Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Poor Gregg

I'm feeling a bit bad about maligning Gregg Allman in my last post. Not that what I said was untrue, at least according to a biography of the band I read last year. But it wasn't a nice depiction of one of my favorite musicians. Gregg was a great blues singer at an impossibly young age; it was as if he sang the blues first and lived them later. He was a great song writer in his early years, and I think the reason the band really hit the skids was that he stopped writing. Well, that and the drug addiction, alcoholism, chronic inability to handle business affairs, serial marriages, deaths of various band members, drug arrests, band instability caused by Gregg being the snitch in the drug arrests, and perhaps just some "stupid" gene that kept him from ever getting it together.


Monday, February 27, 2006

My Obsession with Al Gore (Part 2)

I don’t usually get too worked up about politicians losing elections, even when I’ve busted my butt helping their campaign. As good as they are, as unfortunate as it is that they didn’t make public office, they always have pretty good fallback positions.

Al Gore, as of this writing, is the president of a television station, the chair of an investment company and a board member of Apple Inc. Some call him the “conscience of the Democratic Party” and he makes a lot of high profile speeches.

Al’s no Gregg Allman, coming home from tours where thousands scream his name to a rented house and long dusty walks down country roads lugging beer and wonder bread because money he could have spent on a car has gone to drugs and alimony.

So then... Why did Al act like that for six months?

My Obsession with Al Gore (Part 1)
Beatles and Beards


The Great Debate

I mean universal health care vs. private enterprise, of course.

To focus the debate, let’s just call it Canadian health care vs. US health care.

Too often this debate assumes that every difference in health care between the two countries is based on the financing scheme of the health system, and that every problem either country encounters would be fixed by switching to the other scheme. I reject those assumptions.

There are cultural differences between the two countries that reflect in their approaches to health care. Somebody should do a study or something, but here’s my guess (apologies for cultural stereotyping). Canadians are more cautious and more patient. They want cleaner hospitals and longer hospital time after surgery, but they'll put up with waiting lists and they don’t need the most cutting edge equipment. Americans, on the other hand, want immediate care, and they want the latest procedures and equipment. They can put up with the highest incidence of hospital staph infections in the world, and they can take being booted out of bed the day after major surgery.

Each system has its own strengths and weaknesses. Both provide high quality care, and neither is the clear winner in quality of care.

The one thing that lets me raise Canada's glove in victory is the cost of delivering the care. For exactly the same care---the same medical test, the same drug, the same operation---regardless of who pays for it, Americans pay a whack more dough than Canadians. Why is this? The middle man. There are a ton of profit takers in the US: the company that owns the hospital, the HMO, the company hired to fill out all the forms for the HMO. Canada’s creaky old government-run system is, based on hard dollars and cents, a whole lot more efficient.

Oh yeah, and also everyone is covered with no fees.

See also: The Health of Nations: Oh Canada!


Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Pliocene Clam (Poem)

Sabre-toothed bi-valves patrolling the plains
Selecting our gene pool while chewing on brains.
Nature is perilous: danger's at hand!
The ravenous man-eating Pliocene clam.

Oysters and scallops---all pelecypod
Bow in submission to Mighty Quahog.
Nature's in balance, there's danger to man:
The ravenous man-eating Pliocene clam.

The larval soft body! That ligament scar!
The unique pteroid bivalve a wonder to all.
When the new pelecypod did struggle to land,
It was the end of the man-eating Pliocene clam.

[I wrote this poem in appreciation of a joke email I get forwarded from time to time that claims to be correspondence between the Smithsonian Institute and a man who found a skull in his back yard that he believes proves that humans lived in North America two million years ago, and which shows signs of biting that he believes proves that early humans were hunted by giant clams. The Smithsonian writer dryly notes that “A) The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie that a dog has chewed on” and “B) Clams don’t have teeth." ---Yappa]


10 Best Books

Of course, a "ten best books" list is really the ten favorite books of the list creator. I wouldn't even attempt, much less bother, to try to work out objective criteria for judging quality in a book. Also, I made no attempt to exclude sentimental favorites from my list, especially books I read at a pivotal time in my life and which I remember with great fondness.

Having said all that, after a great deal of hand-wringing over the books that didn't make the list and what order to place my top 10, this is what I came up with several years ago. Surprisingly, I have never felt a desire to change any of my picks.

1. Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
1. Kim, Rudyard Kipling
3. The Last of the Wine, Mary Renault
4. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
5. The Last Coin, James P. Blaylock
6. Joshua Then and Now, Mordecai Richler
7. Passage, Connie Willis
8. The Solid Mandala, Patrick White
9. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
10. Dust, Yael Dayan



There was a pretty good editorial cartoon in the Washington Post recently in which a guy is sitting at a bar reading a newspaper. He says to the guy next to him, "It says here that Canada just elected a leader who's friendly to the US and they aren't mad at us anymore." The other guy, looking bored, responds, "Canada was mad at us?"

That reminds me, thinking of national bouts of anger, how mad the US got at Canada and France when they refused to help invade Iraq. The backlash was incredible, not just from the US government, but also from individual US citizens, who in some cases even refused to sell goods to citizens of the upstart nations. What drives that sort of anger? Do those people (some of whom, based on polls, must have changed their minds about the decision to invade Iraq), feel at all contrite about how they treated their allies? Or is lack of loyalty to the imperial power their real complaint?

But getting back to people being angry at the US, it doesn't seem unrealistic to say that most of the world is pretty pissed off at Americans these days. It isn't just the Bush White House that's the focus of ire. After all the disgusting things he did, Americans elected him in 2004. It's pretty hard to forgive that. Given all the dead or tortured Iraqi civilians, the lies about WMD, the undermining of the United Nations, the bullying of other countries, the heavy-handed trade practices---all of which was known before the 2004 elections---it's really hard not to conclude that the majority of Americans are bad people. That's where world opinion seems to be at.

So if mild-mannered, polite-to-a-fault Canadians are mad at the US, what of the Arab world, or Central America, or the Far East? Okay, I have read a few too many sci-fi novels in which the US is at war with the UN. But trust once lost is hard to regain. When nations don't trust the US, there are repercussions in terms of who they elect, what policies they support, and what countries they want to ally with. This doesn't seem to have any good result, especially for Americans.


My Obsession with Al Gore (Part 1)

I really got interested in Al Gore when I saw a photo of him, sometime during 2001 and after he had gained quite a lot of weight. He was at a party on, I think, a beach, holding an umbrella drink, wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and floppy sandals. Can this memory be true, or is it some wonderful delusion? I have searched every image of Al Gore that Google has to offer and have not been able to find this photo again.

I always liked Al Gore. I supported him in his presidential run, and only didn't vote for him because I didn't realize that I was eligible to vote (but that's a story for another day). After Bush became president, I felt one of those history-splitting enormous events, like in Keith Roberts' sci-fi classic Pavane, which posits that Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated early in her reign and so the Catholic Church now runs England.

My fascination with Al may have been rooted in his potential to create a vastly different, vastly better world than the one we live in now, and it may have been driven by the shocking events that split our history off into this world of torture, death and government surveillance, but it took the form of a frustrated need to understand how he was defeated and how he has coped.

I'm not completely naive about politics. A candidate I recently supported was described by his opponents as an evil reptilian kitten eater from another planet. (I have the t-shirt to prove it.) I remember the tale about Lyndon Johnson running in a Texas election and telling his campaign manager to spread the story that his opponent had sex with chickens. ("Nobody will believe that,"was the response. "Of course not," Johnson is supposed to have said, "but I want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.")

But how did the Republicans convince Americans that Al Gore, who had a sterling reputation as a conscientious, hard-working, all-around straight arrow, was in fact a self-aggrandizing delusional liar? Sometimes it seems like the easiest lie is the one that is most opposite from the truth. Or maybe people tend to take their greatest fault and project it on their opponent.

Then there's his coping. This guy was so buttoned up that there were jokes that he made FBI agents look like hippies. After his defeat he went through a brief phase in which he gained weight, always seemed to appear with a drink in his hand, and affected a devil-may-care attitude. My collection of Al photos from 2001 includes one of him shirtless and barefoot, sitting in a back yard in what appears to be a trailer park, leaning way back in a lawn chair and brandishing a bottle of beer.

What went on? What lessons does this teach us about how to overcome being crushed, humiliated, and cheated? Did his transformation help him get past it, or is he a broken man?

My Obsession With Al Gore (Part 2)
Beatles and Beards


Figure Skating at the Olympics 2006

If I had been asked prior to the 2006 Olympics who I hoped would win mens and ladies figure skating, I would have answered Emanuel Sandhu and Sasha Cohen.

I tend to think of skaters in terms of what they are doing for the progress of the sport. Evgeni Plushenko is a great skater and deserved to win, but I find him boring, boring, boring. If all men skated like him, I wouldn't watch figure skating. I felt the same way about Brian Boitano, Elvis Stojko, and Todd Eldridge.

I like most male skaters (really, I do). A big reason to see skating events live is to see the male skaters who don't score high enough to make the TV coverage. Guys with no big triples are often awesome skaters with beautiful choreography. The men's short program is the highlight of figure skating for me: they skate to the music and the good ones make every second count, with a minimum of hockey-pucking (simple stroking).

I like Irina Slutskaya a lot more than Plushenko, but Sasha Cohen has such stunning artistry that she's my favorite.

Or was. At the end of the ladies short program, Cohen was first, followed by Slutskaya and then Shizuka Arakawa. But I really didn't feel, based on their short program performances, that Cohen or Slutskaya deserved to win. For one thing, Cohen flutzed her triple lutz (she took off from an inside and not an outside edge), which means that she really did a much simpler triple flip. Also, her jumps were very, very small. Slutskaya repeated the Bielmann position over and over in place of interesting spirals or spins, and she looked a bit wobbly. What both Cohen and Slutskaya did in spades was sell their programs. There was too much sizzle and not enough steak.

So in the end I was glad that Arakawa won. She's an elegant skater with some exceptional moves (in the long program, her Ina Bauer and donut spin were perfection).

As for the men, I'm ever hopeful about Emanuel Sandhu. Who knows, the World Championships are just around the corner... I can hope. Meantime I've learned to check the outcome before I watch the coverage, so I don't get too crushed when my guy goes down in defeat. And I'll be very happy if a number of other men do well, including Matt Savoie, Johnny Weir, Jeff Buttle, Shawn Sawyer, and and and...