Saturday, February 04, 2006

Taking The Weekend Off

I have left you a silly post for fun and an attempt at a novel that nobody will publish.

Have a great weekend! See you Monday.

Some Saturday Fun

With Chuck Norris.

The First Draft of A Short Story

Rosie and Bruce

The tulips were pushing up from the black soil. They looked like knives, Bruce thought. From his window he could see sharp green knives piercing the cold soil all over the front yard. The tulips were Rosie's. She had planted them last fall, pushing the bulbs into the soil one by one, leaning on her crutches.

There was a list somewhere. A list about the tulips, what they were called and what plants would rise up around them. Bruce knew that he should look for the list; Rosie had spent what little strength she had left to write lists about all her plants, lists about the tasks of gardening, even lists telling him what to anticipate, what to look for, how to enjoy the beauty of her garden. He wasn't ready to look for the lists yet.

The house was silent. Bruce took his breakfast dishes back into the kitchen and then climbed up the steep stairs to the top of the house. There he had his study, his lair as Rosie had called it. The walls were covered with bookshelves and the shelves with books he loved. This is where he had escaped family Thanksgiving parties and rowdy grandchildren's visits. This was where he used to relax, put his feet up and lean back in his old armchair while listening to the faint sounds of pre-dinner clatter Rosie was making in the kitchen downstairs. All was well in the world.

Now, of course, nothing was well in his world. He took down a favorite volume about the Civil War and opened it randomly. The words were just words printed on the paper. He put the book back in its place and turned around. He could see the back yard from his high window. Green knives in the back, too. He turned on the television set and sat down for another day of existence.

Some weeks later he noticed the first buds on the tulips. Most of them were plain green but a group near the dining-room window sported buds which shimmered darkly through the green. Were they infected with something, Bruce wondered? Rosie would have known. Her lists might tell him. He should look them up. He spent the day vacuuming, doing laundry and buying groceries. At night he put on a cardigan and opened the door to Rosie's room, her study. It was cold and smelled stale. He turned on the light and saw the lists she had left him, neatly stacked on her desk. The top one was about tulips.

He sat down to read.
"The ones under the dining-room window are called 'Queens of the Night', Bruce. They are as black as tulips come."
That explained the color of their bulbs.
"They are beautiful. I planted them in the middle of yellow-leaved hostas for contrast. The hostas are probably not up yet."
Bruce couldn't remember about the hostas. It wasn't something he normally noticed. But he would check tomorrow.
"They are stern, these tulips, and sad. But they also have a flame of life in the middle, a kind of sexiness as the name suggests. Do you remember New Orleans, Bruce?"
He couldn't read any further that night.

The following weekend Bruce's son came to visit with his young family. The house was full of children's laughter and cheerful-sounding conversation. Bruce wanted to ask his son about the tulips but couldn't get the topic introduced. They spent the afternoon out, and Bruce came home tired. The sun was setting and its rays struck the now open black tulips with a malicious glee. Bruce glared at them. His anger was quite impartial; he was angry at the tulips, his son and Rosie. He was angry at the idea of gardening. Gardening was what Rosie did.

That night he couldn't sleep because of the heavy meal they had had in a noisy restaurant. He took the tulip notes to bed with him and continued reading.
"The ones in the back yard are lily-shaped tulips. Their petals are tipped. I always thought of them as butterflies trying to take off. The most beautiful ones near the fence are called 'Ballerinas'. You'll see why when they flower: They look just like dancers in their tutus standing on point."
'Ballerinas', Bruce mouthed. What did he have to do with 'Ballerinas'? Who invented these idiotic names in the first place?
"They should flower at the same time as the bleeding hearts behind them. The bleeding hearts should echo the pink in the tulips, or so I hope. Oh Bruce, I so wanted to see them together! I know that you don't care for such things but won't you watch out for them, for my sake?"
Bruce turned off the light and lay there, his eyes filling with tears of anger. How dare Rosie do this, play him like a violin? She always fought unfairly, and now he couldn't even point that out to her.

In a few days all the tulips were in flower. The garden looked deceptive, as if Rosie was still there to care for it. Bruce made notes of the heights of the different varieties and counted their blooms. He tried to appreciate the color harmonies and contrasts, but for this he had to take Rosie's list out and to study it sitting on the front steps. Neighbors passing by complimented him on the tulips. He didn't want to remind them that he hadn't planted any himself. Then he became worried about the upkeep the tulips might require. Surely Rosie used to do something to them every spring?

He looked up her list of garden tasks. It was written differently, it was businesslike with chores, tools and times listed in a table. This was Rosie, too, her cool, professional side. Still, Bruce read through the list twice seeking in vain for a more personal note. He was impressed by the sheer volume of physical labor needed for gardening. Rosie never asked for his help.

He began the following morning with the cleaning of the flowerbeds, raking and aerating the soil. He carted compost from the pile by wheelbarrowfuls and spread it across the beds. His shoulders ached and sweat trickled down his nose. The earth had a deep smell. He didn't know if the compost was spread to the right thickness and he wasn't sure if he hadn't removed something from the beds that was supposed to stay, but he slept well that night.

It rained in the morning. The rain pelted the windows and smeared the view through them with tears. The tulips stood up against the grayness like so many colored flags, like soldiers in gaudy uniforms, refusing to bend in the face of the inevitable. Bruce cracked the window open. The smell of wet earth and green leaves drifted in, mingling with the rain and the soreness in his muscles. He suddenly missed Rosie so much that his body felt stretched thin, pulled infinitely long until it reached the borders of the realm of the dead, until he turned into an insistent throbbing of one desperate thought, this thought knocking on the sealed doors of the dead, asking for Rosie O'Leary. The pain was unbearable, not bearable, but he bore it anyway. After a few moments, or an eternity, it receded, and Bruce stood there looking out into the rain again. He hated being alive.

Later that day he moved all Rosie's lists up to his study and arranged them in an order that seemed logical. He took the top one, titled 'Late Spring-Early Summer' and sat down to read it in his armchair. The rain drummed on the roof. It was almost cozy in his den, warm and dry. He shuffled the papers in his lap and a faint whiff of Rosie's perfume touched his nose. It pierced him for a second.
"You are going to hate the weeding, Bruce. I always hated it. The weeds crop up so fast this time of the year and you can't let them win, that's how you are. That means an aching back, my dear. There is some liniment for that in the medicine cabinet. I am sorry for your pain, but the weeding will do you good."
Bruce grimaced at the thought and turned the page.
"My favorite moment of late spring was always the opening of the peonies. I never planted them, they came with the house, and I don't know what they are called. They have these small hard buds, like hands held in a tight fist against fear or anger, and ants crawl over them, seeking the sweetness in them. I could never decide if it looked like a horror film or the prelude to some erotica. The first spring when we moved to the house, remember, when the children were tiny?, I wanted to pull the peonies out because they gave me the shivers, but there was so much to do that I never got around to it. Now, of course, I am grateful for that, for the next stage is the opening of their buds and that is worth everything. They opened for us all those years, love. All those years we had together."

Bruce was crying now, his body releasing the sobs in tune with the rain on the roof. He stumbled up and leaned against the cold window panes, crying.

When the rain slowed down his tears also did and he was able to stand straighter again. He didn't really want to go back to the list but he wanted to know about the opening of the peonies.

"The buds break when you're not looking. Perhaps they just can't take the stroking of the ants any more, or perhaps the mild night wind blows them open. Anyway, one morning when you go out there they are, these gigantic, blowsy, crushed flowers, like white-and-pink silk, straining to open even more towards the sun. It is so sensual, Bruce. You must touch them, put your senses in your fingertips and lips and touch them. And then you must inhale their scent. Hurry, for they won't last very long.

I miss your body, Bruce. Even in this hell of pain, with my body being pulled apart by the final crunching of death's teeth, I want you. I know that you can't want me now, I understand. But you will want me when I am dead and the peonies will help."

When Bruce went to bed that night the sheets felt like Rosie's hands on his chest. The air was heavier, moister, than usual, and as he drifted asleep he turned to Rosie's side of the bed trying to pull her into his embrace. He dreamt about naked flesh and sex and woke up half-guilty half-relieved.

The spring speeded up. The tulips stretched their petals wider and wider and then dropped them. Other flowers took their place. Bruce fertilized and weeded, staked and weeded, watered and weeded. His muscles ached and he couldn't get his nails clean. He now knew Rosie's early year lists by heart and had started reading her gardening books. He wasn't going to be a gardener; that was what Rosie did, but he wanted to do this one thing for her. When his daughter who lived in France called him he told her all about the garden. She seemed pleased.

Then the peonies opened. It was just like Rosie had written. Yesterday they were all holding their closed fists up to the sky, today they were bending down, heavy with blossoms both celestial and obscene. Bruce looked around to make sure that nobody was looking and then buried his face in them. They were scented with innocence and hope and the smell of love and frenzied couplings. They caressed his face, their silkiness a thousand remembered nights with Rosie. Bruce stood there, half-crouched, while his body filled with longing, grief and desire. That moment Rosie was there with him, one with him, and also saying goodbye to him.

He spent the whole day with the peonies, until a hunger made him so weak that he barely made it back into the house and to a gigantic supper. After supper he moved Rosie's gardening books up to his study and selected a volume to read. He wanted to buy something new for his garden. A rose bush, perhaps.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Today's Action Alert

To stop an eighteen-year old Iranian girl from being hanged:

Amnesty International is calling on the Iranian authorities to take immediate steps to end the use of the death penalty for child offenders. Two new cases have been reported in which child offenders – persons under 18 at the time of the crime – have been sentenced to death by Iranian courts, in breach of Iran's obligations under international human rights law.

On 3 January, 18-year-old Nazanin was sentenced to death for murder by a criminal court, after she reportedly admitted stabbing to death one of three men who attempted to rape her and her 16-year-old niece in a park in Karaj in March 2005. She was seventeen at the time. Her sentence is subject to review by the Court of Appeal, and if upheld, to confirmation by the Supreme Court.

According to reports in the Iranian newspaper, E'temaad, Nazanin told the court that three men had approached her and her niece, forced them to the ground and tried to rape them. Seeking to defend her niece and herself, Nazanin stabbed one man in the hand with a knife that she possessed and then, when the men continued to pursue them, stabbed another of the men in the chest. She reportedly told the court "I wanted to defend myself and my niece. I did not want to kill that boy. At the heat of the moment I did not know what to do because no one came to our help", but was nevertheless sentenced to death.

Bolds are mine. For action, go here.
Via Zainab2.

Friday Panda Blogging

This, too, is courtesy of Helga. I should start paying her. Think of the panda's expression in the context of national and international politics, and it makes even more sense.

Clashes of Definitions

When George Bush says "freedom" he means something very different from the meaning of "freedom" to me and most likely to many of the listeners in his audience. Yet we are all going to plug his message into our own system of memories and values and definitions. That's why the policy wizards in the Republican party spend so much time thinking of soundbites that will play our inner violin strings, melodiously passing our thinking brain. They are experts in this game.

But they are not the only ones playing the game. The recent uproar over the small right-wing Danish paper which published cartoons of Mohammed is an example of the same clash of definitions and systems of memories and values. It is not really a spontaneous clash of civilizations as much as a manufactured clash, having to do with playing different violin strings in different people.

For believing Muslims the depiction of the Prophet is forbidden, and these cartoons amount to blasphemy. For most people in Europe or North America, these cartoons are an unsavory and fairly stupid example of the freedom of expression. My reading of the European newspaper articles on the dispute tells me that what we have here is an enormous difference in the frameworks people use to interpret evidence, an enormous difference in their experiences of how governments work and what this work translates into. For example, many Muslim organizations demand the Danish government to punish the newspaper that originally published the cartoons. But what the newspaper did is not against the Danish law, and the Danish government can't punish it without a legal reason to do so. Countries with less freedom of the press would act differently, and these organizations are located in such countries.

This lack of understanding (and I mean a visceral lack of understanding, not an intellectual one) means that the Muslims then extend the anger they feel at the cartoons to the Danish country, all Danes, and as the cartoons get reprinted elsewhere, also to the governments and citizens of those countries. And then finally to the whole "Western Civilization".

Knowing the history of Europe and the history of how blasphemy has been treated there would have helped. It is equally true that knowing the history of Islam and its rules would have helped, though I think that the original publishers of the cartoons hoped for the exact scandal that has ensued. On both sides there are people who try to light the flames of a religious war. Yet I'm fairly sure that the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims alike would find the idea of such cartoons in bad taste but would also see the value in the freedom of expression for the media on the whole.

Friday Musical

By Freewayblogger. It is Iraq: The Musical, and it is funny, upsetting, over-the-top and thought-provoking. It is also a parody, of course. Watch at your own risk.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Interesting Reading

This Slate debate between the wonderful Katha Pollitt and William Saletan on the best ways to approach abortion by pro-choicers is quite interesting. The newest response is on top. The newest response is at the bottom of the page.
Via Eschaton.

Paying The Bills

Of the United States government. The people who will pay are the elderly, the poor, children and women on welfare and students:

The House yesterday narrowly approved a contentious budget-cutting package that would save nearly $40 billion over five years by imposing substantial changes on programs including Medicaid, welfare, child support and student lending.

With its presidential signature all but assured, the bill represents the first effort in nearly a decade to try to slow the growth of entitlement programs, one that will be felt by millions of Americans. Women on welfare are likely to face longer hours of work, education or community service to qualify for their checks. Recipients of Medicaid can expect to face higher co-payments and deductibles, especially on expensive prescription drugs and emergency room visits for non-emergency care. More affluent seniors will find it far more difficult to qualify for Medicaid-covered nursing care.

The Democrats did a good job in trying to fight it. They only lost by two votes. The saddest thing about all these cuts is that they won't make much of a difference in the government's budget deficit, even though they will make the lives of the most fragile among us much harder:

The impact of the bill on the deficit is likely to be negligible, slicing less than one-half of 1 percent from the estimated $14.3 trillion in federal spending over the next five years. As the House debated the budget-cutting measure, the Senate moved to begin final negotiations with the House on a package of tax cuts and extension of expiring tax cuts that could cost up to $60 billion over five years, more than negating the savings from the budget bill.

This is the real face of compassionate conservatism.

Friday Thursday Koala Blogging

This is a thirsty koala bear drinking from a wading pool in Australia during a heat wave. Thanks to Helga for the pic.

I don't even know what day it is anymore! Need a break.

Jumping Jacks

Did you ever do those? We used to have to do a hundred at the beginning of karate lessons. Joe Lieberman would have done well in them, because he was always the first popping up to applaud Bush during the State of the Union speech, even before the Republicans! He is very fond of the president, isn't he?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Code to the Wingnuts in the SOTU

You may have heard the assertion that George Bush has coded messages in his speeches for his wingnut base. I think I have found the one in this year's SOTU speech. It is in this part:

BUSH: Before history is written down in books, it is written in courage.

Like Americans before us, we will show that courage and we will finish well.

Google the bit about finishing well, and what will you find? A sermon given by Jerry Falwell, entitled Learning to Finish Well.


Another self-adulation post. It's too early to do another one of these, so don't feel obliged to say anything nice in the comments, but as this is the time before the voting for the Koufax Awards, the awards for the lefty blogosphere, I have to advertize.

I have been nominated for the Koufax awards this year in two categories: Deserving More Attention (or something close to that) and Best Post. I can't find the link to the first category and as I blogged myself to near-death yesterday I'm too tired to try. But you can probably get it yourself from the Wampum website.

If you do, you will notice that the number of nominations is enormous, so being nominated doesn't raise me above the very high quality pack at all. But I'm so proud to be in that company, so thank you, whoever you are, who nominated me.

I also noticed that I got the Best Post nomination not just for this blog but also for the American Street where I used to blog on Saturdays. What is interesting is that I have no recollection of even writing the latter post! I do blog too much. The two posts are very different in tone. You should read them both and then read all the much better posts among the two-hundred-plus nominees. It will show you how rich the left blogosphere is in talent.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Misdemeanor of Cindy Sheehan

She was arrested for committing a misdemeanor in the room where the State of the Union speech was held:

Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq who reinvigorated the anti-war movement, was arrested and removed from the House gallery Tuesday night just before President Bush's State of the Union address, a police spokeswoman said.

Sheehan, who had been invited to attend the speech by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., was charged with demonstrating in the Capitol building, a misdemeanor, said Capitol Police Sgt. Kimberly Schneider. Sheehan was taken in handcuffs to police headquarters a few blocks away and her case was processed as Bush spoke.

Schneider said Sheehan had worn a T-shirt with an anti-war slogan to the speech and covered it up until she took her seat. Police warned her that such displays were not allowed, but she did not respond, the spokeswoman said.


Sometimes being a liberal blogger is hard work, hard work. I had to watch the State of the Union speech tonight, and I usually avoid seeing wingnuts actually moving and kissing each other and rubbing each other's heads and stuff. I had to watch all of that tonight, and it was like fireants crawling all over my body. So many wingnuts in one room. Gulp.

Then George Bush walked in and shook hands and kissed cheeks, and everybody cheered and applauded and couldn't stop, and it all reminded me of the Emperor's New Clothes. And then the speech started, and indeed, as the betting predicted, there was a reference to 9/11 in the first few paragraphs. But the rest of the speech was about freedom, freedom and more freedom. Freedom from medical insurance in the United States, freedom to have theocracies in the Middle East which will give women no rights, because "their" idea of a democracy isn't ours, freedom from anyone criticizing him who isn't willing to back him up.

And freedom to pay hardly any taxes if you earn a lot, which translates into a freedom to starve if you don't earn a lot. But it's all freedom, you know.

George gave us a lot of good emotions. In that way the speech was like one of those Hostess cakes which looks like a real cake and tastes sweet but in the long-run will lead you into killing your nearest and dearest and then you can use the Hostess cake defence. (Except it wasn't a Hostess cake but some other kind of American weird cake, the name of which escapes me.) George tried to take a leaf from Ronald Reagan's book: Americans love feeling good and being told that they are special and meant to lead the whole world. It is nice to hear how much good we have done in combating AIDS in Africa, except Bush hasn't really delivered on that, and how we are going to have a lot more advanced mathematics classes in schools (with what money?), and how we are, once again, going to find cheaper substitutes for imported oil. George has promised to do this every single year, and so far he hasn't actually done anything important. All this is mainly emotional titillation. I look forward to seeing the actual programs get started but that might take a while. Like until after 2008.

On the other hand, the radical right-wing clerics will get more money and embryos will be treasured. Already born children, not so much. Especially not if they happen to be in Iraq. Iraq was a major topic, too, but I forgot what he said on it. Nothing new, in any case.

There were inaccuracies and outright lies. The funniest assertion was possibly the one where Bush said that if he had been able to do illegal wiretapping before 9/11, it could have been prevented, because it is known that some of the Al Qaeda members were making phone calls from the U.S. to their foreign contacts! This was funny, because of course we all remember that government document entitled, roughly: "Bin Laden Determined to Attack America". If a government document didn't make George do anything, why would illegal wiretapping?

Then there was the elaborate skirting around the "corruption in high places" meme. No names were mentioned and nothing was said about the scandal being largely Republican. This is only natural, sure, but I still have to make a note of it.

Still, the most memorable of all Bush's utterances was his appeal to bipartisanism and civility in debate! You can criticize, but only if you are willing to criticize constructively, which means that you must agree with where Bush is trying to take this country. Like right into an abyss. Democrats are welcome to tell the administration how to get to the abyss quicker and with more force but not tell the administration that the abyss isn't a good idea in the first place.

I should say something nice about the whole SOTU experience. I liked the dog in the audience a lot. He or she looked very wise.
A transcript of the speech is available here.

No Lies, Please

I received this interesting letter that Congressman Conyers and others have sent to the president. It's very sad that such a letter doesn't seem at all out of place today:

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, John Conyers, and Other Members signed the following letter to the President, warning him not to make any further misstatements in his state of the Union Address. The letter was prompted by previous misstatements by the President concerning Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction and efforts to obtain uranium from Niger. The text of the letter follows:

The President

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

As you prepare to deliver your fifth State of the Union address tomorrow, we write to respectfully request your personal attention to the accuracy of the information contained within your speech. We are sure you will agree that thorough fact-checking in preparation for this event is in the best interest of the welfare of the American people and our credibility around the world.

Throughout the course of American history, the impact that the State of the Union address has had upon the Congress, the American people, and the larger worldwide audience to which it is delivered cannot be overstated. In years past, this speech has reinvigorated the disheartened, consoled the grieving, and inspired the downtrodden. Three years ago, you used this address to press Congress and the American people to war against Iraq. However, they now know that information you used in delivering this battle cry was false. Just this month we have seen additional proof from the State Department of disagreement within your administration, at the time your speech was delivered, regarding your claim on Iraq seeking uranium from Africa.

Since its first delivery by President George Washington in 1790, the State of the Union address has grown beyond being merely a constitutional mandate. In fact, there are few events on the world stage where one individual commands the attention of so many on such a wide variety of issues. After your delivery of incorrect information in the past, you must now take special care to ensure that every word you speak can be proven to be accurate. Such attention to detail is crucial to repairing the trustworthiness of you- words and your presidency, as well- as our nation's integrity and leadership on global affairs.

Therefore, on January 31, we encourage you to pledge to your audience that every piece of your State of the Union address has been verified as true. Thank you for your consideration of our request. We look forward to your reply.

A Disturbing Story About Female American Soldiers

In Iraq. Alternet tells us that:

In a startling revelation, the former commander of Abu Ghraib prison testified that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former senior US military commander in Iraq, gave orders to cover up the cause of death for some female American soldiers serving in Iraq.

Last week, Col. Janis Karpinski told a panel of judges at the Commission of Inquiry for Crimes against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration in New York that several women had died of dehydration because they refused to drink liquids late in the day. They were afraid of being assaulted or even raped by male soldiers if they had to use the women's latrine after dark.

The latrine for female soldiers at Camp Victory wasn't located near their barracks, so they had to go outside if they needed to use the bathroom. "There were no lights near any of their facilities, so women were doubly easy targets in the dark of the night," Karpinski told retired US Army Col. David Hackworth in a September 2004 interview.

It was there that male soldiers assaulted and raped women soldiers. So the women took matters into their own hands. They didn't drink in the late afternoon so they wouldn't have to urinate at night. They didn't get raped. But some died of dehydration in the desert heat, Karpinski said.

I'm not sure that the cause of dehydration deaths can be so clearly delineated to this fear of rape. But even if it wasn't, the problem is serious and deserves attention. Serving this country does not mean having to service the other soldiers.

Any news story like this wakes up wingnuts who then yell that women have no place in armed forces because, you know, some men will rape them or will be too chivalrous to really do their jobs because they are defending the damsels in distress. That these too arguments clash with each other doesn't seem to make any difference to the wingnuts, and of course it doesn't, because the whole point is to get women out of the military and it doesn't really matter to them what reasoning might be used. It will always be something about men being innately killers and women being innately damsels-in-distress.

I have trouble with this argument, because I believe that we all have the capacity to become killers or victims, and because the argument doesn't help us in learning how to get all the civilian women out of war zones. Since they have no training in war at all they should be at an even greater risk of being raped or an even greater attraction to the chivalrous soldiers to defend. But they are stuck in the middle of the fighting and the wingnuts don't find that disconcerting. Only the idea of female soldiers. Something to do with the ideal of masculinity and girls trying to demean it, I suspect.

But to return to the serious topic of this post. The military should do better in guaranteeing the safety of the women who serve their country, and those men who prey upon them should think about the meaning of "getting your back" and they should make damn sure that they understand what that does NOT include.

First Do No Harm

The old saw in medicine: first do no harm. It could be profitably extended to the repairs of the health care system, but few politicians care about the actual delivery of health care. It's mostly politics rather than policy for them. After all, they can afford any type of treatment or provider they desire.

It makes me sick to think about it. How is that for a joke? More seriously, the new proposals for fixing the system that Bush has come up with are not going to fix the system. What they are going to do is to create more desperation and more premature deaths, and they are unlikely to save much in money. Some, sure, because some people will stop seeing physicians and so save us the costs of trying to keep them healthy or even alive. Perhaps a little bit too cynical, but you see the point.

Or you will see the point after I tell what the problems of the health care system fixing are. Consider this: Every health care system has three goals:

1. To provide fair access to all in need.

2. To provide fair quality of care.

3. And to do all this at the least possible cost.

If you think about it a little you can see that the third goal fights the first two. It would be easy to guarantee that every single person in this country gets very high quality care, if we were willing to spend all the resources we have on it. Except in that case there would be no money or time left for anything else.

Add to this the complications that arise because patients really can't judge quality very well and can't do comparison-shopping in, say, appendectomies. Then add the fact that we have over forty million uninsured people who are either going to have no care or care paid by the rest of us, and you can see the political stew boiling. There will be accusations of free-loading by the indigent, there will be accusations of the first accusers wanting to see the uninsured die on the street in front of the accusers house and so on.

What Bush is focusing on in his proposal is really the third goal of the system, and he is grasping market straws as his solution. The idea is to make people responsible for their own health care costs via Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). They work like the world without any health insurance: you save and save for future illness, except you get a tax deduction on the money and some clerk in some office will decide which expenses will be covered out of that account.

Then you are supposed to go to the hospital department store and to walk around with a basket over your arm and to pick up operations and physicians and nurses and turn them over and see what the price tags are, all the time muttering to yourself: "I might need a pneumonia cure some day." By being responsible for spending your own money you will shop carefully and we will all save money! Too bad that the way we buy medical care doesn't fit this model at all. Even worse, the easiest way to get the price of medical care down is by skimping on the quality and usually few people will notice. And even worse than that: unconscious people don't shop around, people in great pain don't compare prices.

The Bush plan will not work. It won't hurt the wealthier among us, because they have plenty of private coverage for whatever they might need and even plenty of ordinary savings to use. But it will hurt the rest, the majority, by making health care less available and less affordable and by inflicting the patient with a burden of careful shopping that just is not possible in many medical need cases.

There are plans that would work better. We could focus on cost-containment on the side of the providers: equipment manufacturers, hospitals and drug firms, to begin with. We could undo the tiny provision slipped into the Medicare bill which bans the government from using its gigantic bargaining power to get better prices on the medications the elderly use. We could do a lot of stuff like that, but it would hurt Bush's base: the haves and the have-mores.

Miners and Miners

Miners and miners. American and Canadian. Three large mining accidents have taken place recently on this continent, two (at the Sago and Alma mines) in the United States and one (in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan) in Canada. The death tolls from these accidents: Fourteen dead. All American miners. All the Canadian miners were today brought to safety:

Rescuers retrieved all 72 central Canadian potash miners who were trapped underground by a fire and survived until Monday by using oxygen, food and water stored in subterranean emergency chambers.

Seventy-two miners were trapped early Sunday when a fire started in polyethylene piping more than a half-mile underground, filling the tunnels with toxic smoke and prompting the miners to take refuge in the sealed emergency rooms.

The Canadian and American accidents are not exactly identical and thus cannot be directly compared. But I grew curious about the idea of storing oxygen, food and water in subterranean emergency chambers, and I tried to find out if the same was done at the Sago mine in the U.S..

The answer appears to be no:

The Sago miners had oxygen devices. Why don't they last longer or have oxygen available?

MSHA's standards state that mine operators must provide "self- rescue devices" adequate to protect the miner for 1 hour or longer. A person from Homeland Security was on television and informed the nation that the miners had devices that would last 7 hours. However, this was not the case. We have been told that the devices the Sago miners had were good for 1 hour. According to an MSHA specialist, the SCSRs might last 2-3 hours "if they nurse it." Some operators will store additional self rescue devices throughout the mine in case of a mine emergency, but this is not required by the government. Again, there is the fact that while mine rescue teams can be located up to 2 hours away, miners only have 1 hour of air with their self-contained self-rescue devices.

Bolds are mine. So the government doesn't require emergency storage of oxygen in the mines. Ok. How about the Canadian government? It seems that it does.

Another interesting item I learned was this:

First, the Bush administration withdraws a regulation that would have revised MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation, kills a regulation that would have helped prevent conveyor belt fires, changes mine ventilation rules that experts say will allow fires to spread more rapidly through the mine, cutting off miners' fresh air -- and now this from today's Charleston Gazette:

Just two years ago, the Bush administration rejected a proposal to give coal miners text-messaging devices that could warn them of underground fires and explosions.

If the Sago Mine had had these devices, 13 miners trapped underground could have been told it was safe for them to just walk out after a Jan. 2 explosion.

If workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine three weeks later had had text-messaging devices, they could have been warned sooner of a dangerous fire that killed two workers.

MSHA already could have acted to accept text-messaging proposals that labor and industry officials made after a major mine disaster in Alabama.

The nation's 42,000 underground coal miners already could have communication devices to help them escape potentially deadly mine accidents, according to a review of public records and interviews with mine safety experts.

U.S. coal companies have known about the devices — called Personal Emergency Devices, or PEDs — since at least the late 1980s. But without an industry-wide mandate, few operators have installed the systems in their mines. Only 19 of about 800 underground U.S. mines use PEDs, according to MSHA records.

These devices, manufactured by an Australian firm, Mine Site Technologies, use ultra-low frequency electromagnetic fields to send text messages from the surface to the fields -- warning miners to evacuate and best evacuations routes, for example.

The devices have been used for almost 20 years in Australia. Following the September 2001, explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama that killed 13 miners, the United Minworkers recommended that MSHA require the devices. In that incident, four miners were injured by an initial explosion, but the others were killed attempting to rescue the injured miners, not knowing about the explosion or the dangers of another explosion.

The devices were used successfully in the US in a 1998 fire at the Willow Creek Mine in Carbon County, Utah, where the entire workforce of mine was successfully evacuated from a serious mine fire.

Hmmm. Miners and miners. Some dead, some alive. Like canaries in a mine. The question is why.

Monday, January 30, 2006

We Are Famous!

Some good news today, courtesy of EPT in my comments. Check out this picture, carefully:

It's the cover of the latest In These Times, and we are mentioned in the left-hand column, the fourth blog from the top. Nice, huh?

No Filibuster

I have nothing polite to say on the topic. Get your burqas ready, gals.

Well, the fight will go on, because there is no livable alternative. As we will find out, sadly, when Alito starts erasing the laws that protect reproductive choice and fair treatment of all the little people.

RIP Wendy Wasserstein

She died today of lymphoma:

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein died today after a battle with lymphoma. She was 55 and she leaves behind a body of work that includes hits such as "The Heidi Chronicles" (1988) and "The Sisters Rosensweig" (1993) and a little daughter named Lucy Jane.

Wasserstein was well liked on stage and off, quick with a smile and a quip in person and always popular at the box office. Indeed, her plays were pack 'em in crowdpleasers and critics sometimes dismissed her wry Manhattaneque comedies as the stuff of a female Neil Simon but that commentary abjectly misses the significance of her work. Before Wasserstein, there was no room for smart, funny, independent women on Broadway, women who stood on their own terms, not as foils for male characters who really ran the show. The playwright made a place for women on Broadway to make their own choices about love, life, parenthood and feminism.

Partying - Wingnut Style

NOTE: This is probably a hoax. I'm relieved to hear that.
If this invitation to a Republican party, from a diary on Daily Kos is true, it reveals a lot about the inner Freudian of some Republicans:

A Message From Your Host

We will have a Jesse Jackson piƱata , a dunk tank where you'll get the chance to sink my wife who will be dressed as Hilary Clinton, and a special guest appearance by my uncle - Rep. Timothy V. Johnson who will be giving away "Proud to be G.O.P." American Flag windbreakers. Bring a side dish if you like. We will have burgers, hot dogs, chili, and pizza, but nothing vegetarian! This party is family friendly, so feel free to bring children. It's never too early to get them involved!

See how there are flags, family values and the rituals of pretending to murder a black man and an uppity woman who also happens to be some wingnut's wife? And children should be introduced to this as early as possible! I feel a little sick, so I hope that it is a joke, even if a poor one.
Added later: The party invitation on the excludes the reference to beating a black man but still promises the drowning of Hillary Clinton. Which reminds me of a long-overdue post about how racism is still not quite mainstream but sexism has arrived, pretty much. And yes, I know that they are pretending to drown an individual woman but boy, does Hillary not stand for all that the wingnuts don't like in women!

Framing the Federal Budget

Daily Kos links to an interesting article about the new federal budget by Brian M. Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing corporate think tank. Mr. Riedl is not happy with the budget, because it is written based on unrealistic assumptions. By law, it can't allot anything towards the war expenses in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Iran?), and it also assumes that the Bush tax cuts will be discontinued:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects a balanced budget by 2012. A number of CBO's assumptions underlying this projection are, to say the least, problematic. For example, CBO's projections assume that all of the President's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, as well as all other temporary tax cuts, are allowed to expire and that the Alternative Minimum Tax is not fixed before it digs further into middle-class incomes. CBO is also required by law to assume that there will be no more appropriations for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and for Gulf Coast reconstruction; that the pending reconciliation budget will have no effects; and that discretionary spending will not grow at all, in inflation-adjusted terms. With all these caveats in place, CBO's budget baseline is extremely unrealistic.

The Heritage wants the tax cuts to be kept, naturally. They are the whole point why Bush was made the president in the first place, at least from the corporate angle. But this desire makes the budget even more unrealistic, and the solution is to cut, and cut so severly that the budget will bleed. The poor are good bleeders, you know.

Mr. Reidl writes his proposals about how and what to cut using beautiful wingnut framing: All the things the poor get are "runaway" or "out-of-control". Real problems are treated curtly and in simple sentences of negation. Examples:

"Tax revenues are not the problem."
"Runaway spending is the problem"
" Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are out of control"
"The 2009 deficit is not the issue"
"Until entitlements are brought under control, the annual deficit will grow and rising net-interest costs will accelerate that growth"

Then there are the omissions in the article. Nothing about the war spending being out of control, for example.

But we are seeing the stage being set for the next round of cuts. They will be in pensions and in health insurance for the poor and the elderly. These are clearly the people who are out of control... It is not surprising, then, that the way Bush will solve the health insurance crisis in this country is by cutting the coverage. No coverage, no worries about its size, see?


There is an echo in the room, probably. The cloture voice is approaching and then we know how different politicians voted, so that one day, if need be, we can write down who it was, exactly, who caused the destruction of the American Constitution and spelled the end of democracy in this once-great country. There are rumors and counter-rumors and so on, but essentially I have no idea what is going on. It just seemed important to be typing at this moment.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

On Abstinence Pledges and Silver Rings

The Bush administration is pushing hard for abstinence education at schools, and only abstinence education, with no mention of those nasty contraceptives which might fail. One abstinence approach is to ask the teens to make a pledge that they will stay virgins until the wedding night. If you are feeling wobbly about the force of your pledge, you can supplement it with a silver abstinence ring.

My inner bad poet immediately made up a poem about the abstinence rings:

With this ring I thee wed,
my dearest Abstinence,
but I'll still give head.

It doesn't count as intercourse,
this I know for a fact.
And though this is banal,
neither does anal,
or anything that leaves my hymen intact.

Bit of a first draft, but it does convey the flavor of a long follow-up study of those who had made abstinence pledges:

Teenagers who take virginity pledges -- public declarations to abstain from sex -- are almost as likely to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease as those who never made the pledge, an eight-year study released yesterday found.

Although young people who sign a virginity pledge delay the initiation of sexual activity, marry at younger ages and have fewer sexual partners, they are also less likely to use condoms and more likely to experiment with oral and anal sex, said the researchers from Yale and Columbia universities.

"The sad story is that kids who are trying to preserve their technical virginity are, in some cases, engaging in much riskier behavior," said lead author Peter S. Bearman, a professor at Columbia's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. "From a public health point of view, an abstinence movement that encourages no vaginal sex may inadvertently encourage other forms of alternative sex that are at higher risk of STDs."

Studies like this are tricky to do because those who choose the abstinence pledge might have been abstinent longer in any case. So it's not quite clear what the effect of the pledge itself might be. To find out that, we'd need to have two populations of similar teenagers and somehow make one of them take the pledge and also somehow make sure that the other population hears nothing about such pledges. This can't be done, which means that the studies will always be suggestive rather than definite.

And where did this post come, you might ask. Someone discussed the abstinence study on CNN today. And then I read this article about how the Bush administration favors abstinence as the main tool for fighting AIDS in Africa. Given the findings that abstinence isn't really protecting against sexually transmitted diseases when people interpret it as anything-but-intercourse-proper, I'm worried that the same might happen with these AIDS prevention programs. Which would make them useless.

Tarja Halonen Headed for Re-Election

Halonen is the president of Finland, and yes, she is a woman. It looks like she has been elected for another term:

With 99.9 percent of votes counted, Halonen had 51.8 percent against Sauli Niinisto's 48.2 percent. Voter turnout was 77 percent.

A 77 percent voter turnout! And did you notice that they use paper ballots?

I'm not terribly aware of Halonen's politics in general, but one thing I do like about her: She refuses to have "an extreme makeover" to look like the marketable notion of a female president. She just keeps dying her hair bright red, probably at home, and smiling away. There is something very refreshing about that, given the rarity of average-looking older women in the media.

Some Good Tidings

Or at least cracks in the wingnut dominance. First, an editorial in the New York Times says things about the Bush administration that only bloggers have dared to say so far:

A bit over a week ago, President Bush and his men promised to provide the legal, constitutional and moral justifications for the sort of warrantless spying on Americans that has been illegal for nearly 30 years. Instead, we got the familiar mix of political spin, clumsy historical misinformation, contemptuous dismissals of civil liberties concerns, cynical attempts to paint dissents as anti-American and pro-terrorist, and a couple of big, dangerous lies.

Read the whole editorial for more Bush-clearing.

Second, Ted Koppel has now said some critical things about the media. Of course he is no longer dependent on their financial support, but we take what we can get. A quote from Ted:

Fox has succeeded financially because it tapped into a deep, rich vein of unfulfilled yearning among conservative American television viewers, but it created programming to satisfy the market, not the other way around. CNN, meanwhile, finds itself largely outmaneuvered, unwilling to accept the label of liberal alternative, experimenting instead with a form of journalism that stresses empathy over detachment.

"It created programming to satisfy the market" is a very gentle way of saying that Fox is biased. But it is a way of saying that. Of course everybody knows that Fox is biased; what we play here is a game of pretending to know things or pretending not to know things, sort of like the Alito nomination game. Only real politics wonks like the pretending games, but within those games Koppel's statement matters.

Finally, an article assessing Bush's chances of turning his dismal performance around says this:

Bush's approval rating now stands at 42 percent, down from 46 percent at the beginning of the year, although still three percentage points higher than the low point of his presidency last November.

The poll also shows that the public prefers the direction Democrats in Congress would take the country as opposed to the path set by the president, that Americans trust Democrats over Republicans to address the country's biggest problems and that they strongly favor Democrats over Republicans in their vote for the House.

The political stakes this year are especially high. What happens will affect not only the final years of Bush's presidency, but also will shape what is likely to be an even bigger election for his successor in 2008. Republicans have been on the ascendancy throughout the Bush presidency, but they begin the year not only resigned to some losses in Congress but also fearful that, under a worst-case scenario, an eruption of voter dissatisfaction could cost them control of the House or Senate or both.

This looks like a situation the Democrats could use to their advantage. Now, where did they put those spines? Hmmm.