Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Learning to Read

I'm listening to an extended discussion on Talk of the Nation about the Baby Einstein videos, whether videos increase infant intelligence, and how best to teach children to read.  You know, I learned to read by the time I was 3 or 4.  My grandmother taught me; she'd sit with me on her lap, and read me the Sears, Roebuck catalog.  It doesn't take a video to teach a child to read, in fact, it's almost certainly counter-productive.  It takes a parent or other adult, some kind of reading material, and a small child.  You could probably teach a child to read from the sports section of the newspaper.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Maternal Mortality

I heard this on National Public Radio this morning, and I'm still shaking my head:

From the BBC World News:  
Health ministers from around the world have agreed that swift action must be taken to reduce the number of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth.
At the UN Population Fund meeting in Addis Ababa the ministers said the number of women dying in this way was actually increasing in some nations.
My basic response to this:  WHY DID IT TAKE YOU SO LONG TO NOTICE??  This has only been going on for, what?  A hundred thousand years?  A million?  How old is the human race?

Gee, women die when they try to have babies.  What a surprise!  Who ARE these yo-yos, anyway, and how many of them are female?  (Guess.)

Not that I disagree.  I think it would be a good thing to reduce maternal mortality; I even agree that family planning is the best way to go about it.  I definitely agree that the rich world is directing all its health aid dollars to "fashionable" diseases like AIDS (stuff that kills us; we don't die in childbed - mostly), and blowing off aid for primary health care which would actually do something about maternal mortality.

I'm just floored by the sheer effrontery of it all; we've just noticed, so it must be a real problem.  Men!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Executive Pay

How did we collectively let it come about that a small group of powerful men, corporate senior executives, is allowed to set its own pay scales?  These people decide among themselves how much they should be paid, and (subject to the vagaries of the tax code) how the pay should be structured (cash, stock, options, etc.).

It shouldn't surprise us that they've quietly agreed, over the last few decades, to wring every drop of blood they could out of the turnip.  If the corporations they run had done this, for the prices of the goods and services they sell, it would be an antitrust violation; but somehow it's OK if the executives are all on each other's boards (they are) and they all agree on what each other should be paid (they do).

Nobody else in this world is allowed to determine unilaterally how much money he makes.  Not you, not I, not the President of the United States.  Congress comes close, in that they can vote themselves a raise; but they're restrained by outrage among their constituents which could prevent them from being reelected.  Only corporate executives (and mainly American corporate executives, although the practice is starting to spread to Europe) can decide, the value of my job is, oh, $750,000 a year base, but it also deserves annual bonuses of (say) $15 million dollars.

Nobody is "worth" that much money, not even if he (it almost always is he) can spin gold from straw, like Rapunzel.  The practice is sheer, unadulterated greed.  In the middle ages, these men would have been vilified as mortal sinners for their greed.  Now they are "the masters of the universe."  Which is right?

So I'm not weeping that the Treasury Department is cracking down on senior executive pay at the banks that have taken TARP money.  Believe me, you'll never see any of these men standing on a street corner with a cardboard sign reading, "Hungry, please help."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remembering the Loma Prieta Earthquake

Today is the 20th anniversary of the earthquake that leveled the Marina District, knocked a hole in the Bay Bridge, and destroyed the Cypress Structure, killing 42 people unlucky enough to be driving on it.  I looked for my diary for the period (yes, I keep a diary), only to find absolutely no entries between August 1989 and April 1990!  This is what happens when you use a diary to rant about things that bother you; when you're reasonably happy, you don't write in it!  So this entire account is from memory, and I won't swear to any of it.

At 5:04 PM on October 17, 1989, I was at work at the Bank of America's data center in Concord, California, in my window cube on the 2nd floor of Building C.  This wasn't a bad place to be - Building C is only 4 stories high and broader than it is tall, so it's pretty stable.  My friends in Building D (6 stories high and mounted on rollers because at that date it had production mainframes on the 5th floor) told me they had a pretty wild ride.  Still, you couldn't miss it when the place started to rock, and I immediately dived under the desk in my cube.  The quake lasted 15 seconds - when the floor is rocking under you, that's a long time.  I had time to look up at the tangle of electrical wires on the underside of my desk, wonder if I ought to be under there, look at the wall of windows right across the aisle, and conclude that yes, I should be under the desk.

Next, of course, BART shut down.  BART, for the non-local readers, is Bay Area Rapid Transit, the local light rail system, and much of it runs on elevated tracks.  It actually wasn't damaged; but management shut it down until they could inspect it.  Since I had ridden BART to work that morning, I now had no way to get home. 

I didn't really try to get home right away; those of us still in the office spent some time gibbering at each other and phoning people to see if they were all right. 

We also wanted to know the status of the mainframe computers - at that time I worked on the team that supported a secondary set of mainframes (VM, for the technically curious) that the Bank of America used for back-office work, including everybody's email.  (Remember, this is 1989.)  Those machines were in the San Francisco data center, and we were worried about them, because if they crashed, it could take hours to get them safely back up and running.  Fortunately the San Francisco data center (also on rollers) came through the earthquake in fine shape, and the automatic diesel backup generators kicked in when the power failed, just the way they should, and gave the operators time to shut the systems down orderly.  Just time.  The diesels ran out of fuel 10 minutes after the systems came down.  After that, the fuel gauges were checked more often.

Eventually I decided to see if I could cadge a ride home, since the Caldecott Tunnel seemed to be undamaged.  I rode home with a woman I didn't know very well, who lived a mile or so from me in the Oakland hills.  I still remember that ride.  I was in much more danger in that car that I had been from the earthquake, because my driver was out of control.  She kept taking her hands off the wheel to put her palms to her cheeks and shriek, every time the radio reported another development.  It didn't help that she tuned the radio to KPFA, which was broadcasting every disaster it could hear of, in a hysterical tone that I thought was rather irresponsible; they clearly gave the impression that all of downtown Berkeley was on fire, although I found later that it was only one building.  I remember wondering if I should tell her to pull over and let me drive, except that we were on a freeway, and it wasn't clear she wouldn't just stop in the lane.  I was profoundly grateful when she dropped me off.

That's about it.  Our house was undamaged.  My husband was fine - he was walking across a parking lot to his vanpool when the quake hit.  That was the beginning of the time when you couldn't drive directly from Oakland to San Francisco - you had to go down to San Mateo or up to Richmond.  I got out of the habit of going to San Francisco during that period, and I've never really gotten it back.  The destruction of the Cypress Structure bothered me more than the rest, because I have a collection of relatives who, when I was a child, lived in Alameda and San Leandro; and when we drove to visit them, we took the Cypress Structure.  We'd all moved on and I didn't drive that route any more, but that could easily have been my whole family on that lower deck.  Scary thoughts.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rain, Rain...

They said this was going to be a helluva storm, and it is.  It's raining like the lead-in to that business with Noah and the Ark, only not for so long. Yet. 

I remember Bill Cosby's old routine about Noah and the Ark:  "Noah," said God in an ominous voice, "How long can you tread water?"

We haven't seen a storm like this in years.  Oakland usually gets around 23 inches of rain in a year.  I checked the Oakland North rain station (which is conveniently online) for the damages, and since 03:00 this morning we've gone from .38" of rain (which I think was the year to date since January) to 3.53" of rain.  That's 15% of our annual average, in less than 12 hours, and it's clearly prepared to go on doing this for some little time yet.

I'm wrong.  Oakland North just posted the results for 13:00 - 4.22" of rain, or 19% of the annual average.  Are we really getting half an inch an hour?

Fortunately, due to the previous drought, the ground was as dry as a Sahara dune, so all the water will (probably) soak right in and not even cause any hillsides to slide downward, taking houses with them.  This time.

I don't know who's right or wrong about "global warming," although it seems reasonable to me that there should be some consequences to all the heat-trapping gases we've been belching into the atmosphere for the last 2 centuries.  I read recently that the hottest year on record was 1998, and the more recent temperature changes are actually due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and not to us at all.  I think what we're seeing here isn't necessarily warmer or cooler, but wider extremes.  The storms will be more frequent and stronger, the droughts will last longer before the rain comes; the rain when it comes will be heavier.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Friday, October 09, 2009

President Obama's Nobel Prize

President Barack Obama has just won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, and the blogosphere and the conservative talkshow weenies are going off like a 4th of July fireworks display.

I have to admit, it surprises even me a little.  He's been in office less than a year, he's still fighting 2 wars (even if he is pulling out of Iraq), the American conservative movement maintains a constant state of low-level simmering hostility to him.  But everybody needs to keep two things in mind:

This. Isn't. Barack. Obama's. Fault.

He almost certainly didn't know it was coming.  The Nobel Committee plays its cards so close to the vest that we won't know who the other candidates were for this year's prizes until 2059.

He didn't ask for it.  As far as I know you can't nominate yourself for any Nobel Prize.

Even if someone did nominate him and then tell him they had, the Nobel Committee famously makes its own decisions.

Personally, I think they gave it to him for trying to make peace.  After 8 years of Dubya wandering around waving a (metaphorical) six-shooter, a president who says, "Let's talk" instead of "Let's invade" is an amazing relief, even if you don't agree with every decision he makes.  I am gobsmacked that everyone is blaming him for this decision!  This is incredible.

Yesterday, Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida gave a wonderful speech to Congress, (thanks to my Facebook friend Lauretta for the link!) in which he lambasted both the Democrats and the Republicans on health care.  In this speech, he said:  "If Barack Obama were somehow able to cure hunger in the world, the Republicans would blame him for overpopulation... If the President has a BLT sandwich tomorrow for lunch, the Republicans will try to ban bacon."  This is the guy who said that the Republican advice to people without health insurance was, "Die quickly;" he's worth listening to.

So now that Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize, what will the Republicans try to ban?  Peace, or Nobel Prizes?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Air Traffic

One of my regular habits, when my schedule allows, is a late afternoon water aerobics class at a local gym.  They have a small outdoor pool, in a slightly claustrophobic enclosure off the locker rooms.  It's relatively rare for us to see any air traffic above us while we splash, but today the sky was practically swarming.

We heard a high-pitched snarling sound, like an angry sewing machine.  We all looked up - sometimes you see a police or a traffic copter - and there were three little propeller planes, the single-engine overhead-wing style, flying very low overhead in tight vee formation.  Cessnas flying in close formation?  I don't know if they were really Cessnas, of course; I don't wear my glasses in water aerobics class, so my vision is limited.  They looked like Cessnas.  What they did not look like was military fighter jets.  Now, it is Fleet Week, and the Blue Angels are in town; but I never heard that the Blue Angels flew single engine prop planes.  Maybe it's just copycats.  Then they were gone, and we went back to exercises.

A little later we heard a lighter snarling sound, and one of the little planes flew back over by itself.

Finally, I happened to glance up and saw a blimp, floating silently past the south end of the pool.  Not the Goodyear blimp; it had some kind of ad for tickets on the side. 

I'd still like to know who was flying single-engine propeller planes in close formation. 


I have as much right to pontificate about the situation in Afghanistan as anyone else, so here goes.

The question, of course, is:  do we send in more troops, and if so how many?

But the bigger question is:  what exactly are we trying to accomplish here?

Gen. McChrystal has grasped the basic truths of the situation, from what I've read:  straight fighting will not win this, protecting the citizenry from the Taliban and helping to build out infrastructure will win this, but it'll take a long time and a lot of boots on the ground.  This is why he's asking for a lot of boots on the ground.  I think the reason Pres. Obama is taking a long time to thing this out is because of the implications of the bigger question.

Afghanistan is a poor country; it's mostly a rural country, with only a few large cities.  Because of the almost total lack of infrastructure (read:  roads), people who aren't in the cities don't get to them much, and people who live in the cities don't go to the country much.  Since the total lack of infrastructure also means almost no schools, people in the countryside are poorly educated except in Islam, their religion.  The primary organizing force in the countryside seems to be the tribe or clan; national identity is secondary.  People in the countryside voted or didn't vote for Hamid Karzai in the recent election because their clan chief told them to; less so in the cities.  And like a lot of groups where authority is vested in people, not in laws, there's a lot of corruption - you get something done by paying the right man a bribe.

This is a pre-industrial society.  European countries were more or less like this until maybe the 18th century.  The Taliban are a major force because the Taliban are a religious army, willing to fight for their cause; most of the villagers are subsistence farmers, who don't have time to fight for a cause or anything else.  And how do the Taliban eat, if they don't farm?  Extortion from the villagers, of course; it's a protection racket.

So yes, if we can protect the villagers from the Taliban, they'll support us.  But if we leave even for a few weeks, the Taliban will be right back in the village; so how does it profit the villagers to support us?  The Taliban will take it out of their hides when we leave.

This is why Gen. McChrystal wants all those men.  "Securing" Afghanistan means taking, and holding, and defending, every damn village; because every village we don't take, and hold, and defend, the Taliban will take back.  And our troops will have to defend the Afghans, plus the people we send to help build infrastructures - roads, schools, telecoms.

The next question is:  how long will it take?  That's the kicker.  We have to do this until we've improved conditions enough that poor young men won't have to fight for the Taliban to make a wage. How long is that?  I can easily see us in Afghanistan for a couple of generations - how long will it take until the young men now fighting will be too old to hold power any more, in a society that respects old leaders?  How long will it take us to educate an entire generation, an entire society, in the concept of the rule of law?

Our official mission statement is to prevent the Taliban from providing Al Qaeda with a safe haven, because of Sept. 11, 2001.  The only reliable way to do that is to take over Afghanistan and run it ourselves.  Is that really what we want to do??  Especially since it wouldn't solve the issue of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda is actually hanging out these days (according to most people's best guess)?

I don't have answers to these questions.  But there are reasons Afghanistan is called the "graveyard of empires."  I don't want it to be our graveyard.  I read a comment from a Kabul shopkeeper, who complained that yeah, when the Taliban were in charge, the girls couldn't go to school; but so what, they had great security, they kept the thieves out of his shop. 

If that's the way the people of Afghanistan feel, maybe we should let them and the Taliban have each other back, and deal with the country diplomatically and from a distance. 

More on Health Care Reform

I've been debating whether to post about the recently announced changes - future changes, but changes - in my health insurance coverage.  Then a friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to Keith Olbermann's special comment hour on Countdown the other night.  Here is the link:

It'll take about an hour; but you should watch this.  Everyone should watch this.  Speaking from the heart, he makes the case for a health care system where your income and your insurance coverage doesn't matter.  Every politician who has voted against "the public option," everyone who says we can't have "single payer" because it's "socialized medicine", should be locked into a room with this playing on an endless loop.

Did you know that, if you have no health insurance, your odds of dying, here in the 21st century, are roughly the same as the odds on a poor person dying, who lived in the slums of Manchester, England in 1846?  Olbermann quotes the studies.  How is this progress?  What has happened to our priorities, if we've let ourselves get to a point where you can die for no better reason than that you're too poor to afford treatment, and you have no insurance?  Happens here all the time. 

It isn't happening to me.  I have, right now, what I and others consider some of the best health care in America: the Kaiser Permanente HMO, which covers almost everything.  The trouble is, I have it because of my husband's job; and my husband's employer, which I won't name, has decided that it's too expensive.  In a couple of years, two things will happen:  my husband will retire (sooner than he planned; but if he doesn't, the promise they've made him for 30 years, that he'd have health insurance in retirement, will be broken); and we'll still have Kaiser, but we won't have the HMO.  We'll have an annual cap, and a deductible, and an HSA, and we'll pay for 20% of everything.

Actually, I'm relieved.  What we've been told we'd have was obviously too good to be true.  They've dropped the other shoe, and the result isn't as bad as I was afraid it'd be.  At least we'll still have group coverage.

For me personally, this will make very little difference.  By the time it goes into effect, I'll be on Medicare (government run health care!  OOOOOga!), and my access to Kaiser Senior Advantage won't be touched.  But my husband will be on this plan for something like 9 years, until he qualifies for Medicare; and he'll be retired, on a fixed income.  I hope he doesn't come down with something expensive to treat - like some of the conditions I have.  We're pretty well placed; but medical treatments can eat through the biggest nest egg. 

I have "pre-existing conditions," big time.  I couldn't get individual health coverage to save my life.  (And it would be "to save my life.")  I'm an AARP member, so I might be able to get their group coverage if worse came to worst; but I couldn't get Kaiser, and in anything but the Kaiser HMO, there's the constant question:  how much will 20% of this be?  Can I afford that?  My ongoing medications aren't hugely expensive under the current plan, being mostly generic (who knows what Medicare will be like?), but there are a number of them, and keeping myself supplied, and monitored for side effects, would be prohibitive without insurance.  I could be one of those people, dying because they can't afford the meds and the insurance has maxed out; or, worse than dying, living in constant pain and with reduced ability to function.  That's what the meds do for me; they allow me to function.  But only because I have insurance.

Best health care system in the world, my ass.