Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day, 2006

Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen, 1917

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Is this ‘civil war’ yet, Mr. Bush?

“Every morning the streets of Baghdad are littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they are Sunni or because they are Shiite… Sectarian and ethnic cleansing has since continued apace, as mixed neighborhoods are ‘purified.’ ”
“Iraq Is the Republic of Fear,” by Nir Rosen, in today’s Washington Post

Before this goes any further, could we at least cleanse the language? ‘Ethnic cleansing’ should be permanently retired because it whitewashes what it purports to describe, and encourages the view that those who are in some way different from oneself should be treated like the soap scum in my shower. We are not talking about ‘cleansing’; we are talking about the murders of people we perceive as ‘other,’ even if their difference is nothing more than a slightly different belief system than our own.

It is precisely this concept of ‘other’ that allows people the luxury of murder-without-conscience, that sets neighbor upon neighbor, that justifies the murder of children and the defenseless. It is murder, not an exercise in cleaning, and that must be the message that is sent loud and clear.

Always I find myself viewing such behavioral aberrations as mass murder in the context of history, both the short span of recorded history and our much longer evolutionary history, but this is generally not very uplifting. Today is no exception, when I came across the diagram below:

Science 12 May 2006, pp. 838 - 839.
A key paragraph accompanies the diagram:
“People seem to use one region of [the brain] to consider the mental state of someone they perceive as similar to themselves and another region … to consider someone perceived as dissimilar.”

We do not think the same way, or even with the same parts of our brain, when we view those we perceive as ‘other.’

The message seems to be one of two possibilities: Either we are hardwired to see others of our kind as not-like-us, freeing us to be conscienceless murderers when strife arises, demonstrating that we are mere animals endlessly playing out our mandate; or we must strive to be more inclusive in our choices of who we define as being similar to ourselves.

Because that is really what it comes down to: We can choose to use our abilities of rational thought to learn and deeply comprehend that we are all in this together, with the same needs and desires, more similar than different, or we can focus on our relatively insignificant differences that divide us, like religious beliefs, skin or eye color, or region of origin.

But it seems that, rather than any diminution of so-called sectarian or ethnic bloodshed over time, it only, and ever, gets worse and worse, as our weapons improve and the stakes get higher.

Through it all, I ponder: is this what it means to be human? Is this all there is?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Why medical premiums are skyrocketing

I recently received the statement below for some lab tests that were run on me. I was astonished to see a total of $715 for just the routine tests, because I worked for a clinical lab until 1989, where I was quite familiar with the pricing of such routine tests:

Working from memory, I estimated (liberally) that my bill at my old lab would have been approximately $75 for this routine lab work (but would have included more tests), while there would have been no charge for the blood draw. Converting 1989 dollars, I arrive at a figure of about $121 in today’s dollars.

After accounting for inflation, this is nearly a 6-times increase, for fewer tests!

Seeking to compare my lab facility (UCSF) with another, I obtained another statement for similar (but more complete) testing from a friend, and lo, her testing done in the preceding month was billed at a total of $48, albeit in Arizona, but in a private laboratory:

This is nearly a 15-times difference in price, for identical lab tests done just one month apart!

All of the itemized metabolic (AKA: chem panel; SMAC-25) tests on my bill are done in one pass through an automated blood chemistry analyzer, which produces a print-out of the entire panel. Knowing this, I asked my doctor to instead run the panel and was told “we don’t do panels; we only order the tests we need because we don’t believe in unnecessary testing.” Well you can bet that we will have a conversation about this issue at our next meeting...

I am fortunate enough to have good medical insurance that will pay this bill in my stead. But if I were one of the 45 million (or more) uninsured Americans, I would be expected to pay $715 for tests that should cost $48-121 at most. This is highway robbery!

Even those of us who are lucky enough to be insured by our employers are paying for these charges through our labor though, because all employers factor benefits into their total compensation costs. In fact, I have experienced a pay cut over the past two years in large part because of increasing medical premium costs.

Meanwhile, the populace is up in arms about price gouging being done by the oil companies, while their increases come nowhere near the 6-15 times increase being charged for these routine medical lab tests. Who is it again that should be subject to an excess profits tax?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Bush ties Nixon for last place

The Wall Street Journal reports that President Bush’s approval rating has dropped below 30 percent for the first time.

Most significantly, this means that Mr. Bush has lost fully one-third of his remaining supporters in just four months, dropping from 43 percent to his current 29 percent approval rating.

This also means that Bush has matched the low approval rating attained by Nixon, at a similar point in their terms in office, quite an honorless distinction.

There is not much room for further decline in Bush’s ratings, but he does seem to be pursuing ever-lower ratings as time goes by. One wonders when Congress will take note, and recognize the gross malfeasance and illegality that has been perpetrated by this administration, and when they will do their duty and begin the impeachment hearings.

It is impossible for me to comprehend what it is that they’re waiting for.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Spiraling ever-downward

As we’ve watched Bush’s approval ratings drop and drop and drop over the last few years, it’s easy to lose perspective of the magnitude of his freefall. To gain that long-term perspective, here’s a new look at Bush’s approval numbers, courtesy of Stuart Eugene Thiel at Professor Pollkatz’s Pool of Polls:

And because some (like me) may find all those black lines and numbers distracting, here is the identical graph, with all the black ink Photoshopped out:

Pretty eye-popping, yes?

Chimeric nightmares

15 gpm VW Bug (yes, gallons per mile)

“I wanted something of the extreme of the extreme of the extreme.” - Ron Patrick, age 49

“You drive the car up to about 90 miles an hour and you spool up the jet, then hit it …” he said, fondly recalling one of his rides… He said that a jet-boosted run will “pin the speedometer and that’s at 140… The purpose of this car is to have fun and be stupid,” he says with a laugh.

Patrick…takes the car out on nearby Highway 237 in the wee hours of the morning and fires it up for a brief and hopefully cop-free run…“I’ve done it for years and years and I’ve never hurt myself or anyone else…’’

- from: “When bugs fly—Auto geek hits highway for surreptitious runs in jet-powered VW” by Michael Taylor,, 30 April 2006

Some things just speak for themselves.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Rising to the top of the avalanche

I am so impressed by way the blogosphere manages to keep track of all the (known) scandals and ineptitude that define the Bush administration. Of course I am outraged anew with each breaking day and front-burner story, but more than that, I feel like I’m being suffocated under mountainous heaps of flotsam and jetsam being flung from every crevice of this administration. Not only my outrage, but my memory has maxed out! Everywhere you look, another miscreant is being cited or indicted, and I am in awe of anyone who can keep the players and their deeds and their interrelationships straight!

With this rich mother lode of material to draw upon, where does one begin? I usually find that larger patterns and more subtle meanings jump out at me, but there is nothing subtle about the trashing of this country, and the only pattern I can discern is the obvious one of the Bush administration’s every action being scandalous, inept, deliberately misleading, illegal, or all of the above, and where’s the interest in that? I don’t even want to think about it anymore.

But there are some things that can stand out even from this major onrush of new stories. The outspoken criticism from the retired generals is one of those things. And my major wonder is: what motivated them to speak out like they did, in the face of certain outcry and at the risk of drawing down the wrath of the Uniform Code of Military Justice upon their heads, via “Article 88—Contempt toward officials” in the Manual for Courts-Martial U.S. 2000 Edition (pdf, pg. 295):
Surely they knew full well what they were risking by speaking out. High ranks and assignments such as theirs aren’t handed out as readily as Presidential Medals of Freedom, after all.

So if they fully comprehended their risk of being punished for their public statements, why did they choose to take the risk? The obvious answer is that they believe so strongly in the parallel causes of truth and justice that their sense of duty compelled them to act as they did, and therefore their statements should simply be taken at face value.

But was there more to it? Everyone I know has expressed the concern that the Bush administration may be planning a coup d’état, with the intent of creating a crisis so severe (nuclear war?) that Bush declares a State of Emergency and suspends normally scheduled elections. Could it be that the retired generals were actually sending a strong, albeit subtle, message that such a strategy should not be attempted because Bush and his cronies would not have the support of the military in such an attempt? I dearly hope that was the message received.