March 25, 2015
How to park, part one
Patching up a 60-year-old house has meant a few trips to Ikea, which is always a busy place. Here is how one guy parked his boxcar.
March 24, 2015
It seems to be the case that the late Lee Kuan Yew, who was the enlightened authoritarian founding father of Singapore, suppressed freedom of the press as well as chewing gum, but allowed economic freedom. The same was true of South Korea, where Syngman Rhee and his like were essentially fascist dictators, who allowed their people to become more and more prosperous until they were able to purchase their political freedom.
March 24, 2015
Let us imagine a man who lives in Akron, Ohio, and teaches the history of the Italian Renaissance. It is dreadful to think what he has to reconcile.
--Saul Bellow in 1957
March 24, 2015
Religious fundamentalism strikes again
Last Saturday night a fire in an Orthodox Jewish household in New York City cost the lives of seven children. The fire was caused by a hot plate which, it is speculated, had been left on because of Sabbath prohibitions against doing anything. If this is true, I cannot express my disgust at such idiocy.
March 15, 2015
How we live now
A new issue of The New Republic appeared on the newsstand, so I grabbed it, because it had me in it. I had been tipped off by my high school buddy Fritz Plous that David Hajdu had written an article about popular songs, and quoted me:
The Billboard chart had only been launched in 1940, and in fact the song was the first number one Billboard hit. It was still number one on the day I was born a few weeks later, which Hajdu did not mention, perhaps not wanting to broadcast my age to the world, gentleman that he is.
Fritz and I had subscribed to The New Republic for many years. It was a weekly for 85 or 90 years, then a bi-weekly, and the new issue is for March/April 2015. Hajdu is the only familiar name in this issue, almost everyone else having quit en masse late last year (see below, January 20). On the Internet I learn that Hajdu had been at TNR for 12 years, and that he joined The Nation in January. I wonder if his article is one that TNR had in the bank. The rest of the current issue is a general interest magazine, and not a very good one; I found nothing in it to read. Once billing itself as "A journal of politics and the arts", It has suddenly come down a long way.
Coincidentally, the Baffler also hit the newsstand this week, and contains a depressing if hilarious article by Chris Lehmann about his short career as a news executive at Yahoo. Yahoo hasn't been of much importance for a long time, but it has a lot of money and a lot of readers; unfortunately it is run by the same sort of Silicon Valley whiz kids who purchased The New Republic a few years ago, and who don't even know what journalism is. Lehmann describes what is happening to American journalism as "a slow-motion train wreck."
The Baffler is what The New Republic once was, but funnier and more acerbic. The Washington Post said about it, "The writers possess a contagious enthusiasm for showing how today's profiteers have caked so much lipstick on the pig that you can hardly see its face."
March 15, 2015
Thriller novelist Stephen King was quoted on Facebook:
A Dave Einhorn commented, "Simple, Buy a lockbox. Duh." His comment was accompanied by a picture of a small metal box big enough for a single pistol. He doesn't get it. He thinks that when the federal stormtroopers come around to take his gun away, they are going to stand around patiently while he finds the key and unlocks the box. He just isn't paranoid enough.
March 15, 2015
They're coming to get us
Domino's is a successful national pizza chain. It offers so many toppings that Patrick Doyle, the CEO, calculates that there are 34 million possible combinations. Now the Food and Drug Administration is insisting that Domino's posts in every one of its 5,000 stores a menu board with calorie counts. Even if this would be of any help to customers, most of them are having the pizza delivered and will never see the signs, which will cost about $2,000 at each store and will have to be replaced every time there's a menu change.
Somewhere else, it was reported, a Chinese takeaway was closed down, because among other things the authorities want the busy owner to check the temperature of each ingredient every two hours.
Jim Duncan, our favorite food writer, reports that local authorities in Des Moines are undecided whether to allow food trucks around the city. Somebody commented that she would never buy from them: "How could you trust them?" she wrote. My comment was, "This year I shall reach the age of 75 without ever wearing a skidlid, using a hand sanitizer, or being afraid to patronize a hot-dog cart."
Which I did yesterday in front of a Home Depot: I had a quarter-pound jumbo weenie slathered with raw chopped onions, ketchup and mustard, served to me in the warm sunshine, and very good it was too. But we cannot know how much longer such freedoms will last. This has nothing to do with "liberal" or "conservative", by the way. What we lack more and more is simple competence.
March 15, 2015
The problems increase as you get older
Most of my adult life I have been covered by group health insurance plans (except while I lived in England, where they are unnecessary). Since coming back to the USA in 1998, Ethne and I have been covered by employer plans at Barnes & Noble, The Texas State Senate, Meredith Publishing in Iowa, Barnes & Noble again when Meredith decided to double the employees' contribution, and then at Rodale Inc. in Pennsylvania. When Ethne's employment at Rodale came to an end she had been wanting to go freelance again anyway, and I was only working part time, so we signed up for Medicare, since we were more than old enough.
We had to prove that we had been covered by adequate health care plans since becoming eligible for Medicare, otherwise we would have had to pay more for it. I don't quite understand that, since we had been saving Medicare money by not signing up, but okay, we obtained forms for each of us from four different past employers to the effect that we had been covered. This was a pain in the neck but an interesting experience: some of the people we had to deal with in the various human resources departments knew what they were doing while others were not firing on all cylinders. But when we turned up at the Social Security office in Colorado Springs on December 12 last, we had all our paperwork and everything was hunky-dory.
Until we tried to get prescriptions filled. One of Ethne's prescriptions that normally cost $20 suddenly cost more than $300. Obviously we needed to get some supplementary insurance that covered prescriptions. I get that; Medicare has to pay for itself somehow, and you can't expect, at least not in this country, the kind of decent coverage you hope for after working and paying in all your life. So Ethne did the research (she's better at that than I am) and we signed up with Humana. We got cards from Humana, and the next time Ethne wanted that prescription filled, it cost $13.
Now, there's obviously a scam going on here: if the drug company can lower its price that much for an insurance company that's charging us $10 a month or so, then somebody is being bribed or paid off, or the drug is grossly overpriced to begin with. But that's not our department; we know the score, but you get tired of the struggle. We were just glad to be with Humana, and have the problem solved.
But now Humana is sending me letters saying that I am going to have to pay a penalty.
I do not believe any of this. I take a thyroid pill every day, and the co-pay has always been nominal; the Social Security Administration (and Medicare) have had all the documentary evidence they need, but Humana wants to screw me out of another ten bucks a month for the rest of my life! And since we have both had exactly the same coverage all these years, why am I alone being penalised? I have been on the phone twice with Humana (and I suspect I am talking not to Humana but to a call center), and the second letter still started "Thank you for choosing a Humana Medicare plan. We appreciate your business and your trust." I don't trust them at all.
I cannot run and jump like I used to. There are a lot of things I cannot do too well anymore; we will not go into any detail. But must I also be punished with this bureaucratic incompetence for the sin of outliving my father? Don't they have computers?
February 27, 2015
I am still savouring the Russian classic, Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1860), and still seeing connections with today's Russia. (see below, "Beware of Russian nannies".)
Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is sent away to school, but the village is only eight or nine kilometers away, and used to be part of Oblomovka, and is pretty much the same sort of place. It is already too late for him to be educated.
So during the Soviet period the factory workers made a joke of it: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." This is what the Russians see in their beloved novel, and what they recognize in themselves.
So Putin and his crooked friends can steal the country blind and nothing will ever be done about it. If the economy collapses, so what? It collapsed in 1917, again in 1989; this too shall pass.
Addenda: Since I wrote this yesterday, Boris Nemtsov, a brave, honest democrat and former member of the government who was organizing a demonstration against Putin's war in eastern Ukraine, was gunned down near the Kremlin, shot in the back by assassins who roared away in a car. Putin didn't even bother to put him in jail on phony charges; bullets are cheaper.
February 27, 2015
I might be the luckiest man in the world. When my wife and son decided to buy this house in Colorado Springs last August while I was 2,000 miles away, they cared enough to first figure out how to accommodate me in it. Now David has carved one small room and another even smaller room out of a garden shed and the back end of the garage, and I am settling in at last. It's so small that it's hard to take a picture of it, and there's no curtain on the window yet, but I've got some pictures on the walls, and it's insulated so well that a single small wall-mounted electric heater is sufficient even when the temperature is freezing outside.
What to listen to first now that I'm in my room? A rarity and oddity first: Lennie Tristano's Descent into the Maelstrom, a long out-of-print Inner City album that a friend dubbed for me years ago in Texas (I think it was Wes Marshall), a funky compilation of ten tracks from 1952-6, the title track a solo rant that sounds like the Devil is disturbed because his plans have been foiled again. Then there's Andrew Rose's excellent transfer of Jascha Horenstein's 1953 recording of Strauss's Metamorphosen, a poignant essay for strings by a very old man just after WWII, contemplating what the Nazis have done to his beloved Germany. And the new Nessa release, Silver Cornet, by Bobby Bradford and Frode Gjerstad, with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Frank Rosaly on bass and drums, recorded less than a year ago in Baltimore: 45 minutes of totally improvised postmodern conversation by four serious chaps.
Oh, there will a lot of music heard in these rooms.
February 27, 2015
I'll stay in this century, thank you
I don't believe in virgins giving birth or people coming back from the dead, but I will nominally include myself when I say that we Christians do not practice our religion properly. After all, it says in Leviticus that if you grow two crops in the same field, I have to get the whole town together to stone you. Same if you cut your hair, or if your wife wears something made of two different kinds of thread. And woe betide you if you want a bacon sandwich; I'd have to smite you good and proper if I were a good son of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The BIble also says that it's okay to own slaves.
An article in the current Atlantic magazine by Graeme Wood, and also a piece this week in the Wall Street Journal by Gerald F. Seib, make it clear that it will not do to describe ISIS as "un-Islamic", or Islam as a religion of peace. The fact is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is more Islamic than the vast majority of the world's Muslims. They want to follow the Qu'ran as it was followed 1,300 years ago. They are brutal psychopaths as far as I'm concerned, but they are not gangsters or criminals; they are well educated and very serious. (Secretary of State John Kerry also had a piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, but he had nothing to say; he was uselessly blowing platitudes.) It really is time to wake up: if the Palestinian problem wasn't bad enough, we destabilized the entire Middle East with our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and now we have to destroy ISIS or it will spend generations trying to destroy us.
There's a photo on the front page of the New York Times today of an ISIS vandal defacing an ancient Assyrian monument. The joke is that he is using a power tool, which he has to get from the West, along with his pickup truck, his machine gun, his cellphone and everything else, because Islamic nations have invented nothing for centuries.
February 27, 2015
Step right up
Speaking of the New York Times, on its website this morning there was a squib that said "Italian doctor says first human head transplant is only two years away." If I were Bill O'Reilly I'd want to be first in line.
February 21, 2015
Beware of Russian nannies
Visiting friends last night, the conversation turned to Russian literature, and it turned out that three of us were re-reading old favorites. We marveled at Tolstoy's powers of observation of human behavior in Anna Karenina and War And Peace, and at what a great man as well as a great artist Chekhov was. And I volunteered that, of the long list of books I would like to re-read, I am actually revisiting Oblomov.
This is Ivan Goncharov's only masterpiece, published around 1860, a classic in Russia but not so well known abroad. It is the story of a bachelor who spends most of his time lying down, and as much as possible of it asleep. He is perfectly bright and likeable, but doesn't see why he should do anything; he always has enough to eat, and he has a servant who is just as bound by tradition as he is, and his landlord is trying to kick him out, and the manager of his faraway estate, Oblomovka, is probably cheating him blind, but Oblomov does nothing, and nothing bad happens. This strikes a chord in the Russian people. They know that this is a portrait of an important part of their identity.
Large parts of the book are flashbacks to the village Oblomov owns and where he grew up, where everything took place naturally: huge meals were eaten, afternoon naps were taken, life was always secure and the sun was aIways shining; the same dog was always sleeping in the yard in the same place at the same time of day. I have Stephen Pearl's very fine translation, from 2006, on my Nook. That night in bed I went back to Oblomov's childhood, when his nanny told him traditional Russian tales:
And so it has always been in Russia, it seems. If the troops open fire on unarmed demonstrators in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, why, when the Czar finds out what's going on, he'll do something about it. If Stalin has purged his best military officers and then allowed himself to be double-crossed by Hitler, well, the man with the mustache will lead us to victory in the Great Patriotic War. If Putin and his friends have stolen the country blind and now start a new Cold War while they preside over the collapse of the economy, it matters not as long as the Russians still have their nanny.
February 21, 2015
The Next Right-To-Work Victory...
...crows a certain newspaper, might be in Wisconsin, once a progressive state, where 50 years ago I went to work for a decade in the world's biggest car factory, proud and happy to be a member of the United Auto Workers, and later the International Association of Machinists. The state legislature will soon send a bill to Governor Walker abolishing the closed shop, which is an agreement between a company and a union and should have nothing to do with any government.
The bill will allow individual workers to opt out of paying union dues, while still often benefiting from union negotiations. The Wall Street Journal editorializes:
Yes, and what was the purchasing power of the wages of the workforce in 1984 compared to today? Let us all join the headlong rush to go back to 1890. Maybe we should take the vote away from women, and send children down the mines.
February 21, 2015
Transport (Let's all stay home)
Back in the 1960s I took a train from Washington DC to Chicago. It was a dreadful experience; it took all night, and the door on a metal control panel in the corner (light-switches and such) was broken, and kept swinging and banging so that one could not even doze off. Much of the time the train could only go about 40 miles an hour because, I was told later by railroad journalists, the tracks and the roadbed were in such poor condition.
Last week a train of over 100 tanker cars containing crude oil from Canada derailed in West Virginia. More than a dozen cars exploded or caught fire, and at least one car ended up in the Kanawha River. At least one house was burned to the ground, over 100 families were evacuated, and nearby water treatment plants had to shut down. Miraculously, no one was killed, but the cost of all this will be in the many millions of dollars. The train was not speeding, and the tank cars were said to be modern ones, supposed to be safer. I wonder about the condition of the tracks and the roadbed.
Other nations -- China, Japan, France -- can build high-speed trains, urban transit and so on, and bring the projects in on time and under budget, while the USA crumbles. I should add that unlike other "liberals" I am in favor of building the Keystone pipeline. The oil is going to be harvested and it is going to be shipped, since you and I are not going to quit driving, and a pipeline would be a hell of a lot safer.