Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Some Late Summer Reading

I read more history and philosophy than anything else. Other topics of interest include psychology, astronomy, baseball, and classical literature. Every summer, usually in August, the History Book Club has a really terrific sale on books. So, I take advantage of the prices and inexpensive shipping to broaden my private library.

Last Friday - just in time for the weekend - my recent order arrived. One way to tell that the Great Recession is still with us is that "standard" shipping gets to you as fast as "expedited" shipping. Nothing is in the delivery systems. There are comparatively few packages moving around. Consumers aren't buying.

Anyway, this year I ordered four books - all military history (which is by far my favorite kind of history). The shipment included the third and final volume of
Richard J. Evans' history of the Third Reich entitled The Third Reich at War. I immediately started reading this one and discovered that it is just as difficult to put down as the previous two volumes.

Evans began the series in 2004 with The Coming of the Third Reich which largely dealt with the Weimar Republic and the fractured, chaotic political landscape that Germany found itself in after World War One. Hitler and the Nazis are prevalent but by no means dominant in this work. The Social Democrats, the Communists, the Centerists, and the Catholic Church (among others) are all equally analyzed. Evans carries the reader up to the moment Hitler assumed power in Germany in early 1933, even though the Nazis never got more that 37 percent of the popular vote. A reluctant coalition between the Nazis, the industrialists, and the military formed out of fear of an impending Communist revolution in a democratically weak Germany ultimately placed Hitler on top.

The second volume, The Third Reich in Power, came out in 2005 and covered the years between the 1933 Nazi takeover up to just before the invasion of Poland in September 1939. It is filled with details of how the Nazis created an effective police state, how all opposition was crushed, how the masses of Germans were indoctrinated with Nazi ideology, how wildly popular Hitler became with the way the Great Depression was handled in Germany as well as with his bloodless expansionism in the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. In the aftermath of Germany's humiliation following World War One, these developments brought to the surface a fierce amount of German nationalistic pride. Germany felt "imperial" again. The beginnings of discrimination and violence against various segments of the German population such as Jews, Gypsies, the mentally ill, the physically incapacitated etc. are given in great detail.

The Third Reich at War completes the Evans' trilogy with details of how Germany entered into a war of aggression, how Germans were initially ecstatic at the quick victories against Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. July 1940 marked the height of Hitler's popularity. The prolongation of the war against Britain and the eventual war against the Soviet Union, however, brought about the disasters at El Alamein and Stalingrad. Coupled with the widespread devastation due to Allied bombing of German cities and the deprivations experienced by ordinary Germans in the economic shift to "total war", faith in the Nazis and Hitler faded rather quickly in 1943-1944. Still, the nation was held together by fear of the police state, by the habits of recent glory, by continuing fear that the bolsheviks would destroy German culture, and by hope that another miraculous victory might be achieved. Meanwhile, the Nazis arrived at the "Final Solution". Mass murder became almost a science.

I'm about halfway through the tragic final volume of Evans' work. Taken collectively with the previous installments of the trilogy, this is truly a monumental achievement in historical writing. Evans will likely take his place alongside other great historians whose work has held up very well through the test of time. Authors like William Shirer, John Toland, and - more recently - Ian Kershaw.

Simultaneously - I rarely read just one book at a time - I am reading John Ferling's Almost A Miracle. This is quite a contrast to the massive, horrific scale of Nazi Germany's rise and fall. It deals with American Revolution, a subject I know comparatively little about. Instead of millions of troops and countless tons of bombs wrecking unimaginable death and destruction on a Wagnerian scale, you have basically two sides struggling just to keep respectable armies in the field.

For example, according to Ferling, the Continental Congress authorized George Washington to raise an army of 75,000 troops in 1777. The army, in fact, peaked at a strength of just under 40,000 in October of that year. The colonists would fight, but only for short tours of duty. Meanwhile, the British, with their better trained and more disciplined troops, encountered great difficulties in keeping adequate forces in America and Canada tethered to the end of a 3,000 mile supply line.

The title is really an excellent one. It truly is almost a miracle that the American fight for Independence survived. We can thank a series of British mistakes, largely trying to do too much with too few resources and failure by various commanders to follow-up upon rather frequent British victories, for assisting our cause.

Interestingly, the book is critical of George Washington early in the war. Washington had a tendency to think like the British and spread his meager forces far too thin. His army was more often than not beaten by the Brits but he managed to keep it in the field and in the end that was all that mattered.

The author does point out Washington’s flash of brilliance at the Battle of Trenton, which rejuvenated the still fledgling American revolt. I’m only about 200 pages into the work so far, so I’m sure Washington did more things right as the war continues. We’ll see.

Although the book probably won't make such comparisons, in my mind the similarities between the strategic realities of the American Revolution and the Vietnam War (with the role of the Americans reversed) are striking. The British maintained control of the ports while the Americans had success in surviving and garnering support further inland. The British more often than not defeated their American adversaries, but by keeping an army in the field the Americans eventually wore down the British will to fight.

At any rate, Jennifer and I are planning a trip to Boston in October, so Almost A Miracle is timely reading as I get ready to venture up to where the Revolution for Independence actually began.

The other two books that arrived in my shipment await later reading. Frederick W. Kagan's The End of the Old Order covers Napoleon's rise to power in the period from 1801 - 1805, culminating with the Battle of Austerlitz. Apparently, this book is rather controversial in that it argues that it was incompetence by the Third Coalition forces rather than brilliance by Napoleon that led to the French Empire of that time. That is not a new perspective. Another book in my library, Blundering to Glory, made the same point back in the 1990's. Regardless, the more recent research in Kagan's work is supposed to be top-notch and I look forward to learning something from it.

The final book is The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam's interpretation of the Korean War. Korea is another subject I know very little about and I hope to fill in the gaps a bit with this volume. Halberstam has the reputation for being one of the great historians of the last century, though a bit of a controversial one. His work The Best and the Brightest was required reading during my college days and still has an outstanding reputation. Tragically, Halberstam was killed in a automobile accident just after finishing this book on Korea, which took him many years to complete. I will set it aside until probably this winter.

Seems like a more appropriate time to read it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Paradox of Health Care Costs

Health care reform is the big political issue at the moment. Some say that President Obama has lost momentum in the campaign for reform to his critics, who have been able to shift the focus away from the debate about policy to a focus on the disruptive town hall meetings many members of congress have experienced this month.

In an attempt to regain momentum Obama has been forced to demonize something about the status quo.
His villain of choice is the insurance industry. Big health care insurers are now the reason health care doesn't work in America.

This is all bullshit on both sides. First of all, the critics of the President's ideas for reform have resorted to ridiculous rhetoric and outright falsehoods about what the Obama administration is trying to do.
Recent comparisons by Limbaugh and Palin of the Obama reforms to Nazism are, of course, fundamentally why we elected Obama to begin with. The politics of fear. They are liars and perhaps just plain stupid. They discredit their case by taking extreme positions that have no basis in reality. But, of course, this is the American way. It has happened before. Our politicans and pundits have a long history of resorting to theatrics in controversial issues. So, it doesn't surprise me. Let's just dumb everything down and scare everybody into confusion and opposition. That's our wonderful democracy in action (or maybe that should read "inaction").

Secondly, the President himself and his Democratic Party supporters have
utterly failed to either craft a piece of legislation that deals with the real problem of health care in this country or to direct their focus in a holistic fashion at a very complex problem. They too want to dumb everything down and blame the whole mess not on physicians or pharmaceutical companies or even the tragically unhealthy habits of - god forbid - the American citizenry, but primarily on the way insurance works in this country.

You idiots.

Until someone actually starts to have a debate about
how are we going to manage to costs of health care we don't have a real debate about the real problem. The problem isn't that people are uninsured. The 40-something million uninsured number is probably inflated. The real number is probably far less. The real problem with the whole mess is that Obama wants to create another government entitlement without any aspect of the proposed legislation directed at controlling the costs of providing adequate health care for all.

Until you people stop with
the Nazi scare tactics and the insurance company witch-hunt you aren't going to get a real debate nor a real solution. All you are going to get is politics as usual (what about that "change" idea you hit upon in the campaign Obama?). Those opposed are going to use the politics of fear to their advantage. Those in support of the policy are going to find a bad guy that must be taken down. The debate will be about everything BUT cost.

The fact is the President really doesn't have a substantive plan on the table. There are just all these ideas that various numbers of senators and congressmen agree on. Mostly they are divided. The
Blue Dog Democrats heroically ask what is all this going to cost and how are we going to pay for it?

The President says
"savings" (and probably
a tax increase on wealthier Americans because of this and other government programs.) Horseshit. You want me to support the largest new entitlement program in recent history, one to rival Medicaid and Medicare in its implications and reach and you say government will pay for it all by creating "savings" and an increase in taxes based upon wealth. When has government "efficiency" ever brought about true savings?

David Brooks and Mark Shields summarized the situation pretty well tonight. According to Brooks the fundamental problem Obama has right now is that: "...he's really good at talking about why we need change. He's really good at talking about what change would look like if we had a good system. He's not so good at talking about what the plan is."

The "White Elephant" here is that if people live longer, healthier lives health care is going to cost more. Period. The great burden that obesity and smoking supposedly place on our society turns out to be a myth. Fat people and smokers don't cost as much long-term as thin people and non-smokers -
because the people with bad health habits don't live as long.

This is a fine example of the simple fact that it is the routine nature of American health care today that makes it so expensive. The weight of the costs for regular health maintenance for a national population and a violent, emergency room culture means that, even as bad as being fat and smoking are in terms of what they financially cost our society, that stuff is still not as expensive as living longer. The maintenance of living longer is our primary health cost.

I'm not sure how that blatant fact works in a democracy? We have to be smarter about how much we allow the maintenance of our routine selves to cost our society. So, yes, this means some rationing of care, fewer tests, labs, specialized opinions, statistically ineffective returns-on-investment for measurable protocols.

Which brings us to an even more complex issue, the one that sends Sarah Palin into orbit.

End of Life is an expense no matter what your faith.
Studies show that 25 percent of the Medicare budget is spent on people during their final year of life — with 40 percent of that spent in the final month. To simply not put that on the table for some kind of discussion because it offends some body's religious sensibilities is unethical and bad budgeting. Keeping the heart beating no matter what (with no other signs of human life other than a body lying in a bed) costs this nation tens of billions every year.

That might sound cold. I'm sorry. It is an irrefutable fact. End of Life issues must be brought under control or at least budgeted for in some sane manner. Unfortunately, End of Life has pretty much been taken off the table. So maybe Palin and Limbaugh accomplished something. They have ensured that the full spectrum of health cost issues are NOT debated.

The paradox of health care is that much of the cost is actually driven by healthy people living longer, taking drugs to help them live longer, doctors ordering tests to help them live longer, and healthy people costing a fortune when they finally near death, especially in the last four weeks of an otherwise healthy life.

If we can't somehow talk about this budgetary fact without engaging in name-calling, if we can't see that the American people themselves are as much to blame for skyrocketing health costs as any other factor, then we truly are lost in a muddled mess that may prove to be yet another monetary black hole (along with Medicaid and Medicare) the more the government gets involved.

But, neither side is willing to enter into that kind of debate. Because it means the voters are partly to blame. And the last politican to focus a problem on the American people didn't last very long.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Starry Afternoon

What is really going on? U.S. bank failures continue. The unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped for the first time in 15 months. Obama is having a tough time getting his health care reform agenda passed. Sotomayor was sworn in today as our newest Supreme Court justice.

Meanwhile, if you step back from it all and take a wider view, you realize how vast (and generally indifferent) the Now is.

Very hot today. The heat index was about 100 degrees. I bought groceries, then read for a bit after lunch. Despite the sun, I mowed the front half of the yard, pausing to enjoy a Mike's Hard Lemonade and piddle on the computer. In early afternoon, I pulled up Starry Night to check out the US from space.

Starry Night is cool for many reasons but one is certainly that it tracks the orbits of hundreds of satellites in addition to all the many wonders of the visible universe. At night, especially on clear winter nights, I sometimes pull the sky up and advance the time into the near future, maybe an hour or two ahead, to find a satellite that is going to pass within the view of the night sky at my house. Then I go outside at that future time of night to watch the tiny spot of reflected sunlight drift across my field of view against the bespeckled darkness.

Although the sun was out this afternoon I could see in Starry Night that seven satellites were criss-crossing North America as I sat in my study drinking the Mike's. Calipso, Cloudsat, and
Aqua were all passing overhead. Most satellites pass north to south or south to north, generally at slightly different speeds across the sky.

If you step back just a bit further you can see the vast expanse of North America from space. The distance between the tip of Florida to the end of Alaska is among the largest stretches of land on our Earth.

In the distance, Earth's companion Jupiter orbits the Sun while the
Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) drifts relatively close-by, a mere 300-500 light years away. (Notice it slightly above the Earth in the screen shot.) That means we can see the nebula as it was several centuries ago, not as it is today.

Starry Night allows you to zoom into the Helix Nebula and see it as many larger earth-bound telescopes see it. The on-screen indicator is pointed toward a nameless star in the field of view between my vantage point in Starry Night and the nebula. Perhaps surprisingly, space is filled with nameless stars and debris. These are designated "TYC"-something, from their number in the Tycho-2 catalog.

Once again (see my January 25 post), this affords us the opportunity to compare land-based telescopic imagery with the magnificent meeting place of art and science that is the Hubble Telescope's atmosphere-free richness. Stuff like this inspires a sense of wonder in me.

So, nearby this afternoon, new stars are being born. The universe takes no notice of us as we peer out into its darkness and light. "We owe the existence of not only our planet but also ourselves to ancient supernovae, for we too are made of heavy elements. Literally, many stars have died so that we might live." (page 147, Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Dawn, 1981)

We are the residue of long dead stars. This is what is in the Now, as much as any earthly concern. Comparatively, our exertions, while great to us, are muted by the language of the stars.

A closer view from You can almost see the stars coming to life.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Parks Rocks On

Another hot southern August is here and our shelty mutt Parks keeps on rocking. He was supposed to have died from terminal cancer by the end of March. But things didn't turn out that way.

Other than sleeping a lot more you'd be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with Parks. Most of the time he lays around, panting. Occasionally you'll catch him on extended walks or running but those instances are almost always connected with feeding time.

We try to always feed him around 5 to 5:30. He's well aware of this. Dogs are creatures of habit. I guess that's one reason I like them so much. Parks, however, must have been a political lobbyist in his previous incarnation because, without fail, about a hour before feeding time he perks up from his comatose state and begins to transform before your very eyes into a vociferous advocate, faining near starvation to hear him tell it, and demanding food with assorted whines and - closer to actual feeding time - persistent, emphatic barking.

His barks are a full body experience for the little guy. He will yelp at you after a short, sharp growl, heaving his chest into the utterance thereby raising his front paws slightly off the ground leaving on the tip of his nails to support him. At such times he often dances and jumps and twirls around your feet as if he believes the whole world is hard of hearing. Surely they can see me if they can't hear me, he thinks.

What don't you people understand? Food! Feed me you savages!

If he starts in too early I often talk back to him. "It's not time" (accentuating the word "time" in his temporarily perky ears.). Then I taunt him with body language and various vocal sounds back until I work him into a frenzy. Then I open the door as if to offer to feed him outside. He frequently rushes through the door, into our carport, and spins around barking as rapidly as his lungs will support him back into the house. I slam the door shut. The barking continues for a couple of minutes.

He'll ambush you when you finally open the door again. He's just that way.

It isn't all about brief explosions of energy followed food and prolonged sleep, however. He's mind is going. He is old after all and I guess he does have cancer lurking within him. Often Parks will wander through the house, going into rooms where he usually doesn't reside. He just stares for awhile. Why the hell did I come in here? He forgets things.

Forgetting can be a blessing in life but, in the case of Parks, it might also cause death. A few weeks ago, before we went on our beach trip, Parks wandered up the hill behind our house to rummage through a neighbor's garbage for something to tie him over until lobbying time arrived. Apparently, he lost his bearings. (The dog's half blind and three-quarters deaf.) Anyway, instead of returning the way he came he wandered down the opposite side of the hill, taking him further away from our land.

In disoriented fashion he apparently searched all night for our house. Jennifer and my daughter became mournful. They feared Parks had been hit by a car somewhere or had gone off to die. I spent about an hour looking for him that night to no avail. The next day Jennifer received a call for a nearby farmer. The farmer had found Parks stuck in the grimy edge of his stock pond about two miles away. He wasn't able to move the dog, however, as Parks would threaten to bite him with each attempt to pick him up.

Nevertheless, the farmer managed to secure his ID collar and called the number on the collar. Jennifer was elated. My daughter accompanied her to the rescue. Apparently, Parks had decided that the stock pond was a great place to get water. The only problem was that the further he marched into the pond the more mired up he became in the algae-ridden muck that surrounds many stock pounds. Parks' legs were completely stuck in the muck. The dog was struggling in his robust belly, almost completely covered in pond goo, attempting to get himself out of his fix. His snout and nostrils were on the ground. Any rise in the water level would have drown him.

We got a heavy downpour about and hour and a half after Jennifer rescued the dog.

It took Jennifer about an hour and two separate bathing sessions to clean up the poor guy. Later that day we had a heavy rain. So, Parks is living proof that it is better to be lucky than good. If the farmer hadn't noticed him when he did, he would most likely have found him later in the shallow waters of his rain-soaked pond.

But, he continues to give death the big finger. Or, I guess that should be paw.

Parks sleeps in our bedroom with us at night these days. This is for two reasons. One is that, being old, he wakes up in the middle of the night and wants to be let outside for relief. The other is that if he wakes up anywhere else in the house on his own he'll just piss on the most convenient place inside that he can find. He'll piss and shit anywhere except where he sleeps. That's why he sleeps in our bedroom.

I'm not sure if it is old age, illness, or just passive-aggressive behavior directed at Charlie, our still-growing puppy English setter mutt. Parks really hasn't forgiven us for bringing that fireball joy of all-out energy into his life. So, if you don't watch him fairly close, Parks will piss and shit on whatever he thinks will upset the stupid humans in his life the most.

Of course, Jennifer has picked this time in our lives to become obsessed with exquisite rugs for our house. She's getting a great deal on them, she says. They bring so much beauty into the rooms, she says. Well, she is rightly mostly on both accounts. The problem is Parks knows this. Parks seems to have few joys left in this life beyond food. But, pissing and shitting on groovy new stuff that has been so obviously oo'ed and ah'ed over by Jennifer is just a pleasure he just can't pass up. He peed on a carpet just the other day. Out the door he went.

And so it goes at my house.

Jennifer's mother thinks it is cruel for us to put the dog outside in the heat of the summer like we do. He's old and blind and deaf and fat. He's obviously become incontinent (or more likely passive-aggressive). He's obviously lost his mind by wandering off and almost subjecting himself to a horrible demise. The list goes on. It would be far more humane, so the reasoning goes, to put him to sleep and end his suffering and our slowly accumulating misery.

The argument is not without merit. In fact, Jennifer was so sad from the "Stock Pond Affair" and about his general deterioration that she had bought into the idea and thought of having him put under before we left for our beach vacation a couple of weeks ago. She asked for my input. Well, I don't like Parks' passive-aggressive defecation any more than the next guy. But, at the same time, he's not really suffering. He's not in pain. He is old and blind and deaf and probably confused a lot of the time. But, as long as he can bark and run and carry on such a fuss for us to feed him it doesn't seem like he's checking out anytime soon on his own. So, why kill him?

So we didn't. We boarded him while we were away instead. The vet that predicted his death over six months ago has taken a special liking to Parks and gave him the suite with the kitty cats so he would not be disturbed by all the other boarded dogs instead.

Parks didn't forget us while we were gone. When we got back from the beach he immediately saw this as a golden opportunity to change his feeding time and he succeeded in his little diatribe with some result, though certainly it was not up to expectations. It rarely is.

So, here we are in late summer and Parks keeps on rocking for what in human years would be about three years past his expiration date. He has survived two near-misses with euthanasia and almost drown in a stock pond. All things considered life has been quite an adventure for the little guy in 2009. And isn't that about all any of us can expect in our old age?