Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Illustrative Papal Gesture

When Pope Francis was about to give a speech, a little kid wandered out of the crowd and onto the stage. (Some security guys have some questions to answer today, I suspect). Instead of shooing the kid away, as the others onstage tried to do, the Pope not only let him stay, but put him in his own chair.

I'm not yet decided on whether I like the Pope's theological/political positions (nor am I opposed -- I just don't know enough yet). But stylistically, he is doing wonders for the Catholic Church, and as the most prominent Christian to the world's billions of non-Christians or semi-Christians, he is doing wonders for Christianity.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” -- Matthew 19:14

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

HHS Is on Schedule

YouTube video posted by Kathleen Sibelius.


Feinstein and Obama Do Their Sgt. Schultz Imitation

Remember Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes?: “I know nothing. Nothing!” Well, that’s what President Obama is claiming about NSA spying on Angela Merkel and the presidents of France, Brazil, Mexico, several million assorted Spaniards, and … well, just about everybody else.

Considering how disconnected Obama seems from everything going on around him, it’s just barely possible to believe him.

And now Diane Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee (yeah, I know, it’s a name that just invites all sorts of jokes) … anyway, Senator Feinstein, who has been a big backer of NSA, is now claiming she knew as little as Obama, and that she will hold hearings and try to get legislation passed to rein in what is pretty clearly a government agency that has been running wild.

According to a newsletter I get from Foreign Policy magazine:
"We're really screwed now," an NSA official told Foreign Policy. "You know things are bad when the few friends you've got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address." A former congressional aide questioned whether Feinstein knew about the surveillance already, noting the "bottom line question is where was the Senate Intelligence Committee when it came to their oversight of these programs? And what were they being told by the NSA, because if they didn't know about this surveillance, that would imply they were being lied to."
NSA may have been lying, but still, Obama’s and Feinstein’s excuses are pretty lame. “I know nothing” was funny coming from Sergeant Schultz, but less amusing when we hear it from the folks whose job it is to know this stuff.

Feinstein and Obama are either lying themselves, or admitting that they are incompetent. Take your pick.

Monday, October 28, 2013

History Trivia Quiz

During World War I, there was only one land battle in which German and US troops fought each other on the North American continent. It is not much remembered today, mostly because it was not a large or lengthy battle, but US soldiers did die on US soil and Germany also suffered casualties; in all, there may have been as many as 500 casualties, including about 150 deaths. What is this battle?

(The answer is in the post below, or click here).

The Battle of Ambos Nogales

In 1918, the US was at war with Germany and its allies in Europe, while also having a rather testy relationship with its southern neighbor, Mexico. In fact, the proximate cause of US entry into the war had been Germany’s effort, via the Zimmerman Telegram, to exploit the poor relations between the two countries by offering to return to Mexico most of the territories it had lost seventy years prior, if Mexico would distract the US with an attack.

It’s a measure of how poor relations were at the time that Zimmerman’s proposal was not rejected out of hand. The Mexican president, Carranza, decided not to act only after having his generals study the offer. The generals reported back that the offer of military assistance from Germany was an empty one, since Germany had no means to transport either men or arms across the Atlantic (the Royal Navy had the Germans thoroughly bottled up at the time), and without such assistance the Mexicans would get their butts kicked. Carranza never turned down the offer, as I understand it; he simply never replied.

Relations, then, were testy and were exacerbated by the fact that the Mexican army was supplemented by a number of German advisors, whom the US suspected of espionage activities and of trying to incite the Mexicans to cause trouble along the border. These suspicions may well have been overblown, but they seem to have had some foundation in fact; in any case, the fact that US commanders along the border believed the Germans were fomenting trouble played a role in the lead-up to the fighting.

There were also local issues causing problems in the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona (aka Ambos Nogales), with the Mexicans saying that US customs agents were officious and intimidating. I don’t have a hard time believing such changes about bureaucrats, and can imagine that in the atmosphere of distrust, the border agents might well have been rather more so than usual.

The time was mid/late August of 1918. Though the war in Europe was nearing its end, the question there was still very much unsettled (the western allies’ final offensive had just begun, and the collapse of the German army was imminent, but not yet apparent). According to a US Army report:
About August 15, 1918, the Intelligence Division reported the presence of strange Mexicans, plentifully supplied with arms, ammunition, food and clothing, gathering in increasing numbers in and about Nogales, Sonora; also the presence of several strange white men, apparently Germans, at times engaged in addressing gatherings of Mexicans explaining military terms, movements and methods. At about this time an anonymous letter was received, written by a person who claimed to have been a major in Villa's forces who was sickened and disgusted at the atrocities committed by Villa and his men, and at the lack of pay or reward, and who claimed a feeling of friendly respect for American troops, warning them of the German influences at work near and in Nogales, advising of the financial activities of the German agents, and of a contemplated attack on Nogales about August 25, 1918. This letter rang so true that it became a subject of investigation by Lt. Col. Frederick J. Herman, 10th Cavalry, then acting subdistrict commander at Nogales, and Lieutenant Robert Scott Israel, Infantry Intelligence Officer at Nogales, and so many points of the letter were verified that it was given more than ordinary weight.
In these circumstances, it’s not surprising that a small incident resulted in over-reaction by both sides.

The border at Nogales looked something like this (this pic
is from 1899, but there still was no fence in 1918).
According to all accounts, an individual suspected of smuggling tried to cross the border into Mexico without stopping at US Customs (it should be noted that the border at Nogales was not as we know it today, with a fence; there was simply a street called International Avenue – one side of which was the US, the other side Mexico). An American customs official shouted for him to stop, pulled a gun when he didn't, and chased him. Two US soldiers, armed, followed. A Mexican customs official fired at them, killing one of the US soldiers. The other soldier fired back, killing the Mexican.

(Aside: Who gets the blame for ‘starting it’? It seems uncontested that the Mexican customs official fired the first shot. On the other hand, when three armed Americans are running at the border – it isn’t clear whether any of them had crossed it – shooting at them seems not unreasonable. Ninety-five years after the event, I’m not going to spend a lot of effort on figuring out who’s at fault).

Things escalated rapidly. An American officer wrote later:
I happened to be downtown near the depot when I heard some rifle shots, and then more. I saw them carrying a wounded soldier at the international street. 
Motor transportation was scarce in those days, but I had a good horse, I sped over the hills a couple of miles to camp. On the way I passed Lieutenant Colonel Herman in a car. He had already gotten some news and told me to go on, get my troop out and notify Troop C and Troop F. 
Colonel Herman soon arrived and led the troops for the town at the gallop. I was sent down Morely Avenue. The place was a double street along the railroad tracks. At the little park the troop was dismounted, and one trooper detailed to hold each group of eight horses. Those left behind pleaded with me to go along. 
Dismounted, I told the men to follow me. Not far along before we got a lot of fire. There was so much it was hard to tell where it was coming from. Also it seemed as though everybody in Nogales was shooting from the windows toward the border.
Civilians were involved on both sides, and it appears that a large portion of the casualties were civilians. As with many things in this event, the estimates of casualties vary greatly, from a few dozen (per the Mexicans) to several hundred (the American version). Among those dead on the Mexican side was the city’s mayor.

The American troops moved across the border and pushed through the town. As usual, there was a light side even to so grim an undertaking. From the same officer:
Reaching the line in spite of the fire, we dashed into a big building on the Mexican side without resistance, but bullets from up on a hillside were hitting the place. We ran forward into another connecting building. It was the Concordia Club. In there were some frightened senoritas wearing kimonas. I got a laugh when one of them spoke to a trooper, saying, 'Sergeant Jackson! Are we all glad to see you!" But we did not have time to tarry for the soldier to alibi his acquaintanceship.
The Americans having pushed through the city to the surrounding hills, the Mexicans asked for a truce:
I hope we only hit those who were shooting. But there were a lot of bodies lying around. All of a sudden some one saw a long pole with a sheet tied on being waved from the top of the Mexican customs house down below. 
I ordered the men to cease fire. It was then 7:45 P.M., and getting dark. Where the time passed I do not know. We had five men wounded, and the others wanted to clean out the town. However First Sergeant LaMar and I quickly controlled our skirmish line of troopers.
In the aftermath, the Americans claim to have discovered the bodies of two German officers, though there is some doubt about it. I’m conflicted on what to believe – it seems likely there were German advisers present, and certainly they might well have been killed; on the other hand, I would think the Mexicans would be motivated to keep the Germans out of harm’s way, since their presence would be an embarrassment. Another unanswered question.

Scattered sniping continued for the next day or so, though officials on both sides tried to suppress it.

The quotes above come from US sources. For the other side, here is info from Wikipedia which, as is often the case with that source, has a decidedly anti-US tone.

Among the results of the battle were that one US customs agent was fired for abusing Mexicans, and a fence was built down the middle of International Avenue. Not much of an outcome for all the shooting, but such seems often to be the case.

In Internet Heaven

Just out of curiosity, I ran a speed test on the internet where I am currently staying (with my daughter and son-in-law). The speed was just over 26 megabytes per second.

That will not sound remarkable to anyone in the US, but it would be like heaven to any internet user in the Philippines. I did a post back in March about the atrocious infrastucture of the Philippines -- roads, electricity, and sidewalks as well as internet -- and another in May about my SmartBro wireless modem. I will summarize that I seldom got as much as 1 mbps in the Philippines from my wired connection at my apartment; the SmartBro, which was alleged to deliver 'up to' 5 mbps, actually delivered less than 0.5).

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ecuadorian Asylum Report

Ecuador has attracted considerable attention on the world stage by granting asylum in their London embassy to Wikileaker Julian Assange, who is charged with sexual assault in Sweden, and offering asylum to Edward Snowden of NSA fame. Ecuador is now threatening to sue the UK to force them to allow Assange free transit to Ecuador.
In hopes of breaking the deadlock, Ecuador has proposed creating a bilateral commission to resolve the issue. 
"We are hoping for a response, including one in writing, from (the British) and if they do not do so in a few days we will have to prepare an international suit so that the United Kingdom respects international law," Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said in an interview with Ecuadoran public radio. 
If London rejects the proposal, Mr Patino said, "we will have no alternative but to go to international judicial venues to compel respect for Ecuador's right to grant asylum, and their obligation to provide safe conduct."
One wonders how they think they will enforce such a ruling, assuming they get it. But in any case, I was amused to find, on the same day, this reminder that the asylum card can be played both ways. Panama has granted asylum to a member of the Ecuadorian opposition who was convicted, in absentia, of murder.
Panama granted asylum Saturday to an Ecuadoran opposition politician sentenced to prison last month for his role in a multiple homicide case, finding that he was subjected to political persecution. 
Tito Galo Lara Yepez fled to Panama and requested asylum on grounds that his opposition to Ecuador's leftist government had placed his life in danger.  [ ... ]
"Granting asylum (to Lara) could be a measure that supports the need to respect human rights and social and political stability in the region," the decree said.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Running in the Cold

I ran a little over three miles today, the first time I've run since being back in the States. The temperature was about 52F -- not terribly cold, but a big change from the 80-90 I've been used to.

It's really different -- less sweat of course, and less thirst. In Cebu, my t-shirt at the end of running a few miles was often so soaked I had to wring it out before hanging it to dry before throwing it in the dirty clothes pile. Everything I wore was wet after ruinning -- my shorts, my socks, even my shoes. Losing so much water, I was thirsty as hell -- often I would drink a liter of water after a run, as well as a half-liter of Gatorade.

Today, there was only enough sweat to make the walk home after running a bit unpleasant. I'll need to remember to bring a jacket to wear home as things get colder.

Another big difference is that I was running on concrete in Cebu (there are no large public spaces with grass there). Today I ran at Oak Park-River Forest High School on a nice artificial turf track. Much easier on the knees and ankles.

Friday, October 25, 2013

This Is Not an Instance of Obama-Bashing

I need to put in that qualifier before going on, because I make no secret of my contempt for the current occupant of the White House, and his amazing ability to combine ineptitude and pomposity.

But this time, it’s a fairly serious question: With the recent revelations about NSA tapping the phones of (among many others) Angela Merkel, Francoise Hollande, and the previous and current presidents of Mexico – has any US president ever treated our allies worse than Obama has done?

This is particularly hypocritical, given the manner in which Candidate Obama criticized his predecessor (with some justification) for a go-it-alone approach to foreign policy. I doubt anything President Bush did was as offensive to both the leadership and the people of friendly nations as President Obama’s actions.

It's not just NSA of course: You could throw in his reckless use of drones, promoting the overthrow of Mubarek by the Muslim Brotherhood, undercutting Israel at every opportunity, and alienating the Saudis, among other examples.

Insurance for Everybody

Obamacare, as sold to the electorate, was to be a comprehensive reform of the American healthcare system. As it passed congress, it was focused on only one of the system's problem -- people who are uninsured -- with no attention at all paid to reducing the system's high costs. This is (one of) the reasons I opposed the 'reform'.

Much of what is happening these days is amusing to a cynical, hard-care anti-statist like me. Nothing could be funnier (and more satisfying) than watching the mind-boggling ineptitude of the government as they screw up the rollout of the monstrosity they created.

Nothing except that, thus far, they've actually managed to end up with fewer people covered by insurance than before, even though that's the only thing they tried to accomplish:
Hundreds of thousands of Americans who purchase their own health insurance have received cancellation notices since August because the plans do not meet Obamacare’s requirements. 
The number of cancellation notices greatly exceed the number of Obamacare enrollees. 
Insurance carrier Florida Blue sent out 300,000 cancellation notices, or 80 percent of the entire state’s individual coverage policies, Kaiser Health News reports. California’s Kaiser Permanente canceled 160,000 plans — half of its insurance plans in the state — while Blue Shield of California sent 119,000 notices in mid-September alone.
This will change, no doubt, with the passage of time, but still, it's funny as hell (except for those hundreds of thousands being forced off their chosen policies).

I wonder what will happen to these folks when (as now seems likely) Obama admits failure and delays the mandate?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cool & Lam

In the past month or so I’ve read three books from Erle Stanley Gardner’s second-string mystery series, Cool & Lam.

The books feature a detective agency consisting of a founder, Bertha Cool, and her junior partner, Donald Lam. In literary terms, it’s a very unequal partnership – the stories are at least 90% Lam.

Based on the three I’ve read, the formula is that a beautiful woman hires the agency, she and Lam engage in a lot of semi-sexy banter (though nothing more – these books were written more than a half-century ago), a murder takes place, Lam plays fast and loose with the evidence, he gets arrested for the murder by a hard-ass cop, he talks his way out of the arrest, solves the murder as well as whatever ancillary crime initially got them involved, and collects a large fee, making Bertha happy.

Bertha Cool is fat and greedy – beyond these characteristics, she barely exists in the stories I’ve read. Donald Lam is a disbarred attorney. Although the books have some noirish qualities in the style of the story-telling, Lam is the antithesis of the bare-knuckles noir hero -- he seldom fights, and when he does, he loses. When he's in a tight corner, he believes in trying to talk his way out.

The three books I’ve read are:

Bedrooms Have Windows (1948) – Lam is shadowing a conman in a hotel lobby when he meets up with a beautiful woman with whom he is soon, for reasons too complicated to explain, in a motel (actually an ‘auto court’) registered as husband and wife. Soon she disappears, just as a man and his mistress die in an apparent murder suicide in an adjoining unit of the auto court.

Lam tracks down the woman, walking into her bedroom as she is dressing. She begins to tell him the truth of her story then he goes to another room so she can finish dressing. When he returns, she has been murdered. Lam of course is arrested for the various murders.

Top of the Heap (1952) – The agency is hired to track down a couple women with whom the client spent a recent evening (in another auto court). Lam suspects that the whole thing is an effort to create a phony alibi for the client. Soon there is a murder in the mix (the reason for the phony alibi), and Lam is again arrested.

The most interesting aspect of this book is a really clever (I thought) money-laundering scam engineered by the murder victim.

Bertha is almost totally absent from this story, with the exception of a cringe-worthy appearance at the end in which her greed is caricatured in a heavy-handed manner.

Kept Women Can’t Quit (1960) – An armored car robbery turns into a murder case when one of the participants is murdered. Except he wasn’t a participant. Lam, who is working for the victim’s gorgeous girlfriend (the ‘kept woman’ of the title) is arrested for the murder, of course.

Very clunky solution, in which a character who only briefly appeared in a supporting role very early in the story suddenly reappears and turns out to be the killer (even though there has been nary a clue pointing to him anywhere in the book).

All of these books have huge flaws, but they are still fun stories to read.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Snake Oil: A Bit of Arizona History

As a proud Arizonan, I am always happy when I discover another area in which my native state has distinguished itself. I am pleased to report, then, that snake oil, as we understand the term today, was invented in Arizona. Sorta.

According to this item, snake oil was introduced to the United States by Chinese laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad, who used oils from Chinese water snakes to relieve muscle pain. Recent research indicates that such oils are high in Omega-3 and may actually work.

However, the snake oil that gained widespread fame being peddled by travelling salesmen in the late 19th/early 20th centuries was generally made from rattlesnake oil, which doesn’t have the same value. And some such products contained no snake oil at all.

Walpi at roughly the time Clark Stanley
would have been there (late 1870s).
Which brings us to Clark Stanley, the most famous snake oil salesman of the period. Stanley was a Texas cowboy who migrated to Arizona in the 1870s, where he met up with a Hopi medicine man (is that a politically-correct term?) in Walpi (on the First Mesa up in the northwest part of the state) and learned how to make snake oil from rattlesnakes. Stanley sold this snake oil from town to town, finally hitting it big at the Columbian Exposition here in Chicago in 1893, where he killed rattlesnakes as part of the demonstration of his product, and became known as The Rattlesnake King.

Stanley did quite well, it seems, until the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, subsequent to which an analysis in 1915 indicated that his product consisted of mineral oil, a small amount of fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat), red pepper, turpentine, and camphor. He was fined twenty dollars.

I’m always pleased to see a local boy make good.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Outsourcing Government

I applied for Social Security and Medicare last year, just before leaving the country. My Medicare card was sent to my old address and was not forwarded to my sister’s home in Arizona (perhaps it’s not supposed to be).

No big deal – I couldn’t use Medicare where I was anyway.

So I'm back to the States now and I called SS yesterday to ask about the card. No problem, they say, they will send a replacement card.

I should have it, they tell me, in about thirty days. Thirty freaking days to mail me a card!?! Are they nuts?

I spent a major part of my working life in BPO companies that handled paperwork processing (among other functions) for major manufacturers’ marketing/advertising programs.

We would get invoices from retailers who had advertised or promoted our clients’ products. We would check the invoices and documentation to ensure that the promotion was run in compliance with plan, that the amount charged was reasonable, that the retailer had bought enough of the product to justify the payment, and other factors. If all was in order, we would cut a check and mail it. If all was not in order, we would send out an explanation of why the invoice was not being paid or paid in a lesser amount.

Our promise to our clients was that all this would be done within five working days of the receipt of the invoice. We mostly kept this promise – at peak seasons we would might slip to seven or eight days.

And it takes the government about twenty ‘working’ days to mail out a simple card? What the hell are they doing with their time? (I suspect I don’t want to know the answer to that question). If the government were to outsource this function, it could be done in about one-fourth the time for probably less than half the cost.

But of course that will never happen.

Ho Hum -- Manila Airport Is the World's Worst. So What's New?

I recall reading a commentary that described the Clinton Administration’s technique for dealing with bad news as:
It’s not true
It’s not true
It’s not true
It’s old news
Others have done the same of course, so I’m not trying to pick on the Clintons. I was merely reminded of it by this news story from the Manila Bulletin, which reports that a travel website had rated Manila’s airport as the worst in the world. Again.
But a MalacaƱang official shrugged off the news as old hat while saying that government is moving to improve the facilities. 
“This is not the first time na may ganoong comment. This is not something new,” said Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda. 
Efforts are already being made since the NAIA terminal 1 was tagged as the worst airport in the world in 2011, Lacierda said. 
“Things are being done to improve the facilities of NAIA 1,” Lacierda said, noting that multi-awarded furniture designer Kenneth Cobonque was among those experts tapped to innovate NAIA 1.
‘NAIA’ refers to the airport’s full name: Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Of course, attacking the news as old does nothing to address why two years of supposed changes have done nothing to improve the airport’s ratings from customers.
“When selecting an airport to declare as the “worst”, travelers were asked to consider the four C’s: comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service,” the website said. 
NAIA was rated the worst for comfort, amenities, and ‘overall experience’.

Here are what the survey said are the world’s ten worst airports:

  • Manila NAIA (Terminal 1)
  • Bergamo (Milan)
  • Calcutta
  • Islamabad
  • Paris Beauvais
  • Chennai
  • Frankfurt Hahn
  • Mumbai
  • Rome Fiumicino
  • Los Angeles

Other than Manila, I’ve also been in Chennai (this is the Indian city once known as Madras, in case you’re having a hard time identifying it; I did, the first time I traveled there: “You want me to go to Chennai? Never heard of it”) and of course LAX. Both are terrible, but I would agree that NAIA is worse than either.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Silly Question

If you were a high-ranking executive of a corporation, and the CEO put you in charge of a major new-product launch, and you screwed it up really, really badly – you’d expect to be canned, right?

So why does Kathleen Sibelius still have a job?

Oh, that’s right – she works for the government, and nobody in government is held accountable for anything.

Back in the USA

I’m in the US (more specifically, in Oak Park, Illinois) for the rest of the year – I’ll be spending time here in the Chicago area and in Phoenix. Early next year, I’ll be heading down to Ecuador for a year or so.

In the meantime:

Why Eat at McDonald’s When Overseas?

I had a Big Mac in Narita (the Tokyo airport) Tuesday, and I eat fairly often when overseas at McDonald’s (or sometimes other US fast-feeders, though McD is by far most prevalent). I think I probably eat at such places more often (proportionally) when overseas than I do at home – though that’s not saying much, since I don’t eat a lot of Big Macs in the States.

I was hardly alone at the Narita McDonald’s. It was pretty busy, with probably about half the customers, while I was there, being Americans or perhaps Europeans.

Some people, I know, strongly disapprove of this practice. To which I say, “Stuff it.” OK, OK, I’ll back off on that. Some of those disapproving folks condemn McDonald’s in general and are of the Nanny mentality who think that no one else should be allowed to do anything of which Nanny disapproves. They are the ones who deserve that 'stuff it'.

But others feel that eating a Big Mac detracts from the travel experience. This is a reasonable viewpoint and deserves a more reasonable response than the above.

I can think of three good reasons for eating at McDonald’s in Tokyo (or in Prague or Shanghai or other places where I have done so). Two apply to me:
  • It’s comfort food. Yes, I get homesick when I travel and I want a taste of home. McDonald’s may not be great food, but it’s sure as heck American food, and there are times when I need that.
  • It’s reliable. I repeat that it may not be great, but you know just exactly how good/bad it’s going to be. If I ate at one of the sushi places in Narita (assuming I liked sushi, which I don’t) or one of their other restaurants, it might be much better than McDonald’s. Then again, it might be much worse. There are times I’m in the mood to experiment, and times I just want a safe (boring, if you prefer) choice.

A third reason for choosing McD instead of sampling local cuisine no longer applies to me:
  • You have kids with you. While I was eating my Big Mac, I saw what looked like (based on the haircut, if nothing else) an American serviceman putting in his order; he was travelling with his wife and two small kids. Yes, you want to expose the kids to new things, but not all the time, and there are times (many times, as any parent can tell you) when you don’t need another fight over what’s for dinner. The kids want a Happy Meal? OK, we’ll get ‘em a damn Happy Meal and shut ‘em up.

So I will continue to eat occasional Big Macs as I continue my world tour. And I will continue to ignore Nanny's disapproving looks.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Looking Forward to Some World Cup Fun

It looks like Ecuador will almost certainly be in next year’s World Cup.

It will be exciting to be in a soccer-mad country during the Cup – something I’ve never experienced. Naturally, I will be spending most of my time shouting ‘USA! USA!’ but it will be fun to have a second team to root for, and to join in the festivities, which should be pretty interesting.

I’ll have to be hoping USA and Ecuador don’t get put in the same group during the group stage – things will be much simpler if they don’t face each other. If both make it through the group stage and meet in the quarters or semis -- well, that's a problem I'll have to deal with at the time. But that would be a nice problem to have.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Our Lady of Perpetual Mispronunciation

I recently had a minor medical process done at a clinic connected to a hospital near my home – Perpetual Succor.

I was struck by the use of the word ‘Succor’ – there are many Catholic institutions in the US with basically the same name, but it is always, in my experience, expressed as Perpetual Help (generally some variant of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help’).

But that was not the only linguistic oddity, from my viewpoint. The strangest thing for me is the pronunciation of perpetual, because the Filipinos have the strange idea that it should be pronounced as it is spelled.

I (and most Americans I know) generally pronounce the word as three (or maybe three and a half) syllables, with a ‘ch’ sound thrown in. We say per-pet-ch’-wal (sometimes running the last two sounds together: per-pet-chwal).

I was very confused when my doctor told me where the clinic was – he pronounced the word with four quite distinct syllables: per-pet-oo-al. I generally don’t get much into right/wrong arguments over different countries’ pronunciation of English – I’ll leave that to the Brits. But I have to admit that the Filipinos have a strong case that they have this one right.

Bye-bye, Dominick's

Back in Chicago, where I soon will be (good Lord willing and the plane don’t crash), Safeway has decided to sell (or shut down or whatever; anyway, get rid of) their Dominick’s chain. It's not clear whether the name will survive on whatever stores remain.

Dominick’s was once, along with Jewel-Osco, the dominant chain in metro Chicago, but has been in slow-motion shutdown ever since Safeway bought them fifteen years ago. More than a third of the stores have been shut, with the chain shrinking from 116 stores to 72. As part of the announcement, Safeway said they had sold four more of the stores to Jewel-Osco.

The linked report says that Safeway paid about $1.8bil for the chain in 1998, and was offered an embarrassing $325mil in 2005. One presumes that they will get even less now. This is bad news for stockholders, of course, though it’s safe to say that anyone buying or selling Safeway stock in the past several years has taken the Dominick’s debacle into account. If not … caveat emptor.

I thought this part of the article was interesting, since it describes a common problem:
One hiccup with selling Dominick's in the past was the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents the chain's workers. It has been long rumored in the past that former Safeway CEO Steve Burd has had buyers interested in the chain — presumably under more favorable terms — but none could ever work out a deal with the UFCW.
Safeway unloading the chain can be counted as another example of the perils of being involved with unions. Safeway probably should have recognized when buying the chain that they might be dealing with a troublesome union. But beyond that (I have little sympathy for Safeway in any of this), one feels for the workers. Because their union leadership shoot down earlier buyout offers, the chain has suffered through several tough years, stores have closed, and now they’re looking at what will probably be a much worse deal than they could have had before.  

Friday, October 11, 2013

That Will Help a Bunch, I'm Sure

Lately, the Republican candidate for the Senate in New Jersey, who was expected to be totally destroyed, has shown signs of life. But just when things are looking up for him, he gets this:
Sarah Palin is the latest conservative star heading to New Jersey to support Republican Steve Lonegan in his uphill fight for the Senate against Newark Mayor Cory Booker. On Saturday, Palin will appear with Lonegan at a speedway rally and training session for campaign workers in New Egypt, N.J.
Couldn't Lonegan find something else to do that day?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Alibis of Bob

I haven't posted anything for a couple days and the next few days will probably be quiet as well. I'm in Manila at present, visiting with folks one last time, and on Monday I'm flying home to the US.

I know the spambots will be disappointed that there's nothing new here, but I'll try to make it up to them when I get home.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Lesson on Writing Clear Directions

How cool is this?

This test paper was turned in by an autistic second grader -- did he get it right?

Prices on Pharmaceuticals

We are often told that medicines are ridiculously expensive in the US, and that Americans are being gouged by Big Pharma. There may be truth to that, but it is not universally true.

While prices for medical and dental procedures and office visits are remarkably low here, pharmaceuticals are not low-priced at all.

An example – I have an enlarged prostate (benign prostate hyperplasia or BPH) and recently switched medications to treat it. My doctor prescribed Hytrin (2mg). He recommended that I buy only a short-term supply to see how I do with the side effects, so I bought fifteen tabs. I visited a couple pharmacies here and was quoted the same price at both – 1335 pesos ($31.07 at today’s rate, or a bit over $2/tab).

Before I bought more, I asked family in the US to check prices there. Here are the per tablet prices at Walgreens and Costco in Phoenix, compared to the Philippine prices (Philippine pharmacies do not give quantity discounts):

Naturally, I’m most interested in the Costco prices, but the Philippine price is 2.5x even the highest Walgreens price (and more than 20x the lowest Costco price). My guess (only a guess) is that the huge difference is the result of import taxes and (as with just about everything here) lack of competition.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Obama Tries the Big Bird Approach

President Obama seems to have stolen a page from the PBS playbook as his approach to selling his position on the government shutdown.

Everyone, of course, is familiar to the way PBS reacts any time there is any mention of cutting their subsidies – they immediately scream “You want to kill Big Bird!” The logic seems to be that Sesame Street would have to be the first program cut. Right – that’s definitely what would happen. But it’s a strategy that works – PBS still gets their handouts every year.

Local governments often use the same approach. “If you don’t vote for the new bond issue,” city hall warns in ominous tones, “here’s the list of fire stations we’ll be closing …” Funny that it’s never “We’ll have to lay off half a dozen of the nasty, arrogant clerks who take such pleasure in ignoring you when you visit city hall”, isn’t it?

Obama’s variant on the Big Bird strategy is that he is closing the monuments on the Capitol Mall, threatening to cut out the service academies sports events (even though the academy athletic programs are privately funded), shutting down TV broadcasts to overseas troops, shutting private businesses located in national parks, and lots of other petty, vindictive acts. The obvious intent of his actions is to maximize rather than minimize the pain of the shutdown for American citizens.

This is not what one would hope for from the nation’s leaders, but it’s not all that surprising from this one.

Some of the Best Case Studies Are Failures

Prediction: In a few years, Obamacare will be a biz school case study in what happens when a flawed product is rushed into production with insufficient planning and forethought, resulting in a flawed plan for the flawed product, and then the bad plan is badly executed.

From the beginning, there was little thought given the plan – in Nancy Pelosi’s immortal phrase, “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” Nothing could better sum up the way the government approached what even they must have realized was a huge undertaking.

And now the lack of planning, the whole idea of just blundering ahead, is having its inevitable result. Even sources closely allied with President Obama are forced to admit that the program is bombing, and bombing because it’s badly planned. Here’s the Washington Post, interviewing an IT specialist (emphasis added):
SK: The Obama administration has said that all these problems are happening because of overwhelming traffic. How good of an explanation is that?JB: That seems like not a very good excuse to me. In sites like these there’s a very standard approach to capacity planning. You start with some basic math. Like, in this case, you look at all the federal states and how many uninsured people they have. Out of those you think, maybe 10 percent would log in in the first day. But you model for the worst case, and that’s how you come up with your peak of how many people could try to do the same thing at the same time. 
Before you launch you run a lot of load testing with twice the load of the peak, so you can go through and remove glitches. I’m a very very big supporter of the health-care act, but I don’t buy the argument that the load was too unexpected.
Or here’s another pro-Obama source, Slate, describing a would-be insurance purchaser’s frustrations:
I have been in regular conversation with a person in Pennsylvania trying to get information about coverage under the Affordable Care Act. She is optimistic about the coverage she might get, but also wonders why her existing plan, which is far from perfect, is being canceled on Jan. 1. (The president said if you like your plan you will be able to keep it.) She started trying at 8 a.m. on Oct. 1, the minute the website went live, and has tried about 10 times over the week. Mostly she has been shut out entirely. Recently she has been able to at least enter in some of her information, but the site doesn't record the information correctly and doesn't let her change it.
So we are told that seven million people tried to sign up in the first few days (not really all that many, compared to traffic at many major private-sector sites), but strangely, we can’t get any numbers on how many have actually managed to buy insurance:
Jay Carney told reporters that the White House still doesn’t know the number of enrollees in the Obamacare marketplace exchanges after going live almost a week ago, and that they shouldn’t expect the information for about a month. 
“When it comes to enrollment data — I want to be clear about this — we will release data on regular monthly intervals,” Carney said, which is the frequency in which Massachusetts and Medicare Part D release information. “This is an aggregation process, and we’re not going to release data on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis.” 
When pressed by reporters about how the administration could know the number of online visitors to the websites but not the number of those who have enrolled, Carney said the administration used the former to explain [ … ] the’s many glitches in the wake of last week’s rollout.
You can be certain that if the numbers were good, Carney would be crowing about them. That he is covering up is a pretty good indicator that the number of enrollees is small.

Another Reason for Employers to Leave Illinois

Not that they need more, given the state's high taxes and its impending collapse from pension overload. But Governor Pat Quinn has just imposed another absurd  rule:
Governor Bars Employers From Asking Applicants About Felony Records

Monday, October 7, 2013

One More Week

168 hours from now, I will be finishing my packing and getting ready to go find a taxi to take me to Mactan (the airport). And then on to the plane, to Seoul, to Tokyo, and then Chicago. I've had good times here, although overall I'm disappointed in the Philippines, and there are many things I'll miss, but I'm very excited to be close enough to start the countdown for going home.

Friday, October 4, 2013

N. Jacob Praff, DDS

Update: I changed the title of this post by deleting the words " ... is a spammer."

I received a message (see below) from Dr. Praff in which he says that a firm he hired to promote his website was sending out spam without his knowledge, and that he has discontinued their service., Well done, Dr. Praff.

The following is the original post:

About a month ago, I posted a recommendation of a good dentist, Dr. Redulla-Salupan, whom I had visited recently. 

Since then, I have at least twice (I think three times) had the following spam posted in the comments of that article:
N. Jacob Praff, DDS is a dentist located in Spring Valley, NY. Dr Praff offers general and cosmetic dentistry for adults and children. Some of the services offered Bonding, Root Canals, Zoom! Whitening, Veneers, Scaling, Root Planning, Cleaning, Dentures. more information then visit : http://url-deleted   
Give us a call on +1 845.deleted 
cosmetic dentist (link deleted)
I presume N. Jacob Praff has hired some spam service to post his garbage on any blog entries that it finds dealing in any way with dentistry. Perhaps that isn't true and maybe Zeniya Opi (the name used by the purported poster) is acting on her/his own, for whatever reason. 

I will send a copy of this to him and see if he has a good explanation (or if I get a response at all). In the past, I've deleted N. Jacob Praff's spam (as I do with the rest), but I think I'll leave it there (with the links removed) 

In the meantime, if you are in the Spring Valley, NY area and are looking for a dentist with high professional and ethical standards ... I'm afraid I have no recommendations.  

FIFA Takes a Big Swing ... and Whiffs

FIFA blew it, as expected. They had an opportunity to show they really want to clean up the game, by taking strong action against Joel Campbell, the Costa Rican player who so egregiously flopped in the World Cup qualifying game against the US last month.

I posted this at the time, which includes video of his flop.

FIFA talks big about wanting to put a stop to flopping, which gives soccer such a bad name. But Campbell is a star player for Costa Rica and also is with Arsenal in the EPL. While we know that most sports have a different set of rules for stars, Campbell isn't that big (Arsenal has loaned him out this season), and giving a serious penalty to a name player would have sent a clear message. So what happened?

They reprimanded him.

Q: If such an obvious flop draws no penalty, what message are they sending?
A: Flop all you want, guys.

The Patron Saint of GAD?

There is a movement afoot to seek canonization for G. K. Chesterton, a popular writer of (among many other things) mystery stories. His most famous stories featured a modest and seemingly insignificant Catholic priest named Father Brown.

A note about the title of this entry: Those of us who are fans of mystery stories of the twenties and thirties refer to that era as the Golden Age of Detection, or GAD. As is usual with such designations, there are disputes about the exact time limits of GAD – the strict definition is expressed as ‘the interwar years’. I often think of books in the forties, fifties, and even later as GAD, but I am viewed as a liberal on this point.

In any case, Chesterton is an imperfect fit, since many of his stories were written before World War One; the first Father Brown collection, The Innocence of Father Brown, was published in 1911.

Nonetheless, he is generally thought of as being a GAD writer and was a major influence on others. My favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr, who began writing late in Chesterton's career, was such a big fan that he modeled his best-known detective, Gideon Fell, on Chesterton.

The Father Brown stories have been frequently adapted, most recently into a series that recently ran (and may still be running) on British television. I haven’t seen these, but I have been reliably informed that I should not consider this a deprivation – they are described by those who enjoy the original stories as (to use a phrase that seems apposite) god-awful. If you wish to explore Chesterton, I recommend instead that you read the books.

However good a writer he was, though, there appears to be a fair amount of controversy over the proposal, since Chesterton has sometimes been accused of anti-Semitism. Certainly some of his writings sound bad to modern ears.

If you wish to give some thought to the issue, here is a statement in support of Chesterton by the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University; here is an opinion article, strongly opposed, from a British Jewish publication, and here are two pieces that look at both sides from the BBC and Religion News Service.

I will not pretend to be an expert on Chesterton. I’ve read little beyond the Father Brown stories, I am not a Catholic (though I was raised in that church and maintain a cultural affinity and fondness for it), and thus I’m in no position to take a stand on whether he should or should not be considered for sainthood.

If his anti-Semitism was of a nature that it could be characterized as merely an acceptance and reflection of attitudes that prevailed in middle- and upper-class English society at the time (see Agatha Christie’s early books, written during Chesterton’s lifetime, for some nasty examples), then it would be deplorable, but not necessarily a stopper, in my opinion. No rule says that saints must have achieve perfection on earth, it being Catholic doctrine, shared by other Christian faiths, that perfection is an impossibility in an imperfect world. If he wrote, said, or did things that went much further, that could well be another matter.

Marketing Humor

Poor execution of a good idea.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Keeping Priorities Straight

It looks like the president knows who the real enemy is.

He has more guards assigned to keeping ninety-year-old vets out of the WW2 memorial than he had in Benghazi to keep Al Qaeda out of the consulate.
At the World War II Memorial on The Mall in Washington, where veterans have been staging protests to keep it open, Washington Examiner's Charlie Spiering reports that at least seven officials were dispatched Wednesday morning to set up a ring of barricades to block tourists from the memorial. That is two more than the State Department had in Benghazi a year ago on the night of the terrorist attack that killed four, including the U.S. ambassador.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Philippine Medicine: Cataract Surgery

Last Tuesday, I had surgery on the cataract in my right eye (there’s a cataract in my left eye, but that is not causing a problem thus far).

It was not what I expected -- I was thinking in terms of the Lasik surgery I had on my eyes about twelve years ago. I sat in a chair and they shot a beam of light in each eye, and then it was all over. This was much more of a real surgery. It took longer than expected, too (and longer than they expected). Dr Cimafranca told me afterward that the pupil was constricted, which he thought might have been caused by my prostate medications, and it made him go more slowly than usual. He said the usual is twenty minutes, but this was more like thirty.

There was no real pain, but some rather unpleasant pressure at times. It was also a bit scary when everything went black midway through the process. I had been staring at a light for fifteen minutes or so, and then … nothing. I assume that happened when he had destroyed the existing lens. Slowly, my vision came back, as the new lens was inserted.

No big deal overall -- I was at the hospital (Chong Hua Eye Institute) three hours, but most of that was waiting around to get going.

The nurses told me the day before that I needed to have someone with me to take me home. I told them that wasn't going to happen unless one of them was willing to accompany me home (I had one picked out). Alas, they declined that option. I was planning to take a taxi, but I felt fine, so I walked the ten minutes home.

My vision is now about 20/25 in my right eye, and I’m able to read OK using my left eye, so the results were what I had wanted. This is a reversal of things – I have always been left eye dominant, and have been reading mostly with my right eye ever since the Lasik, so my brain needs to get used to the new order of things; the doctor says this will happen gradually over a few weeks.

After-effects: I have to wear sunglasses or clear goggles anytime I’m outside for a couple weeks, to protect the eye. And I was not allowed to run, do any sort of serious workout, or lift anything heavy for a week. I wasn’t too happy about that, but I just walked for an hour or so for my daily exercise.

When I went in for my day-after check-up, I was wearing a t-shirt that says 'Dive Cebu' and he asked if I dive, then told me I can't for two months. I had figured that -- if nothing else, the pressure changes would be harmful. He said the healing process inside the eye takes about two months. I told him I wasn't too concerned, since I doubt I'd want to dive in Lake Michigan in November.

Philippine Medicine: Prostate Biopsy

I’ve had a couple semi-major medical procedures (both outpatient) in the past couple weeks. I’ll describe them here, since my experiences may be of assistance to others having the same procedures – especially if they are having them done here in the Philippines. To make them easier to find, I’ll post them separately, starting with the first of the two, a biopsy on my prostate.

I had the biopsy on Wednesday Sept 18. First the really important thing -- no cancer, I have fibroglandular hyperplasia with chronic prostatitis.

I’ve been aware of the hyperplasia (meaning my prostate is enlarged) for a year now. The effect of BPH (benign prostate hyperplasia) that most guys complain about is that it involves waking up during the night to pee and/or needing to pee often and urgently, and/or other things going wrong with the peeing function. My GP (Dr Mejia at Chong Hua Medical Arts) had put me on some medication to shrink the prostate, which worked in terms of gradually getting it back to about the size it should be, but without a lot of improvement in the symptoms. So in early September she sent me to a urologist, Dr Catipay (same building). He did a digital rectal exam (meaning he stuck a finger up my butt), and said my prostate had some rough spots on it – which could mean cancer, though it could also mean some kind of infection, such as prostatitis. Since my father had prostate cancer (and died from it) he thought a biopsy was in order.

In case you’re wondering, I have a very low PSA (1.8), but with two indicators pointing toward the possibility of cancer, I think it was a good call on his part.

So I had to go through a bunch of tests and get a clearance from a cardiologist and a hematologist to undergo the procedure. This took almost two weeks because I initially flunked the bleeding test (I kept bleeding longer than I should after a small cut in my arm). The hematologist said it was probably because I take ibuprofen regularly after workouts. This was new to me – I was aware that aspirin works as a blood-thinner, but didn’t know the same is true of ibuprofen. I had to re-take the test after laying off ibuprofen for a week, and then my blood behaved itself.

Anyway, I finally had a ‘trans-rectal ultrasound-guided needle biopsy’, which consisted of the doctor shoving a tube containing ultrasound equipment up my butt and using the ultrasound to guide him in shooting needles into my prostate to get samples. It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds like.

The process takes about twenty minutes or so. It hurts a bit, despite a local anesthetic, when the needles are shot into the prostate, but it’s nothing terrible. There was no pain afterward. Dr Catipay gave me a prescription for pain pills, and I took one shortly after getting home. I don’t know if I needed it, but I forgot to take the next one, which will tell you how badly I was hurting.

I was warned that there would be blood in my urine for a couple days, and there was; initially a good bit of it, but it gradually diminished. By Thursday afternoon, it was mostly gone. I was also warned there might be blood in my feces, but that seemed not to happen (I didn’t examine my poop closely, I assure you). I didn’t poop at all until Saturday – I had taken laxatives Tuesday night and pooped up a storm Wednesday morning before the surgery.

If you think that paragraph was gross and qualifies as Too Much Information, I strongly urge you to skip the next three entirely, because it gets much worse.

Shortly after I got home, I took a leak, which contained some blood, as expected. I sat around afterward and drank some tea while I read; I was feeling fine. About an hour later, I felt the need to pee again, so I went into the CR to do so. HERE COMES THE GROSS PART (FINAL WARNING): As I began to pee, I felt a large amount of liquid squirt out my butt. It felt somewhat like diarrhea would (although that is always accompanied by stomach pains of some sort). I looked down and saw that the stuff dripping off my legs was red, not brown, and there was a puddle of blood on the floor.

I felt a moment of panic, thinking that there was something seriously wrong. Except that I felt fine before it happened, and I still felt fine after. My guess (I forgot to ask the doctor when I saw him) is that blood from the biopsy had collected in my rectum and was released when my sphincter relaxed while I was peeing. Or something like that.

Anyway, I decided to wait and see. I cleaned myself and the floor, threw my shorts in the garbage, and returned to reading. The next few times I needed to pee, I did so sitting down as a precaution, but there was no repetition.

END OF EXTREME GROSSNESS: I apologize, but I included that bit because someone may have a similar experience, and I hope you will be reassured that it may not be a big deal, as it wasn’t for me.

So then I waited for the test results.

Allow me to rant a bit about Philippine inefficiency. As you might imagine, I was pretty nervous the week and a half that followed. According to the American Cancer Society website, the results of a prostate biopsy should be available (in most cases) in 1-3 days. Here they say 7-9 days (and it took nine). Some people think that Filipinos’ refusal to hurry about anything is charming. I don’t.

Overall, it was not a terrible experience – the doctors were competent and professional, the facilities were good, and other than the extremely slow work by the lab, I was pleased with everything. And, of course, very pleased with the results.