Monday, August 31, 2009

From Classical Music To Pop

This article is really good about a man (about my age) and his love of music:

On Beethoven's Eroica:

"I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the “Eroica” by saying, “Ah, civilization.” That wasn’t what Beethoven wanted: his intention was to shake the European mind. I don’t listen to music to be civilized; sometimes, I listen precisely to escape the ordered world. What I love about the “Eroica” is the way it manages to have it all, uniting Romanticism and Enlightenment, civilization and revolution, brain and body, order and chaos. It knows which way you think the music is going and veers triumphantly in the wrong direction. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen once wrote a monologue for the spirit of Music, in which he or she or it says, “I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it.”"

"If I were in a perverse mood, I’d say that the “Eroica” is the raw, thuggish thing—a blast of ego and id—whereas a song like Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” is all cool adult irony. The idea that life is flowing along with unsettling smoothness, the dark C-sharpness of the world sensed but not confirmed, is a resigned sort of sentiment that Beethoven probably never even felt, much less communicated. What I refuse to accept is that one kind of music soothes the mind and another kind soothes the soul. Depends on whose mind, whose soul."

On Classical Music itself - defined at something written a long time ago. At its core its a disdain for anything modern:

"Scholars eventually defined the Classical Era as Viennese music of the late eighteenth century, especially Mozart and Haydn, who, in their day, had been racy, modern figures. The word was nonsense from the outset."

"In Europe, the past began to overwhelm the present just after 1800. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 biography of Bach, one of the first major books devoted to a dead composer, may be the founding document of the classical mentality. All the earmarks are there: the longing for lost worlds, the adulation of a single godlike entity, the horror of the present. Bach was “the first classic that ever was, or perhaps ever will be,” Forkel proclaimed. “If the art is to remain an art and not to be degraded into a mere idle amusement, more use must be made of classical works than has been done for some time.” By “idle amusement” Forkel had in mind the prattling of Italian opera; his biography is addressed to “patriotic admirers of true musical art,” namely the German. "

It used to be that people got rowdy and clapped during the classical music performance - no longer.

"The rise of “classical music” mirrored the rise of the commercial middle class, which employed Beethoven as an escalator to the social heights. Concert halls grew quiet and reserved, habits and attire formal. Improvisation was phased out; the score became sacred. Audiences were discouraged from applauding while the music was going on—it had been the custom to clap after a good tune or a dazzling solo—or between movements. Patrons of the Wagner festival in Bayreuth proved notoriously militant in the suppression of applause. At an early performance of “Parsifal,” listeners hissed an unmusical vulgarian who yelled out “Bravo!” after the Flower Maidens scene. The troublemaker had reason to feel embarrassed; he had written the opera. The Wagnerians were taking Wagner more seriously than he took himself—an alarming development."

Composers were egomaniacs but they weren't snobs like the classical music listeners of today:

"Composers liked the fact that listeners were quieting down; the subtle shock of a C-sharp wouldn’t register if the crowd were chattering away. Even so, the emergence of a self-styled élite audience had limited appeal for the likes of Beethoven and Verdi, who did not come from that world. The nineteenth-century masters were, most of them, monstrous egomaniacs, but they were not snobs. Verdi wrote for the masses, and he scandalously proclaimed the box office the only barometer of success. Wagner, surrounded by luxury, royalty, and extreme pretension, nonetheless railed against the emergence of a “classical” repertory, for which he blamed the Jews. His nauseating anti-Semitism went hand in hand with a sometimes deeply charming populism. In a letter to Liszt, he raged against the “monumental character” of the music of his time, the “clinging and sticking to the past.” Another letter demanded, “Kinder! macht Neues! Neues!, und abermals Neues!” Ezra Pound condensed this thought as “Make it new."

And then the whole thing broke down, and composers wrote for each other and no one else:

"Unfortunately, the European bourgeoisie, having made a demigod of Beethoven, began losing interest in even the most vital living composers. In 1859, a critic wrote, “New works do not succeed in Leipzig. Again at the fourteenth Gewandhaus concert a composition was borne to its grave.” The crazy modern music in question was Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. By 1870, seventy-five per cent of works in the Gewandhaus repertory were by dead composers. The fetishizing of the past had a degrading effect on composers’ morale. They began to doubt their ability to please this implacable audience, which seemed prepared to reject their wares no matter what style they wrote in. If no one cares, composers reasoned, we might as well write for connoisseurs—or for each other. This was the mentality that gave birth to the phenomenon of Arnold Schoenberg. The relationship between composer and public became a vicious circle; the more the composer asserted independence, the more the public clung to the past. A critic who attended the première of the “Eroica” saw the impasse coming: “Music could quickly come to such a point, that everyone who is not precisely familiar with the rules and difficulties of the art would find absolutely no enjoyment in it.”"

Jazz used to be the modern, now its classical - all music becomes classical eventually:

"All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a warm sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois grandeur: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of “The Rite of Spring” into “Salt Peanuts”). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the mass and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis’s attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream. Jazz recordings sell about the same as classical recordings, three per cent of the market."

Rock and Roll is even on the fast track toward classical:

"The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? Right now, there seems to be a lot of Stage 5 classicism going on in what remains of rock and roll. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, and so on hark back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Their names are all variations on the Kinks. Many of them use old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was recently quoted as saying, “I intentionally won’t use something I haven’t heard before.” Macht Neues, kids!"

The key is reinvention:

" The mistake that apostles of the classical have always made is to have joined their love of the past to a dislike of the present. The music has other ideas: it hates the past and wants to escape."

The future is the iPod shuffle (or maybe the present), because it merges styles in unsettling ways:

"Ihave seen the future, and it is called Shuffle—the setting on the iPod that skips randomly from one track to another. I’ve transferred about a thousand songs, works, and sonic events from my CD collection to my computer and on to the MP3 player. There is something thrilling about setting the player on Shuffle and letting it decide what to play next. Sometimes its choices are a touch delirious—I had to veto an attempt to forge a link between György Kurtág and Oasis—but the little machine often goes crashing through barriers of style in ways that change how I listen. For example, it recently made a segue from the furious crescendo of “The Dance of the Earth,” ending Part I of “The Rite of Spring,” right into the hot jam of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” The first became a gigantic upbeat to the other. For a second, I felt that I was at some madly fashionable party at Carl Van Vechten’s. On the iPod, music is freed from all fatuous self-definitions and delusions of significance. There are no record jackets depicting bombastic Alpine scenes or celebrity conductors with a family resemblance to Rudolf Hess. Instead, music is music."

Classical concerts are dull:

"I feel dispirited from the moment I walk in the hall. My black jeans draw disapproving glances from men who seem to be modelling the Johnny Carson collection. I look around dubiously at the twenty shades of beige in which the hall is decorated. The music starts, but I find it hard to think of Beethoven’s detestation of all tyranny over the human mind when the man next to me is a dead ringer for my dentist. The assassination sequence in the first movement is less exciting when the musicians have no emotion on their faces. I cough; a thin man, reading a dog-eared score, glares at me. When the movement is about a minute from ending, an ancient woman creeps slowly up the aisle, a look of enormous dissatisfaction on her face, followed at a few paces by a blank-faced husband. Finally, three grand chords to finish, which the composer obviously intended to set off a roar of applause. I start to clap, but the man with the score glares again. One does not applaud in the midst of greatly great great music, even if the composer wants one to! Coughing, squirming, whispering, the crowd visibly suppresses its urge to express pleasure. It’s like mass anal retention. The slow tread of the Funeral March, or Marcia funebre, as everyone insists on calling it, begins. I start to feel that my newfound respect for the music is dragging along behind the hearse."

But it doesn't have to be:

"Two centuries ago, Beethoven bent over the manuscript of the “Eroica” and struck out Napoleon’s name. It is often said that he made himself the protagonist of the work instead. Indeed, he engendered an archetype—the rebel artist hero—that modern artists are still recycling. I wonder, though, if Beethoven’s gesture meant what people think it did. Perhaps he was freeing his music from a too specific interpretation, from his own preoccupations. He was setting his symphony adrift, as a message in a bottle. He could hardly have imagined it travelling two hundred years, through the dark heart of the twentieth century and into the pulverizing electronic age. But he knew it would go far, and he did not weigh it down. There was now a torn, blank space on the title page. The symphony became a fragmentary, unfinished thing, and unfinished it remains. It becomes whole again only in the mind and soul of someone listening for the first time, and listening again. The hero is you."

The author compares this hip hop recording with Steve Reich's Its Gonna Rain, enjoy:

Steve Reich:

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Driven To Distraction

Someone at work forwarded me this essay which I caught and scanned, ironically, while I was in a meeting at work. It was brilliant, validating my own distaste for meetings. When you need to really concentrate on a task, when you are pushing yourself to make something difficult, you need long blocks of uninterrupted time.

Its why when I check my schedule and I see the entire day free from meetings, I feel literally euphoric and motivated thinking there's a better than good chance I might make some real accomplishments. But just because outlook says your free doesn't make it so, not in today's world anyway. You see, I am constantly connected to skype, and at any moment, I could get a skype chat from co-worker that could spin me off into a distracted tangent. Or an e-mail.

What's worse is the internet itself.

This New Yorker article sums it up best when describing the infinite playlist the internet provides a music lover:

"For a century or so, the life of a home listener was simple: you had your disks, whether in the form of cylinders, 78s, LPs, or CDs, and, no matter how many of them piled up, there was a clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t. The Internet has removed that distinction. Near-infinity awaits on the other side of the magic rectangle. "

I feel the same way, even worse, when it comes to good essay, news-related writing. There is literally so much good stuff out there, a never-ending supply of incredible writing about subjects I'm incredibly interested in there, enough to keep me busy and happy for hours at a time. And every hour of every day more stuff is added. And I know it. And because I work as I do on the computer with an infinite internet connection I always know what's available. The good is ready and waiting to distract me from doing what the best thing I should be focused on.

In college, it was easy, I would flee the distractions of the apartment, the roommates, the television and hole myself up in the library with my books so I could focus. Its harder and harder to do that any more.

This last week is a prime example. We have a subscription to Netflix, usually this is not a problem. Netflix is my source of hard to access, hard to find older classic, foreign or arty films that I wouldn't be able to find at Blockbuster. So, we get this old black and white film in the mail, maybe where almost the entire film will take place in one room, not an explosion in site. It will sit on our kitchen counter for days, then weeks, then finally we get around to watching it. And we're never disappointed. The movies are always good. Just a little brainy, you have to work for it.

When we're tired and want mindless entertainment, we hop on over to blockbuster and find a forgettable new release.

But lately I've been adding frivolous and fun movies to the queue. The other night, Batman, the Dark Night came early in the week. Every evening, I knew it was there. I knew I wanted to watch it. I couldn't wait for the weekend.

So last Wednesday night, the kids were in bed, I convinced my wife that we would watch half of it, and I would rifle through stacks of paper work at the same time. Batman was a distraction. We should have been sleeping or whatever.

Instead, we were up to 1am finishing the movie.

The movie was fine and all, but in reality, I wish I hadn't watched it. There was really nothing redeeming about it. The acting was good, but the characters were awful. The story line was interesting, but the whole premise was so dark and senseless. It was a movie for an adrenaline junky whose been desensitized by hours of violence. I could not even imagine a world like this one, and I get fantasy, but this was just one horrifying scene after another. In other words, I hated it, I should have turned it off and went to bed much earlier.

If you wanted me to pin down the biggest challenge of living in today's world, it would be dealing with distraction. There's so much cheap stimulation out there. Food that is over the top sweet, movies with gratuitous sex and violence, mindless web surfing, blogs (imagine bashing blogging in a blog....)

Even good stuff is bad when it keeps you from doing the best thing or at least better things. The trick is finding strategies to keep the distractions at bay especially during those times when you really need to do so.

I'm not against facebook or blogging or web surfing at all. In so many respects it can improve our lives immensely. We have the opportunity to became incredibly insightful voters. There's so much information readily available to research an issue or a candidate. You can have on-line discussions with your friends to help make informed voting decisions.

You can become a smarter shopper, getting better informed about the best products to buy, the best vacations to take, the best schools to enroll your child in. Its a better world in so many ways.

But all of this good stuff can also lead us down the path of mindless drones described in Huxley's "Brave New World", where our life begins to be just one stimulating event after another.

So, what are some techniques you use to avoid distractions?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wow, I just got rebutted

Out of pure chance, I picked up this book, Triggering Town", and in just a few short sentences, both of my last two posts were devastatingly rebutted. Of course, I subscribe to the tenant that two contradictory views can both be true, so while I stand behind my posts, I also have to say, I absolutely believe these statements to be 100% true. For context, the book is from lectures on writing poetry:

The Case for Thinking Small:

"The starting point is fixed to give the mind an operating base, and the mind expands from there. Often, if the triggering subject is big (love, death, faith) rather than localized and finite, the mind tends to shrink. Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later we had a cure for gonorrhea. But what if the British government had told him to find a cure for gonorrhea? He might have worried so much he would not have noticed the mold. Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself. If you can't think small, try philosophy or social criticism."

By the way the poem, the author is describing is worth publishing here:


I found him sleepy in the heat
And dust of of a gopher burrow,
Coiled in loose folds upon silence
In a pit of the noonday hillside.
I saw the wedged bulge
Of the head hard as a fist.
I remembered his delicate ways:
The mouth of a cat's mouth yawning.
I crushed him deep in dust,
And heard the loud seethe of life
In the dead beads of the tail
Fade, as wind fades
From the wild grain of the hill.

And finally, why you should not argue:

"In a sense, I hope I don't teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. Don't start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose. As Yeats noted, your important argments are with yourself. If you don't agree with me, don't listen. Think about something else."

Yep, the most important arguments are with yourself. Life is a personal journey. We can throw out our own nuggets to others, but at the end of the day, its up to each of us to sort through the nonsense to find out what works for us...

Hmmm... how much time do I waste on arguments that are "futile and take us away from our purpose".

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why I Debate

For those of you who have followed my on-line presence at all know that I love the debate, and lately I've spent a lot of time in the political arena. I feel some amount of guilt about it, but at the same time I realize there are some benefits to it as well. But it got me thinking how pervasive this need to debate is and to me it seems like its part of the human condition. This propensity toward conflict and competition. Wars are even to some extent a form of debate at a large scale.

Obviously, I have experience with debate almost as far back as I can remember: with my parents over what to me were arbitrary rules, or with friends over sports teams or favorite athletes or what girl was the hottest at my school.

But now with technology the terms and means of the debate have amplified and have grown in its pervasiveness. I remember in high school with my very far right ideology and some notion of my far away sister's far left ideology reading an op ed in my local Yuma Daily Sun wishing I had the energy to cut out the article and send it to them, sure I would convince them my view was right.

Imagine how I'm affected now, when I am bombarded by so many incredibly high quality opinions, following as I do blogs written by the smartest folks in their fields with the tools to distribute links to those blogs via twitter (which so far I haven't participated in), facebook (which I've recently jumped in), yahoogroup mailing lists (I've started a political mailing list something like ten years ago with a handful of my friends and its still going strong), and now via comments on my blog.

But what is all of this debate getting me? Definitely it consumes a massively finite resource, my time. And I'm not getting any financial benefit from it. Am I really making the world a better place by pushing my opinions on onto the world? Am I improving myself?

Well, I don't have the answer to any of those questions. But at the very least, its my hobby, and its a hobby I need to do a better job at constraining so it doesn't crowd out other stuff I really should be engaged in but perhaps don't enjoy as much or at least doesn't have near the psychological pull as this does.

But at its very core, debate and discussion, when done right, is absolutely essential. In my work context, we're engaged in the creative, at times difficult job to produce software that is easy to use, highly available, and highly profitable (meaning desirable by large numbers of people). To get there, you simply cannot lock yourself in a room and pound out code. I'm at my best when I'm constantly engaged with my co-workers discussing problems, arguing design strategies.

It works incredibly well when you're able to suspend your ego and are willing to concede when you feel another's opinions are probably better than yours. More often, the discussion extends my thinking. Ideas come to me that never would have come in isolation and not just ideas that are explicitly stated by a colleague. Many times, ideas are triggered by something they've said. Its true synergy, and its intoxicating and exciting.

What's happening here, though, is that we're not engaged abstractly. We're actively struggling and working in the domain, but at the same time step back and engage. I think actually grinding through difficult work first before, after and while you discuss keeps you grounded and humbled.

I love to read about politics. I'm not completely sure why. Health care and our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are completely important. And part of my duty as a citizen of a democratic country is to stay engaged so that my elected officials are held accountable. Part of staying engaged is both reading what the experts and reporters are writing, but testing my assumptions through discussion with my friends, my fellow citizens. Facebook has been a surprising fruitful source of this kind of debate, although I feel slightly guilty bating folks into a discussion.

In my experience with political debate, I'm not sure I have ever changed someone else's mind. But, why I've never explicitly conceded a position while in the throws of a debate. Usually, for me, over time, having the opportunity to hear counter-arguments allows me to appreciate someone else's point of view. And there are times when I have changed positions, or at least moved to a more full, sophisticated point of view on the issue.

I am of the belief (to some extent anyway) that at their core most people essentially agree on most issues. We tend to focus extreme attention on those points where we disagree. Or hold tight to a narrow (although legitimate) point of view without allowing ourselves to understand that most issues are complex enough to allow both people to be right even though they seem to hold contradictory positions.

For me, though, the act of discussion is highly valuable for me. It increases my own understanding of the issue. Especially when it comes into direct conflict with someone else's. When they challenge my assumptions, I'm forced to do research, to validate assumptions. I'm forced to think through my talking points more carefully, compare them with my own experiences, data I've read in the past. My understanding grows.

Finally, I've been thinking a bit about religious debate. I went on my mission in Alabama, and I had many opportunities to engage with Christian fundamentalist who were convinced that the tenants of the Mormon faith were dragging me and my fellow members to hell. And I loved the debate and had a difficult time just letting stuff go. I would hold on to investigators far too long until they basically had to tell me explicitly not to come back.

But thing about religious faith (and its somewhat true about politics as well by the way), is that its an individual and highly personal pursuit. You can't really argue faith. But you can discuss faith. That is why testimony meetings are such a central tenant to the Mormon faith. That's why missionaries are counceled to both teach and to testify. In some sense its a debate I guess, but its more of a discussion, or really its a personal expression.

Religion at its core is a show and tell. We are all spiritual beings and we all have a variety of spiritual experiences. And I think the act of expressing ourselves to someone else intensifies our own faith in many of the same ways engaging in a political discussion with someone else increases or understanding of the issue.

With religious debate, I think there's plenty of room to get into political like discussions, looking at historical data, scripture, personal experience. But at its core, its a spiritual engagement and if you lose that, you miss out on the benefits of the discussion as well.

In debate, its always important to listen to the other side, "to seek first to understand" if I can borrow from Covey. In faith based engagement, listening with an open heart is vital. Because you need a sense of openness and honesty. Its an expression, and to increase the learning experience, the act of expression must be honest. Both sides benefit as a result.

I think this sort of engagement is essential and vital for everyone of any faith. And it would do us a lot of good if there was more opportunity to engage across religious lines, although admittedly its a challenging thing to do.

But I'm convinced that engagement and debate is vitally important. But I think the benefits are enhance when its coupled with real struggle and hard work. In my work environment, discussion is vital but only when coupled by my individual hard work. Similarly, we should be engaged in the personal struggle for spiritual and intellectual growth both as individual human beings and as citizens in our community and country. And as we couple our personal work with an engagement with others, we can hopefully stay humble and willing to learn from each other. I think those are the conditions required to justify debate. Conditions I probably need to meet more often.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Self Reliance

We just had Stake Conference this past weekend and it was heavily focused on self reliance. The typical food storage talks were given and employment and finance, but a quote that I heard during it that is till ringing in my ears went something like this:

"Self Reliance without service leads to pride"...

And that's what it's all about. But although no one is truly completely self-reliant, neither are most of us completely helpless. We all have some capacity to help ourselves, so as we're trying hard to keep being busy being born, we should also be constantly on the lookout to give each other a little hand.

So, with that thought ringin' in your ears, I've been thinking a lot about employment. This article claims that if you take all of the officially unemployed and include them with folks who have just stopped looking and those folks who are working part time even though they would love to be working full time you get a number of 30 million Americans or 19% of the total workforce.

On my way home from work today, listening as I always do, to NPR, an economist compared this American recession with something Europe has gotten used to: double digit unemployment rates that just won't go away. The problem is that when a person is unemployed for long periods of time, they become more and more unemployable. Their skills get rusty and while other people are still actively honing their skills in the work force, they become more and more at a comparable disadvantage. And even when the economy kicks back into gear, companies don't want to hire people that are not job ready. This sort of dynamic really puts a long-term drag on the economy.

Which is why all of this gloom keeps me thinking about this blog.

Here, Seth is referencing the high unemployment rate of recent college graduate folks and suggests a much cheaper one-year version of graduate school. I loved it for all kinds of reasons. It made me wish I was an unemployed college graduate who could embark on this sort of thing. Sorry, Seth, I'll have to quote your list verbatim, it's just too good to rely on someone to actually click the link:

  • Spend twenty hours a week running a project for a non-profit.

  • Teach yourself Java, HTML, Flash, PHP and SQL. Not a little, but mastery. [Clarification: I know you can't become a master programmer of all these in a year. I used the word mastery to distinguish it from 'familiarity' which is what you get from one of those Dummies type books. I would hope you could write code that solves problems, works and is reasonably clear, not that you can program well enough to work for Joel Spolsky. Sorry if I ruffled feathers.]

  • Volunteer to coach or assistant coach a kids sports team.

  • Start, run and grow an online community.

  • Give a speech a week to local organizations.

  • Write a regular newsletter or blog about an industry you care about.

  • Learn a foreign language fluently.

  • Write three detailed business plans for projects in the industry you care about.

  • Self-publish a book.

  • Run a marathon.

  • He claims that if you got up by 6am, gave up television (and the internet I'm adding), you could accomplish everything on this list in one year, and then how would your employment prospects look?

    Now that is thinking big.

    This recessions is pretty fascinating to me for many reasons. How many folks during the boom really felt like they were working in jobs that were actually really, truly making real contributions to society? How many of the jobs that are now gone were just bubble jobs? Glorified "make-work" jobs artificially generated during bubble frenzy.

    Certainly a large percentage of the finance industry we could completely do without and nobody would know the difference. Or all of those loan officers pushing people into refinancing their houses. And there's so many more.

    And really, if you think about what we really need, those basic food, clothing, and shelter kinds of things. Throw in health care, education, a little entertainment, and transportation.... We actually don't need that many fully productive people working to feed, cloth, and house the world. Oh sure, we need marginally more people to build and maintain our cars, to educate ourselves and our children, and to care for some of us when we get sick, but we could get just by no where near full employment. Much of the work is increasingly becoming automated. Only a couple of those sectors are labor intensive - education and healthcare, and as a result both are consuming a higher percentage of our GDP. With technology, we can keep watching movies acted by the same small selection of actors or listen to music by a handful of the best musicians.

    Its not about putting people to work, its figuring out how distribute it all fairly. And if only a percentage of folks were supporting everyone else, I would think some resentment would build up, and those workers would start supporting only themselves and stop supporting the rest of us. We need to constantly come up with ways to keep people busy to justify spreading our wealth around as evenly as possible, if nothing else to prevent the riots that would ensue if we failed to do it.

    What makes economies function really, is make-work. But when we're thinking big, we can easily imagine the extra make-work that expands our lives and expands the world. And there's not enough people thinking big to do all of the work we really can and should be doing.

    Really, just imagine in some imaginary utopian world, that in good times, we (all of us) carefully squirreled away enough money and/or food to get by for a year without employment.

    And when a bubble hit, and if we found ourselves unemployed, we considered this an opportunity to acquire skills we never had time to acquire before. Imagine the feeling that when a layoff notice came in, we thought to ourselves, cool, time to re-tool.

    And we plunged into all or part of a list like the one above.

    Recessions would disappear. And instead of being laid off we would have to, after 10 or soish years of working, proactively decide to take a year off to re-tool.

    Our economy would be vibrant, our communities would thrive, we would be collectively rich beyond imagination.

    In my dream world, I would be surrounded by craftsmen (and women), artists, and musicians who surrounded my world with beautiful, inspiring things. Architects who designed beautiful neighborhoods, public gardens, houses and buildings.

    We live in a world that wants us to think small, but I'm asking you to think big.

    Today's my birthday. A while back I blogged about my birthday, about how I wanted those interested to join me in celebrating it in some symbolic way.

    This is how I want you to celebrate my birthday. Please, for me, start thinking big.

    Saturday, August 8, 2009

    I Really Don't Get the Hatred and Anger from the Republicans

    On vacation last week, I turned on the TV in our hotel and there was Glenn Beck ranting about how Obama is leading us into socialism or some such. And now there's real fear, palpable, irrational fear that Obama's health care plan is going to lead us right into fascism.

    I'm an avid reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog who is a pretty pragmatic moderate conservative who happened to support Barack Obama for president. He had some pretty interesting blog posts today detailing some of the craziness. Craziness I tell you, can someone, anyone explain it to me:

    Ok, this one is Sarah Palin who is a certifiable nut.

    This one shows some crazy hatred and anger over something they seemed to not understand at all. To quote Sullivan:

    "What's fascinating to me is not just the blind fury of the people - it is much more than anger, it is close to explosive - but the bizarre points they are making. One man insists that when the new proposals come into force, his son with cerebral palsy will be denied all care. He is close to murderously adamant about this. But under what interpretation of any of the bills would that be true? Another woman asks heatedly, "Exactly where's the money coming from? Is it coming out of my paycheck? I wanna know if it's coming out of my paycheck--yes or no!" Well, if she has health insurance from her employer, yes it already is coming out of her pay-check in larger and larger amounts. Is she aware of this? Are the Dems planning to tax her to pay for insuring the uninsured? Unless she's very wealthy, no. And these pretty basic misunderstandings are then converted into a simple slogan: "Liberty or Tyranny!""

    Or the folks carrying swatsika signs at a Nancy Pelosi townhall.

    What's sad is that what's likely to be passed is going to be verrry modest reform and will likely not include a public option and will likely make a few insurance companies even richer, but no matter what, Obama will still be a fascist.

    This article was linked by Sullivan's blog makes the strong claim that we should just keep Canada out of our reform debate. They have their system with their challenges. Nobody is arguing we should import it here.

    A strong rebuttal on a Noonan's article that Obama is trying to bankrupt America with a new entitlement.

    Loved this quote:
    "What we have now is what we had in 1993: a radicalized base of a party that simply refuses to accept the legitimacy of another party in government."

    And the hypocrisy of the Republican party:

    "Now recall the Republicans' last major initiative on healthcare - the prescription drug benefit. That cost $32 trillion over the long run, and there was not even a gesture toward actually financing it. Much of the right was silent - as they were over all the other fiscally reckless policies of the past eight years."

    A powerful description over the terms of the debate which the Republican party is inexplicably having a heart attack over.

    "The passions out there are somewhat mystifying to me. Here is what we are debating: should we demand that insurance companies provide policies to anyone regardless of pre-existing conditions? Should we help the working poor buy that insurance with subsidies? Are competitive exchanges for health insurance a good or bad thing? Would a public option or a co-op help bring down healthcare costs? Does it make sense for the government to study the effectiveness of various treatments as a guide for doctors? These are all worth debating - and if you break it down into these questions, a majority would back them. Obama's proposals were very, very well illuminated in the campaign; there's nothing here that we weren't told to expect; in fact, he seems over-eager to placate moderates and keep some Republicans within the healthcare reform tent."

    Finally, The Republican party is in real danger of just getting dismissed altogether, especially by the young who want no part of a party that has a hint of racism (seriously, only a handful of Republicans voted for Sotomayer, and coincidently one of those Republican Senators, one of the few Hispanic Republicans left at the federal level resigned). And you can't tell me that all of this hatred and fear spewed at Obama has no racial component to it.

    Really, the extremes of the party are sounding more and more conspiracy John Birch Society all the time... And moderates are getting pushed out every day.

    Its not something I want to see. I love a good healthy debate. Although it may not seem like it, I realize these issues are complicated and I honestly don't know enough about most things to really be sure my views are correct. I love to hear a well thought out, intelligent and informed dissenting opinion. And at the end of the day, I think having respectful discussions about the issues will help us work together toward solutions.

    The shouting, the fear, and anger from the more vocal folks in the Republican party is frightening. Of course, you only hear those who are screaming. I know that many moderate, honest thinkers exist in the party. I just hope that civility wins out in the end.

    Finally, Sullivan has a series called "View From Your Sickbed", anecdotes to be sure, but indicative about how crazy or current health care system works, here are a few:

    View From Your Sickbed
    View from Your Sickbed
    View from Your Sickbed

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009

    The Health Care Debate

    Health care obviously is the new hot topic for those of us who are passionate about our politics, and for good reason. Obama was trying desperately to get something through Congress and he's now looking to get something passed this year. In this space, I don't want to try to answer the question, "What's the hurry", I've heard this addressed elsewhere, but really there is no hurry.

    Obama is not trying to completely overturn health care from something we have now to something much, much different. He's trying to improve the system incrementally, slowly, in hopes of moving it toward something better. This is the right approach. Health care makes up 20% of our economy, we spend something like $2 trillion dollars on health care costs every single year. And the cost is going up. Because costs are going up faster than inflation and because costs are so expense, we desperately need reform. Health care expenses, more than anything else, is the biggest threat to our nation's long term solvency. But because its so complicated, we need to move reform incrementally, and that's exactly what Obama and Congress is looking to do.

    And we need to move reform incrementally because that is the only sane way to do it, and incrementally is the usual way its been done. This really thoughtful essay on health care reform spends some time on how other countries went about providing universal access to its citizens.

    "Every industrialized nation in the world except the United States has a national system that guarantees affordable health care for all its citizens. Nearly all have been popular and successful. But each has taken a drastically different form, and the reason has rarely been ideology. Rather, each country has built on its own history, however imperfect, unusual, and untidy."


    "This is the trouble with the lure of the ideal. Over and over in the health-reform debate, one hears serious policy analysts say that the only genuine solution is to replace our health-care system (with a single-payer system, a free-market system, or whatever); anything else is a missed opportunity. But this is a siren song.

    Yes, American health care is an appallingly patched-together ship, with rotting timbers, water leaking in, mercenaries on board, and fifteen per cent of the passengers thrown over the rails just to keep it afloat. But hundreds of millions of people depend on it. The system provides more than thirty-five million hospital stays a year, sixty-four million surgical procedures, nine hundred million office visits, three and a half billion prescriptions. It represents a sixth of our economy. There is no dry-docking health care for a few months, or even for an afternoon, while we rebuild it. Grand plans admit no possibility of mistakes or failures, or the chance to learn from them. If we get things wrong, people will die. This doesn’t mean that ambitious reform is beyond us. But we have to start with what we have."

    and his take on Massachusett's plan is enlightening:

    "Massachusetts, where I live and work, recently became the first state to adopt a system of universal health coverage for its residents. It didn’t organize a government takeover of the state’s hospitals or insurance companies, or force people into a new system of state-run clinics. It built on what existed. On July 1, 2007, the state began offering an online choice of four private insurance plans for people without health coverage. The cost is zero for the poor; for the rest, it is limited to no more than about eight per cent of income. The vast majority of families, who had insurance through work, didn’t notice a thing when the program was launched. But those who had no coverage had to enroll in a plan or incur a tax penalty."

    And the vast majority of those folks who live there don't want to go back.

    The problem is that those who oppose reform make arguments that just don't make sense. Calling Obamacare socialist or worse.

    I was recently sent this youtube link with John Stossel's take on health care. And he constantly kept comparing health care with cars or food. And providing a false choice between what we have now and Soviet Union socialism. Providing Michael Moore as the one opposing voice. Cherry picking facts about specific short comings of the Canadian system. John Stossel is a libertarian ideologue. Nothing wrong with that, but we need to have a sensible discussion on this issue. Stossel made some interesting points, but he also failed to address many of the specific problems with our system, problems he even brings up on this show.

    And Stossel offers one of the most sensible voices of opposition to health care reform. Most are just nonsense, plain and simple.

    I hope that we can all agree that everyone should have access to health care. The US system has, more or less provided a model for it over the years, and its largely a patchwork. Medicare for the elderly , medicaid for the poor (systems most similar to Canada's), veteran's have their system (a system modeled after the UK's). Most everyone else is covered through an employer provided insurance. And a big employer acts in many ways like a government would. Big companies have enough employers to be covered by a single insurance company (I have a choice of two) and negotiate a single rate for all of its employees regardless of a person's health. And they won't be kicked out if they get expensive. I haven't tested this yet and I'm not sure about it, but generally speaking I think employer based insurance will cover even pre-existing conditions?

    I say I'm not sure because I have a diabetic daughter. If I lose my job (and my insurance) should I pay for COBRA (which is very expensive and would quickly eat away my savings) to avoid having an insurance gap? I think so, but I need to find out for sure.

    But there are millions of Americans who are forced into the individual markets because they are either self-employed or work for an employer who doesn't provide insurance. Many others lose their insurance when they lose their jobs. Employer based plans are no-where near optimal and we need to either augment it with something else.

    In my opinion, any health insurance plan must have the following attributes:

    1) Cannot kick someone off the plan as soon as they get too expensive.
    2) Cannot kick someone off the plan because of pre-existing conditions.
    3) Uniform premiums to everyone regardless of health.
    4) Everyone most be required to have insurance.
    5) The poor must be given assistance so that no one is unable to afford coverage.

    This is the basic model of the Massachussett's plan. And its a good one.

    The fact is that currently insurance companies have an economic incentive to kick people off their plans if they get expensive. They'll make the applications confusing and complicated, and they'll allow you to pay the premiums, but if you get diagnosed with an expensive to treat illness, your application will be scrutinized to find a reason to kick you out.

    The simple fact is the young and healthy have to subsidize care for those who are old and sick. If you have a system where the healthy choose not to pay for it, it becomes prohibitively expensive for those who need it. Since everyone is going to get old sometime, it makes some sense to spread the cost to everyone.

    The final issue that must be dealt with in the health care debate is cost, and this is a tricky issue also dealt with in this excellent essay and its analysis of the county that provides the most expensive health care per person in the country.

    The problem is that doctors have an economic incentive to over-do medicare treatment. They are paid per visit/per surgery/per drug prescription.

    One example:

    "Seeing a patient who has had uncomplicated, first-time gallstone pain requires some judgment. A surgeon has to provide reassurance (people are often scared and want to go straight to surgery), some education about gallstone disease and diet, perhaps a prescription for pain; in a few weeks, the surgeon might follow up. But increasingly, I was told, McAllen surgeons simply operate. The patient wasn’t going to moderate her diet, they tell themselves. The pain was just going to come back. And by operating they happen to make an extra seven hundred dollars."

    But cost and quality do not go together:

    "This is a disturbing and perhaps surprising diagnosis. Americans like to believe that, with most things, more is better. But research suggests that where medicine is concerned it may actually be worse. For example, Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic dominates the scene, has fantastically high levels of technological capability and quality, but its Medicare spending is in the lowest fifteen per cent of the country—$6,688 per enrollee in 2006, which is eight thousand dollars less than the figure for McAllen. Two economists working at Dartmouth, Katherine Baicker and Amitabh Chandra, found that the more money Medicare spent per person in a given state the lower that state’s quality ranking tended to be. In fact, the four states with the highest levels of spending—Louisiana, Texas, California, and Florida—were near the bottom of the national rankings on the quality of patient care."


    "That’s because nothing in medicine is without risks. Complications can arise from hospital stays, medications, procedures, and tests, and when these things are of marginal value the harm can be greater than the benefits. In recent years, we doctors have markedly increased the number of operations we do, for instance. In 2006, doctors performed at least sixty million surgical procedures, one for every five Americans. No other country does anything like as many operations on its citizens. Are we better off for it? No one knows for sure, but it seems highly unlikely. After all, some hundred thousand people die each year from complications of surgery—far more than die in car crashes."

    and finally:

    "As America struggles to extend health-care coverage while curbing health-care costs, we face a decision that is more important than whether we have a public-insurance option, more important than whether we will have a single-payer system in the long run or a mixture of public and private insurance, as we do now. The decision is whether we are going to reward the leaders who are trying to build a new generation of Mayos and Grand Junctions. If we don’t, McAllen won’t be an outlier. It will be our future."

    Health care is an intensely complicated and important subject. It deserves pragmatic and careful thought and discussion. As human beings we tend to think through issues with ideological blinders. Lets not be ideological about our health.