fail

I've decided that I agree with the AARP - we have to do something about health care, long term care, and financial security. That's why I've added the "Divided We Fail" logo to the blog. If you agree, step up too. The link's right there - it's up to you. (By the way, their site sucks in FireFox - use IE7 to get it to load properly. Sigh.)


My husband just sent me a link to a NY Times op-ed piece that was making the rounds of his recovery group, and it's interesting enough that I want to share it here.

The Hangover That Lasts

Go read it - you have to have a login to but they're free and they've never hassled me with spam. It isn't very long.

I'm fascinated by the conclusions (from studies on rats) about rats which engaged in the laboratory equivalent of binge drinking during adolescence, and then stopped drinking. They're capable of learning - but they're not capable of relearning. They can't admit they were wrong. They show "a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making." They "fail to recognize the ultimate consequences of [their] actions." And all this is present even after a long period of sobriety.

The one good thing the study mentions is that, in "former alcohol-drinking mice", exercise clearly stimulates "the regrowth and development of normal neural tissue". So - exercise is good for the formerly drunken brain.

And neither I nor the article's author have ever mentioned the name you're thinking!

Now how do we explain Dick Cheney?

Health Insurance

I can't believe there hasn't been more publicity about this - I've seen one article, essentially a press release.

The EEOC has just ruled that employers don't have to offer full retiree health benefits to retirees who have reached the age of 65 and qualify for Medicare. They claim this just "formally authorizes the long-standing practice of employers" of paying less for retiree health care after the retiree qualifies for Medicare; they made the decision because the U.S. Court of Appeals (3rd circuit) ruled in 2000 that employers who spend less for health coverage on retirees eligible for Medicare, than they do on retirees who don't yet qualify, are in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

EEOC claims this is "in the public interest", because without the ruling employers would quit offering retiree health coverage to all retirees because of the extra expense for retirees also covered by Medicare. I thought that's what they were doing anyhow. They claim this will preserve retiree health benefits for younger workers while not reducing benefits for older workers. They claim they have broad bipartisan support for this (although while they list the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers, I don't see the AARP listed).

Full disclosure here: I'm retired, and my health insurance comes from my husband's job; and when he retires, theoretically he will continue to get full, lifetime health insurance as a retiree. (Yeah, there are about 8 of those left.) I see this ruling affecting my ability to continue to have health coverage, and it scares the liver out of me. I'm about to turn into one of the "older workers" who will get reduced health benefits; and while I'm generally in good shape, I have a number of chronic conditions that require regular medications and checks with the doctor, and my health would deteriorate pretty fast if I couldn't get those.

Maybe I'm over-reacting. But let's get cracking on universal health care coverage, huh??

Still No Turkeys

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I've never gotten a photo of the turkeys living up the canyon; and I have a feeling I never will. The problem is the schedule; according to the guy I spoke with (who works at the racquet club up the road), they're around all the time, "pretty early." Oof. This probably means (they being birds) that they get up with the sun, or maybe a little before.

I have to be honest here: I am not a "morning" person. One of the most delightful things about being retired is the ability to roll over and pull the covers up around my ears when my husband's alarm clock goes off. I've always felt that, if God intended us to see the sunrise, She would have scheduled it later in the day. I tried to get up early a couple of days but never made it early enough.

I could still potentially find them around sunset; but afternoon is when I'm working on my volunteer projects, and I tend to wake up from my web configuration screens and realize, wait - it's dark already. Too late to go look for turkeys now. I went a couple of times, but not at the right times. Oh, well. I enjoyed seeing them - and the photo I really wanted was the one of them ambling calmly down the middle of my street. That photo would require a time machine, I'm afraid. So - no turkey photos, but delightful memories of two accidental sightings. That'll have to be enough.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto, 1953 - 2007

In pace requiescat, Benazir Bhutto. Whatever you were or weren't guilty of, you never deserved this. I suspect you were guilty of nothing more threatening than wishing and working for a fully democratic Pakistan.

Every so often I start to hope. I think, well, we've stopped doing this awful thing and we've pretty much eliminated that dreadful practice - then an incident like this one comes along and I realize, nope, the old demons are still strong. Will the human race ever reach a point where it can collectively agree to disagree?? Why is it always necessary to kill the people you disagree with? Why is it ever necessary to kill the people you disagree with? I know all the arguments; I just don't buy them.

Actually, 250-300 years ago, Christians were killing each other over what now look like minor theological points. After the Thirty Years' War devastated Europe, pretty much all the countries there decided simultaneously that they wouldn't go to war over that any more. There were still local spats over religion, but by the end of the 18th century, the various sects of Christianity had more or less agreed to disagree, and later wars were over "rational" things like land and politics. If you look at the history of Islam, it has never really had its equivalent of the Thirty Years' War; the trouble is, it may be having it now, between the Sunnis and the Shias. One of the leading suspects in the Bhutto assassination is the local Islamic fanatic movement, incorporating the Taliban and al Qaeda.

What really fries my potatoes over this, though, is my deep suspicion that Benazir Bhutto was killed because she was a woman who wielded power. That her actual political positions, her actual intents, were of less important to her killers than the fact that she was a woman, wielding great political power, in a world where (they believe) women should stay home and keep their faces covered and their mouths shut. She had ruled the country before; she could have done so again; and for that alone, in the minds of these fanatics, she had to die. Of all the things I find intolerable about the Islamic extremists, their attitude toward women annoys me most - if only because it was not the Prophet's attitude! They are taking their patriarchal, tribal customs and pasting them on Mohammed and claiming he told them to do these things, and they lie. I'm not even an Islamic scholar and I know this, just from listening to real Islamic scholars discuss the issue.

Of course, she could also have been assassinated by one of Musharraf's boys, simply because she was probably going to win the election. You never know. But I hope we find out. She cared about her country and worked hard for it, and she ultimately died for it - she deserves to have the truth about her death known.

Last fall, among other U.C. scholarship candidates, I interviewed a charming young woman from Pakistan; I can't help but think of her, and grieve with her over the damage to her country from these squabbling ideologues. When will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in California

Winter in the Bay Area: I walked down to the small commercial district near my house, about half a mile away; it's a beautiful sunny day, mid-50s, intermittent breeze. On my way back, I noticed a house belonging to some acquaintances, who have hung an evergreen wreath under the front picture window, decorated with a dark red bow and a couple of red ornaments. Next to the evergreen wreath, and matching the colors exactly, is their massive display of blooming bougainvillea - dark red with dark green leaves - all over the porch.

I love you, California. I guess the recent frost wasn't so bad after all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas To All

This is an unpopular thing to say these days; one should say, "Happy holidays," so as not to offend anyone. I certainly don't mean to offend anyone; and when talking to my Jewish friends I wish them happy Chanukah; my chorus sings Ma'oz T'zur along with In Dulci Jubilo when we go caroling. In the rush not to offend, though, I think we forget that the original purpose of this greeting was to wish people well. To hope that they enjoy the season, however they celebrate it, as best they can.

The common "we must not offend anyone" mode always makes me think back to Aesop's fable about the man, the boy, and the donkey; you can find one version here. The moral of this fable is: try to please all, and you please none. If I wish someone a Merry Christmas, and they say, "But I celebrate Kwanzaa, we don't do Christmas", the only thing I can do is wish them a Happy Kwanzaa; if they choose to be offended because I didn't do that first, I can't stop them. I can see how people who follow other traditions feel overwhelmed by the tsunami of "Christmasness" that rolls over us every winter; but it still bothers me that I'm not supposed to wish them well without knowing in advance which particular form of well-wishing they prefer.

I'm not especially religious; and I hate to shop (although I don't belong to the Church of Stop Shopping either!). My view of Christmas is more Dickensian than anything else: I've read A Christmas Carol so often I know it almost by heart. Dickens' view of Christmas was only marginally associated with the worship of Christ; what he really valued it for was to encourage charity among men, especially charity from the rich to the poor ("to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."), but also from the poor to the poor; and sometimes charity was nothing more than to wish someone well.

So, with that in mind, I wish all of you well in the way that is most natural to me: that is, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If you prefer to translate that into some other form, feel free; as long as you remember the well-wishing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Noodly Universe

I was reading Scientific American tonight (November '07 issue) and they had an article on multiple universes, string theory, and "branes" ("The Great Cosmic Roller-Coaster Ride"). The article is available online, but it unfortunately lacks the illustrations that inspired me; you'll have to go to the library and look at the paper copy to see the artist's rendition of a "Calabi-Yau space." There's a picture of one here, and also in Wikipedia, along with many mathematical formulae; but the picture in SciAm had long stringy appendages sticking out of the central mass. It looked familiar; it looked strangely familiar, and then I realized:

It's the Flying Spaghetti Monster in disguise! These scientists are covert Pastafarians! "String theory" indeed - what better to make strings than spaghetti? The Universe is a physical manifestation of the FSM and the cosmic strings are His Noodly Appendages. All is now clear.

Actually, I've been reading the cosmology articles in SciAm for 30-odd years now, and as time has gone on they've gotten farther and farther out, to the point that I ask myself: do these people have any work to do?? I realize this is a serious branch of science, but the basis of science is that you establish a theory, and then you make a prediction, and then you create an experiment to test the prediction, after which you either declare victory and start writing up the article for Science, or you go back and tinker with the theory some more. (The scientific method in a nutshell.)

The trouble with cosmologists, and especially string theorists, is that they've been trying for 20 years to devise experiments that would validate their theories, and they can't do it. They'd have to create the conditions that existed within nanoseconds after the Big Bang, and then be able to stand back outside the inferno and analyze the process. I don't know why they think the experiment wouldn't incinerate the experimenter. They plan to work on very small scales, of course: just a minuscule inferno.

As I read about strings, and branes, and scalar fields, and dark matter, I get a whiff - just a whiff - of the "ether" which filled interplanetary space only about 125 years ago. The scientists of that day could no more sample the atmosphere (or lack of it) in interplanetary space, than today's cosmologists can collect a piece of dark matter in a test tube and weigh it. But they were just as convinced that it was there. Today's scientists have much better equipment and much better experimental data. But until they can verify a prediction, they're no better off than the people who believed in ether. They'll tell you the mathematics makes it work; maybe it does. Mathematics is a language I never mastered, and this is a pretty esoteric dialect. I'd still like to see a verified prediction.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Steam Trek, the Silent Movie

To quote the friend who sent me this YouTube link:

"This is what Star Trek would have looked if it had been shot back in 1899 by Georges Méliès. Worth watching just for the Star Trek theme, rendered on a piano. Stunning."

The animation is hilarious. You'll see a link, "Steam Trek, the blog" if you're interested in how they did it...

You Have To Watch This

Boggart sent this to me a couple of weeks ago, and the stupid thing has been running through my head ever since. So, out of the kindness of my heart, I will share this short animation with you, my loyal readers - it's hilarious. All of you over the age of 50 will grok it instantly. Any younger readers - well, it'll make sense to you eventually...

The Baby Boomers

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Evil Genius or Compliant Front Man?

I have a disagreement going with one of my commenters, Curtis Faville, on the nature and involvement of Pres. Bush in the doings of his administration, and after our last exchange (in the comments under Don't Relax Yet) I think I'll pull the issue out of the comments and start a discussion on it.

My position has always been that Dubya is a front man, happy to have a position of apparent power ("I'm the decider") while not actually driving the major decisions, like the invasion of Iraq or the privatization of Social Security. His position in his administration is a rough parallel to the role Leland Stanford Sr. played in California's "Big Four" - he was the affable public spokesman, while Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins actually ran the Central Pacific Railroad combine. Stanford wasn't even always aware of all the details of the inner workings.

Curtis' position is that Dubya is an intelligent, evil man who is fully engaged in what his administration has done.

It's certainly true that Dubya's business career, fully documented at

has been a success only in the sense that he personally profited immensely from every phase of it; any business enterprise he ever participated in was a disaster for the other shareholders. So this argument cuts in Curtis' direction.

I'll confess I've also read commentary that indicates that when Dubya has something he really wants, he can and does push back, even against Cheney (whom I personally regard as this administration's éminance grise). Another point for Curtis.

Here's the reason why I don't think he has been a central player, and wasn't originally intended to be a player at all. Look at the web site of the Project for the New American Century, especially at the Statement of Principles. Look at the list of people who signed that statement - in 1997
, I might add, 3 years before the 2000 election. It was signed by every significant member of the first Bush administration, plus a number of the major neoconservative intelligentsia, except for - Dubya himself. It was, however, signed by Jeb Bush. I believe the PNAC planners originally intended to run Jeb for president, but switched to George when the skeletons in Jeb's closet became too obvious to survive the blinding light of a presidential campaign. Dubya's major personal skeleton was his former lifestyle, and since he had reformed that, it could be - and was - turned into a selling point.

I believe the neoconservative team that designed and built the 2000 election campaign, headed by Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, chose Dubya as an electable figurehead who would go along with their major policy objectives as long as they allowed him to appear to be in charge. Remember that Dick Cheney was the man in charge of the team who decided on the vice presidential candidate, and came up with - himself. I believe the administration's continued insistence on executive privilege and secrecy is a deliberate attempt to conceal who actually is in charge - if possible, permanently. And I believe Dubya went along with this plan, first because he does enjoy power (even if not absolute), and second because he saw the possibility of making a lot of money out of it.

And to quote a T-shirt I saw advertised on the Internet a couple of years ago, the thing I hate most about this administration is the way it makes me sound like a nutcase conspiracy theorist!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Saving the Day

Mr. Bush's heart is touched. (Also, he doesn't want to go down in history as the president under whom millions of people were foreclosed out of their houses, crashing the economy.) He's going to save the day. He's going to freeze interest rates on those awful adjustable loans for five years:
  • If you're living in the home and it's your primary residence.
  • If you're current on your payments.
  • If you got the mortgage between January 1, 2005 and June 30, 2007.
  • If your interest rate will reset for the first time between Jan. 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 by more than 10% on the first reset.
  • If you can't make the higher payments.
  • If you can't qualify for refinancing.
Behind on your payments already? Got the mortgage in 2004? Mortgage already reset once? Hasta la vista, baby. The article in today's San Francisco Chronicle suggests that something like 145,000 homeowners will be helped by this (estimate from the Center for Responsible Lending); whereas some 2 million mortgages will reset over the next couple of years.

So this isn't a real attempt to help anybody; this is a stupendous exercise in government CYA. Now let's talk about some of the real issues.

First of all, nobody beat these people over the head with a club and forced them to sign off on these loans. This was a voluntary business transaction, and they didn't read all the paperwork, and now they discover that the broker lied to them about the rate increase and they can't afford the loan payments. Under normal business practices in this country, they are SOL. If a business borrows money to expand its operations, and instead the business goes bust and can't repay the loan, it declares bankruptcy. Yes, these are human beings not businesses, and yes, my heart bleeds for them, and yes, many of them were deliberately deceived by brokers hustling for high commissions on loans they personally had no stake in, but dammit. There's such a thing as personal responsibility. Are we responsible for our actions all the time, or only when they work out right?? Can we spell Moral Hazard? I don't have to worry about it, the Guvmint will bail me out. If it can get the hotline phone number right.

Second (and this one absolutely floors me) this suggestion is coming from a REPUBLICAN president! A Republican president is suggesting that, in order to bail out the Little Guy, we must mess with the free market and rewrite contracts that have already been signed and performed under for up to 2 years. I don't think even FDR ever tried to rewrite contract law. Whatever happened to the Republicans as the party of small government and less regulation? (Of course, if you're going there, whatever happened to Republicans as the party of fiscal responsibility, but that's another whole post.)

Full disclosure: I am a Democrat (God help me), not a Republican.

Third, this whole thing assumes that the loan servicers are the ones who will determine the last 2 items on the list above (can't make higher payments and don't qualify for refi). The problem with this goes back to the problem with this entire Donnybrook: the loan servicers aren't empowered to make changes to the loan contracts because They. Do. Not. Own. The. Loans. They are bookkeepers and administrators; they track loans, collect payments, and pass the dollars on to the people who do own the loans.

And who does own the loans?? If I say "hedge fund investors" you'll throw something at me, but it's true. Your neighbor's house loan was "securitized" (see my post from September): bundled together with a bunch of other loans, the bundle divided up into pieces, and the pieces ("tranches") sold at prices, and interest rates, based on their credit rating. Which has nothing to do with the individual credit rating of the owner of any one of those loans. In fact, I'm not sure you could identify the substantive "owner" of a home mortgage that was securitized; and if you could, it would be more than one person (or entity); and every one of those multiple entities would have to sign off on a change to the contract. Unless the government rewrites the contracts by fiat, which is what Dubya is proposing.

And if that happens, the people who bought those securitized mortgages will lose money. Figure how likely it is they'll cooperate with this. Of course, they're going to lose money anyway, because they backed a dead horse; but with this plan, they'll have somebody to sue - and it'll be our government. Isn't that a great idea??

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Don't Relax Yet

I see the Department of National Intelligence (which is an oxymoron) has now concluded that, in contradiction to its firm statement 2 years ago that "Iran was currently determined to have nuclear weapons", it has now discovered that Iran in fact shut down its nuclear weapons development program in - wait for it - 2003. In other words, at the time they assured everybody that Iran was actively developing nukes, it actually hadn't been working on them for 2 years.

Of course, the fact that Mahmoud Ahmedinajad has been jumping up and down for 5 years yelling (in effect, and in Farsi), "Nyaah, nyaah, we're gonna enrich uranium and you can't stop us!" does rather color the issue. He also says they only want the uranium for peaceful purposes; but of course, nobody believes that.

When I read this article, my initial reaction was, surely we can relax now. Surely, the wingnuts in the Executive Branch now have no conceivable grounds for bombing Iran. But I've reconsidered - at least in part because Dubya stood up this morning and basically said, this doesn't make any difference, they could restart the program any time. This is the argument of a man spoiling for a fight. It is also, I'm afraid, the argument of a man who spent too much time in childhood watching Davy Crockett - I keep getting the echo of the motto Disney gave their hero: "Decide what's right, then go ahead." Davy Crockett never reconsidered the fact that he might have been wrong in the first place, and neither does Dubya. Oliver Cromwell, where are you, now that we need you?

Considering the mess Dubya made in Iraq, I don't know why he thinks he could do a better job taking on Iran, but he does seem to think so, God help us all.

Furthermore, if you think about it, why should he - or we - assume that anything at all the Dept. of National Intelligence says is correct? These people can't get to the bottom of the stairs without a map. They still - the last time I heard - have no resources on the ground in Iran, and in fact few or no staff members who even speak Farsi. How in hell can they claim to know anything about what's going on there? Do we just assume that the French and the Brits are kindly feeding them information??

Honest, if we can get through Dubya's last term of office without starting another fershlugginah war, I may begin to believe in miracles, because I can't see anything else out there that could stop him.