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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: July 2007

Blue Cross anyone?

Michael Moore sure knows how to stir up the hornets' nest. But there was one aspect of his latest movie "Sicko" that I wished he had accentuated a bit more: Why is it that the insurance companies HAVE to make a profit?

Let's look at the simplified cash flow of the insurance companies. Ideally, they would take some money in the form of insurance premiums, keep a bit to pay for their administrative expenses (rents, salaries, office supplies) and the rest should be disbursed to providers of medical care. And if it turns out that there is a surplus of money flowing in, rather than reaping the profits, they should lower the premiums.

Now don't get me wrong. I believe in profits; they are the best incentive for innovation. McDonald's or Intel wouldn't function very well on a non-profit basis. What motivation would they have to deliver better chips? But insurance companies are not supposed to be the innovators. They should deliver specific money to specific doctors. As effectively as possible. The physicians should push the frontiers in this business. But pushing can be really difficult when some of the funds that were intended for doctors driving the medical innovation end up in pockets of bureaucrats driving expensive sports cars.

By letting the insurance companies turn up profit, even in situations when sick people are denied treatment, we are effectively saying this: "We, as a society, believe that it is more important for the insurance executives and major shareholders to get that new spiffy motor boat than it is for some person in the Middle of Nowhere to get adequate medical attention."

I find this implied attitude puzzling. Especially in a country that bills itself as predominantly Christian.

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Three takes

I survived the poetry phase of the writing class I am taking this summer so now I am floundering in prose. For this week assignment we were asked to choose a memory, a snippet from our past, and tell it in three ways.

1. First person - present (as if it were happening now)

Daylight is slowly streaking in. So is my consciousness. Sounds of streetcars help usher in a new day. Their ringing seems suspended in the air, like an invisible hand offered to a lady descending a stage-coach. I realize I am not at home. I see books I never read, I see unfamiliar walls at unfamiliar distances. My reasoning is slowly emerging from its nocturnal eclipse, one by one its internal circuitry comes online, the velvet curtains of slumber are pulling up. I think I just heard a voice. Was it the door that creaked? The setting is gradually coming back to me. The apartment belongs to Helen, a woman I barely know. After a great evening with my friend Theresa, she let me stay in her boyfriend's bedroom, while Theresa crashed in hers. I am also beginning to recall that she mentioned that her boyfriend might be coming back in the morning. Thank God, the world is starting to make sense. The person at the door is a male indeed.

I try to form a coherent sentence, preferably one that might have some explanatory potential. Composing a speech while looking for socks can be demanding though. My memory sputters reluctantly into functionality - his name is Robert. Then I notice something that makes me question my liberation from the dream world. The person at the door is holding a gun. I also notice that the gun is deliberately pointed at me. This guy is really protective of his girlfriend flashes through my mind. As I try to take stock of the situation, I hear a firm request for an identification. I refocus. It is the police. But the gun is just as real as it was a moment ago. They are very curious who is the owner of this apartment and who am I.

I get up. I make a brief introduction and lead them to a living room hoping to find traces of Helen. Theresa is gone, she mentioned she had an early train to catch, so it is up to my orientation sense to find Helen. Where could her bedroom be? The place looks different in the daylight. I look around like a confused monkey looking for a banana heap. I see slim wooden furniture, a rug on the wall depicting a mountain stream, a sofa with a sliding heap of fashion magazines, but no sign of bedroom doors. Time is canoeing through the scene. I try not to act too suspicious, but my obvious failure at finding Helen is enough reason for the policemen to keep their guns ready. Finally she emerges from the depths of the apartment, as if an invisible wall somehow opened. She looks as confused as I am. But somehow I feel that this is a turning point.

2. Third person - past (as if it happened to someone else)

Joe spend an entertaining evening with his friend Theresa and her friend Helen. The conversation flowed like champagne and soon they all found themselves on the a.m. side of midnight. Theresa had an early train to catch from a nearby station, so she decided to stay at Helen's place, a spacious apartment in a high rise building in one of Prague's western districts. Helen mentioned that her boyfriend Robert is out on business and Joe was offered an accommodation in his bedroom. Up to this point nothing extraordinary. A friendly meeting and makeshift sleeping arrangements. The real twist began to take shape in the morning when Theresa left for her early train.

She didn't want to wake up the whole floor so she closed the door rather timidly. As a result the bolt didn't fully engage and while she were speeding downstairs the door wafted open. It probably felt that it had the same right to yawn like everyone else. At around 7 a.m., a neighbor noticed the gaping door on her way for fresh milk. That still wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary had she simply closed it. But there is one thing which made her think twice about doing so. As luck would have it, that same high rise complex witnessed a homicide couple of weeks ago. One of its Ukraininan tenants got into a dispute with the Russian Mafia and the disagreement was settled the Soprano way. Needless to say that the gruesome murder left the tenants rattled and highly suspicious of any irregularity. The ominously open door scared the neighbor and she called the police.

Two officers arrived shortly and entered the apartment, their guns drawn and their eyes scanning the interior for trouble. Helen just moved in, so she didn't have time yet to build a reputation of a solid neighbor. The apartment looked a bit tentative and that made the policemen proceed with extreme caution. Their shoes squeaked on the hardwood floor. They searched the hallway, the kitchen, the living room - but still no sign of life. The layout of the apartment lead them to Joe's room next. Carefully they opened the door. Joe was about to have a morning of his life.

3. First person - past (as if it is recalled from memory)

Staring down the business end of a gun is quite a unique feeling. You are scared and curious at the same time. You feel like a fish released into a kitchen sink. You feel like standing naked in the middle of Times Square. You feel out of place. And you wish you could call Quentin Tarrantino and offer him a great directing opportunity. Or at least grab a video cam and preserve this moment in its dripping urgency.

That is what I experienced firsthand few years ago, when I had to crash at a place of a distant friend. Due to some wheelings and dealings of the Prague underground, which happened to take place in the same house, I was awoken by none other than the Czech police that morning. The vigilant protectors of the law were alerted to an open door to my friend's apartment and caught me in the middle of regaining my consciousness. I will never forget that wake-up call. The ring seat view of their fine weaponry. The sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere and stubbornly continuing to drive against the flow of traffic on a busy highway. To make things worse I didn't even have a proper id on me. Since in the Czech Republic I don't usually carry my passport around, I had only my expired Czech driver's license to prove my identity. That made for an exchange of some deeply puzzled looks on the part of the officers. While they questioned me, I started wondering what kind of matresses they used in Czech jails.

Fortunately everything was explained. My friend Helen entered the scene like Deus ex Machina and saved the day. After it became clear that she is the rightful owner of the apartment, that her offer for me to stay didn't involve any extortion and that we didn't hid any dead bodies in the closet, the policemen turned the blind eye to my expired ID. When I heard the door close behind them, I thought that was the full stop after the whole story. But Helen added a little cherry on top of this tart. We were sipping coffee and exchanging our own stories of the morning when she slapped her forehead as if she just remembered something. She went to the kitchen sink and opened a little cupboard underneath it: "Good that they didn't snoop around too much - they might have found this" - and she pointed to two bags of something that looked like prepackaged hey to me. But it was marijuana. Good Lord, that was the last time I set foot in that house.

Moral of the story: Kids, it's ok to stay with your friends, but if you have to stay with friends of your friends, please, look under the kitchen sink before you brush your teeth.

Of people and tones

Recently I noticed that I prefer smaller companies. Anything larger than party of four is as appealing as last week's lettuce. And I think music is to blame for it.

Most chords consist of three or four tones and there is a reason to it. Too many tones have trouble resonating with each other. Harmony rests in simplicity of ratios. And with people it works the same. A dialog, a pas de deux, is the purest form of consonance. Three or four people can still conjure up a rich and pleasing harmony. With upwards of five people, the personal character of the conversation disappears: there are too many voices to pay attention to, too many sensitive topics to avoid, too many viewpoints to inspect and before you know it the discussion turns into a trivial sequence of sound bites. Depth is replaced by breadth.

People are indeed like tones. Some sound well together and others don't. Certain people have chemistry, others rub themselves the wrong way. It is not a judgement though. If two tones sound dissonant, there is nothing wrong with either of them. You just should not put them together in a chord. At least if you are on speaking terms with your ears. Take E for instance. It sounds well with G# or A or B, but not so well with D#. Yet D# is a perfectly decent tone. Try it with F or with G# and you'll be thrilled. That's the magic of chemistry.

Note that despite the fact that D# and E are in a clear disaccord, they both sound well with G#. In this regard, human relationships are no different. I have two friends who can't stand each other, yet I love them both dearly. On the other hand, I share common friends with many people I am not terribly fond of. It is almost like a magic. Perhaps we should stop calling it "chemistry" then - "alchemy" might be a more suitable term.

But the thing about alchemy is that you can't really learn it. It is more an innate ability. Kind of like a musical ear. Sometimes I know I won't function well with some people as soon as I see how they hold their glasses. Or how they clap their hands. And other people just scratch their head, and I know right there that a lasting friendship is in the offing. I can almost hear that mellow sound of hitting a major sixth chord.

I once spoke with an old communist - a Leon Trotsky type - who spent most of his life teaching the History of the International Workers' Movement. I told him I had doubts that we all could be brothers, as Marx and Lenin would have us believe. I think it is important that people treat each other fairly and respectfully, but friendship should be reserved for special people. Just like harmony is reserved for special tones. What good is friendship if there is no element of discrimination in it? The old communist thought that this idea smacked of a bourgeois decadence and western elitism and he was very concerned about the lack of revolutionary zeal on my part. But communism has lost its battle long time ago and I am sure one of the reasons for its well deserved demise was its disregard for harmony. Yes, people should be treated equally, but not too equally. Making arbitrary friendships is unnatural and eventually unsustainable. Have you ever tried playing in A major, while accompanying someone whose instrument is tuned in E flat minor? It doesn't work. And a society built on such music is doomed.

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All Star Game '07

Baseball is more riddled with curses than a drunk sailor staggering amid the bunks of a nuclear submarine.

Everyone remembers the epic end of "the Curse of the Bambino" in 2004 at the expense of the Yankees and the Cardinals. Or the unraveling of "the Curse of the Black Sox" a year later. These were removed and laid to rest once and for all, although Chicago did not get off the witchcraft hook just yet - across town the Cubs are still plagued by "the Curse of the Billy Goat". But if wizardry is your cup of tea, shed no more tears for the untimely demise of the Big Curses. After watching this year's All Star game, I think there is a new kid on the block. And he seems to be just as vicious and forcible as the Old Bambino.

National League hasn't won the All-Star game since 1997. That is a losing streak of 10 - try flipping ten heads in a row - a strong indication that the Gods of Baseball have vested interest in this game. Plus, after Alfonso Soriano's resuscitation effort in the ninth, the National League lost only by one run, much like last year, a further evidence that dark forces of netherworld are afoot.

Now what exactly went wrong in 1997? The Marlins stared down the Indians in the World Series - that much we know. But could it be that Livan Hernandez smuggled a few jars of home made voodoo potion from Cuba, which then leaked loose and turned on its Masters? Or did the Cleveland Indians spend several jolly midnights shoveling through a pet cemetery to dig up some fish and in the process forever rob the National League of a home-field advantage? That much we can only guess.

It was an exciting game nonetheless and the Cardinals' fans had two genuine opportunities to sigh deeply during its course. First, when they had to watch Dan Haren open the game for - ouch! - the American League. Yeah, the same Dan Haren who left the Birds' Nest only in 2004. And then at the end, when Albert Pujols, one of the League's sharpest harpoons, was left idling in the dugout, although the bases were loaded, half of St Louis was on a prayer alert and the helm of the boat rested in the hands of the man who knows his lethal power best - Tony La Russa.

For the most part, the Cardinals' skipper was submerged in a brooding mood from which he rarely emerged. If I was a Wall Street Journal reporter, I'd say he was trying to form an opinion on Collateralized Debt Obligations during the game - but I would be gravely amiss. He was merely standing on the prow of an ill-fated ship and peering through the perplexing fog, like Captain Ahab pursuing his All Star whale.

I can only hope that when he comes to DC next month, he and his boys will have more reasons to be merry.

Ron Paul on ABC

Today George Stephanopoulos invited my favorite Republican candidate Ron Paul on his Sunday morning show.

Ron Paul is not your garden variety presidential hopeful. If you believe that bone-structure is an essential qualification for the White House, you may not like him. Paul doesn't flaunt a killer smile around like a big club and his hair is probably not going to flow very appealingly in the "chopper wind". His speeches are not prefabricated from easily digestible sentences and his unit of expression is a paragraph rather than a buzzword. I don't agree with him on every issue (his pro-life position for instance), but I do admire his integrity and backbone. He is a man who says what he means and means what he says. That's the kind of man I want in the Oval Office.

He is a also man who understands that inflation is a cowardly way of taxing your citizens. He knows that waging a war is not an acceptable way to get cheaper oil. He knows that a nation with porous borders is extra vulnerable to parasites. He understands the inherent risks of fiat-currency. And he reads his constitution.

Whether that will be enough to win the heart of the mainstream voter remains to be seen - he does seem to be a bit off-the-wall for that. He may be a darling of the Internet, but on the ground he is still regarded as a "long shot" with poll numbers hovering around 1%. That is sad, because I don't see another viable alternative - certainly not on the right. With the remaining candidates it is "business as usual" and that phrase has recently acquired quite a pungent attendant odor. At least here in DC.

A friend of mine told me today that 20% of Americans believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. According to the National Research Council, only 47% of our fellow citizens know that the Earth takes a year to go around the Sun. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 31% of Americans do not know who their vice president is. With these kinds of stats, democracy may become a lethal weapon. Much like an otherwise peaceful watermelon when it is thrown into the path of a speeding automobile.

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Soccer heals heels

Some time ago I hurt my heel. It wasn't an unbearable pain, but it was pestering enough to suspend my tennis and soccer activities for a while. The dull tingle was constantly lurking in the background, like a crouching puma - ready to pounce should I make a wrong step.

Finally, the ache subsided and I could return to the soccer field, where our little Czech team played a pick up game against a group of guys from Latin America. I didn't even have to look at their passports - they were hollering at each other like a bunch of macho cowboys from some melodramatic Argentinian telenovela. Diego! Fernando! Manuel!

One of them was a little mercurial forward whom his teammates called "Little Mexico", although a friend of mine dubbed him "El Meat Grinder" for his pitbull ferocity and undying verve. He used his legs to argue, and he argued like Cicero. Little did I know that I was soon to receive my own personalized autograph from this accomplished orator.

In the middle of the match, "Little Mexico" decided to check the quality of the Czech anklery and stepped on my foot. Scratch that. He jumped on it. He assaulted it as if my ankle personally stole his girlfriend. My foot took a little bit of offence at that and puffed up like a huffish teenager. I could barely take my cleats off after the match. But as I hobbled to McKeever's for our after-game drink, I realized that my previously vexing heel pain was completely gone. Erased. Or more precisely - overridden.

Apparently, my body is not able to process more than one source of pain at the same time. This makes sense. I am a guy and guys are notorious for not being able to multitask. How could we expect more from our pain-processing facility. While we were downing Pilsen beer, it occurred to me that there is a general principle at play here: we could drive one infirmity away with another. Maybe I could have this idea patented and start my own medical practice!

"Oh Jeff, you have a liver problem? Let me kick your shin and give you a nice bluish bruise? There! How is your liver doing now?"

"You sprained your ankle, Mr. Jones? Worry not. Just go home, have some cup cakes, make sure you flush them down with plenty of beer, maybe a few apricots creamed with mustard, a glass of warm milk and top it off with one or two pickles and I am telling you - your body will be so busy handling your upset stomach that you won't even notice you have any ankles, much less sprained ones."

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