Friday, June 29, 2007

Sicko turns film critics into health care concern trolls

Hillary's 1993 health care plan, was stopped dead in its complicated tracks by the Harry and Louise TV ad campaign that convinced much of America that government was about to take away their right to choose. So, instead, for nearly 15 years insurance companies have been doing everything to us that Harry and Louise said the nasty government bureaucrats were going to do to us. Sort of like socialized medicine, for-profit -- i.e., all of the headaches and few of the benefits.

That's if you're lucky enough to be insured in the first place -- which more than 40 million Americans aren't. As a result, there's plenty of discontent and pressure for reform -- and a large, potentially receptive audience for Michael Moore's new film, Sicko.

Moore also learned an important lesson from the 1993 debacle -- namely, if you want to influence public policy in America, check your complexities and nuances at the door. Go for the gut, with a simple, even simplistic, message communicated with feeling. Leave the fine print for legislative committees and late-night talking heads on cable. Most film critics understood that Moore was trying to mobilize public opinion for health care reform and judged the film accordingly. Most gave it pretty good marks. Some commented that it reflected a new maturity for the populist filmmaker and was, if anything, more restrained than some of his previous outings.

But, inevitably, the topic brought out the inner concern troll in some critics, who just could not resist pointing out that Moore was undermining the very cause he was trying to promote, with a simplistic approach that exhibited none of the subtlety and sophistication of the critic's own (highly concerned, of course) views. For example, the WaPo's Stephen Hunter morphed overnight into a concerned and combative health care policy wonk eager to debate the fine points.
His anecdotes draw pointed contrasts with Europe, as he returns to France and England as examples of superb health-care systems, but the comparisons are never put in any kind of context. France and the United Kingdom each has a population of around 60 million, a fifth of America's 300 million. Is it easier to administer a program so much smaller? I don't know, but I'm not investigating health care; he is, he should and he doesn't.


Moore seems shocked to discover that some insurance companies offer incentives to employees -- doctors and investigators -- who turn down claims. But absent that, would the system work if everybody got what they wanted when they wanted it and there was no adjudication, no prioritizing? What would those economic consequences yield? The question goes unanswered because it goes unasked.
Hunter goes on to personally urge America to fix its little "boo-boo." And in parting , he tells Moore in no uncertain terms what he should do.
Someone has got to fix it, or make it fairer, negotiate the unbelievably complex issues and balance sound economic sense with fair play. America, fix your boo-boo. As for Moore, it can only be said: Filmmaker, heal thyself!
The New Yorker's David Denby is quick to point out complexities that, in his view, Moore abjectly fails to analyze.
But the candor of these doctors is no more impressive than that of the corporate spokesmen Moore has confronted in the past. No one mentions the delays or the instances of less than first-rate care. We find out that a doctor in Great Britain makes a good income (about two hundred thousand dollars), but not how medical care in, say, Toronto might differ from that in a distant rural area, or how shortages may have affected the quality of Cuban health care.
Denby then goes on to propose the most disingenuous dismissal of Michael Moore I've seen yet. There's been a shift to the left! The problem is already solved! Michael Moore has made himself obsolete!
In the actual political world, the major Democratic Presidential candidates have already offered, or will soon offer, plans for reform. A shift to the left, or, at least, to the center, has overtaken Michael Moore, yielding an irony more striking than any he turns up: the changes in political consciousness that Moore himself has helped produce have rendered his latest film almost superfluous.
Yeah, right.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Friedman on the value of (other people) apologizing

The deadline arrives, and once again Tom Friedman, the NYT pundit and master of dressing up platitudes and making them superficially resemble real insights ("the world is flat"), is obliged to identify a problem and solve it within 800 words. He recalls a recent unpleasantness in an airport line, and he realizes to his distress that someone easily could have documented him with a camera phone and put the video up on YouTube and maybe even made him look bad. This leads to his Eureka moment, the identification of the problem: "The Whole World Is Watching." Yikes!
When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer — and each of us so much more transparent.
After identifying the problem and surrounding it with a thicket of vertical pronouns, it's time for Friedman to move on to a conclusion by borrowing some insights from an expert, business ethicist Dov Seidman, author of "How." (You can tell he's an expert, because his prose runs to klunky metaphors.) With Seidman's authority backing him up, Friedman counsels living transparently, and advocates apologizing when you screw up.
“We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides ... visible and exposed to all,” he writes. So whether you’re selling cars or newspapers (or just buying one at the newsstand), get your hows right — how you build trust, how you collaborate, how you lead and how you say you’re sorry. More people than ever will know about it when you do — or don't.
If only. Although the Iraq war has been a nightmare from the very beginning, we've never heard an apology from Friedman for his famous rallying cry in the lead-up to the war, "Give War a Chance."

Stopping in Echo Park

I was uploading some of my LA photos to Flickr when I realized how much I miss the light in LA. The city, too, sometimes.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Butterfly wings and so much more: An annotated guide to today's evolution edition of Science Times

The patterns on butterfly wings posed some special challenges for evolutionary biologists working within the framework that prevailed until recently, the so-called "modern synthesis." Was each individual pattern a result of numerous discrete genetic mutations, from which the best-adapted were selected by natural selection? And what about species that are copied by other, mimic species, like the monarch and the viceroy? Did the mimics have to duplicate the entire evolutionary history of the original species? The answer, it turns out, is both simpler and more complex, and it's just one of the surprising discoveries of the new combination of evolution and developmental biology -- nicknamed "evo-devo" -- that's bringing the greatest change to our understanding of evolution since the modern synthesis was put together between the 1930s and 1950s.

The changes in today's understanding of evolution -- none of them of much comfort to creationists -- are the subject of today's edition of the NYT Science Times. (I don't know if this is just me, but the section has seemed rather lackluster recently -- today's, however, is spot-on.) This is definitely not your father's evolution. Here's a brief, annotated guide to the coverage.

From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes: Fins, feet and Darwin's finches -- Carol Kaesuk Yoon sums up our growing understanding of how a few powerful genes control the development of morphology and pattern in a variety of species.

Darwin Still Rules, but Some Biologists Dream of a Paradigm Shift>: The gene used to be seen as an authoritarian boss, dictating from on high. It turns out that development makes for a more flexible, messy and robust org chart than the old top-down command structure, according to Douglas H. Erwin's essay.

Humans Have Spread Globally, and Evolved Locally: The emergence of lactose tolerance among the cattle-raising people of northern Europe is just one example, Nicholas Wade reports.

Fast-Reproducing Microbes Provide a Window on Natural Selection: Carl Zimmer writes about observing the process of natural selection in a setting where it happens fast enough to be observed.

The Human Family Tree Has Become a Bush With Many Branches: Genetics, molecular biology and paleoanthropology are all contributing insights that help sketch the branches of the human ancestral family tree, according to John Noble Wilford.

Human DNA, the Ultimate Spot for Secret Messages (Are Some There Now?): Now that scientists have succeeded in writing a message on bacterial DNA, could our "junk DNA" also be used to carry messages? Or does it already? Dennis Overbye speculates in this essay.

In Parasite Survival, Ploys to Get Help From a Host: Is the toxoplasma parasite from the litter in your cat box controlling your behavior? Stranger things have happened, according to Natalie Angier.

Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force: The old Cartesian split between humans (with a soul) and animals (without) is breaking down under the impact of the findings of evolutionary biology, Cornelia Dean writes. Either we all have souls, or none of us do, it seems.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The trail to the slaughter that ended Wisconsin's last Indian war led right through Madison's Isthmus

These days, the downtown skyline of Madison's Isthmus floats in the late afternoon sun like a dream, rising above the few remnants of the marshes that used to surround what is now Wisconsin's capital city. From this vantage point 175 years ago, marsh and impenetrable thicket would have stretched as far as the eye could see, uninterrupted by tall buildings, or scarcely any visible dwellings at all, though Indians had long lived here amid the lakes and their mounds are everywhere. That's when the trail to the single most tragic event in Wisconsin's history led right through the Isthmus. People died in what later became Madison, and many more were killed a few days later in the Battle of the Bad Axe, which concluded the Black Hawk War, the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi River.
From the fall of 1829 until the spring of 1832, an event of national interest caused 1,800 persons to pass through the Isthmus in a 24-hour period. The reason for the presence of this large number of people was not exploration, though some of that was done, or the collection of furs, for there was no time. About 800 U.S. soldiers were making a desperate attempt to catch Chief Black Hawk and his party of 1,000 men, women, and children who were making an equally desperate effort to escape. 1
Blackhawk fled the approaching troops along Indian trails through the dense underbrush of the Isthmus, just south of Capitol Hill, along the shore of Lake Mendota. They then passed around Lake Mendota, just west of where this photo was taken at the base of Picnic Point, on their way to an overnight encampment on the north shore of the lake. He had left behind a rear guard of Sauk warriors near the west side of the Yahara River, near where the Williamson Street bridge is today, prepared to engage the soldiers if they tried to cross the river that night. But the soldiers stayed put, and the Sauks left about midnight to rejoin the rest of their band. They had to leave behind sick stragglers to fend for themselves. At least one died, and another was scalped by a Galena newspaper editor and physician who was among the troops.
Twelve days after the warring parties had passed through the Madison Isthmus, the Black Hawk War ended with the bloody Battle of the Bad Axe. There 950 of Black Hawk's band of 1,000 were slaughtered. Tragically, just a few days before the Bad Axe slaughter Black Hawk once again attempted to surrender at the battle of Wisconsin Heights near present-day Sauk City, but the soldiers interpreted the effort as a delaying tactic. More Sauks died than settlers and soldiers, but the toll upon the settlers and soldiers was great also; at least 250 were killed. The Black Hawk War left a legacy of hatred and distrust for Indians, a feeling that persisted for many years. 2
The hatred is gone now, of course, replaced by the usual historical forgetfulness. What remains is an overlay of history, pentimento reminders of dispossession and tragedy that you'll find if you look, in place names and effigy mounds. Blawk Hawk's name is not forgotten. It's remembered today as the name of a country club. From their website:
Pride in our past is evident in the names associated with several holes on the golf course, which we hope you will find interesting. The Club itself is named after Chief Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk Indians, who traveled through this land in the early 1830s.
He did, indeed -- his course around Lake Mendota took him and his band right through the area where the golf course now is situated, with 800 soldiers in pursuit.

1. Madison: A History of the Formative Years, 2nd Edition, David V. Mollenhoff, University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 16.
2. Ibid., p. 19.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Homage to Russian Constructivism in Madison?

Homage to Russian Constructivism in Madison?
For a moment, the illusion was complete -- as I came out of the Arboretum Parking Ramp at Hilldale and looked up at the roofline of the shopping center, backlit by the late afternoon sun, I thought for an instant I had wandered into the world of Russian Constructivism. Nearly all the elements were there in the decorative detail: the circle, the arcs, the geometric grid, the angled S-curve (granted, in true Constructivist fashion, it should all have been a bit more tilted and askew, but it was close enough).

In the arch above me, the letters of the English alphabet had merged into illegibility with their mirror images, due to the translucent background, which allowed their reversed, backlit shadows to superimpose themselves. For one disorienting instant, it looked like Russia's Cyrillic alphabet. I could only guess at what it said. Constructivist Theme Park, maybe?

Then I looked down at my watch to confirm that we had enough time to get a salad upstairs at Sundance before seeing our movie, and the illusion was broken.