Friday, December 24, 2010

Arizonacare and a Cry in the Wilderness

I don't read a whole lot of Sarah Palin's writings. But I was just looking at this one. What mainly caught my eye was this passage:

The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

We do have government healthcare already, of course, and lots of it. We have the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), through which private insurers deliver health benefits to federal employees and retirees under contracts with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). We have the military's TRICARE system. We have a network of government-run VA hospitals. We have the Medicare system for the elderly and we have Medicaid for low-income people, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that insures children of families with incomes that are low, but too high to qualify for Medicaid.

Medicaid is funded partly by the states and partly by the federal government. The states administer their respective programs and decide what services will be offered and who will be eligible for those services. Medicaid services are offered under various names. In Arizona, the Medicaid program is called the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS, pronounced "access"). From what I have read, AHCCCS is considered to be one of the more generous incarnations of Medicaid.

The reason I've been reading up a little on government healthcare in general and AHCCCS in particular is because of a radio program I listened to a couple of days ago. The program discussed how Arizona is cutting back on AHCCCS as part of a more general budget-cutting effort. Specifically, the Arizona legislature voted in March to rescind approval of certain kinds of organ transplants. The bill in question was signed into law by governor Jan Brewer and took effect in October. The legislature and the governor supposedly based their decision on scientific data indicating that the specific transplant types in question are ineffective (a justification that has been rejected by the American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS)). Eliminating AHCCCS coverage of the transplants in question will save an estimated $4.5 million, or about 0.3% of the projected $1.5 billion deficit.

This unfortunately comes at the expense of 98 Arizonans whose organ transplants had been approved by AHCCCS, but have now been cancelled under the terms of the legislation. The aforementioned radio program spent a large part of its hour looking at the plight of one of those people, a guy named Randy Shepherd. At 36, Randy has a wife, a young daughter and a case of cardiomyopathy that has been slowly destroying his heart muscle since he was a teenager, for which reason he was (formerly) approved by AHCCCS for a heart transplant. Randy is an AHCCCS recipient because his inability to work means he has no income, and due to restrictions on pre-existing conditions, it's apparently the only insurance he could get anyway. 

The Arizona legislature is controlled by Republicans (40 of 60 seats in the House, 21 of 30 seats in the Senate). All Democrats in both the House and Senate voted against the bill that cut the transplant funding (HB 2010). All but two Senate Republicans and one House Republican voted for the bill (details here). Republican Governor Brewer signed it into law. While I'm at it, I might as well also note that both US senators and five of eight US representatives from Arizona are Republicans. Not unlike Sarah Palin. The one who warned us about "death panels". The one who predicted that "government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost." The one who asked, "And who will suffer the most when they ration care?" and answered, "The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course." The one who asserted, "Such a system is downright evil." Welcome to Arizona, Sarah.

How's that dyin' of heart failure thing workin' out for ya?

While I'm at it, I might as well mention that one of those Republican US senators from Arizona is John Kyl. You may be aware (as reported here, for example) that Kyl recently complained about Senate majority leader Reid keeping the Senate in session so close to Christmas to debate the New START treaty by saying this was "disrespecting… one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff". I could spin this tangent a little further by noting that by this logic, we should probably close all hospitals, police stations and fire departments on two days out of every year. But I really just wanted to observe this as one more example of how quick conservative Republicans always seem to be to play the "Christian nation" card when it suits them. Yet I don't see that card being played as the Arizona state government moves to resolve a tiny fraction of its budget problem by withdrawing life-saving treatment from 98 Arizonans. I would think that committed Christians would at some point have stumbled across Matthew 25:31-46 and would want to act accordingly; my mistake.

The Democrats are killing Christmas!

I could stop here and bask in Schadenfreude over such blatant examples of Republican hypocrisy (you will have no doubt divined my own political orientation by now). But that's really not the point I want to make. The point I really want to make is this: When are we, as a nation, finally going to stop acting like a bunch of nine-year-olds shouting "I know you are, but what am I?" (or worse) at each other and have a discussion like grown-ups about healthcare and any number of other pressing issues facing the country (the national debt, crumbling infrastructure, energy issues and spiraling higher education costs, to name a few of those)? When are we going to realize that name-calling is not the same as a program?

Let's go back to healthcare in general and the AHCCCS situation in particular. If I step back from polemics for a minute, I have to ask this question: "It's horrible that 98 people were taken off the transplant program; so what should we cut instead? School lunch programs? Education? Infrastructure maintenance?" I'm sure there are a lot of non-essential and downright frivolous things that could be eliminated, but let's be realistic and recognize that even that can only be taken so far, and that what may sound like a frivolous waste as a soundbite on CNN may actually be pretty important. For instance, I read a suggestion somewhere that nearly half of the $4.5 million for the eliminated transplant program could be restored by instead cutting a $2 million program to "study algae". When you paint it in those terms, it seems like a no-brainer to get rid of something as dumb-sounding as that. But when I looked a little more closely, I learned that this funding is for R&D on algae as a source of biofuel, which could spawn programs that will help address the country's energy problems and also bring a lot of revenue to Arizona, which doesn't sound so dumb. Maybe that really is more important than the lives of 98 Arizonans; maybe it's not. Maybe both things are needed and the solution is to collect the additional taxes needed to pay for them. This is a critical policy decision that needs to be debated by looking at the substance of the issues involved and not by seeing who can generate the cleverest slogans.

I'm pretty happy about the healthcare reforms that were signed into law this year. They are going to help millions of Americans. But let's also concede that they come at a cost. For instance, getting rid of coverage denials for pre-existing conditions is a very humane thing to do, but I don't think you have to be an actuary to conclude that adding people who by definition are high-risk individuals to the insurance pool has to raise the overall cost of covering that pool—that's basic statistics (an expected value calculation, to be specific). In the medium to long term some of that cost will be offset by savings through things like administering affordable preventive treatment through regular doctors to those individuals who are currently uncovered and therefore wait until they have a really serious condition and then show up for really expensive treatment given "for free" in the emergency room (with the real cost absorbed by the hospital and then indirectly passed on to you and me anyway). But at least in the short to medium term I expect to see my own premium costs go up for a given level of care as a result of these changes.

But my bigger concern is this: All we are really doing with this recent reform is tinkering with an existing system that is phenomenally inefficient. A few minutes of Google searching on terms such as "US healthcare per capita spending" will turn up lots of studies and reports showing that compared to the other industrialized countries, we have the highest per-person spending on healthcare but get significantly poorer results. Extending coverage to people who couldn't previously qualify for it is laudable but it's not going to address such fundamental flaws in the system as the crazy patchwork of different health insurance plans that drives up doctors' administrative costs, or provider compensation schemes that reward volume more than outcomes. We have not had a serious discussion about actually replacing the system with something better, and we have not had a serious discussion about alternatives that are practiced elsewhere in the industrialized world.

We don't have to choose between the current US model and something like the Canadian or British systems that conservative Republicans love to bash. In between the extremes of national single-payer systems (e.g. Canada or Great Britain) and completely unregulated, market-driven systems there is a whole range of possible solutions to consider, e.g. the German system, my personal favorite after having lived there for many years and having had only positive experiences, even though I know that it, too, has its imperfections. For a more in-depth discussion of healthcare systems in other countries, and their respective upsides and downsides, than I can offer here, I would suggest the book The Healing of America by T. R. Reid; for now, here is a short article in which Reid discusses some of the key ideas presented in his book.

The closest that we have come to a discussion about real change in healthcare is with the brief dust-up over the "public option". But we did not have a serious debate about that. And we most certainly did not have an adult discussion about the fundamental issue of whether healthcare is a fundamental human right to be guaranteed by the government, or a service that will be sold in whatever manner generates the most profits for those who provide it, or something in between. The broad American middle did not say to the right, "I want to hear what your program is; I don't want to hear a bunch of blather about about death panels and socialism," and to the left, "I want a credible accounting of how much this will cost and how it will be paid for." Nor did it say to itself, "I accept that I may have to change my whole way of looking at this problem and that in any case I can't get something for nothing." We just settled for people yelling at each other on TV "news" shows. We also didn't demand that anyone who said "no" to the proposals on the table propose an alternative, or at least publicly acknowledge that the benefits to those who would be helped by those proposals are, in his or her opinion, simply not worth the money.

In summary: we need solutions, but we seem to be satisfied to settle for slogans. Wake up, America. But more importantly, grow up.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The problem is, is that it's not English.

For the past year or more—I haven't exactly been keeping track—I have become increasingly aware of a new construction that seems to have crept into American English. I am referring to the "double is", as in
"The thing is, is that…"
"The problem is, is that…"
"What I mean is, is that…"

Where did this come from? It makes no sense at all, but I hear it on a regular basis coming from all kinds of people. It seems like just one more little erosion of the language in the direction of being vague and imprecise. This isn't a blog about grammar (actually, I'm not entirely sure what this blog is about; for random rants about grammar and spelling, you could try this one) but I needed to bring it to your attention. So please stop saying this. You know who you are. There, I feel better now.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cybercrime and Punishment

My email provider does a decent enough job of filtering out spam, but occasionally one does slip through. Recently I got this one, allegedly sent by someone named "guido rub" (perhaps a protege of e. e. cummings):

I visited the company original products . such as the European version, American version, and the Asian version and so on. . I suggest you should have a look in this website w w w , e l e t e t , c o m,
If it is suitable for you you can contact them :
Email: poLoao2009 @ 188 . com


These spam messages completely mystify me. How, and why, would anyone take this seriously, let alone get hoodwinked by one of these spam-based scams? It seems to me that if one is going to go to the trouble to commit some kind of Internet fraud, one should not lead off with a message as weird-looking as this one.

There's the "333" in the first line. What does that mean? Is the alleged guido addressing me as "333"? Is it some kind of reference code? Is it one half of the mark of The Beast and if so, what does that signify? Apparently some sort of "original products" are being recommended here, but there are no clues as to what they might be. There's fractured English and random punctuation. There's a web site address that has commas where periods (or "dots") belong, and it's full of spaces, so if you click on it, it won't link to anything. The email address is similarly invalid. And what are the mysterious symbols at the end of the message trying to tell me? This hardly seems like a promising ruse for establishing a trusted commercial relationship.

Against my better judgment, I decided to have a look at just to satisfy my curiosity. I know this is not exactly good computer hygiene, but I decided to trust the antivirus software on my computer to protect me. I do not recommend that you visit this or any other site advertised in an email that comes from someone you've never heard of, so if you want to visit this site, do so at your own risk; you didn't hear about it from me. I'll tell you what I found so you don't have to go there yourself. I'm doing this all in the name of science.

Basically, I found a reasonably-done web site offering mostly electronics along with some motorcycles and other small motor vehicles. And what deals!

There's a Honda CBR 1000RR motorcycle priced at $2,284. According to, MSRP for the 2010 model year is $13,399.

I can get an Apple MacBook Pro MC226LL for $1,246. says the list price was (since this model has been discontinued) $2,199.

If I knew how to play the bass, I'm sure I'd be excited to find this Fender Deluxe Active Jazz Bass for only $208J&R Music World wants around $699.

Funny thing though—that picture above is from the site. But J&R thinks the Fender Deluxe Active Jazz Bass looks like this:
Hmm… typical Fender bass body shape? Trademark Fender headstock shape (with "Fender" logo decal)? Nah, those J&R guys probably don't know what they're talking about.

I compared a few other prices on the site with, er, more mainstream sites and found pretty much what you'd expect on all of them, i.e., they're way below what everyone else is charging for the same item. This comparison shopping was made somewhat tedious by the fact that most of the merchandise for which I was doing price comparisons seemed to consist of discontinued models. If I wanted to be charitable I might speculate that this site has somehow found a way to buy up discontinued merchandise really cheaply and can therefore offer it at terrific prices. But I'm not feeling charitable today. The fact that you have to pay for all of this stuff by bank transfer rather than with a credit card should also be a gigantic red flag for anyone who's ever bought anything online. I guess that somehow there are still people out there who fall for these scams, so there's enough of a potential payoff to make it worthwhile to create this moderately elaborate hoax web site and then arrange to spam mailboxes to advertise for it.

Looking at this I was reminded of an episode of one of my favorite radio shows, This American Life. You can find said episode in the TAL archive at Skip over the five-minute intro story if you want and go straight to "Act One: Hanging in Chad". It's a sordid tale of some guys who turn the tables to scam a scammer who's trying to perpetrate one of those frauds that begins with an email from Nigeria promising vast wealth with the catch that you have to put up some money of your own first. They send the scammer on a fairly elaborate wild goose chase; he patiently jumps through all of the increasingly absurd—and increasingly dangerous—hoops they put in his way in the expectation that there'll be a big payoff at the end.

The perpetrators of this "anti-scam" have a scambaiting web site where you can read more about this story and many more. A Google search on "scambaiting" will also turn up tons more material on this interesting hobby.

The TAL story also mentions a "scambaiting" action in which an Internet scammer is induced to reenact the entire Monty Python dead parrot sketch, and as it turns out, he and his partner do a fairly creditable job, so I think I will leave you with that. The original Monty Python sketch, if you want to do a comparison, is also somewhere on YouTube but I will leave searching for that as an exercise for the reader.

Parrot Sketch, Nigerian style

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Monkey Clock Conundrum

I saw this cartoon recently in the pages of The New Yorker (I'm posting a link to it rather than the cartoon itself to avoid copyright infringement):

I thought it was pretty funny, but I've shown or described it to a number of people and the response is invariably, "I don't get it", usually said with that sort of furled-brow, cocked-head expression that silently says, "but we all already know that you're a little peculiar."

Does this cartoon make any sense to any of my (two or three) loyal readers? Do I need to see a therapist?

Friday, December 10, 2010

La Maldición de Santiago

A few days ago I happened to be standing in the kitchen, talking to My Favorite Wife as she was removing a large pot from the bottom rack of the dishwasher. "What's that thing sitting on the bottom of the dishwasher?" I asked. By removing the pot she had revealed a small bristly object, around an inch in length, that had been obscured from view while the pot was still in the rack. She glanced into the dishwasher and emitted a small shriek. "It's a Santiago!!!"


I looked more closely and saw that the small bristly object was some sort of insect, a make and model that I had never seen before. What looked like a couple dozen spindly little legs radiated out from the elongated body, at the front of which were two prominently visible eyes. I thought it looked pretty interesting, actually. I particularly liked the stripe down its back that gave it kind of a sporty look.

From her demeanor it was clear that MFW did not think it looked interesting, but rather dangerous and threatening. She does not particularly care for small crawly things with lots of legs. Up to six legs, OK; plain ol' bugs are not such a big deal, unless they're unusually large. Eight or more legs: we have a problem. Spiders of any size immediately push us up to threat level "red". Any eight-legged intruders in our home must be dispatched immediately while MFW temporarily removes herself to an undisclosed secure location.

MFW's reaction to spiders goes a little overboard, which she will freely admit, but she says she can't help herself. She claims that as a small child she was traumatized by her two brothers, who, when they learned that she didn't like spiders, began breeding them and forced her to watch while they fed them flies. The effects of the PTSD (post-traumatic spider disorder) remain evident in unexpected ways decades later, such as when I walk up to her holding a small gift or other nice surprise behind my back, saying, "I have a something for you," and her spontaneous reaction is always to jump back and ask, with a ring of apprehension in her voice, "Is it a spider?!"

I've never really understood this mortal fear of small arthropods that a lot of people have. I will not claim that I particularly like insects, spiders and such. I am not tremendously interested in having them crawling around in my house or finding them in my food. Once, while living in a cheap student rental in northern California, one of the very large (around 2" long, no exaggeration) cockroaches that made occasional appearances in dark corners of the house startled me awake in the middle of the night by crawling over my arm, and I found that fairly upsetting and searched every inch of my room the next morning to minimize the likelihood of a repeat. As a small child I was a little freaked out by the huge potato bugs (read lies about them here, or click here for the horrible truth) that would very occasionally turn up around our house in the San Francisco Bay Area. But as a general rule, the sight of a little bug does not induce in me the kind of hysterical meltdown that it does in more than a few otherwise stable adults.

This thing in our dishwasher had a lot more than eight legs, qualifying it as extremely menacing on the MFW scale. I learned later that it was a house centipede, Scutigera coleoptrata. I initially guessed that it was some sort of centipede and did a Google search for pictures of centipedes and yes, that's what it was. It turns out that house centipedes are predators that eat ants, termites, silverfish, bedbugs, cockroaches and many other crawly things that you would rather not find in your home. They sting their prey with a venom that is passed through their two frontmost legs, which have evolved to serve this purpose. In theory they could sting humans but in practice this apparently doesn't really happen and I didn't find any reference to actual reported stings in humans. So in other words, S. coleoptrata is friend, not foe. It probably wouldn't be a bad thing to have a whole army of them patrolling the dark recesses of inaccessible crawlspaces under the house and such. Not that most people would probably agree with me on that, though. I found lots of web pages explaining how to get rid of them, with plenty of reader comments about how much people fear and hate and wish nothing but harm on them. It's just a little bug, fer crissakes!

We come in peace.

My daughter once recounted a story about how some sort of weird looking bug—a certain Mr. S. coleoptrata, as we now know—had been crawling across the floor of her classroom at school. When one of the other girls spotted it, she screamed and jumped up on her desk, inciting a small riot that took twenty minutes or so for the teacher to bring under control. After order had been restored, they captured it and attempted to keep it as a class pet, and out of a field of many proposed names chose to call it "Santiago" (this wasn't a Spanish class, but for some reason most of the names suggested were Spanish ones). It died fairly soon because the teacher attempted to keep it alive by feeding it oranges or some such thing, when it would have preferred a nice fat bug, or maybe its new habitat was just too dry, things the teacher could have found out in about three minutes on the Internet. Foolish teacher. Now he has the curse of Santiago hanging over his head.

This dishwasher appearance was now the second confirmed Santiago sighting in our own home. The first Santiago had shown up in the kids' bathroom sink, and my daughter identified it as the same kind of creature she had seen at school. Our latest specimen was an average-sized one (based on what I had later read) that must have crawled into the warm dishwasher overnight—I had left the door of it standing open after the wash cycle finished so that everything would be dry in the morning. "That's a small one," MFW told me from the other side of the kitchen, where she was maintaining a safe distance in case it suddenly attacked. "The one in the bathroom sink was this big!" she said, motioning with her hands to indicate an object about the size of a toaster.

"Be careful!" she admonished. "When you hit them they explode!" I suppose that whacking just about any small, soft thing with the heel of a shoe using massive force, as, judging from past experience, MFW had probably done to defend her family from the raging monster in the bathroom sink, could cause this effect. I explained that rather than sending the tiny menace on a footwear-induced journey to meet its maker, I would instead risk life and limb to capture this one alive for release into the wild, due, no doubt, to the latent influence of a steady diet of Wild Kingdom in my increasingly distant youth. Ignoring the peril and without weapons or protective clothing of any kind, I put a glass over it and slid a 3x5 card underneath.

Its venom is lethal, Jim, second only to that of the house centipede.

I noticed that it seemed to be making no effort to escape, so I put the glass down and just held it clinging to the end of the card. According to my several minutes of extensive research, they can scurry fairly quickly for cover on all those legs. I don't know if this one was tired or unwell or just fatalistic, but it made no moves to escape. At any rate, I carried it to the edge of the back yard and flicked it off the end of the card into the bushes, while MFW watched the operation from the kitchen window to verify that I had carried it a safe distance from the house. Bless me, Santiago, for I have spared thee, that thou mayest once again partake freely of ant and cockroach.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Bear Facts

This is just so wonderfully weird that I couldn't leave it uncommented, and thereby also miss the opportunity to use a really lame pun as a headline. These are two researchers at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China. They're performing an examination on a panda cub that is to be reintroduced to the wild. According to the story I saw about this, they're wearing panda costumes while working with the animal in order to "ensure that the cub's environment is devoid of human influence".

Relax, I'm a doctor.

Yeah, right. I have never been a panda, but I'm sure that if the shoe were on the other foot, and a panda walked up to me wearing, say, an overcoat and a Hulk Hogan mask, I'd figure out pretty quickly that someone or something was trying to put one over on me, even if it was a really lifelike mask. So I'd guess that even a young and inexperienced panda might notice something amiss in this scenario. Or maybe it will spend its adult life maladjusted and unable to fit into panda society, having grown up with the belief that all other pandas are supposed to walk upright, smell funny and carry scientific instruments around with them.

On the other hand, it's so crazy, it just might work!

In related scientific news, here are some penguins in Korea who are running a research project in which they are planning to reintroduce Santa Claus to the wild.

All in the Name of Science

Thursday, December 2, 2010

This Just In: Democracy Saved!

The following headline just caught my eye on an online news site:

To summarize, the US House of Representatives has just passed a bill which was already recently passed by the Senate and is now on its way to the President for his signature. What, you may ask, has our gridlocked Congress actually been able to agree on? Well, it seems that they have agreed that the FCC must establish and enforce regulations that will control the volume of TV commercials.

So let's see: the Congress can't agree on whether the Bush tax cuts will be extended and if so, for whom. They can't act to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. The Senate doesn't feel that the New START treaty needs to be ratified just now even though a whole gang of former (Republican) Secretaries of State have urged them to do so without delay. But they are able to find the time to ensure that couch potatoes across the nation will soon see their lives enormously improved. Democracy lives!

Back to the Roots

I believe in eating local foods. For me, that means really local, i.e., something out of the vegetable garden in my family's back yard. I more or less sympathize with the "local foods" movement, but mostly I just like the way our own home-grown food tastes. And besides, it's cheap.

During the summer, there are all kinds of nice fresh things to be had, since we grow a pretty big variety of stuff. What can't be eaten when it gets ripe, just because there's so much getting ripe all at the same time, gets processed for later consumption. I pickle, I can, I freeze. I would have made a good rural Nebraska housewife in 1952.

This time of year we're in a kind of transition mode. The first hard frost has killed off what little there was remaining of the hardier above-ground things like a little bit of celery and broccoli. But there are still a few fresh things to be had before we have to break out the items that were preserved in various ways: Root vegetables! In our case this means potatoes, carrots and parsnips (I'm not sure whether potatoes officially count as root vegetables but since they grow underground I'll consider them to be at least honorary root vegetables).

My kids do not like root vegetables. They don't like fish, either. But the rule is that our house is not a restaurant and we eat what's on the table. So last night for dinner we had fish with roasted carrots and parsnips, sending them through the entire Kübler-Ross cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

As the season progresses, and as we eat our way through the various items of our own that were processed during the summer, I'll head to the grocery store for things like turnips that we don't grow ourselves, and which even My Favorite Wife is a little suspicious of. My family always looks a little apprehensive when I announce that I will do the shopping for tonight's evening meal because God only knows what weird stuff I might bring home to foist upon them. My daughter would actually prefer that I completely refrain from cooking dinner because "you never make anything normal."

I suppose I do cook some things that most people consider a little out of the ordinary. But it's part of my decades-long crusade to save the forgotten vegetables. The forgotten vegetables are those items that you yourself have seen in the produce section but had no idea what to do with. I know you've walked past those rutabagas, the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables, sitting there in the produce section and thought to yourself, "What are those ugly things? And what's with the weird name? Who in his right mind would eat such a thing?" And okra? Kohlrabi? Does anyone actually eat this stuff? I sure do. I grow some of it in our garden, too.
Consigned To Oblivion No More!

My forgotten vegetable crusade started when I was a college student shopping for my own food for the first time and began noticing this stuff at the local grocery store. There were lots of things I had never eaten, and that I couldn't recall ever seeing anyone else eat. Out of curiousity, I started bringing things home to see what could be done with them. College is traditionally the time for new vegetable experiences, right?

I am happy to see that I am less and less alone in my crusade. I did a Google search on "forgotten vegetables" and found that the term, which I thought I had invented, is in fairly widespread use to describe exactly the sort of thing I discussed above. (Try googling it yourself; I promise I'll wait right here while you do.) I guess I should have trademarked the expression when I started using it some 25+ years ago. Another opportunity missed!

Many of my friends and neighbors are getting introduced to the forgotten vegetables through community supported agriculture (CSA). In case you're not familiar with it, the idea behind CSA is that you buy a share of a small farm's produce, helping to guarantee the farmer's livelihood, and in exchange you get a mixed box of whatever is currently being harvested delivered to you direct from the farm every week. Typically it's organically or semi-organically produced food, so you get something that's good for you and at a good price to boot. The only caveat is that there is a good chance that at least sometimes your box is going to include an item that you've never seen in your leafy suburban life. Especially now, at the extreme tail end of the season, there's a good chance that you'll be getting a root vegetable that will leave you scratching your head about exactly what to do with it.

But tonight I'll be eating my own root vegetables again. Okay, potatoes, which we concluded might not be root vegetables per se, but we'll let them pretend that they are because they want to belong and self esteem is important. It is the season in which my tribe lights candles and consumes potato pancakes fried in oil in commemoration of the miraculous victory in the guerilla insurgency against the foreign invaders. I'll bet that makes those potatoes feel really special.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pie in the Sky

I never should have started this blog. Now that my kids have discovered it, they are constantly badgering me to write more.

At the dinner table my daughter asks, "Dad, when are you going to post something new?" I reply that nothing interesting has happened to me lately so I don't have anything to write about. "Write something about your wife's funny quirks," suggests my son. "Yeah," says my daughter, "write about how at the dinner table Mom always…"

"NO," interrupts My Favorite Wife, most emphatically. So I won't be writing about that. "Then write something about the Pfalz," says my daughter, referring to the Palatinate, the region in southwestern Germany where MFW grew up. It's a place famous for potatoes, white wine and an extremely rude-sounding and loudly spoken dialect that is largely incomprehensible to people from other parts of the country.

Hmm, I don't have a whole lot to go on here. A large part of what I've posted so far is driven by comparisons of peculiar American behavior vs. peculiar foreign behavior. It might be wearing a little thin for my loyal readership of at least two followers. (I've never had "followers" before. Now I have two, according to my blog page, which is a tremendous ego boost. I am trying to figure out how to transform them from "followers" into "minions" so I can get them to do my evil bidding.) So, lacking any other ideas, and wanting to get my kids off my back, I think I'll combine their suggestions into an "all of the above" approach and tell you a little story about pie.

For a number of years now, we have celebrated Thanksgiving at the house of some friends of ours. Not every year, but most. Besides us, there's a whole core of regulars who attend, consisting of their family and friends, with slight variations from year to year. It's a big group of people and there is a lot of food to be prepared. So the first time we went, MFW, who loves to bake, volunteered to bring a dessert, and she has done so every year since then.

Now I have to tell you something about the culture of baked goods in the Pfalz. By the way, for you Gringos out there, that's pronounced Pfaltz, with a "t" in it, to rhyme with "salts". As noted above, in English it's the "Palatinate", but that's a mouthful to say and a pain to type, so I'll just use the term "Pfalz". Incidentally, that's the High German name for the region; the local dialect doesn't know the "pf" sound, so the locals call it "die Palz", i.e., with just a "p" sound at the beginning. It seems that they weren't paying attention to something called the Second Sound Shift that occurred around 500 AD—they were probably too busy eating potatoes, drinking wine and yelling at each other to notice. Also incidentally, there's a town in New York called New Paltz that was founded in 1677 by people who emigrated from that part of Germany. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yes, baked goods.

There is a whole culture of baking among the Hausfrauen of the Pfalz. I think this extends to some degree to the rest of the country, but it seems to be particularly pronounced where MFW comes from. In the Pfalz there is an unwritten law that every social event involving food must include vast quantities of cakes, pies and tortes, which will be collectively contributed by the women in attendance (baking apparently not being considered a manly pursuit). On the surface it's a friendly kind of thing, but in reality it's a cut-throat competition in which recognition is given for both quantity and quality.

Quality will be recognized by requests for the recipe for any well-received item. Unacceptable quality will result in the shame and humiliation of having most of your cake left on the tray for you to take home again. Consistent bad quality will subject you to the insulting behavior of MFW's aunt, a famously blunt person who is rude in a kind of charming way, a favorite family story about her being of her once having taken a piece of her own cake along on a social call after announcing that the baked goods proffered by the hostess on previous visits were of substandard quality ("Dere ihr Kuuche schmackt mer nit!").

Quantity will be recognized by, well, quantity. The prevailing standard, as nearly as I can tell, is that at any such gathering there must be at least one cake for every man, woman, child and dog in attendance.

Let's Party

The curious thing is that the cake is not eaten for dessert. Rather, it is part of Kaffee und Kuchen, which is the lead-off event at all of these gatherings, typically sometime in the early afternoon. Everyone drinks a few cups of coffee and eats eight or nine slices of cake. And then it's time for lunch. If you can only manage two helpings of the main course on top of all that coffee and cake, the hostess will assault you with the question, "What's wrong? You don't like it?"

Which brings us back to tonight's dessert, which will in fact be treated as dessert and not as a kind of auxiliary main course. I would not describe MFW as a Hausfrau, as she would probably do me an injury if I did, but one thing she did bring with her to the Land of the Free is the aforementioned Pfälzer Hausfrau baking aesthetic, in which "enough" is never enough and "way too much" will just barely suffice. She spent most of yesterday and much of this morning baking. I generally dread these baking sessions because she starts out with way too much ambition and way too little time. She of course means well, because she's just trying to make everything everyone likes, but she becomes totally stressed out trying to make the deadline and terrorizes the whole family as all other needs and priorities are sacrificed to the Imperative of Pie. We try not to take it personally, because we know that she is just following the ancient instructions that are encoded in her genes, not unlike the mysterious instincts that send the eels to the Sargasso Sea, but we're always glad when it's over.

Fortunately, this year was much better than most in the time department, so it wasn't the test of domestic tranquility that it has been in other years. And now I am looking forward to finishing my Thanksgiving dinner with an excellent piece of MFW's cherry pie that she made especially for me.

These Are Only Some of Them

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Elephant in the Room

I stay in hotels frequently because I have to go on site to spend time with my company's clients, who are distributed all around the country. I'll stay in the occasional hotel for private travel as well, although I'm mostly too cheap to spring for a hotel when I'm paying for it out of my own pocket and prefer instead to have the family scrounge up a few scraps of cardboard that we can lie on under a bridge. After many years of staying in places that ranged from crappy to really nice and everywhere in between, I think I've seen pretty much everything there is to see in terms of hotel amenities.

One thing about most of the hotel rooms I stay in: they always have a lot of towels. Way more than I know what to do with. And in the last couple of years I've observed an innovation in how they present all those towels. It used to be that when I went into the bathroom in my room, there'd be a couple of hand towels and a washcloth or two hanging over the towel rack by the sink. Nowadays the hand towels are usually folded so that there's a little pocket at the bottom of the half of the towel that hangs over the front of the towel bar, and the washcloth has been arranged to stick out of this pocket in a sort of scallop pattern. This is one of the little things that I, as a business traveler, really appreciate. Damn it, if I can't be at home with my family, then I at least want a bathroom full of nicely arranged towels.

Cotton Splendor
Occasionally, one of the hotels I stay in will have a white terrycloth bathrobe in addition to all the towels. I'm never quite sure what to do with this; if I had wanted a bathrobe, I would have brought one along with me, and when I'm in my room alone, I'm not sure why I even need one. It's not like I need to spare anyone from the sight of my unclothed self. Besides, I'm an average-sized guy, but whenever I've tried on one of those hotel room bathrobes, it's always been hilariously small on me. Maybe they're only meant for the ladies.

There aren't always enough towels in the room, though. The most extreme example I experienced was some years ago when my family and I stayed in a Formule I hotel on the outskirts of Paris, France while driving long distance across France and Germany. This particular hotel chain caters to long-distance travelers on the Autoroute who just need a cheap place to stop over for the night on their way to somewhere or other, sort of like a French Motel 6. Except that F1 hotels not only all look alike in the way that all Motel 6's (and other chains) do, they look like they were actually produced as part of the same batch in some kind of hotel factory.

Living in a Box
This factory-like atmosphere is reflected on the inside as well. The rooms have an ultra-compact, spartan design. About the only thing that isn't bolted down is a chair and a couple of mattresses. The (tiny) bathroom of the one I stayed in looked like it was molded out of a single piece of plastic; maybe that's so the staff can just hose the whole thing down after you leave (I don't recall whether there was a drain in the floor). And it had all of two towels for our family of four.

This is the Life!
The towels were not that great, either. You know that one old towel in the back of the closet that you took with you when you moved out of your parents' house twenty years ago? The one that's so worn through that it's almost transparent in the middle? The one that's barely big enough to be even considered a bath towel? The one that you're only hanging onto because you don't want to use your other towels to wipe the mud off the dog's feet before you let him in the house on a rainy day? Well, that towel's a lot nicer than the ones in our F1 room were. But crappy as they were, a couple more would have been useful, so I went to ask for them at the front desk.

Welcome, Weary Traveler
The front desk folks were cheerful enough, but found my request for an additional one or two towels completely unfathomable. I tried to explain in my fairly limited French that if the room is meant to accommodate more than two guests, it would stand to reason that it would be possible to obtain more than the default set of two towels per room. Mais non, mon ami! This is not the F1 way. Towels are a valuable and limited resource and not to be handed out to any joker who comes begging for one. One room, two towels, how could it possibly be any other way? It's not so much that they were arguing from a standpoint of policy, as nearly as I could tell, it was more like they were just perplexed by the request. After a few minutes of trying to pursue this fruitless discussion with my somewhat rudimentary language skills, I remembered that we had a couple of towels in the car, since we were at the time returning home from a rented guest house to which we were required to bring our own bedding and towels, so I didn't pursue it any further. But I think this is the only hotel I've ever been in that was so stingy with something as basic as towels.

So, returning to the present, what a relief to be in a hotel in the Land of the Free, where the streets are paved with towels. Freedom Towels, I shall call them. But behold: towel arranging technology continues its inexorable advance. When I came to my room after checking in, the towels were arranged as shown in the very first photo above. By the time I left my room the next morning, they were no longer arranged so nicely. But when I returned to my room that evening, what did I find in my bathroom? Why, it's a cute little towel elephant!

The Little Cotton Elephant in the Room
I hadn't seen this before. The elephant has been there to greet me every evening this week. I feel truly pampered!

I wondered whether there is more of this kind of hotel towel origami to be found. So I did a Google search on "hotel towel origami". Wow! I had no idea that this was such a widely practiced art form. The possibilities seem endless! I can't wait to show that to My Favorite Wife and tell her that this is how I always want the towels at home folded from now on. I bet she'll be thrilled!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's the Dead Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

The Pumpkin Graveyard

I was looking at the pile of rotting jack-o-lanterns in my compost pile and reflecting on how we have a whole industry of growing a vegetable that few Americans, if any, actually eat. Every October piles of pumpkins appear in all of the grocery stores, produce markets etc. We buy them, cut the tops off, scrape out the seeds and other goop from the inside, carve scary faces or other patterns into them and then put them on the front porch with a candle inside. Only the more ambitious among us might bake and eat the seeds or otherwise try to turn some of this poor humiliated vegetable into food.

There is, of course, the matter of pumpkin pie. I am not sure where pumpkin pie filling comes from, other than a can that you buy at the grocery store. I don't recall ever seeing anyone I know turn an actual pumpkin into pumpkin pie. Maybe when your jack-o-lantern disappears from your front porch late at night on October 31 it's actually not the doing of those pesky teenagers from down the street, but rather the work of the Secret Pumpkin Recycling Mafia, sent out by the likes of Dell and Libby's to collect the ingredients that will become this Thanksgiving's pumpkin pies. Who knows? I sure don't, but since I never liked the stuff anyway I'm not going to waste another thought on it.

Our pumpkins end up in the compost pile after they have completed their service on Halloween night, so I guess in the end we do eat them, at least indirectly, since the compost gets worked into the soil in the garden and then we grow food in it. I love my compost pile. It's an opportunity for me to manufacture my own dirt. You can never have enough dirt.

I made this dirt myself!
I'm especially proud of my three-chamber compost thingy that gives me plenty of space in which to regularly shift the compost material back and forth between chambers so that it breaks down in a nice even way. I put in all of the non-meat kitchen scraps, but the main ingredients are lawn clippings mixed with leaves. Every fall I collect the leaves that rain down from the many trees on and around our lawn, run over them with a lawnmower and then dump them into a pile. Over the course of the following summer I draw down the pile of processed leaves as I mix them with lawn clippings. It takes a few months for a batch to break down enough to be usable, at which point I pack it into big heavy-duty trash bags for storage until I can work it into the soil at the beginning of the next growing season.

Where Dirt Comes From
This past summer I actually ran out of leaves while I still had plenty of lawn left to mow, so this year I asked one of my neighbors for some of his leaves in order to have enough next year. He was a little perplexed at this because for most people in our leafy suburb, the question is, "How do I get rid of all these damned leaves?" and not, "Where can I get more?" So he asked what I wanted them for and I told him I was planning to eat them, which, as noted previously, is at least indirectly true. He gave me a bunch of leaves but he didn't ask any further questions.

But I digress… this is about pumpkins and not compost. I'll tell you more about that some other time.

My Favorite Wife, who grew up in Germany, is a devoted pumpkin carver, having adopted this peculiarly American custom with the zeal that is generally only observed in late converts to a cause. She has presumably amassed a huge collection of little knives and saws and other specialized pumpkin carving tools; I say presumably because nobody can ever remember where the little tools we bought the previous year are, so off we go to Walgreens every year to get more. I assume the missing tools are in the same place as all of the left-over Easter egg coloring equipment that we also can't seem to find from one year to the next. Maybe all of those missing socks that seem to have never returned from their journey to the dryer and back are there too.

The practice of pumpkin carving was actually brought into the family by me, then an American expatriate in Germany, when my daughter was small and needed to be introduced to Proper Culture. They don't grow pumpkins in Germany, but there are some fairly large yellow-orange squash that show up in the stores in the fall and make a pretty reasonable pumpkin substitute. So one year I bought one and showed my daughter how to make a jack-o-lantern. Then we put it on the front porch of our ground-floor apartment for the admiration and wonderment of the many neighbors in our apartment complex. It wasn't long before we had a whole phalanx of little neighbor kids and their parents showing up every evening at dusk to witness the lighting of the Kürbisgeist, or "squash ghost".

Vegetables of our Forefathers

Sunday, November 7, 2010

On the Road with Kris

A couple of nights ago I was on a plane once again, flying off to yet another glamorous and exotic location to do some work for one of my company’s consulting clients. Seated directly across the aisle from me was a guy with white hair and a long, bushy white beard. He was about average in height, late middle age, with a pronounced paunch. He wasn’t wearing little spectacles but he was wearing some faintly spectacle-like wire-framed glasses. It appeared that I was en route to Minneapolis-St. Paul with Santa Claus.

He wasn’t wearing a red suit, but he was wearing a red plaid flannel shirt, jeans and sneakers. Basically, he was dressed the way I'm often dressed when I'm in my garage workshop, or generally any time I'm not wearing the slacks and jacket I put on to signal to clients and co-workers that I am a responsible professional. It would stand to reason that Santa Claus would also put on his fancy red suit for official appearances of a professional nature and, like me, prefer something a little more comfortable and casual when he's in Santa’s workshop or otherwise out of the public eye. It being a couple of months before Christmas, maybe he was using this more conventional form of travel than his flying sleigh to do a little business travel.

Now, just in case you're wondering at this point, I do know that Santa Claus is a fictional character. So I had to wonder: Is this guy deliberately trying to look like Santa Claus? Or is he a big chubby guy with white hair who just doesn’t care much for shaving and trimming his facial hair, and that’s all? Intentional or not, surely he is aware of his resemblance to old Kris Kringle.

Maybe he really enjoys looking like Santa. Maybe he's spent years perfecting the look, and plays the part at shopping malls and department stores so well that he only has to work for the approximately one month per year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maybe he pines all year for that single month, when small children will look on him with awe and wonder, and he goes from being just an average guy to being treated as some kind of demigod.

Maybe he’s relatively indifferent to the whole thing and isn’t particularly going out of his way to look like that. Maybe he laughs about it with friends or family, but doesn’t make any effort to capitalize on his resemblance to Jolly Old Saint Nick.

On the other hand, maybe he really hates the whole Santa thing: “This is the way I look and I’m not your holiday icon, so leave me alone.” Maybe he despises Christmas and looks the way he looks as a deliberate act of defiance. Maybe he’s a mean old guy who delights in scaring the bejeezus out of little kids who come running up to him on the street to tell him about all of the presents they want for Jesus’ birthday: “No, you don’t get the Hot Wheels. For you there will be only PAIN!”

Reflecting on all this I found myself reminded of the origins of this peculiarly American incarnation of St. Nicholas. One of the many people who shaped our American idea of what Santa Claus looks like was Thomas Nast, the nineteenth-century caricaturist who also gave us the donkey and the elephant as symbols of the two major US political parties. Nast was born in the town of Landau/Pfalz, not far from where my wife grew up, where he is one of those long-ago German emigrants who remain their home town’s main claim to fame.

In Germany they don’t have Santa Claus as we know him. Instead, they have Nikolaus (St. Nicholas), who looks like a Catholic bishop in a red, faintly Santa-like robe. Nikolaus has various regional names; for example, where my wife grew up I have heard older people refer to him in the local dialect (Pfälzisch) as "Belzenickel". Whatever they call him, German children wake up on the morning of December 6th to find that the shoes they put outside their front door the night before have been miraculously filled with fruits, nuts, candy and maybe a small toy or two during the night.

Nikolaus doesn’t frequent department stores. Instead, he comes to your house pretty much any time between Nikolaus day and Christmas bearing a big book and often accompanied by his scary servant Knecht Ruprecht (“Ruprecht the servant”). Nikolaus consults the big book and reads out to the awestruck tykes all of the things that their parents have previously instructed the college student in the Nikolaus costume to tell them about their various good or wicked deeds of the preceding year. There is a sort of implied threat that Knecht Ruprecht is going to do them harm if their transgressions have crossed some unspecified threshold, so the visit from Nikolaus is not all candy canes and ho-ho-ho.

There are various other characters that show up around Christmas time in Germany. The American-style Santa Claus sometimes shows up in decorations and is referred to as “der Weinachtsmann” (“the Christmas man”). He doesn’t seem to have any discernable function other than decoration, i.e. there isn’t any kind of lore or activity associated with him as nearly as I can tell. He's just sort of there. I've asked my wife to explain this to me but she can never really give me a satisfying answer.

Another character that shows up at Christmas is the “Christkind”, which would translate literally as “Christ child”. In my wife’s family, the giving of gifts on Christmas eve (not on Christmas morning, as in the US), or the gifts themselves, are sometimes referred to under the loose label of “Christkind”. The Christkind as an entity is somehow the source of Christmas gifts, but the system by which the gifts are selected, procured and conveyed to their intended recipients is essentially unspecified. One may see decorative images of the Christkind as a sort of small child with wings like an angel's. So, I have asked, does the Christkind come to you and give you the gifts, or does he leave them under the tree when you are sleeping, or something like that? No, apparently not. How does the Christkind decide what to give you? Unknown. Is the Christkind baby Jesus? Negative on that one too. My German in-laws seem entirely unbothered by this sort of vagueness, whereas I’m a names-and-dates guy who needs to know exactly who’s responsible for what and when.

Of course, being a member of the Chosen People, even in the country of my birth I’ve observed all this stuff through the lens of an outsider all my life anyway. We don’t have any holidays on which a guy comes down your chimney and leaves you cool stuff in exchange for some milk and cookies you put out for him. The closest thing we have is a prophet for whom we leave a glass of wine on the table during one of our holidays, but we also leave the front door open because apparently Old Testament prophets prefer a more conventional means of entry into the home.

I have a very vague memory from when I was about five of being in a store or shopping center and seeing a guy in a Santa suit, and asking my mother what that was all about. She explained to me the basic tenets of Santa Claus theory, then told me in so many words that it was bunk, but that under no circumstances must I tell that to any of my non-Chosen friends because they would be severely traumatized.

A cousin of mine was not so well informed about these things at a similar age, although he apparently was slightly little more informed about current events than I had been as a five-year-old. The year was 1980 and the American hostages in the US embassy in Tehran were on the nightly news every day. At Christmas time he and his family were in a shopping mall where there was a Santa Claus posing for pictures with kids. Whereas I had been merely curious, he became quite unglued at the site of this man with the flowing white beard. He pointed at Santa and shrieked, “The Ayatollah!