Sunday, November 30, 2008

Super-Steve!! Man of Epoxy!!

First he united the right! Now, he has united the left!

What more can this man do! Let's not find out.

Go Coalition, Go!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The trace elements of a nation

A long discussion over on Angry Bear dealt with how economic choices, rational in the short term or in the service of one economic actor, can cumulatively cripple the societies in which these choices are made. Well worth hopping over to read the full conversation, and also taking another hop to read the 1994 address of Sir James Goldstein to the US Congress.

I added to the conversation, and was pleased enough with that comment that I lifted it for here.


For some reason, this discussion is reminding me of the "dead spots" in the ocean where fertilizers poured in and encourage the growth of oxygen sucking algae.

Like so many other issues in economics, the issue of training versus skills versus cost of acquiring those skills rests on a matter of balance. How does a society support the acquisition of skills which are, when all is said and done, not going to be needed frequently enough to support a large number of artisans? I took a tour of an engineering firm a few years ago, where they make to order generators and motors. The men doing this work are all my age now, and will probably be retiring shortly. The workplace was not a factory floor as you would at ordinarily imagine it -- instead it was like a very large workshop, and the "coils" inside the motors and generators were actually bent from lengthy slabs of specially shaped copper. I know for a fact that units produced by this company were integral to parts of the space program from the 1960s.

Motors, generators and transformers have shifted over the past 30 years to a very small number of producers, most of them offshore. Although I'm not in the field anymore, at the time I retired there were really only three or four producers of large power transformers, and the lead time for a single transformer might be three years. In some cases, there would effectively be only one producer because the others were not at that time taking new contracts.

In an emergency situation, how do you quickly replace a damaged transformer? They are not kept sitting on the shelf, one of these would be large enough that it would only fit in my two-story house if I removed strategic portions of flooring and walls.

The crisis of American manufacturing is not, I think, primarily one of job loss. It is instead the loss of capacity to rebuild oneself independently in a crisis. That capacity is only partly dependent on the infrastructure -- the factory floors and steel mills. More importantly, the working knowledge of how these things are built and the working attitude of coming in every day and bending some more copper into shape, but doing it precisely right, have been punished out of the American workforce I believe.

To become skilled in one of these jobs often requires an opportunity loss of becoming skilled in other areas -- in order to train a good machinist requires enough time that the skill becomes the individual's only resource, and if that resource is no longer in demand, the entire field looks like that oceanic dead zone where there isn't enough oxygen to survive.

A balanced diet includes many things -- sugar and fat and protein in large amounts, and iron and chromium and zinc in tiny amounts. But if a person's diet includes no trace elements they end up with deficiency diseases.

I think the loss of niche professions is a deficiency disease in a nation. Identifying and supporting these fields of work may not be financially efficient -- it's much easier to eat a candy bar than it is to eat a balanced diet. But the result of always making the candy-bar choice is a particular disease that weakens its host out of all proportion to the size of the elements needed.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pack a lunch, we’re going for medical supplies

Canada Post is out of the question

When Frodo Baggins set off on the quest of the ring, he sang, “The road goes ever on and on / out from the door where it began…” I wasn’t singing, but I was at least humming, as I headed out to get filters for my CPAP machine.

A CPAP is the cheapest, simplest solution to sleep apnea, a common disorder affecting 2 - 4% of adults. In sleep apnea, as a person falls asleep and then slips into deeper sleep, the air passage relaxes and air can no longer pass, sort of like trying to suck a milkshake through a collapsed straw. To resume breathing the sleeper must rise to a lighter sleep state, something they are not aware of, so they never enter deep, restful sleep.

The CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, pronounced SEE-pap, was invented by an Australian in 1981. It solves the problem by squirting air up your nose while you sleep. This sounds goofy, and looks goofier (imagine headgear like a cross between the creature from the black lagoon and a vacuum cleaner) but it is an elegant effective solution to a non-trivial problem.

As you might imagine, if you’re going to have air blown up your nose, you probably want to filter the air. Thus, my quest for new filters.

Our province covers these supplies. Four years ago when I was diagnosed, the supplies were available from the main hospital in the heart of the city, and thousands of people dealt with them.

Then 18 months ago the province farmed out this part of the job to Rana Medical. What nice, patient people they are. It’s too bad they’re so far away.

They are NOT in the heart of the city, nor even the liver or gall bladder. No, their offices are in the lower left ankle of the city, in a galaxy far away.

So when I drove down there today, it took an hour and a half to get there, pick up my filters, and go back home again, a 32 kilometer round trip, mostly on main routes.

But what if I didn’t have a car? That’s even better. Here’s the bus schedule, one-way at midday.
Option Transfers Departure Time Arrival Time Total Time Walking Time Wait Time
Option 1 2 14:38 15:44 66 minutes 8 minutes 7 minutes
Option 2 2 14:38 15:44 66 minutes 9 minutes 6 minutes
Option 3 1 14:47 15:57 70 minutes 17 minutes 5 minutes
Option 4 1 15:00 15:57 57 minutes 12 minutes 1 minute

An hour each way, including 8 to 17 minutes of walking, is a good chunk of time. (At other times of day it takes even longer.) But I suppose if you’re poor enough to not have a car, then you must have a lot of free time.

But wait – there’s a little bit more.

These filters weight nothing, maybe an ounce or less. Mailing them would cost $1.00 at present. But when I asked if Rana would mail them, I was told by their patient, sweet receptionist that they were not allowed to mail supplies. In fact, I was told that stipulation was in the bid contract from Manitoba Health – no mailing of supplies even if the winning bidder wanted to.

So let’s see what this means. While I was there, another seven people crowded the front desk to get supplies or replace broken equipment. How many people go to Rana in all? At least 7000, probably double that by now.

Say 10,000, that means that on average these CPAP patients travel 320,000 km each year, and spend a little over 2 years of total travel time each year. And who knows what the infirm or elderly do.

Is the savings in money to Manitoba Health worth the extra burden of time and trouble to their patients? I guess it depends which side of the ledger you check – the government side, saving ten grand on postage, or the patient side, making their pilgrimage every year to the wilds of south Fort Garry.

Next time I'll pack "Canterbury Tales."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pumping up the underclass

In many ways, the bankrupt person becomes the equivalent of an ex-convict

Today's NYT talks about bankruptcies, with a real good chart. A little chunk from the article tells us
Downturn Drags More Consumers Into Bankruptcy

...the number of personal bankruptcy filings jumped nearly 8 percent in October from September, after marching steadily upward for the last two years, said Mike Bickford, president of Automated Access to Court Electronic Records, a bankruptcy data and management company.

Filings totaled 108,595, surpassing 100,000 for the first time since a law that made it more difficult — and often twice as expensive — to file for bankruptcy took effect in 2005. That translated to an average of 4,936 bankruptcies filed each business day last month, up nearly 34 percent from October 2007...
This raises a few questions in my mind.

Foremost is the question: what happens to an individual when he files for bankruptcy?

The answer is twofold. On the plus side, whatever debts he had are dealt with and the collectors are off his case.

On the minus side, a host of difficulties are added to his life, and these persist for a good, long time. In many ways, the bankrupt person becomes the equivalent of an ex-convict (although at present, he doesn't lose his vote).

Ordinary living becomes more expensive. The cost of money, of course, rises. Even the modest leeway of a small credit card or a line of credit may become unavailable.

Jobs become harder to get, too. Many background checks look at credit history and exclude bankrupt people.

Health insurance, of course, is out of the question. Considering that 50% or more US bankruptcies occur in the wake of a serious health crisis, the nasty old "pre-existing condition" clause is going to rule that out, even if money isn't a problem.

In short, we are watching from 50,000 to over 100,000 (October data) Americans per month declaring bankruptcy, with a disproportionate number of them being families with children (either married (about 15 per 1000) or single (about 23 per 1000)). The overall bankruptcy rate is something over 7 per thousand.

There are, in fact, more people declaring bankruptcy than going through divorce. Why don't we hear about them? Because, as law professor Elizabeth Warren tells us, "You can't hide divorce, but you can sure hide bankruptcy."

Every year, another million Americans, increasingly with above-median income, enter the bankrupt zone with all the increased expense and risk and shame that carries with it. Will this have an effect on how they raise their kids, where they live, what opportunities they will have? Will it reduce the social cohesion of their families and set them adrift, scrambling still to make ends meet but with new strikes against them? If they couldn't make it before filing for bankruptcy, how will they manage post-filing?

I said at the top, "... the bankrupt person becomes the equivalent of an ex-convict...", but here is the difference. The bankrupt didn't break a law, isn't being punished, and usually has reached this point by trying to pay their bills, feed their kids, and care for their sick family members. "...job loss, medical problems, and family breakups are cited in nearly 90 percent of bankruptcies."

In other words, random events (with the possible exception of divorce) are tipping people, mostly people with children, randomly into a poorer financial domain where their happiness and their utility are deeply, often permanently reduced.

And it's not just younger families heading for the waterfall -- upcoming retirees are in trouble too. In the same issue of the NYT we read "...To date this year, the average employee's 401(k) balance has dropped by 21 to 27 percent..."

Is that any way to build a nation? No. That's how you impoverish a nation. No terrorists could possibly damage Americans as profoundly as it has been damaged by the credit, mortgage, insurance and financial industry assaults on their substance and prospects.

I hope that a new hand on the tiller and a new mind planning the course will be able to reverse these depredations and set in place new safeguards for the majority of Americans. The initial indications are good, but the forces in opposition, forces which are increasingly feeding off the modest dimes and dollars left over from the monolithic big expenses of daily life, are still strong.


[1] Health insurance was no proof against financial disaster either -- 70% of bankrupts, Warren tells us, had health insurance in place at the time of the health crisis that took them down. The safety net wasn't a net -- it was cotton candy, big and impressive and expensive, but without enough substance.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Approaching the runway ... sorta

As the year winds down, we remember his accomplishments.

Well, jump up and sing!

Paul Krugman passes on a choice piece of good news via his blog:
November 15, 2008, 7:27 am
Change it’s hard to believe in...

...because it’s such good news. Elizabeth Warren, expert on personal bankruptcy, crusader against credit card industry lobbyists, and founder of the extremely useful blog Credit Slips, to be a member of the bailout oversight board.

Elections have consequences.
Warren has been researching and documenting why the middle class has been taking it on the chin for 20 years. That's you and me, folks.
Distinguished law scholar Elizabeth Warren teaches contract law, bankruptcy, and commercial law at Harvard Law School. She is an outspoken critic of America's credit economy, which she has linked to the continuing rise in bankruptcy among the middle-class. Series: "UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures"
Her must-see online talk "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class", is entertaining as well as sobering. If you view it by way of Miro (a very good video portal) you can save a copy for yourself and your friends. Have them over for popcorn and pizza, make a night of it.


[Crossposted at the Galloping Beaver]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gotta hide it better than that, NYT -- "Judge Rules Against White House in E-Mail Case"

New York Times Technology section? Yeah, that's the place to slip in a seriously important political story.
More In Technology

* Judge Rules Against White House in E-Mail Case
* Midway Games Reports Loss
* Sirius XM Takes $4.8 Billion Charge Related to Merger
* Comparing YouTube and Hulu
* VMware Lends Virtual Hand to Mobile Phone Crowd
Okay, to be a little kinder I must say this story came to me today in E-mail, as part of the Tech section update. It was actually printed in the NYT paper version: "A version of this article appeared in print on November 11, 2008, on page A19 of the New York edition.

Frankly, a lot of people never read past the headlines, so how likely are they to make it to A19? So here I am to help them out. Read on:

Judge Rules Against White House in E-Mail Case

Published: November 10, 2008

A federal judge ruled against the Bush administration in a court battle over the White House’s problem-plagued e-mail system. The judge, Henry H. Kennedy Jr. of the United States District Court, said two private groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and the National Security Archive, may pursue their case as they press the administration to recover millions of possibly missing electronic messages. The administration had argued that the courts did not have the power to order the White House to retrieve any missing messages. A document obtained by The Associated Press in August said the White House was missing as many as 225 days of e-mail dating to 2003 and invited companies to bid on a project to recover them.

I am not sure how the administration could argue that the missing E-mails, as part of the day to day documentation of national business and covered by the rules of document retention, can just disappear.

But here's another question: suppose John Doe does something presumably under the orders of the White House, and later no proof can be found that he had instructions. If he ends up in court for something related to this task, I wonder what happens then? Can he be given a free ride on the basis of the missing mail? in which case can the White House be held liable for his actions, in the absence of proof they had authorized it? Worse, what nest of undocumented promises and undertakings lie in wait for the next administration?

However -- they say the net never forgets. I wonder how many White House emails and documents will surface in the next generation, like imperfectly secured bodies from Long Island Sound?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Midpoint...

The midpoint between caring and crime is not care, but crime.

The midpoint between a truth and a lie is not truth, but another lie.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

New pres coming? A word of caution from "User Friendly"

Our favorite tech and computer geek J.D. "Illiad" Frazer contemplates the change of US administrations, with an oft-neglected consideration:

See him every day here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Stolen Quote of the Day -- ane pising contest

From Brad deLong
Inside the Tent...

Youth: Why do the Democrats let Joe Lieberman caucus with them?

Me: You know, it is the old Lyndon Johnson saying: better to have him inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in.

Youth: But he's inside the tent pissing in!

November 04, 2008 at 07:42 PM


Rating: Three Laughing Bostons

Cup of Tears

-- The Cup of Tears--

Remember this feeling.
Remember this feeling.

Put this cup in a safe sound chamber in your heart

Bring it out often,
Bring it out to hold it,
wash in it, pour it out, bathe,
-- clean water
after a long and dirty day of work.

Call it the cup of tears.

Tears wash and comfort us,
Come together when we weep together.
They stream together like small rivers
Becoming great rivers,
Becoming oceans.

In this salt ocean, no borders
No barbwire walls.
From endless grateful faces
This ocean streams out.

Hold this cup in your heart.
Bring it out often.

Hate and hurry drive us
Like pitiless hornets
Greed and worry draw us
Like cheap treasures
Of a swindler’s tent,

But the brimming cup of tears
You filled tonight from the fountain
Is proof against them.

Put this cup in a safe sound chamber in your heart
Take it out often --

Every bright blessed day,
Every dark sacred night.

November 5, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Steal the US election? Why would they want to?

Cheney, Rove and Co. having sucked the last blood from the veins of a tottering USA, exactly why would they want to stay in power? My guess is, fearing they might possibly win this election despite their track record, they picked a VP candidate so patently impossible that they hoped no-one could possibly find her acceptable.

Under the care of the Democrats, how long will it take the US to rebuild enough wealth to be worth burgling? I think the kleptocrats now realize they went too far with their astonishing greed, and figure that even an exemplary president will probably need longer than a single term. I don't expect to see serious efforts to return until 2016.

The tragedy of robocalls...

From wonderful Wondermark.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

On Worship -- Sunday sermonette


A block from my office beside a deserted railway track the geese built their nest again, to incubate their eggs. Geese take turns, I understand, one parent flying away to feed and rest while the other sits like a painted carving. But I couldn’t tell the difference between these two. Sometimes both were there. And this spring they had acquired a handmaiden- a brown mallard duck, always somewhere near them.

As usual, the word had gotten around the office quickly, and the gifts began. We wandered out there at coffee time, taking bread crusts, a dish of grain, a bowl of water. And the geese ate the food and came to know us. Oh, they hissed and threatened if we came close, but their idea of “close” shrank to 4 or 5 feet.

Around them lay a blasted wilderness of tractor-squeezed mud and struggling willows, scorched cattails. The factory across the way sometimes sends out synthetic fumes, and the city sprays for purple loosestrife, which makes it hard for the cattails to recover. But in the midst of this raddled marshland, these sober parents sat on five cream coloured eggs.

“Where are you going?” asked my workmates as I went out the door at coffee time. “The geese are back, I’m taking them some food.” And everyone nodded that this was perfectly natural, even when I came back to the office, muddy to the ankles.

People have not forgotten worship.


In my 1929 Oxford, next to worship the entry reads “(archaic) worthiness, merit, recognition given or due...honour and respect,” and further on, “...a reverent homage or service paid to God.” The derivation given is Old English weordhscipe, (worth + SHIP). Is worship merely the recognition of that which is worthy?

The words worth and value and attention come together and meet like three roads in this question. If something is worthy, I value it. If something is of value, I pay attention to it. How can I possibly value something if I never attend to it?

Where we choose to put our attention is important. Jesus made mention of this when he said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This was both a reassurance and a veiled warning, because what you value, what you find worthy, where your attention is fixed, will draw you to it. A blessing, but also a curse if you have chosen to treasure some dead thing or thing which never lived. This is the reward of idolatry - you get what you ask for.

Now, we do not have complete control over where our attention goes. Sometimes our attention is required by the task at hand. When driving, we watch the road and ignore the sunset. Working, we see paper and ink and pay less attention to living people. When planning a factory or iron mine, we might stray so deep into paper plans that we do not see the green land or the living workers at all, except as inefficient impediments to the pure function of the plan we have made. To plan purely, in the abstract, is a needful skill, but we can err by going into it and trying to live there.

When I go out to feed the geese, the pinpoint reality of their endangered nest easily penetrates the fog of the abstract. They are not “environmental issues” or “biodiversity” or “native fauna” - they are Gihh’brrruk and his mate Ka’dthsss, whom I knew from last year and will see next year, sitting on their nest doing a job of work. My heart was glad to see them, and I lay bread before them.


A stained glass window is one of the grand accomplishments of Western art. At its best a rose-window is an intricate miracle by day and after dark, a burning quilt giving comfort to the deep night itself. Each of the square-cut pieces of glass that make it up transmits a single colour, but together they speak a message greater than any of them alone.

My geese are one pane of glass. So are the cattails nearby, each slender leaf spiraling upwards. The white moon among the stars is a pane of this glass, and the dawn. High school wrestlers practicing their art in panting silence, or myself moving with the smooth movements of my bicycle, so like flying. Music is there, too, and ice. Flame.

When we turn our face to any of these, in delight or rapt attention, we give worship. But the delight does not come from them, the awe is not due to them - it passes thru them as thru a pane of glass. When we look worshipfully, we open to this awe and collect it as leaves collect sunlight. But the opening is the necessary part.

“Where your treasure is…” I can pay attention to my goose, my bicycle, the moon – I coose where to aim my attention. I choose how I look, at varying depths of involvement, deep or shallow.

If I am walking downtown, I do not (often) walk into people. Even if I am reading a book, the corner of my vision sees what’s ahead and responds to avoid collisions. But while I am doing that, I am not aware of other people, except as obstacles.

Now, if I look up and see my favourite aunt from Calgary bearing down on me like a four-masted schooner, my attention sharpens and I begin to see her completely, not the way I saw the anonymous people on the street. Her facial expressions, health, movements and expressions - all will be seen and noted before I drag her off for supper and an evening of catching up.

Now, suppose I looked up and saw instead my own true love. Not only would all my perceptions intensify and deepen as they did above, but the rest of the world would fade and fall silent.

Worship, truest worship, requires attention at the deepest level we can manage. To respond in automatic routine even to the loveliest theology is not that. To sit absorbed by the broken colours of a ruined brick wall, is. The first is idolatry or ignorance, the second, prayer.

Idolatry and Art

What is idolatry? Simply, idolatry is the error of stopping too soon.

An old friend practices tae kwon do. He told me that when he learned to punch, he was taught that he had to aim beyond the surface he intended to strike. It was only in this way that he could apply full force.

Worship may not seem much like tae kwon do, but in the same way, worship can never stop at the surface it is aiming at. If someone attends solely to stamp collecting, or raising his children, or gardening, or nuclear disarmament, then those concerns are idols and when he is parted from them he is devastated. But when he strikes through them, aiming just beyond each, then each one becomes a window to the invisible source, and attention given to each is true worship - yea, even unto golfing.

Art is worshipful because to do real art one must look. Focused attention is absolutely required, and leads one into unguessed perceptions. When I began painting again a few years ago, I learning this all over again. The colours in the human face, the form of a tree, things we all know, are unique landscapes of colour and form. They are complex in infinite regress, their perfections deepening as attention deepens. Nothing the artist puts on paper is any more than a child’s scrawl compared to the object of his attention.

The real is complex, perfect and surprising. But many of us spend too much time in the unreal, which is predictable, simplistic, boring. Cartoon drawings, contrived political turf wars, racial prejudgements - our prejudices trim the branches off the trees by ignoring them, and then we try to claim a forest is only an assemblage of fence posts. A forest of fence posts is the natural result of not looking. Not valuing. Not worshiping.

The true mystics knew this absolutely. They looked, and loved. In our day, Thomas Merton loved the ground he trod, the morning grasses bent by heavy dew, the mockingbirds of Kentucky. That love shows like windows of raindrenched colour through all his writings. Rumi, 800 years earlier, wrote just as easily about food and drink and lovers and warriors and frogs and mice, as he did about the nameless formless Beloved, and just as intimately. And Jesus came too, eating and drinking. “Will you have another glass of wine?” “Fill it up!”

The Emperor’s Robes

Here is a secret. When God willed in the beginning to be present and knowable, to be seen, it was necessary that God be clothed somehow. Absolute Being without limit or constraint, how could such a One be seen? And so a king’s wardrobe of many cloaks was sewn and embroidered, each of which displayed some part of the truth of that One, and yet concealed some other part, a necessary falsehood so that other truths might be seen.

He clothed himself in geese. In bicycles and Greek amphoras, in the smell of the first frost, or the wet leaves beaten into the gutter. So that He might be seen, He clothed himself in us.

To know this is to begin to worship.

Stolen Quote of the Day -- Popularity Contest FAIL

From the NYT this morning:
We also have to pay far more attention to public diplomacy and outreach. Our Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is a mess in part because Osama bin Laden’s approval rating in Pakistan (34 percent) is almost double America’s (19 percent). You know we need a new approach when we lose a public relations competition to a fugitive mass murderer.
--Nicholas Kristof

Rating: Four laughing Bostons

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Where would you be if you had nowhere to be?

I was pleased with this comment I wrote over at Echidne's place, so I thought I would transplant it here, too. The discussion ["The Concept of Non-Ownership" (by Phila), Saturday, November 01, 2008] was of interest too, I strongly recommend it.


A McMansion is not really bigger than a smaller house, it is just more enclosed air, yielding a feeling of distance in a space whose usable dimensions are not much changed. Not having the power of flight, humans can only use the ground level of the lofty living and dining rooms. A big kitchen is nice, but who needs room enough for five pin bowling? And the extra cost (and taxes?) are at the expense of a very small amount of builder's time and materials.

I am looking and hoping for a style of house design drawing inspiration from ship living quarters. For instance, at a very small cost in floor space, all interior walls could be storage space -- double walled cupboards everywhere, better sound muffling, less fighting over hanger room.

Second, the disappearance of public space. More and more there are no places to be, except on someone's sufferance. I read an interesting online article last year about how libraries are becoming the de facto commons (and often daytime shelters) for people with no home, no money, and not enough legitimacy to hang out at the mall. You can read it here:

Food, clothing and shelter are necessities, of course, but you can do without them for certain lengths of time. But someplace to be -- that's as essential as air.

I once read a story about a world where all land was owned and walled, and there was a caste of nomadic homeless who lived and traveled on the tops of the walls, there being nowhere else they could lawfully be. This may not actually happen as depicted, but increasingly it is the case in fact.