31 March 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I was trotting away on the treadmill this morning and the other guy in the room was watching Fox News as he worked out, and so I got to hear a report about an Arizona rancher who was "brutally murdered" by "illegal aliens" who "left a trail of footprints" to the Mexican border.

My first though: have these people ever read a murder mystery? My second: how about journalistic integrity?

Way back in the last century, I was a newspaper reporter. The editor sent me to the scene of an explosion in a family home, where I saw the grey bones of the dead mother and child who had been in the building, flesh burned away. The father, who had been on his way over to pick up the child for his time with her, was found dazed, sitting outside the house, and the police told me he was a suspect. So I reported it.

The next day, they told me he was no longer a suspect; the house had been found full of gasoline, and the explosion, when the mother lit a match just as he opened the front door, sent him flying across the yard as it blew the doors and windows out of the house.

I reported that, too, but there was no retracting the original piece.

So, back to Fox News, and a veritable raft of unsubstantiated allegations they reported this morning as fact, along with insinuations that Obama is somehow to blame for the killing because he wants to change immigration law.

There's no suspect and no evidence to identify a killer, though the man's brother says he heard from him on a radio transmission from which all he could understand was "illegal alien" and "hurt." But the tracks lead to Mexico, and drug-smuggling activity was discovered on the ranch the previous day. The local paper, the Douglas Dispatch, reports various other details that don't add up to illegal immigrants, either.

None of those details made it onto the Fox "News" report. Why bother with mere facts, when ignoring them provides such a good opportunity to criticize the president?

29 March 2010

Insurance Reform, Part the Second

The insurance companies are already trying to evade key provisions of the health insurance reform law passed last week by claiming, why no, it doesn't say they have to give coverage to children with pre-existing conditions.

More details from the interviews with the heads of the insurance companies in the Times.

They can't cut a child from a policy, they say, but they reserve the right to increase premiums. And they don't have to give a policy to a new child.

Once again, I'm lucky. My insurance company didn't deny coverage to The Offspring when he was born with a collapsed lung. In fact, I have no idea how much it cost for the two days he spent in Intensive Care. (Lucky, again, that it was only two days.) They didn't cut him from my insurance policy when he turned out, two years later, to have asthma. (They have been raising premiums, though.)

But health coverage should not be -- can not be -- about luck. It needs to be about policy, fairness, social responsibility to all members of a community, and not just those with good jobs or good unions or good inheritances.

Oh, and that bill from that doctor who was out of network, the one who cured "the itis" but charged $425 for a consultation? I got back $48.48 from the insurance company.

23 March 2010

Health Insurance Reform

Everyone keeps calling it health care reform, but it's not. No one is changing the ways in which health care is delivered, or how doctors and nurses are trained, in this country.

What's changing is how health care will be paid for. (The New York Times summarizes the changes in an editorial today.) The insurance companies have been making big bucks from the existing system, and they don't want that to change, because it limits their ability to profit from other people's misfortune and misery.

And that's what the Republicans who are vowing to repeal reform are fighting for: to allow insurance companies to keep denying coverage to people as soon as they get sick, to find ways to limit payments to sick people, to make their primary priority making money, not making sure Americans have access to doctors when they need it.

Let's take back this discourse, and be clear: it's not health care reform, it's health insurance reform.

18 March 2010

A Cure, A Cure!

The new doctor (see previous post) tested a bucket-load of blood and came up with two different "atypical" (whatever that means) pneumonia-causing bacteria with which I'm infected. A carefully chosen antibiotic that's known to knock them both out. Less than 48 hours later, I ran up a flight of stairs.

I carried my briefcase and assorted other stuff up three flights when I got home from work yesterday. At a good clip. Without getting winded. And this morning, again. Took The Offspring to school, and scurried right back up those three flights when I got home.

I can't quite believe it, actually. After five months, I think it's going to take a while to sink in.

16 March 2010

Health Insurance Should Not Be Business (Again)

I went to a different doctor last week, a doctor out of network, which is why I didn't go see him in the first place when I came down with "the itis." An office visit costs $425 cash. And then I send his bill with a form to the insurance company.

So I called the insurance folks to find out what form to send, and make sure I was filling it out right. And as I was about to get off the phone, the person on the other end said, "Thank you for your business."

And I cringed.

If health insurance is "business," then that means the people who are busy running it are busy maximizing their profits. They're not worried about the health of Americans, they're worried about making sure they run a profit.

And the "business" of health insurance means that I have it, unlike at least 15 percent of other Americans (and unknown numbers of legal immigrants), and my coverage is a lot better in terms of the availability of doctors and the amounts of the co-pays than for a lot of other Americans.

Stay tuned to find out what my insurer considers the "reasonable and customary charge" for an initial office visit, of which they'll reimburse me 80 percent. I suspect I'm lucky if I get $100 back on that bill.

15 March 2010

Too Many Choices

Sheena Iyengar is a psychologist who studies choices. The market says more is always better, but it turns out, as reported in The Chronicle today, that having too many options leaves people overwhelmed and even paralyzed.

Reading the article made me remember returning to the free-market world after spending a year in China back in the late 1980s. Food was completely local and seasonal. I remember tomatoes, chili peppers, scallions, bok choy, tofu, and fish and chicken.

You bought both live, because the alternative was to buy stuff that had been sitting out on slabs of plywood for who knows how long. I killed the fish myself; I got the sellers to kill the chickens. (I ate meat while living there, because I worried about getting enough nutrition with fairly limited food choices, but reverted to vegetarian as soon as I returned home.)

There were little stores that sold canned goods, but those varied with time, too, except that as I recall, sardines packed in tomato sauce were always available.

The Mate and I took a train from Shanghai to Berlin, and then got the Trans-Siberian Express across Mongolia, Siberia, and the Urals. In Moscow, we took the subway under the city and got on another train across Poland, into East Germany, and across the border into West Berlin.

And after eight days in transit, we went into a supermarket. I can't remember if it was the chocolate aisle, the cereal aisle, or the toothpaste aisle that caused me to break down, sobbing. I do know that I was utterly overwhelmed by the number of different brands and varieties.

I suppose we learn to cope with excessive options by ignoring most of them. I don't spend much time in the cereal or toothpaste aisles these days, just scan for the kind I want and move on. I generally ignore the chocolate display altogether.

I have trouble with books, though. I wander into The Strand, or the huge Barnes & Noble on Union Squre, and often find myself completely paralyzed, unable to choose anything to read. (And forget about Amazon.) I do better in a nice little neighborhood bookstore -- where the choices are limited.

13 March 2010

Power to the Facebook

It's a new medium and I'm watching, and participating, with fascination. I joined FB some time ago, but only really started going on it regularly when I came down with "the itis" last fall and went on medical leave, and for a couple of months it was one of my only links to the world.

But I'm back to work, and recovering, and finding much value in the ability to connect with friends around the world. There's the passive activity of reading status updates and the kind of creepy reading of people's walls, which feels kind of like stalking, but then there are also more active exchanges that occur in comments on status updates as well as through direct messages.

There are funny coincidences, like when two people I know who live on opposite sides of the country and don't (I'm pretty sure) know each other all show up in the same bit of news saying that they've both become fans of the same group (in the most recent case, "Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend To Prom").

There's also, at least for me, a possible slight drift toward center, because the people I went to high school with are on various locations on the political spectrum. When I don't know people with completely different views from my own, it's easy to dismiss them as cranks and their ideas as unworthy of consideration, but when I do, there's more motivation to take a moment to be respectful.

I'd be very interested to know if others have experienced this, because if Facebook can do that, it could be a very interesting corrective to the corrosively polarized nature of politics around the US today.

Facebook might turn out to be another fad, but it might turn out, like email, to be a lasting way in which we communicate. I'll be watching with interest to see if it actually changes the nature of communication.

12 March 2010

Advertising Irresponsibly

I tried to get a picture, but they all came out too blurry in the moving subway. I bought my phone for its camera, and it does make nice pictures, of things that are standing still. Slow shutter speed, though.

"It" was an ad for Budweiser that claimed that the crisp refreshing taste is due to the rice used in making the beer.


I'd have been convinced it was a prank from The Onion, except that the whole subway car was full of the ads.

Oh, and the part about "drinking responsibly"? Barely visible, tiny type, low contrast. Let's all go join Sarah P. for a six-pack and kill some brain cells while we talk about foreign policy.

While I'm on the subject of advertising, one of the big parking companies in the city runs ads in the subway, too. If you read English, you're invited to park in the city while you do some shopping or take in a show. If you read Spanish, you're invited to apply for a job.

Bilinguals should probably just go read Doris Sommer's Bilingual Aesthetics, on the pleasures and frustrations of being conversant in more than one set of cultural and linguistic codes.

10 March 2010

The Inaccessible NYC Subway System

Took the F train to 6th Avenue today to meet a friend at the New York Public Library and check out the exhibit of maps from 1609 to 2009. It was pretty cool.

Circumstances being what they are, however, I was hoping not to have to walk up a lot of stairs to get out of the station. I thought I saw a little wheelchair icon by that station on the NYC subway map, so I was expecting to find an elevator.

Walked up and down the platform, but didn't find it. Looking at the map again, I see that the icon is actually by the Rockefeller Center Station. At that point, though, I followed signs up some stairs to the 24-hour token booth to ask. The helpful woman there told me that if I went back down the stairs, walked to the other end of the platform, and went up the stairs at the other end, I'd find an elevator leading into the Bank of America.

Yeah. That helps. (Actually, for me it would help ... if there were a sign leading to it ... because it would at least lessen the number of stairs I'd have to climb. If I were actually incapable of climbing any stairs, I'd still be SOL.)

I had a lovely time with an old friend looking at the maps and then getting lunch, and I then descended into Penn Station to take the A to the F back to Essex and Delancey. There's an escalator at that station, goes from the platform level all the way to the street. Unfortunately, it's only accessible if you arrive at the station going toward Manhattan/Uptown. Since I was headed downtown... I was foiled again.

And you know, people give all kinds of interesting looks when you stop to rest going up the stairs out of the subway. Sympathetic, annoyed, baffled (because I look healthy), or just looking straight through you.

It would be nice if the city that so many think is the center of the universe were more accessible. Not that I had any idea about any of this, before the onset of "the itis."

07 March 2010

Oscars? or Miss Hollywood?

It's ostensibly about achievement, a ceremony to recognize filmmakers and actors.

But given the amount of attention given to the dresses of the women in attendance, it feels more like a beauty pageant.

The Times is running pictures of women at the Oscars on top of the web site today. An early article entitled "Ladies Dazzle Oscar Red Carpet as History Awaits" is all about the women's -- sorry, the "ladies'" -- looks:
Vera Farmiga, ... wore a ruby red strapless gown from Marchesa with a dramatic ruffle. Recording star Mariah Carey ... showed off a plunging neckline and much leg in her navy gown...
If Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock or Kathryn Bigelow wins an Oscar, it will be a result of breath-taking amounts of talent and consistent hard work. But the attention to the women's looks, and the amounts of flesh displayed, makes it seem like it's all about pretty faces.

Hollywood needs to catch up with the position of women in the 21st century, that much is clear. But the uncritical media attention on Hollywood's presentation of women as just so much window-dressing doesn't help the situation any.

05 March 2010

Yes, The Woman Matters

A man beats up a woman. Another man, a man with considerable social and political power, persuades her to drop charges. The man goes free, free to beat up someone else, free to continue the pattern of violence with the next woman with whom he gets intimately involved.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, I wrote a series of articles about domestic violence for a small-town newspaper in Pennsylvania. Newspaper notions of "objectivity" being what they were (and are, I suppose), I had to quote the police officer who said women who get beaten are just asking for it. All I could do was do my best to make him look like an idiot in the way I introduced his ideas.

Laws have changed, public opinion has changed. But apparently if you have connections, you can still get away with nasty stuff.

Some people are saying the censure of the governor who abused his position in this case is based on race. And it hurts me to see a black man, and a blind man, brought down. But to say that is to say that the woman doesn't matter, that it's okay for a woman to be beaten and for men to lie about it, that it's more important to protect the political position of a person of color and a person with a disability.

Nope, can't go there. Can't sacrifice the woman. (Who, by the way, is also a person of color.)

02 March 2010

Uses for Scrap Paper

My institution generates a whole lot of paper. I get reams and reams of memos and related paperwork, and I throw it straight into a bin for scrap paper -- NOT into the recycle bin. So how do I reuse all that scrap paper?

1. I take it home, and use it in my home printer. Most of the stuff I print out -- drafts of anything I'm writing, notes for class, my own copies of syllabi and assignments, and the list goes on -- doesn't need to be printed on a fresh piece of paper, as it will eventually end up in the recycling. (I share an office printer, and if I have a huge job, I check with everyone else in the network and then put scrap in that, too.)

2. I take a stack of 20 to 30 sheets, put four staples across the top, and use it as a note pad.

3. I gave an exam today, and I brought a pile of scrap paper with me and gave the students the option of writing their answers on scrap instead of in blue books. (Yes, I checked first for sensitive information.)

Other uses for scrap paper, anyone? Post your good ideas to the comments.