30 August 2012

Infirmity, Uncertainty, Hope

In a few weeks, my 7 a.m. ride to the train will be in the dark, which made me appreciate all the more this morning's sun, the cool breeze off the East River, and even the mostly seamless way millions of people make their way across and around and over and under Manhattan every day.

This got me thinking about the uncertainties of chronic illness.  I've been dealing with the limitations of asthma for as long as I can remember.  When I'm "healthy," I can't forget that it's waiting to attack again, often completely unexpectedly.  I have to be flexible, and work around it when it strikes; I have to remember that each episode will pass to keep from slipping into despair.  I don't know what -- how -- who I would be without it.

I can no longer think of myself as a runner, planning for races far in advance: the past few years have been repeatedly interrupted by months-long periods of illness after which it takes months again to scrabble my way back to a basic level of fitness.  Family vacations organized around hiking have been scuttled or modified; sometimes I can't bike to the train to get to work.

The interruptions are frustrating.  But not being able to bike, run, or hike consistently means that when I can do these things, I don't take it for granted.  I notice with joy the feeling of my body in motion, the various parts functioning reasonably smoothly together.

Remembering forced inactivity in the past enables the contrast that allows me to see this, but the anticipation of future infirmity brings home the appreciation of what I can do now -- much as the awareness of dark mornings to come made me see the sun this morning.  "Hope is the thing with feathers, / That perches in the soul ... / And sweetest in the gale is heard."

17 August 2012

Materiality, Evanescence, Books

I moved offices the other day, and while doing so, I got rid of a lot of books -- older editions of textbooks, duplicate copies of plays and epics, editions of Nietzsche's work that I read in college and realized I will never crack again.

I kept a lot of books, too.  Textbooks I use in classes I teach regularly.  Books I keep around for reference as I'm planning lectures.  Many, many books I read in high school, college, and grad school, that I may want to read again some day, or suggest to The Offspring.

(The reality, though, is that if The Offspring wants to read, say To Kill A Mockingbird, I'll probably get him a new copy, or maybe even download an e-book, rather than giving him my old paperback with the pages flaking apart.  Hmmm.)

I also kept a copy of a book on the history of mathematics.  It has "ESTES" in my father's very neat printing   across the top edge of the closed book.  My brother marked books that way, too, though usually at the bottom or outside edge; his handwriting is not so neat.  My own books have "H Estes" scribbled even less neatly in pencil on the title page.

And then there are the books with "Margaret and Helen Abbott" written in a clearly legible but old-fashioned cursive inside the front cover.  Margaret and Helen were twins, the older sisters of my grandmother, and went to college together at Wheaton, where apparently they took many of the same classes; I have jointly signed books in art history and literature. I also have books Helen acquired later, with only her name in the inside cover.

Margaret died before I was born, but Helen lived quite a long time.  She became a college librarian, the head of cataloguing at the University of New Hampshire, and when I was in college we started exchanging letters.  She had a dry sense of humor and a wide-ranging intellect. I'm an idiot: I never kept any of those letters. 

When I was working on my PhD, she asked me once if I was ambitious.  I countered: if she had lived today (that "today" being about 1995), would she have reached higher?  She probably would have, she said.

And so I pick up a volume of Victorian poetry, a textbook of art history, a book about Abbot Suger and Gothic architecture... and how can I get rid of them?

Meanwhile, I've begun acquiring books in electronic form.  After I die, will someone take the time before disabling my Kindle account to browse the annotations I've typed into my books? Somehow, I doubt it.

10 August 2012

"A Degree in Health Insurance"

Earlier this week, The Mate sorted out a medical bill from last year some time that had landed with a collection agency.  Sigh of relief.  It went to collection because the emergency room bill had a different date than the doctor's bill.  Because we arrived at the ER shortly before midnight, and saw the doctor some hours later.

It took a series of phone calls and faxes to get this sorted out.

The bill in question was for around $150, and a friend wanted to know why it was worth the hassle, why not just pay it? Because if we just paid all the bills that got spit out for one reason or another by the insurance company -- and they find myriad reasons for not paying -- we'd be in for thousands of dollars a year.

Suleika Jaouad put it this way in a recent piece in the Times
If you have a chronic illness in America, there’s a good chance you also hold a degree in Health Insurance 101, whether you want to or not.
The Mate has the degree; I've only done a bunch of course work: he's the one who has the job of sorting all this stuff out.  I don't know if Obamacare will take care of these issues.  I do know that when we lived in England while I was on sabbatical, we didn't have to deal with a single one of these problems.

Fire at California Oil Refinery

The Guardian is following the story of a fire at an oil refinery outside San Francisco -- where residents are being told to tape their windows shut to avoid breathing the toxic air, and nearly 1000 people went to hospitals seeking treatment -- but the last report on the issue that the New York Times saw fit to publish was three days ago.

Because what, if Americans think too hard about the fact that refineries can catch fire, they might demand more investment into renewable energy?

At least you can't call out the Times for being inconsistent on the issue.  Want to find out about news related to the environment? Drill, baby, drill, down into the Times' sections on business and science.  There's no section of the paper devoted to the topic.

Are the editors worried they'll alienate readers by actually covering environmental science with any prominence?

08 August 2012

How to Save the World

No, it's not impossible, and yes, there are actually things you can do.

David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy -- Without the Hot Air identifies what he considers the eight most important things to do to save the world.

1. Put on a woolen sweater and turn down your heating’s thermostat (to 15 or 17 ◦C, say). Put individual thermostats on all radiators. Make sure the heating’s off when no-one’s at home. Do the same at work. (Could save: 20 kWh per day)
2. Read all your meters (gas, electricity, water) every week, and identify easy changes to reduce consumption (e.g., switching things off). Compare competitively with a friend. Read the meters at your place of work too, creating a perpetual live energy audit. (Could save: 4 kWh per day)
3. Stop flying. (Could save: 35 kWh per day)
4. Drive less, drive slower, drive more gently, use an electric car, join a car club, cycle, walk, use trains and buses. (Could save: 20 kWh per day)
5. Keep using old gadgets (e.g. computers); don’t replace them early. (Could save: 4 kWh per day)
6. Change lights to fluorescent or LED. (Could save: 4 kWh per day)
7. Don’t buy clutter. Avoid packaging. (Could save: 20 kWh per day)
8. Eat vegetarian, six days out of seven (Could save: 10 kWh per day)

There's a ripple effect.  Change your life, let your friends and family see you making changes (but don't start to hector them about following your lead), and at least some of them are likely to start making changes, too.

06 August 2012

eBooks Are Taking Over The World

The folks at Amazon announced a few weeks ago that in the US, they were selling more books for Kindle than hardcovers.  And now they've further announced that in the UK, their eBook sales are greater than their sales of any printed books.

This information needs to be taken with the caution that other retailers are still selling printed books, so that the total number of books sold may still be greater in print than in electronic form.  Still, it's a major milestone, especially given that the Amazon people aren't counting free downloads of books no longer in copyright, books that people might actually be buying in printed copies if not for e-readers.

I'm torn about this.  I like books.  But I also like reading ebooks, especially in transit, because it's so much easier than schlepping paper copies.  I've preferred my news in electronic form for years: I get fussy about the ink that rubs off on my hands when I read.

Environmental impact? up in the air.  I read ebooks on both Kindle and iPad these days.  I use the iPad instead of a laptop much of the time, so using it to read books is a bonus activity -- I chalk up the impact of production to other purposes.  The Kindle, on the other hand, is a single-purpose device, purchased and used only for reading books.  I might be able to read periodicals on it, but I haven't explored that capacity.

Amazon isn't telling what chemicals and rare metals they're using in their various Kindle products, so it's difficult to make an adequate comparison of the impact of production (and eventual disposal) compared to production, shipping, and storage costs involved with printed books.'

The whole family uses our Kindle, and since we bought it last year, we've probably collectively read at least three dozen books on it.  One calculation comparing the two assumes reading three books per month, so that puts us on track to come out ahead, assuming nobody sits on the thing or spills a cup of coffee over it.

In any case, electronic books are a new reality.  Manuscripts co-existed with printed books for a couple of centuries, and it will likely be a long time before ebooks completely supplant printed books.  But eventually, it's probably safe to say, they will.  I wonder how they'll change our habits of thinking?

05 August 2012

Not Shopping (Much)

Phase Two of not shopping (much) is that I've been buying only stuff I need AND actually like.

I wore out my favorite pair of sandals, so I replaced them -- with a pair that is also dressy enough to replace a second pair that's about to fall apart, and comfortable enough to walk in for miles. I was able to replace two worn-out items with a single new one.

My swimsuit gave up the ghost while I was on vacation a few weeks ago.  I'd already been through the sale web sites in search of a replacement, because I knew the moment was coming, but hadn't bought anything because I didn't see anything I actually liked.  And I got lucky -- I found a suit I liked, that was a good fit, in an actual store.  And on sale.

I'm contemplating Phase Three, in which I'm going to sort through clothes and get rid of all the itemsI really don't like.  The idea of that simultaneously scares and excites me: I bought this stuff because I thought I "needed" it, so what will happen if I get rid of it? 

On the other hand, I really like the idea of opening my closet to get dressed and only seeing clothing I love.

04 August 2012

Solar Champion

Gerry Balasta is making the world a better place.  A few years ago, he made a film about people who live on a garbage dump in the Philippines, and he used the publicity surrounding the movie to set up a foundation that's putting people from the community through school.

Now he wants to make sure that people like them, who live in places with no electricity, can have light to study by.

Check out his work here.  Then tell everyone you know about it.  Thanks.