Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who Knows best

An interesting article in a recent New York Review of Books. The article, “Health Care: Who Knows Best”, by Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard. The article focuses on an internal Executive Office dispute on the central issue of how best to secure what is known in medicine as “Best Practices”, or “Evidence-based Medicine”. The basic concept is not much in dispute. Evidence-based medicine is the seemingly unarguable idea that medical practice ought to be based on the best clinical evidence available, evidence most usefully obtained through rigorous clinical trials. What is the alternative, one might ask? Well, much of medical practice is based on what might be called anecdotal evidence, i.e., the physician’s professional experiences over time shape that physician’s approach to treatment. Physicians acquire a substantial amount of both theoretical and clinical knowledge during their extensive education and training. On entering their own practices, they begin applying that knowledge base. As they gain clinical experience, their clinical knowledge base expands, as does their theoretic knowledge from their continuing medical education.

This growing knowledge base sometimes departs from the best evidence-based practice guidelines for many reasons. One of the major reasons for the departure is what has come to be known as “defensive medicine”, i.e., the practice of medicine in which physicians practice so as to minimize the risks of malpractice lawsuits. Another increasingly important distorting effect is health insurance—specifically what will be covered and what will not be covered by health insurance. Other factors include the physician’s personal experiences with certain treatment modalities, or therapeutic interventions. Over time, then, some practices begin to diverge from what the best evidence-based medical approaches would suggest.

So, then what is the dispute on this issue? Cass Sunstein, a professor of law and head of Obama’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, and his colleague Richard Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago, argue that what they call a “nudge” approach should be employed in any health care overhaul measure that attempts to infuse evidence-based medical approaches into the health care delivery system. By “nudge”, they argue that a strictly “libertarian” approach should emphasize the advantages of evidence-based practice, but that the final choices ought be left to the people themselves. They suggest that nudges are not mandates, and that behavior should not be forcefully directed by changing economic incentives.

On the opposite side of this argument is Peter Orszag, currently head of the Office of Management and Budget. Orzsag argues precisely the opposite. He would implement a system in which comparative effectiveness research (evidence-based medicine) would be combined with aggressive promulgation of standards and changes in financial and other incentives. Doctors and hospitals that follow the federal standards of effective medicine would receive more money and favorable public assessments. Those who deviate would receive less money and be rated as providers of “poor medicine.”

When I read this article, my thought was, "Oh no . . . OMB strikes again.” Mr. Orszag in his preferred approach, is following a line of thought long practiced within his federal agency, and one that, in my view, eventually destroys the effectiveness of whatever approach is being pursued.

OMB is not only the President’s budget manager (they gather up all the budgets proposed by the federal agencies and then impose their own will to construct a single federal budget). In addition, the “M” part of OMB is charged with introducing and overseeing “evidence-based” management approaches throughout government. During the eight years I spent running an evaluation office in the Department of Health and Human Services, I watched OMB implement and then eventually kill off a number of at least theoretically interesting management concepts, Two come to mind immediately. Peter Drucker, the management guru, had advocated an approach he called “Management by Objectives”. In that approach, managers would direct resources in such a way as to maximize the probability of achieving stated, measurable management objectives. The idea was that they would negotiate with their superiors on the management objectives considered useful and necessary to secure higher level goals. Arriving at an agreed-upon objective plan, the managers would then set to work devising plausible plans to achieve their objectives. Upper level managers would oversee by measuring achievement of objectives. This approach was a potentially useful approach to managing almost any venture, so OMB at some point decided to mandate the approach throughout government. But OMB’s approach to mandating was to promulgate a directive telling the agencies they were henceforth to implement, in this case, the Management by Objectives” approach. Since OMB never had the staffing, the energy, or the wits to effectively oversee their implementation, the approach eventually fell into disrepair. Agencies proposed objectives that were often as not, not real objectives but rather means to some objectives, and the entire approach fell into the category of a bad joke. It turned out to be easier to game the system than it was to implement it faithfully, and game it they all did.

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1976, he ordered federal agencies to implement a system called “Zero-Based Budgeting.” Again, the idea was not especially arguable. His approach suggested that one would obtain more effective federal agency budget if each year, the agency would construct their budgets with a zero-base in mind. That is, consider your budget anew each year. Are the issues/problems still real, is your approach/program(s) still plausible? Are the problems being resolved/managed? So, following the president’s lead, OMB mandated the Zero-Based Budgeting approach amidst much fanfare about how this would transform the federal budgets. But like most OMB management directives, this one followed the same path. Agencies over time figured out how to construct their budgets with OMB formulaic procedures, and nothing much changed.

And it is not the case that federal managers are opposed to good management practices. Like most managers, they would prefer doing a good job and being rewarded for doing so. But they also are realistic about their jobs, and they will always opt for courses of action that minimize risk to themselves and their agencies over riskier courses. And, as pointed out by Dr. Groopman, in his article, such approaches tend to work best in limited circumstances, and on issues favoring fairly mechanical approaches. He argues that, for example, the procedure whereby a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel can be reduced to a standard approach that does in fact minimize the risks of infection. But he argues, “once we depart from such mechanical procedures and impose a “best practice” on a complex malady, our treatment is too often inadequate. He cites a number of problems that beset a system when standardized procedures are imposed on complex situations:

• Overconfidence bias – the tendency to overestimate our ability to analyze information, make accurate estimates and project outcomes (see almost anything deduced and acted upon by the CIA)

• Confirmation bias – the tendency to discount contradictory data, staying wed to assumptions, despite conflicting evidence.

• Focusing illusion – the tendency to base our predictions on a single change in the status quo.

Having worked in the field of program evaluation over a long period, I observed all of these biases both within government and externally as a consultant to government. Our own observation of the failures of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left behind Act”, a dismal failure by almost any measure, is a classic case in point. The unwillingness to fully fund the program and the striking use of negative incentives brought on gaming approaches up to and including simply faking the numbers.

Many of these sweeping mandates, intended to reduce complex social systems to simple, unitary ideas fail partly because one cannot deal effectively with such complex organisms as our public education system, or our health care system with such incentives-based systems. But they also fail through inattention. I call it the “Autopilot Bias”. Under the autopilot bias, we devise some system, implement it through a directive, and then walk away from it, as though the problem is solved. We need to understand that the real world does not operate according to autopilot rules. We need to manage our affairs every hour of every day. We need to continuously bring in objective data, employ that data to challenge our current approaches and then modify them so as to achieve a new balanced approach—the way a real pilot flies an airplane in heavy weather.

A final thought. Mr. Orszag’s approach would also introduce the very thing the detractors of health care reform are most fearful of—that their health care would be removed from the mind and hands of their doctor, and placed in the hands of some bureaucrat in Washington. That we can live without.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The State of the Union

So, was it a “game changer”, this year’s speech about the “state of the union?” The opinion I have read so far, and it accords with my own, is, “well no.” The speech was quite good, workmanlike I would say. But mostly, it clarified “the way things are”. He threw a few bones to the Republicans, and a few more to his democratic backers, along with some sand in the face of the Supremes for their radical behavior and the die-hard radicals of the right.

The republican governor of Virginia promptly denounced the speech, but that’s just more of the same from the party that gave us two wars, the worst government in the nation’s history and the worst recession since the 1930s. Happily, the president reminded listeners of the state of the government when he entered—a very large disaster. Perhaps he needed to enter a few more numbers to emphasize the point, but his two numbers-- the budget surplus of $300 billion handed Bush by Clinton, and the $one trillion plus deficit handed Obama by Bush—should be enough for most thinking people. But if one examines the deficits and public debt since, say, 1900, responsibility for debt creation becomes clearer. On average, Republicans added to the national debt at a rate of 6.8 times that of Democrats. It is well to remember the saintly Ronald Reagan, who never once even submitted a balanced budget. Reagan believed in the infamous “Laffer Curve” which held that, if you reduced federal taxes, Federal revenues would actually increase. Instead, Reagan produced the largest budget deficits on record, adding more to the public debt than the sum total of all presidents from Roosevelt through Carter.

George W. Bush is, of course, in a class by himself when it comes to irresponsible fiscal policies. His deficit budgets put all others before him to shame. Often, deficits are created to deal with a national emergency, as the depression and World War II during Roosevelt’s terms, and the JFK-LBJ Vietnam & Great Society years.

But in the case of Shrub and his cranky crony Dick Cheney, they actually created their deficits out of whole cloth, manufacturing a war in Iraq out of pure lies, and creating their debts through huge tax cuts for the very wealthy. The Bush years produced double the debt load of Reagan, and has been coupled with the worst recession since the Great Depression.

And this sorry record is what republicans wish to promote—“let’s have more of that fine republican hands off management” they would argue. They have about as much credibility as that old man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. And he didn’t know how anything worked either.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Supremes--All Political All the Time

With the latest Supreme Court decision favoring big money in politics, it is hard to conclude anything good about our Court. It would seem now to be at least politically corrupted, which I regard as dangerous in the extreme for our republic. Their latest decision is so radical that one wonders whether they have taken leave of their senses. They debated and then decided that what our political system needed most was more big corporate money to influence the outcomes. Really, guys? Did you actually debate that issue?

It has been clear at least since the 2000 election when Scalia decided to appoint George W. Bush President, that he has no shame and will apply right wing politics, Republican partisanship actually, to his decisions without regard to facts or precedent. That he now, thanks to Bush, has four like-minded colleagues is a clear danger.

What most astonished me in all this is that Republicans, when arguing against a potential democratic nominee to the bench, assert that they vigorously oppose judges who “legislate from the bench.” Apparently, Republicans only oppose leftward thinking judges who might do so. It is A-OK for Republicans to do so.

Now we can expect big corporate money to get behind more such judges at every level. And for those who argue that labor unions can do the same thing , while true, is largely irrelevant. Labor unions simply no longer have the money. Our banks, health insurance companies and other financial institutions seem to own most of the big money in the country. Plus, they own the largest political PR machine the nation has ever seen in the Faux News Network and Mr. Murdoch, long time friend to the wealthy.

It is hard to imagine anything good coming out of this court decision. Instead, I expect even greater corruption of our political system unless and until the angry populist groups and mobs begin to understand that big money is not on their side. It is not clear to me what they can do, absent violence, to correct this trend toward big money controlling our elections. And it should be clear that big money seems to control both political parties. Democrats do not seem to reject big corporate contributions either, although, to be fair, big money seems to favor Republicans.

Stay tuned to watch this latest court debacle unfold in real time during this 2010 election. The dogs have been let loose on the land. Let the devil take the hindmost.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's Attack Time for Democrats

Why We Need a Single Payer System;

We recently decided to switch our Medigap Insurance policy. So, after some investigation, we moved to Mutual of Omaha. Our policy is scheduled to begin within a few days, on the first of February.

Today, in the mail, we received from Mutual of Omaha a pamphlet designed to get us to apply for, of all things, a supplemental cancer protection policy. The policy doesn’t cover anything but cancer-related expenses. Oh, and, of course, it won’t cover you if you happen to have a pre-existing cancer problem, or if one shows up within 30 days of applying for the policy.

I assume that this type of insurance is a signal from our network of private insurers of their next strategy. Currently, they make money by not insuring people who are actually sick—they exclude people with any pre-existing health issues. Under Obama’s very limited health insurance program (we can no longer call it “reform”) the carriers won’t be allowed to deny coverage to people who actually need health insurance. So, presumably, they now intend to begin providing disease-specific policies. Perhaps then, the health insurance of the future, as envisioned by our republican, i.e., non-socialist, friends is cancer insurance . . . and stroke insurance . . . and heart disease insurance (probably too broad, so it will be subdivided into mini policies). Perhaps, after designing twenty or thirty disease-specific policies, the industry will design some kind of umbrella policy for everything remaining after their specific policies.

And, of course, with genetic testing now available, the companies will no doubt want you to be tested prior to applying for any of the more serious disease policies, to, you know, dump you if you show any sign of actually needing, say, a stroke policy, or, an Alzheimer’s policy.

All of this is courtesy of a currently unrestrained private sector insurance industry, the one that is strenuously resisting any attempt at reform of their system, with the help, of course, of their republican henchmen and their Faux News attack dogs run by Mr. Murdoch.

I have begun to think that it is past time to release some attack dogs from the political Left. Mr. Obama and his democrat friends seem unwilling or unable to strike back when they are attacked by Republicans and their Faux News dogs of war. But, they need to understand that the Republican Party has officially issued a full declaration of war against the democrats and, really, against America. They want to “take back America”, by which they mean to return us to the 19th century days of the robber barons, when there was no middle class in the country. We were two classes—the wealthy and everyone else, and they mean to remain among the wealthy. For the rest of us, “let them eat cake” is their new motto.

So, I am proposing that the Democrats develop their own attack message and begin selling that message to the American people. The mess inherited by Obama and the American people from the Bush tribe needs to be classified formally as Republican Detritus. That includes these unwinnable wars, the economic ruins in which we find ourselves, and the malfunctioning government.

And the American people need to understand that, when Republicans assert that Government is not the solution but is instead the problem, they will in fact deliver that, should they regain control. That is, ever since Reagan, republicans, when they gain power, have set out to cripple government in any and every way they can, mainly by placing in office executives who are aggressively opposed to the missions of the various agencies in which they will be working. It is akin to placing representatives of PETA in charge of the nation’s slaughterhouses. If we the American people want inept and corrupt government, then by all means elect republicans. But we really do deserve better than allowing ourselves to become the largest Banana Republic in the world.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thugs vs. Revolutionaries

What is a “revolutionary? According to one definition, “The term —both as a noun and adjective— is usually applied to the field of politics. In politics, a revolutionary is someone who supports abrupt, rapid, and drastic change, and often includes violence as a method to achieve the intended revolutionary ends.

A Thug is originally a member of a Hindu gang, called “Thugees” who specialized in assassinating people, generally by strangling them. They were robbers who killed travelers. The term “thug” has now come to mean more simply someone who is antisocial and engages in criminal behavior, up to and including killing people for personal gain.

Recently, we watched a film about the “Baader-Meinhof Complex”. Baader-Meinhof refers to a group in post-war West Germany that proclaimed itself to be revolutionaries, opposed to Fascism in Germany and throughout the world (including especially the US in its war in Vietnam). The group protested Iranian leadership also, regarding the Shah as a fascist who was oppressing his own people. When the Shah visited Germany, the protests turned violent, including fairly severe German police-inspired violence. The Baader-Meinhof group, or gang as it came to be known, proceeded over several years to commit many acts of violence, including blowing up various commercial and government institutions. They also went on a crime spree, by robbing banks to secure money for its various activities.

Whatever their motives, the film characterizes them as drifting towards anarchy, wherein actions, especially violent actions became almost ends in themselves. In the end, before the gang was eliminated, they may well have lost all pretense at idealistic revolutionary ends, and operated as hyper-realistic “video-gamesters” (before the invention of video games), whose “games” included blowing up/killing real people to no end except the thrill of the game.

Note the difference between Baader-Meinhof as revolutionaries, and, say, the American revolutionaries during its war against King and Country, or the war of Indian revolutionaries to overthrow and push out their British overlords. In the first case, the ends disappeared in favor of the means—violence for violence sake. In the latter two cases, the ends remained intact, and the means were designed, over time, to be realistic, i.e., to have a real chance at achieving the ends.

All this is by way of wondering about the current crop of revolutionaries, now scattered in various places around the globe—Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Western Pakistan. The “jihadi’s” as they call themselves, or Al Qaida, or the Taliban, are engaged in a battle for survival that increasingly has taken the form of the Baader-Meinhof gang. That is, their violent means increasingly have no meaningful, rational objective end. The violence almost seems to have taken over as the necessary and sufficient set of conditions for the existence of these disparate “gangs.” Ostensibly, they are about overthrowing regimes (Regime Change as we often call it), but they seem to have no plausible means of achieving their ends. Arguably, in anarchic places like Yemen, Somalia, parts of Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, they may be able eventually to secure a safe haven, mainly because there is no actual government in such places. These are spots of dirt in various remote places around the globe that have never known open democratic societies. They are often rooted deeply in the 13th or 14th centuries. So, the concept of “overthrowing” a regime implies more than exists—that an actual regime is in place, governing these spots of dirt.

We often have caught ourselves as characterizing this long term struggle as a kind of “Crusade” of Christianity vs. Islam. Such characterizations would appear to me to play into the hands of the jihadists, since it better enables them to recruit followers from around the very large world of Islamic adherents. In the end, Baader-Meinhof was characterized simply as criminals, rather than revolutionaries. I now wonder whether we need to rethink our overall strategic approach to defeating jihadists around the globe, treating them as criminals rather than political revolutionaries. This might mean reducing/eliminating our War rhetoric, and adopting international police strategies, as distinct from military strategies.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chinese Reliability

You know, I really love companies that can demonstrate repeated reliability in their product line.  So, when I read today that the Chinese had moved away from using lead in their toys and other products, cuz, you know, lead is dangerous, I thought, it's nice to know they're listening to somebody.
So, what did they switch to?
Cadmium! For those of you uninitiated in the properties of Cadmium, read on:
"Cadmium was for a long time used as pigment and for corrosion resistant plating on steel. Cadmium compounds were used to stabilize plastic. With the exception of its use in nickel-cadmium batteries, the use of cadmium is generally decreasing in all other applications. This decrease is due to the high toxicity and carcinogenicity of cadmium and the associated health and environmental concerns."
So, it turns out that the Chinese, discovering the toxic nature of lead in children's toys, decided to switch to Cadmium instead.  Yep, they have been selling little cadmium reindeer trinkets for kids to use as a necklace pendant. Sweet! Your little precious girl gets a brand new Rudolph the Reindeer necklace made of 90% cadmium, wears it around her neck, and subsequently suffers from brain damage, or cancer.   These little charms were sold throughout the US in "regional and national chains"  (Wal-Marts maybe?).
So, how's that for consistency and reliability?
What's next. teething rings made of reprocessed uranium spent fuel rods?
You have to hand it to the Chinese. They really know how to please their customer base.
And elsewhere, Homeland Security is beefing up its scanning of breast milk and shampoo at our leading airports. Can't be too careful now, can we?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

To Fire or Not to Fire

“Off with their heads” said the Queen of Hearts . . .

“My thought exactly” said the grouchy old man.

“Not so fast”, said the grouchy newspaper columnist, “eliminating heads might be great fun, but it is largely a waste of time, and enables political showmanship to no practical effect”.

“Hmmm, what about that, Richard, you grouchy old man”?

OK, here’s what I think.

How would we, the American public, know whether or not the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Chief of Staff at the White House, or, for that matter, the President’s Social Secretary are doing their jobs? Arguably, if they are doing their jobs, we would see . . . exactly nothing. The newspapers would have nothing to report about people sneaking into White House dinners, or bad guys sneaking explosives onto airplanes (by the way, did you see that little piece about how the theoretically good guy airport security guys snuck actual explosives into some unsuspecting man’s luggage to test the security system. It failed, of course, and he flew all the way to Great Britain with the stuff in his bag, after which he was arrested. Nice guys).

First of all, lest we think that a few publicity-crazed people sneaking into a White House dinner party is no big deal, we need to understand that, as a result, our President could well now be dead. So, it is a big deal.

Second, back to the central question. How would we know these agencies are functioning well? Well, it depends.

“On what” you might ask.

On what the agency is supposed to be doing.

In the case of the White House Social Secretary, it’s her/his job to develop and maintain a complete list of who is supposed to be coming to the White House for a dinner party. Oh, and she’s supposed to pass on that information to the Secret Service.

In the case of the Secret Service, it’s their job to make certain nobody who is a potential threat gets close enough to the President to either hurt him or his family, or to threaten him or his family.

Well, neither agent fulfilled those simple responsibilities. And no one was canned. That’s serious crap, folks. No one resigned, and no one was fired.

Now, has anyone undertaken a study to determine what went wrong? Maybe, but how would we know that? Aye, there’s the rub. We don’t know very much, it turns out, about anything substantive in government (or in the corporate world for that matter). We really only know about a few surface things, like whether someone was fired. So, in the absence of any substantive information about whether things are working, or not, we are free to deduce anything we wish, based on our limited information base. I deduced that the President took responsibility, and that nothing else happened. Maybe he yelled at someone. But I don’t even know that for sure. We do know that for some agencies, like the CIA, the continued screw-up’s at least suggest that nobody is changing anything, kind of like the banking industry.

So, until we the public begins to get more information about how effectively our agencies are actually functioning, I will continue to yell out for someone’s head to roll when we all collectively observe a screw-up. That’s just the way it is.

And elsewhere, Sue Myrick, republican representative from Charlotte suggested that we may have terrorists anywhere, even in our government. I guess Sue is running for the Joe McCarthy stupid sayings award .

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Taking Names and Kicking Butt

Ok, it seems to be time for President Obama to cease being a community organizer and begin acting like the Number One Honcho in America. I know that his community organizing experience stood him in good stead in getting elected. He managed to stimulate folks at the local level all over America. Well, to be fair, George W. Bush helped. I mean having the most catastrophically bad/destructive/evil administration in the history of the Nation managed to get people’s attention. The community organizing thing helped enormously in giving the energized local folks something to do—get out the vote to elect somebody other than a doofus Republican as President.

But now, our man in the White House really needs to understand that he isn’t the head of OEO. He’s the Head of the Nation. So, he really needs to begin taking names and kicking butt. George W. Bush didn’t get his reputation for nothing. In addition to all of his really terrible decisions (making war against the wrong country, instituting a totally irresponsible financial system that has now almost bankrupted us, degrading our global reputation by turning us into a bunch of idiotic 19th century cowboys) he made war against the American Government by appointing bad apples to run every department in government, and then telling them to thwart the basic missions of those departments. "Heckuva job Brownie" was simply acting out the part for which George Bush cast him, and instructed him. But he was hardly alone. As a result, every Federal agency in our government is now, at the least, barely functional; many are downright incompetent. The most recent cases in point seem to be the Secret Service and the White House Social Secretariat.

The recent revelations about the third gate crasher at an official White House dinner only serve to underscore the case of official incompetence. But guess who’s getting the blame? Why President Obama, of course. All of his "friends in high places” have been busy ducking the charges of incompetence, allowing those charges to fly straight past them and landing at Obama’s doorstep. I know it isn’t an American practice to resign on principal, but the President really needs to begin accepting some letters of resignation. Let’s begin with the head of the Secret Service, and the official White House Social Secretary. They need to resign now. Then, we need to move onto Mr. Emmanuel. Rahm, baby, you need to be packing your bags, now.

Those are easy. Then the President needs to begin ransacking the Houses of Unintelligence—the CIA and probably the FBI. Those two haven’t gotten anything straight in the past 25 years. We probably can’t just blow them up and start over, but we need a wholesale, top level series of resignations, i.e. firings. Since the CIA can’t seem to ever comprehend its intelligence inputs, someone needs to begin asking why we collect all this stuff. People need to go.

President Obama, we love you dearly, but we really, really need you to begin acting as our man in charge. So, start taking names and kicking butt. Our government used to be at least as competent as our corporate world. Oh, I guess it still is, if the collapse of the entire commercial sector is any indicator.

And elsewhere, the Racists of America, aka Republican Conservatives have begun a campaign to publically declare that their War on Terrorism is actually a 21st century Crusade against all of Islam, by arguing for racial profiling at all airports. Way to go guys.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The idiocracy Decade

A Ten-Minute Play


Me, played by a handsome, youngish man-about-town

Verizon computer voice, which is the only voice you hear if you call.

A Verizon In-Store Salesman, played by a young, well-dressed man with a slight moustache

A disembodied voice, played with a strong Indian, or Pakistani accent (your choice)

I walk into the study on New Year’s day and pick up my cell phone, one of those nifty PDA-Smart Phones, and try to make a call. Nothing happens. No noise, no cheerful lighting up to tell me it is ready to do my bidding. Nothing. So, I figure it needs jogging. Since you can’t kick its tires, I do the next best thing—I open it up, remove the battery, and then put it back. The screen lights . . .

“ahhh . . . it works.”

A Quizzical look appears on my face.

“Hmm . . . I’ve never seen that sign before. Wonder what that means.”

I try to turn it on.

Nothing happens.

“Crap. What’s going on. I better call Verizon. This thing is only two years old, and it looks dead.”

I pick up the phone and call Verizon.

The voice answers,

“Hello, we are eager to help you. If you want to activate your phone, hit one . . . if you wish to . . .” it goes on, never quite hitting on something I actually want to do. Finally, The Voice asks me for my ten digit cell phone number. I key it in. Then it asks me for my password..

“Huh? Do I have a password for my damned cell phone?” I hang up.

So, I get into my car and drive to where I think there is a Verizon store. But the store is no longer there. I inquire of my GPS where another Verizon store is. It directs me, but keeps wanting me to do legal U-Turns while enroute. Apparently, it doesn’t like the way I have chosen. Finally I arrive at the store, where I am greeted by a slick looking young woman who, without ever looking up from her cell phone, on which she is keying in something, tells me to go wait in line.

I wait.

Finally, it’s my turn. I hand the phone to a woman seated behind the desk. She checks it and tells me it isn’t working.

“Yeah, that’s why I’m here. I need it replaced under my insurance policy.”

“Oh, well yes, you do qualify, but we don’t carry that phone any longer. I can order one for you, but that will take up to 10 working days.”

“No, I don’t want to wait. I want to walk out of the store with a replacement in my hand.”

“well, we no longer carry that phone.”

“yes, I understand, but you must have the upgraded model.”

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t. We can sell you an upgrade, but it will be from our line displayed along the wall. I will get you a salesman.”

“Thanks . . .”

So I browse, looking at all the slick smart phones—the Droid. Hey, that sounds cool., I think. I look at them, but I have no idea how to turn them on, so they are just sleek, shiny little black, inanimate objects to me.

A salesman appears.

“How can I help you. Tell me, what you want to do with the phone.”

“Well, I want to make calls with it . . . oh, and I would like it to synch with my address and calendar on my computer . .. like the Palm did.”

“OK, well, we have a variety of smart phones.”

“But with each of the smart phones, we will require that you sign up for a $30 data package.”

“Um, what’s a data package?”

“Oh, that provides you with unlimited Internet access, as well as e-mail on your phone. “

“Oh, you mean, it somehow connects with my home system?”

“Uh, no, it is an independent Internet connection.”

“And it’s $30/month?”


“But I don’t need Internet access on my phone, or e-mail for that matter. I get both at home.”

“Well, then maybe you don’t need a smart phone. You should get just a basic phone (slight disdain in his voice).”

“A basic phone?”

“Yes, we have several models here.”

I look at the basic phones.

“Can I synch with my Outlook with this one?”

“Well, we don’t support that function. But I think you can get third-party software for $39.95 to do that.”

“So, as part of my insurance package, on which I have been paying $6/month, you are willing to sell me an upgraded cell phone that is functionally degraded from my current one.”

“Um, yes.” He asks for my credit card.

“I thought the insurance covered this cost.”

Well, it provides a mail-in rebate of $50. When you mail in your receipt, they will send you a Verizon Visa card that you can use anywhere to retrieve the $50.”

“Why don’t they just take the $50 off this bill?”

“That isn’t the way it works.”


I leave with my degraded upgrade phone.

I’m wondering whether this is a portent of things to come during this new year.

I arrive home. To find my wife fussing with her Norton Internet Security program. It keeps asking her whether she wants to upgrade. We don’t think we need to do that yet. I walk away.

She begins an online "chat" with someone in India or Pakistan.

“Hey, hon, we need to break off because we have to leave to meet Erika for dinner.”

She tells the guy we have to disconnect and she will call back later.

We leave for dinner, arriving, interestingly at a new Indian restaurant. It’s crowded.

We sit down and begin chatting, while looking at the menus.

My cell phone rings—we have our home calls forwarded to my new cell phone.

I look at the incoming call. It’s an 800 number, so I ignore it. A voice mail comes in.

Later, after dinner, we are at Erika’s house and I check the voice mail.

I listen and a stream of garbled voice comes at me.


I hand the phone to my wife. She looks as puzzled as me.

I then hand the phone to our daughter. She bursts out laughing.

The message is from an Indian or Pakistani, calling from somewhere about something, but we cannot make out a single word he is saying. We conclude it has something to do with the Norton call, which was interrupted. We figure we’ll figure it out later and go home.

We get home. It’s fairly late, 10ish. We’re both tired, so we retire for the night.

At 12:30 in the morning, a telephone rings, waking us both out of a sound sleep. It's an Indian/Pakistani calling. He wants to tell us that we need to make a call and we will get our problem resolved. Half asleep, Carol tells him that it is 3:00 AM and she has no interest in calling anywhere. He says,"oh", not, "oh, dear me, I am so sorry I awakened you." Just, "Oh".

Idiocracy. Maybe that’s what we will call this decade . . .

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010 and Other Trivia

Lists, lists, lists. I wonder why we all consume ourselves making these lists? I guess it’s part of that enduring human trait—being nuts, or doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different outcome.

So, what would I like to see emerging during 2010?

1. Perhaps the most important is to see humankind in America give up our fascination with “cheap.” We have adopted in this country a near reverence for cheap, to the point that low price is our sole criterion in selecting goods and services. That is, of course, why everything we buy today in America, is crap made in China. It is also why Quality has disappeared as a criterion of choice. Our food products are cheap, our manufactured goods are cheap, in fact most things we buy today are cheap. But, we all complain that we live in a throw-away culture--nothing works for very long. We also tolerate goods coming from China that could kill us, because they are, literally toxic. Part of this preoccupation I blame on predatory organizations like Wal-Mart, but, while they contribute heavily, we are the ones to blame. So, maybe someday, I would like to awaken and hear that Americans are again seemingly interested in quality.

2. A linked element is that I would like to see us decry the notion that “bigger is better.” It isn’t, and we have proven that conclusively during the previous decade. Perhaps our financial geniuses who brought down our financial house of cards are the ones who really brought home the lesson. We need more of everything , rather then fewer, but larger entities. Instead of a handful of food growers producing everything we eat (see “Food, Inc”) we need perhaps millions of growers. Instead of one variety of seed, say corn, or soy beans, we needs dozens, hundreds even. Instead of four or five huge banks, we need thousands, operating in every county in America. Instead of a handful of cable TV providers, we need hundreds. We need controls over who can buy which companies—in fact, we need to once again pay attention to and regulate monopolies. Monopolies are by definition, bad for us. We need to break up these huge entities like Bank of America, et al.

3. We need to move religion back into the churches of the world. Religion has crept into every nook and cranny in our world, and it is now the standard excuse for doing stupid things, including most especially, blowing up people and things. The world needs a rest from religion.

4. We need to rethink our public education system. It is a vital element in our culture, and one that is currently failing our children. Any education system that tolerates a 40-50% drop out rate before completing even the basics, is dysfunctional. Plan B for the kids who drop out is a fast track to prison. And kids need to understand that. But we don’t need to replace it with charter schools, or religious schools, or more private schools. We need to invest greater public money and some actual intelligent thought into fixing it. We need to shred Shrub’s No Child Left Behind. He is an idiot and imposed this truly stupid legislative act that does not, cannot, work to fix what is wrong.

5. We need to reassert values beyond making money. Our kids need to see us practicing what we say we believe. We need more love, charity, tolerance, and hope, especially hope. We need to stop waging wars against peoples just to secure our "rights" to their oil, or diamonds, or natural gas, or other resources.

6. We need to stop thinking we know more than everyone else in the world, so that we need to impose our values and our culture on them. Let the world’s peoples keep their own cultures. Think of those cultures as, simply, different.

7. Ok, I’ll stop now, and go back to my dreaming. Time enough to awaken later to harsh reality. I’ll just snooze some more, so I can dream some more about a righteous world.