Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gov. Sanford (S. Carolina) and his Mistress - Mistress?

Mistress? Sanford's "mistress"? Did somebody turn the clock back 100 years? This is 2009. And even if it were not, doesn't the term "mistress" normally mean a woman who is being maintained by a man absent a marriage certificate? Is there any evidence that Sanford has been maintaining a second household with his Argentinian lover?

Who in our irrelevant media began using this word to describe Sanford's lover?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Energy Bill - House Debate (June 26, 2009)

Well, I caught a couple hours of the debate and as a piece of political theatre, at times it became downright funny - esp. the long Republican inability to locate the "official copy of the bill".

Unfortunately, like most of these floor debates, one hears little or nothing about the contents of the bill itself, simply the consequences of its enactment. And those consequences can be predicted by who is supporting/opposing. Republicans, as usual, assert that it amounts to a huge tax on every American, that global climate change doesn't exist, that this bill won't do anything for our energy situation, and will cost millions of jobs at a time we can't afford to lose even one.

The Democrats defend it as the first step in energy independence and a job creator.

The only thing notable, and typical of Democrats, is that the method of controlling carbon emissions (cap-and-trade) was chosen over a tax on carbon emissions in order to get bi-partisan support - because cap-and-trade is a "free market" solution. I suspect that, as with the stimulus, there won't be a single Republican vote for it. * What is frustrating about this is that, from what I've read, the Republicans are probably right when they say that it won't work and that the system will be gamed.

So what we have here is a "Conservative" solution that won't work being passed by Democrats in the name of preserving the Conservatives' sacred free market strategy as the solution to all problems - that won't get a single Conservative vote.

With luck, I'll be dead before the planet has gone to hell, but what makes me especially angry is that the neanderthal politicians who have been denying climate change for the past 30 years will also be dead so they won't be around for their grandchildren and great-grandhildren to spit in their faces for putting their petty political philosophies and short term profits over the life of the planet.

*Update: I was wrong. 8 Republicans voted for the bill. 44 Democrats voted against it. The vote was very close.

Two Kings, One Fate: Jackson and Presley

Jackson dead at 50 from cardiac arrest. Presley dead at 44 from heart failure.

It is hard not to think of the two together. Both were crowned "Kings" of the music world. Outworldly, in their early careers, both seemed to share several characteristics aside from their outsize talent: a personable quality that made the fan think they would be nice to know, charm, and a certain shyness. "Nice young men" one might say.

Both of their lives became nightmares all too soon. Presley was around 21 when he made his breakthrough; Jackson was about 10 or 11 (as part of the Jackson 5). Both had relatively short "active" careers followed by years of decline. One can argue about the absolute lengths but Presley had about 10-12 years of enormous success followed by a decade of decline. Jackson's lasted about 20 years followed by around 2 decades of decline. (A bit of me can't help but wonder if Jackson's new tour would have been his "Las Vegas".)

What happened? How did two such highly talented, apparently normal young men spiral out of control?

Such personal disasters are certainly not unknown in the entertainment industry - but one tends to think of the victims as tortured souls (think Piaf or Joplin) whose lives would have been no happier had they not been entertainers. I've not done a study. I don't know if this perception is accurate. And, perhaps, the incidence of lives gone bad in the entertainment industry is no greater than in the general population or in other industries. We simply notice it because the people in question are well-known.

Is the industry basically dangerous to emotional and mental stability? Or is there some link between genius and a tendency toward self destructiveness? Are popular and jazz musicians more susceptible than actors? Is super success, fast success especially dangerous? Or are we looking at some kind of natural burnout, like a firecracker display? There is, of course, no way to know for sure.

Still, it is hard not to wonder if anything could have been done to save these two young men from themselves so that the next time a King is crowned he gets to die peacefully in bed after a long and happy career.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Raymond E. Feist: Rift Saga - Warning & A Reading Sequence

First, the warning: if you read fantasy novels for the pleasure, among other things, of seeing the good guys win and the bad guys die (ala Eddings), Feist is not for you. This author kills off characters. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if he introduces characters just for the pleasure of getting rid of them. Note: I'm not talking about characters that would logically die of old age given the number of novels and the time period they cover. No. Feist kills characters, characters you like. (I don't think anybody actually gets to die in bed of old age w/ friends and family around.)

Now, obviously, he's not the only fantasy writer who does this. A lot of good people die in Kurtz's Deryni novels - but those deaths, however painful to the reader - seem integral to the narrative. Feist, on the other hand, just kills them off. They rarely even die after multi-page battle descriptions. They're knifed or slashed or bashed. One moment alive, one moment dead. One long-time character disappears in one novel. We find out later on that he was killed and where his body was found. That's it. Nothing more. In another, there's a massacre early in a novel whose only purpose seems to be to get rid of a bunch of characters. No reason. The rest of the novel could have been written with barely a change had those characters not died. So it is the casual nature, the purposelessness (unless it is the only way Feist thinks he can add some "darkness" to his novels) of the deaths.

In short, if you read Feist don't invest yourself in any of the characters unless you are prepared to mourn their deaths.

Now, as for the sequence in which you should read the novels, it's not easy to do because Feist seems to back-and-fill: the publication sequence bears little relationship to the internal time lines. However, based on the series I've read so far and synopses on the Crydee web set, I recommend reading them in the following order:
The original Riftwar Saga:
Magician: Apprentice
Magician: Master
A Darkness at Sethanon

The Empire [Kelewan] Novels

These stories take place on the other side of the Rift roughly parallel to the events in the original Riftwar Saga. Still, there are enough references to events that occur in the Riftwar Saga that I recommend reading these novels after you've completed the first four.
Daughter of the Empire
Servant of the Empire
Mistress of the Empire

Based on synopses, I think the Legends of the Riftwar novels may fit in here - may even be more or less contemporaneous with the Riftwar/Empire novels (sort of like missing episodes) - but I've not yet read them and will update later this year.

Legends of the Riftwar
Honoured Enemy
Murder in LaMut
Jimmy the Hand

The first 3 Krondor novels (the only ones I've read) definitely follow the Riftwar and Empire series and precede the two "standalone" books (Prince of the Blood and King's Buccaneer).
The Krondor Series
Krondor the Betrayal
Krondor the Assassins
Krondor Tear of the Gods

Krondors Sons

Prince of the Blood
King's Buccaneer - lots of characters die, esp. early in the novel.

The Serpentwar Saga
Shadow of a Dark Queen
Rise of a Merchant Prince
Rage of a Demon King
Shards of a Broken Crown

Conclave of the Shadows

Talon of the Silver Hawk
King of Foxes
Exiles Return

Again, based on synopses, I think these two sequences follow the previous, but I can't guarantee it.
Darkwar Saga
Flight of the Nighthawks
Into a Dark Realm
Wrath of a Mad God
Demonwar Saga
Rides a Dread Legion
** At the Gates of Darkness

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Senate and Debates

In watching the endless opening statements of the Senate Health Committee (June 17, 2009) and the various speeches on the floor of the Senate, it is clear that the U.S. Senate is NOT a deliberative body. The Senators speak at each other. They never engage with each other.

The Republicans repeat the same phrases over and over (as do, of course, many Democrats). But they just spout, they don't argue or discuss. When a Republican talks about government bureaucrats interfering in the doctor-patient relationship, a Democrat can't ask that Republican about the interference of private insurance committees. Similarly, when Republicans deride Comparative Effectiveness, Democrats can't ask them about decisions made by clerks in insurance companies.

It may make these "debates" more civil, since we don't see the shouting matches all too common on TV, but it also makes them incredibly frustrating because there is no way for the observer to find out if there is any thought behind the boilerplate phrases.

Health Care Reform: Cheers for Bernie Sanders Who Confronts the Elephant

A huge big cheer for Bernie Sanders for being the only Senator on the Senate Health Committee, perhaps the only Senator or only person in either the House or the Senate who has had the nerve to address the invisible elephant in this debate: the fact that health insurance companies have only one obligation and that is to be profitable.

He had the courage to point out that health insurance profits over the past several years have increased over 400%, that their executives make huge salaries (one ex-CEO left with over 1 billion dollars in stock options), and that they hire armies of administrators to deny coverage.

Sanders is the only member of this committee who has also asked the fundamental question: is health care a universal right? Because one can't honestly evaluate a reform package without deciding if you believe health care is a right or a privilege or just a nice option.

Check Sanders out on C-Span - about the 40 min. mark

p.s. Sherrod Brown, Sen. of Ohio, gave a speech on the floor that was an extension of his comments in the committee. He had the courage to address the competition issues raised by opponents of a public plan. He pretty much made the obvious observation (I'm paraphrasing from memory) that if the private insurance companies can't compete with a public plan maybe it is the fault of the insurance companies.

Not surprisingly, the health insurance lobby has launched a massive campaign to prevent inclusion of a public health insurance option with which they would have to compete.

I guess competition is a good thing, unless they are the ones who have to compete. If you have a public option, insurance companies--the President says repeatedly that the whole point of [Page: S6703]an option is that the public plan will compete with a private plan, which will keep the private plans more honest. We have done that with student loans. Fifteen years ago, the only game in town for students, by and large, if they wanted to borrow money for college, was to go to a local bank, or another service, which were all private and unregulated. President Clinton, in the mid-1990s, decided maybe we should have a direct government program so students could borrow directly from the Federal Government. Do you know what happened? The banks brought their interest rates down. The banks started to provide better service. The banks behaved better. That is analogous to what we will see with the public plan.

The conservatives in this body, who are major recipients of insurance company money for their campaigns, whose philosophies are always that business can do it better, the people who have aligned their political careers with the insurance industry all oppose the public option, the public plan. Why? It is simple. It is because insurance companies will have to cut down their administrative costs, maybe even pay lower salaries to their top executives. Maybe they will have to change their marketing practices, be less wasteful, and maybe they will behave a little better. In that case, the public option was competing with private banks, and everybody got better. A public health insurance option competing with the private insurance companies will make everybody get better. That is the whole point.

With private insurance competition, when it is just the insurance companies competing with each other, funny things tend to happen. We see huge salaries and, second, a huge bureaucracy in the insurance companies and, third, we see all kinds of marketing campaigns, and we see huge overhead and administrative costs--sometimes up to 35, 40 percent.

We also see that the term ``private insurance competition'' is often simply an oxymoron. In Ohio, the two largest insurance companies account for 58 percent of the market. I am not a lawyer, so I didn't take the antitrust course. I didn't go to law school. When you have two companies that have 58 percent of the market, that is not competition. In some Ohio cities--as I assume it is in the Presiding Officer's State of Illinois--the two largest insurance companies account for 89 percent of the market. That is not exactly healthy competition. If we bring in a public option and compete with these two companies, their rates would come down and salaries for top executives would come down. There would be no more multimillion-dollar salaries, and administrative costs would be cut. They would be leaner and meaner, a better insurance company as a result.

C=Span Source

Health Reform: "Affordable, Accessible"

I am beginning to hate this phrase, used by both Democrats and Republicans. Do citizens in other major industrialized countries ever ask themselves if health care is "affordable"? No. Of course not. Health care is a right. Yes, they pay for it through their taxes but they don't have to ask what the cost is when they need to see a doctor.

But in this U.S. reform movement, the highest goal is to make health care "affordable".

I'm not sure what is meant by "accessible".

But the Republicans are, at least, honest. They don't argue for health care for all. They talk about "access to health care insurance". Think about that. Access to insurance not to health care.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Health Care Reform: Why Should A Public Plan Cost the Government Money?

I'm baffled by the assumption that a public plan must be paid for by the Federal government.

If private insurance companies are forbidden to "cherry pick" insurees, then a public plan should be able, theoretically at least, to fully fund itself from the fees paid by the people it insures.

In other words, aren't we talking about a non-profit insurance option? Yes, such a plan will probably undercut private insurance companies. It, after all, will have no shareholders to consider, probably won't pay its executives multi-multi-million dollar salaries and won't have an army of employees whose only job is to deny coverage.

But that's a problem for private insurance companies to solve - not a problem for the federal budget.

Obviously, this won't work if private insurance companies are allowed to choose to insure only the young and healthy while all the rest of us flock to the public plan - but if no plan can discriminate against people based on pre-existing conditions (not just in providing insurance but in the cost of that insurance), then a public option should pretty much be able to fund itself with, perhaps, some government backstop for those citizens who simply can't afford health insurance at any price but are not eligible for Medicaid.

Left Missing in Action: Nobody should get between you and your doctor

One of the GOP mantras re health reform (listen to Grassley et. al.) is that Americans don't want government bureaucrats to come between them and their doctors - which is why we should oppose single-payer and a public option and comparative effectiveness.

The most frustrating thing about this mantra is the almost total lack of response by the so-called liberal media and Democrats.

We already have bureaucrats getting between patients and their doctors. They are employed by private health insurance companies. Thousands (tens of thousands? millions?) of them are employed to deny coverage to patients. Some doctors spend 20% of their time arguing with these people.

Now, I agree with the basic premise. Health care decisions should be between patients and their doctors - but if somebody has to get in between the two in order to reduce overall health expenditures, I'd rather it be a civil servant who can't be fired for saying "yes" (and who may rely on comparative effectiveness research rather than cost) than a private insurance company employee whose salary depends on reducing costs and increasing the bottom line.

Please explain to me, somebody please explain, why this very simple and accurate response to this frequently repeated Conservative canard seems to be almost completely lacking from the health care debate.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Media Missing in Action: Dealer Closings/June 3, 2009 Senate Hearing

I've spent months watching a lot of frustrating Congressional hearings on various aspects of the financial crisis this past year, but one of the most frustrating was the June 3, 2009 Senate hearing into the closing of dealers due to the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies.

It was an illustration both of the limits of hearings and the wholesale failure of the media to act as news organizations.

The primary failure of the hearing was to get an answer to a central dispute: the dealers asserted that they were not cost centers, that they cost GM and Chrysler absolutely nothing, that they paid for everything they got (cars, signs, advertising, etc.) so, since the two dealers there were profitable, they didn't understand why they would be closed. GM and Chrysler asserted that they had to close dealerships to become profitable.

Now, this seems to me to be an issue of fact, not opinion. But, after listening to all the questions and the responses of GM and Chrysler, I still don't understand the issue. Isn't this something that CNBC or Fox Fin., at the very least, should have been reporting on and explaining?

Nor, during a week of endless commentary about right-wing-nut opposition to Sotomayor, did any of the major "news" networks think it might be interesting to, say, identify which Senators complaining about dealer closings opposed the bailouts, insisted that union employees had to "share" the burden, etc., argued that these companies should be allowed to go bankrupt (what did they think would happen to dealerships during a bankrupcy?). One would think that an hypocrisy watch would be at least as entertaining as debates over whether a Latina woman would be a better judge than a white man. But, of course, that would take research. They'd have to check the voting records, watch the hearing, match up questions with voting records. Gossiping with each other about "racist" statements is, after all, so much easier.