Monday, July 27, 2009

Europe - The Good and the Bad

In many ways, which I will not enumerate here, I find European culture superior to American culture. Prevalence of smoking is not one of them.

Naturally, there are many American values that I prefer over European and some Asian values that I find better than either.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

US Healthcare

I’ve been in Europe for a couple of weeks now and I keep getting asked about US Healthcare. It’s in the news every day and everyone seems to have an opinion. Here’s a fact that I think many of us need to accept.

If you are gainfully employed and enjoying the benefits of a solid PPO insurance plan, it is unlikely that you can maintain your current quality of care and level of access to care as the nation moves to a better solution for everyone. If you are unwilling to budge on this, then you are part of a problem that cannot be solved. (Yes, my family enjoys PPO coverage and yes, I am willing to downgrade our care to meet the uninsured in the middle.)

Please note that I am very similar to some of you imaginary readers in many regards. I support free markets, I favor small government, and I do not wish to create public support programs that encourage a lazy life of free loading. However, we need to get the overall costs of healthcare under control and when about a third of our citizens cannot seek care for emerging problems, we have no choice but to treat them when they arrive at an expensive, emergency state of poor health. If we can get everyone access to earlier, routine care, then we can control costs and work toward improving standards going forward.

If that is Socialism then I guess I am a socialist when it comes to healthcare.

Just to finish that point. I am a capitalist in general and I agree with the old adage “capitalism is the worst form of economic structure except for all the others that have been tried”. Nonetheless, I don’t think that a pure free market yields good care for all. In fact, a free market is only designed to yield spoils to the winners; only the successful get BMW’s, the adequate get Honda’s, and the losers join the lazy and the unlucky on foot.

For automobile’s, this works fine and everyone gets where they are going eventually. For healthcare, the consequences of “poor performance” in the market can be both dire and immutable; a bit of structure is required to keep the population at its healthiest and most productive. That is best for all of us.

In Honor of Mick Jagger's Birthday

He was born on this day in 1943. Here are the lyrics to "Ruby Tuesday", one of the many songs he wrote and perhaps those that have inspired the most speculation about what they actually mean.

Ruby Tuesday

She would never say where she came from
Yesterday don't matter when it's gone
While the sun is bright
Or in the darkest night
No one knows
She comes and goes
Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday
Who could hang a name on you?
When you smile with every new day
Still I'm gonna miss you...
Don't question why she needs to be so free
She'll tell you it's the only way to be
She just can't be chained
To a life where nothing's gained
And nothing's lost
At such a cost
There's no time to lose, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams
And you will lose your mind.
Ain't life unkind?
Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday
Who could hang a name on you?
When you smile with every new day
Still I'm gonna miss you...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Familiar Flora, Foreign Fauna

If you move to a part of the earth where the vegetation differs greatly from that where you grew up, getting back amongst familiar plants and trees is always a good connection to the past. On the other hand, a brief glimpse of an unfamiliar animal species is a great bridge to a new plane of understanding. For the past week, I have had both.

My family and I had been sweltering in a Roman heat wave when we decided to seek cooler temperatures in the low mountains of Tuscany. We chose a bed and breakfast in Abbadia San Salvatore built at an elevation of about 800 meters. The days were drier and cooler than those in Rome but still stunningly sunny and we all welcomed the comfort of the pool.

I especially enjoyed our daily walks through the woods where the abundance of oaks, maples, and elms reminded me of Maine. The complete lack of underbrush and biting insects made for comfortable walking and was a welcomed improvement to what I recall of my woods adventures of the past.

Another major difference was the types of animals we encountered. While deer are abundant in Maine, the deer we saw in the Tuscan woods were darker with rounder faces but equally agile and graceful in their bounding escapes. In the category of “animals I had never encountered in the wild” I was most impressed by the families of wild boar that seem to travel together at all times. I had heard they were quite fierce but the locals did nothing to reinforce that notion.

My point (I think) is this. I felt at home in the woods and was able to relax. But I knew I was someplace new and exciting, which added to my enjoyment.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

LPGA woes

Contributed by Auggie
Marketing consultant to the LPGA

I’m sure Carolyn Bivens is not a bad person. And I doubt that she is really incompetent. But the former commissioner of the LPGA was "forced" to resign this week amid concerns that the LPGA tour is becoming irrelevant. This is evident is in the recent loss of sponsors and the cancellation of seven tour events. The poor economy certainly has something to do with the financial struggles, but I have another theory. There is a hint in the following list of names, all among the top 20 in last week’s U.S. Open Championship held in Bethlehem, PA: Eun-Hi Jee, Candie Kung, In-Kyung Kim, Ai Miyazato, Na Yeon Choi, Kyeong Bae, Hee Young Park, Song-Hee Kim, Ji Yai Shin, Jennifer Song, Sun Ju Ahn, Jimin Kang, Akiko Fukushima, Theresa Lu.

Now, if there was a Asian Women’s Professional Golf Association, does anyone think it would be a popular spectator sport in America? Compared to Soccer maybe, but otherwise I doubt it. Well that’s basically what the LPGA is these days - and to take it a step further its mostly South Korean’s dominating the leaderboard week after week. This takes nothing away from the South Koreans, they just happen to have the best female golfers in the world. This is due in part to the success of Se Ri Pak a few years ago who inspired a legion of young South Korean girls to take up golf. Coupled with government sponsored programs that groom young golfers with potential, you end up with an explosion of talent that is revealing itself today. If women’s golf were an Olympic event there is no doubt that South Korea would run away with the gold, and possibly the Silver too. And there is nothing the LPGA tour can do about it. If you are the best you deserve to play, and win at the highest level. It’s not like youth sports where the abnormally advanced athlete gets moved to a higher division ahead of his/her chronological schedule.

For the record, I believe the tour would be boring if it were dominated by Americans too, although it would probably have higher ratings in the U.S. if my theory is correct. For that matter, it would be boring if dominated by Swedes or Brits or any other common group. The PGA (men) tour continues to thrive and one aspect of the tour that I love is it’s international flavor. There are top golfers from the U.S., Australia, U.K. Scotland, Germany, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela, Sweden and many more countries. Even a Frenchman almost won the British Open a few years ago (Jean Van de Velde) before he realized he was a Frenchman and played the last hole like a . . .um, Frenchman. The LPGA could benefit from such diversity. Now, if the players who were whining the loudest about the commissioner would only stop whining, stop working on their calendar shoots and reality shows, and start working on their golf game, maybe the sport would become a little more interesting. Of course, I could be wrong.

Good Humanity, Bad Humanity

I am an optimist. I also think that for the most part, people are good at heart. Perhaps I think that because I am an optimist but maybe it is the other way around. It could be that my trust in humanity makes me believe that the future is bright.

In recent years however, I have begun to notice a disturbing selfishness that seems to be taking root in society. This may be because I live in a fairly transient portion of the country where economic growth and a great climate have attracted a rapidly growing population. This means that there are lots of people around me with no deep roots in the community and no strong ties to one another. That’s a plausible explanation. Perhaps.

Of course, one can always find a feel-good story about a heroic deed or profound altruism to buttress the case for humanity’s enduring virtues. But I am more swayed by the broad patterns of activity evident in more widespread, national discussions such as those about healthcare reform and immigration for example.

It seems that no one is willing to sacrifice on the quality of their medical coverage to ensure that those with no access to care can get minimal coverage. Many want inexpensive immigrant labor but do not wish to see the same immigrants who provide that labor consuming educational or healthcare resources in the community. These attitudes worry me.

Silly as it seems, I think sports can sometimes provide snapshots of the mass mind-set. When twenty thousand Lakers fans in Staple Center boo the National Anthem before a game against the Rockets because the lyrics include “rocket’s red glare”, I worry about our collective wellbeing. However, when forty thousand Red-Sox fans give Nomar a standing ovation, my faith is restored.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Rebate Scam

I am not sure if it is the manufacturers, the retailers, or both, but the the rebate shenanigans are quite annoying.

I understand business and I get the picture. Management wishes to implement promotional programs to drive sales while maximizing effectiveness and minimizing program costs. However, there is a line between honest value and disingenuous promotion and I think many rebate programs lie in dishonest territory.

If there is a rebate available, be it from the manufacturer or the retailer, why not make it automatically redeemable at check out? The answer of course is because the "slippage" in the system (those transactions where consumers who do not proactively request the rebate) allow for aggressive rebate promotions that attract attention and drive sales but are cost effective because many rebates go unredeemed. I guess I can live with that.

What I can't live with is the purposefully onerous redemption process put in place to discourage consumers from claiming the rebate they were promised. Get a receipt, get another piece of rebate documentation from the retailer, take a code or model number from the carton, make photocopies, send it all to some third party processor, and make sure it is all postmarked within a few days of your purchase. All this work is often buried under an advertised "low price" that is actually a calculated final cost assuming you successfully secure the rebate. It's dishonest.

If you bother to jump through those hoops, an advanced scam technique is to send the rebate check to the wrong address and then void it out once it goes un-cashed for 30-60 days. Only the most motivated consumers can track this process through the maze of promotion processing to get their due.

HP and Office Depot pulled that one on me last year so my $250 rebate on a new PC was lost. This morning I pulled out my papers from a recent dishwasher purchase and realized I missed the one week deadline for claiming my $100 rebate.

I don't have the time or energy to seek the value I was promised so I decided to just blog about it and move on. I guess I can live with it after all.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Funny or Annoying?

Contributed by Auggie
Late-night talk show critic


David Letterman makes a living being funny, a nice living at that. Apparently many people think he is funny. I’m not one of them.

It’s not that I don’t like comedy because I do. I love watching a good comedian, my favorite shows are sitcoms, and I always enjoy a funny movie. But I don’t remember the last time I even chuckled at Letterman. I’m probably in the minority with this attitude and I’m not sure exactly why, but I do have one theory. Have you ever been in a mixed group setting when a seven-year old boy accidently makes all the adults laugh? He enjoys the high so much (probably how comedians get the bug in the first place) that he promptly embarks on a mission to duplicate the deed. He tries hard to keep being funny. He tries so hard that he ends up doing stupid things that aren’t funny at all. Eventually he is just exposed as the annoying seven-year old boy that he really is. That’s Dave.

For some reason Letterman thinks he needs to be funny in every mannerism and every time he opens his mouth. Or every time someone else opens their mouth. Or every time the camera is rolling. But no one can be constantly funny. Ever heard of the concept of timing as it relates to comedy?

Periodically I’ll tune in to his show if I think there is an interesting guest. But I’m quickly reminded that guests are not really guests, they are just props to be used by Dave; a conduit from which he delivers his own version of wit and humor. First, he tries to be funny when asking a question. And then, rather than letting the guest prop respond in full, he cuts them off and injects his own “witty” reply. He is the star after all. And yet people laugh. I just change the channel.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Declaration of Independence

Happy Independence Day!

It was not any sort of premeditated plan but the first thing I did when I woke up today was to go online and read the Declaration of Independence. Have you read this thing since becoming old enough to understand it? Here's a portion to get you started but you can read the whole thing at many sites online.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

After reading it, you might also benefit from a little background reading on King George III who is the "tyrant" to which the Declaration refers. History judges him as a remarkably well-educated and broad-minded ruler. Not as the short-sighted, power monger we learn about in grade school.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fall of the Qing Dynasty

I remember learning as a schoolboy about the powerful civilization of the Qing dynasty that crumbled under the weight of a pervasive opium addiction. For some reason, that piece of history always stayed with me as it seemed so improbable that an entire nation of adults could all travel such a treacherous path in complete unison, without changing course, until inevitably reaching their tragic and ruinous destination.

These thoughts come back to me when I take my children to school each morning and note that very near 100% of the parents accompanying their children to school are carrying with them large travel-mugs filled (presumably) with coffee. Each of the many teachers I see, already on duty supervising the students on campus, also carries a mug with them on the job. So does the crossing guard. And the traffic monitor. And the principal.

After lunch, when I too indulge in the caffeine habit, I am always struck by the high number of very young people (teens) also buying coffee while I am there. Vast containers of coffee. It is actually quite alarming to see the habit taking hold so forcefully at such a young age.

I suppose caffeine is not so destructive as opium but the historical parallel is interesting. Just a little something to ponder over your next cup of Jo.