Sunday, May 21, 2006


An accountant colleague of mine, when our discussion about compliance in general turned to Barry Bonds in particular, said something I hadn't heard before, probably because its so obvious and so inconvenient.

"If they're going to put an asterisk next to Barry Bonds' home run record, they should also put an asterisk next to Ruth's, because Babe Ruth played against only white players. The exclusion of Black people and Latinos has to be a bigger taint on any statistic achieved, or even partly achieved, during baseball's segregation, than any players' use of drugs to improve their performance."

There's another asterisk you could enter for recent home run achievements: until recent times there was no rule against a pitcher throwing at a batter. The only inhibition was fear of retaliation. When Willie Mays hit a home run, the first pitch of his next at-bat would be a fastball right at his head. It was very common to see batters flat on their backs as a result of avoiding beanballs.

The best home run hitter of all time? Bill Mazeroski. It ain't how many you hit, it's when you hit 'em.

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Many years ago a boss of mine who prides himself on knowing and consuming only the best, I guess you could call it a kind of snobbism, was anxious to demonstrate some new found knowledge. “What’s the best brand of pianos?”

“No such thing,” I said, “it’s a matter of personal pref—“

“Bosendorfer,” he blurted.

“Yeah,” I said, “that’s one of the top brands.”

“It’s the most expensive, and most exclusive,” he said.

So I told him about a recent documentary on Vladimir Horowitz’ trip to Moscow. It was some big deal politically or historically or something. But noteworthy for our discussion: Horowitz brought his own piano, that he plays on every day in his Manhattan livingroom. They showed the Maestro playing on the piano in his home. Then they show it being boxed up and hauled out. Then, later, they show Horowitz on the Moscow concert stage, half a world away, playing the very same piano.

We’d expect a violinist to bring his own instrument along. But moving a huge piano, is it really worth it? Well, why would a violin be different from a piano? Each individual instrument has its own voice. A performer seeks an instrument with a voice that supports the performer’s musical world view. These are subtleties available only to highly accomplished artists and generally involve the more expensive brands. But even within a brand, at the high end, each individual piano has its own voice.

“By the way,” I said, “Horowitz’ piano is a Steinway.”
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Thursday, May 18, 2006


General Hayden made this unchallenged statement today in Senate testimony, regarding his performance at the NSA:

“Clearly the privacy of American citizens is a concern constantly. We always balance privacy and security."

No, general, it is not the duty of the NSA to "balance privacy and security." That is not even the job of the Executive Branch. The Legislative and Judicial branches have this responsibility. Your duty is to pursue your mission with all diligence within the confines of the law.

The Bill of Rights has relieved you of the responsibility to balance privacy. You don’t have to balance anything, just obey the law. In case you don’t quite understand the law, that’s what the Judicial Branch is for.

In the clip I saw, his stars were sparkling like diamonds.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006


“Ecuador moves against oil giant.” Latin American and South American oil producing countries are nationalizing their own fossil fuel resources. It used to be that the US would send Marines to overthrow such uppity regimes. And that isn’t happening this time, yet. It seems to me that the name of the company that pumps Ecuador’s oil should have a Spanish or even Indian name, not “Occidental Petroleum.” What—the folks in Ecuador don’t know how to drill oil? Good news.

“Mayor vetoes Saturday park road closures.” While it would be ideal to have no cars in Golden Gate Park, simply banning them, without accommodating auto traffic some other way, causes lots of problems for lots of people.

A few years ago San Francisco voters rejected a ballot measure to close some park roads on Saturdays (they’re already closed on Sundays). Now the Board of Supervisors has voted to enact the proposal the voters rejected. What outrageous arrogance! If they think the outcome would be different they can resubmit the measure for another city-wide vote. Instead they chose to violate the express will of the voters of San Francisco.

Lucky for us we have a native-born mayor who understands that signing the road closure bill would cost the City millions in litigation, there would eventually be another plebiscite, and the outcome would be the same as the last one.

The ideologues on the Board don’t understand that thousands of San Franciscans work at regular Monday through Friday jobs, and that they do errands on Saturdays. The Saturday road closure would have many of them sitting in jammed traffic for an extra 20-30 minutes every Saturday. So, thank you, Mayor, for your good sense. More good news.

Another story enhances a previous report about a Bausch and Lomb contact lens solution that promotes a rare fungus that causes blindness. The particular product has been removed from store shelves. Today’s report says that Bausch and Lomb executives withheld data regarding 35 cases of the fungus associated with their product occurring some time ago in Singapore. These fuckers calculate the profit for each day the product is being sold. So if they can delay the safety recall by a few weeks, they’ll generate enough money to pay for litigation, and, as a last resort, compensate the “small” number of people who actually lose their eyesight.

B&L are the folks who marketed the exact same contact lenses in three different boxes at three different prices. One box referred to the lenses as “one-day disposables” and recommended that they be worn only once, for one day, then be discarded. Another box referred to them as “14-day disposables,” at a higher price, and another as “30-day disposables” at an even higher price. Exactly the same lenses! It was a Sixty Minutes story. B&L actually sent some stooge to answer tough questions, and the poor guy wound up blathering to a national audience.

Even the fungus story is good news, at least that the assholes got caught, and in the sense that it helps with decision-making. I’ve pretty much decided to avoid all B&L products. I’m sticking with store brands. If blindness is the outcome anyway, why pay more?

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Monday, May 15, 2006


In just a few weeks I’ll be retiring from UCSF after completing the minimum five years required for vesting in the retirement plan. Some of my colleagues call it early retirement. At age 57, I’m not ceasing all gainful employment, I can’t afford to. But I am returning to semi-retirement, my wont, after five years (plus nine months that didn’t count toward vesting) at a straight, full time job.

At UCSF a person isn’t retired until they have filed an “election” regarding retirement benefits. The major choice is lifetime monthly payments versus an immediate lump-sum cashout. The lump-sum amount equals the total monthly payments I’d receive if I lived to my actuarial age. I did the math, and they figure I’ll die around 71 or 72. Because the monthly payment would have been so small, and because I don’t trust the state’s promise of lifetime payments, I elected the lump sum.

There are plenty of people my age who’ve been working for UCSF for twenty years and are planning to continue for at least another five or six. They frequently check the retirement calculator to see how much they’ll receive per month. I used to envy the idea of retiring at 75% of one’ highest salary.

But consider, a man who works till 65 has an average of seven years of retirement. And at least some of that is spent dying. For many career employees, disease catches up with them even before they retire. More commonly, for others, a stultifying career has extinguished any aptitude for real fun and they vegetate, bored and boring. Delaying gratification until retirement is a sucker’s bet.

I don’t agree with Baudelaire that evil is better than boredom. But a short, interesting life is definitely preferable to a long boring one. Longevity is the most boring goal of all. Those who seek it can’t possibly know what to do with it.

Then good old Mr Wilson bursts in all excited. Usually when my friend, Pudinhand Wilson, waves a newspaper (or web printouts) he’s ranting about the lack of good news—concerning recreational drugs. Today he’s got a point. He’s put one and one together and come up with… well, you count.

First he’s outraged by the front page story of concrete contractor fraud on the new, screw-the-poor-black-people, Muni light rail line. They provided cheap, weak concrete, not the good stuff required by the contract, and paid for by the city.

Or as Pudinhand put it, “What kind of concrete did they use for Jimmy Hoffa? Some crappy stuff with old ground-up bricks? Hell no! Only the very best shit to bury Mr Hoffa’s ass in! That’s one fucking bridge they don’t want falling down.

“But for the black folk at the end of the new line—even when they get their downtown jobs, they can’t get to work because the weak-ass trackbed is busting up and the streetcars are derailing daily.

“And,” he said, flipping a page, “there’s been an upsurge in fatal alligator attacks in Florida. There’ve been three in the last week. And those are the ones they’re talking about.”

Then he raises his forefinger in a gesture of utter seriousness, which he trots out infrequently “to preserve it’s credibility,” and declares, “Mark my words: the Bushes are going to turn Florida into one big alligator farm, with indigent aging baby boomers as the feed.”

“Of course they’ll start off slow. One or two attacks here or there. Eventually people will be inured to the idea of retirees getting picked off by alligators. The scale of course, like the final solution in Germany, is hard to imagine at first. But likewise it’s difficult to predict how unbearably annoying, not to mention expensive, the boomers will be who survive into their eighties, and how relatively numerous. It’s unnatural for the young to carry such a burden.

“More natural is for the aged to fall prey to natural stuff. So, the standard, at least in Florida, will be foot speed. When you get to the point where you can’t outrun a gator, or jump away from its lunges, well, maybe it’s time for recycling. Instead of being hated burdens on society, aging boomers would become high end belts and handbags.

“Mark my words,” he repeated solemnly, “twenty years from now, everyone will know what it means to say, ‘Grandma and grandpa went to Florida.’”

So I had to ask him what this has to do with faulty concrete. He was exasperated by my dullness:

“All over the South they got roads cutting through swamps and the swamps are filled with hungry gators and those roads got bridges and those bridges are supposed to be concrete but who knows what kind of shit they put in there and you’re driving across and the bridge gives way and all of a sudden the goddamn alligators are ripping your ass to shreds.”

Pudinhand read the bafflement in my face.

“So make your fucking plans accordingly,” he said, “Mr Retiree!”

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The recent Patrick Kennedy single car accident flap pissed me off.

The lesser issue exposed was the legal impunity accorded the powerful. Joe Blow in Kennedy’s place would have been arrested, booked, and alcohol-tested. A black Joe Blow would also have kissed some asphalt. Kennedy got a ride home.

This kind of incident only breeds disrespect for the law. It amounts to either bribery or extortion. Whoever decided to drive Patrick home did so in consideration of the potential consequences of pleasing or angering the powerful Kennedy’s.

What bothers me a lot more is the acceptance by the press of the Kennedy’s patently illogical explanation of events. It’s like accepting a balance sheet that doesn’t balance.

Here’s the Kennedy story:

1) Patrick took a prescription anti-nausea pill, in the prescribed dosage, in the afternoon.
2) Patrick took a prescription sleeping pill, in the prescribed dosage, later that evening.
3) Patrick had no other drugs or alcohol in his system.
4) At three in the morning Patrick got out of bed and sleep-walked through the episode that ended in the car crash.
5) Patrick committed no crime—the episode was caused by an adverse reaction to medications that were legally prescribed and used only as recommended. Patrick wasn’t even conscious.
6) Patrick would be immediately entering a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.


Points 1 through 5, whether true or not, make sense and tell a consistent story. Point 6, however, seems to be a non-sequiter.

If you follow the logic, Point 6 should read, “Patrick will immediately discontinue the use of both medications and will consult his physician regarding possible substitutes.”

Accepting that the rich get special treatment renders the law absurd. Accepting gross illogic renders everything absurd.

Maybe something else is being covered up. Absenting oneself is a useful tactic in such a circumstance whether one is seeking treatment or just lying low, you know, "stay out of town ‘til it blows over. "

Just for fun:

Mary-Jo Kopechne: But what if I get pregnant?

Ted Kennedy: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

The above pictures come from Fatboy, a truly fun site dedicated to Teddy.

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A really nice person I work for is an M.D. radiologist from Austria (or Germany). He has been doing mostly clinical work with some consulting on other researchers’ projects, but he is expanding his research effort and starting to lead projects of his own.

Yesterday a nice co-worker asked if I’d be a Guinea pig for one of my guy’s clinical trials that requires healthy-man-my-age knee scans. I gave her a hard time, but she met my requirements—that it take place during my regular work day, and that the MD radiologist review the scans for any obvious pathology.

So I spent the last two work hours in the Imaging Center downstairs in comfy hospital gown things, and most of that time flat on my back with my eyes closed, listening to the compelling aleatory music of the 3-T MRI machine—thumps, clangs, knocks, and hums in various competing rhythms and all ridiculously loud. Earplugs are required. Many actual patients need to be dosed for claustrophobia, so the controlled opportunity to deal with my own claustrophobia is an additional benefit. It really is reason over reflex.

The opening starts wide. You can see that it narrows. The actual scanning gets done deep in the dark narrow tube. I've always gone feet-first. The guy in the picture is about to be slid-in head-first--they'd have to knock me out with a sledge hammer.

This afternoon my MD radiologist called me into his office to talk about my scans. He seemed kind of concerned. He said I had significant edema (swelling, I guess) in two places. He asked me if I had any knee pain and was surprised that I said no. He asked about my tennis (my being an “active” 50-something made me an ideal Guinea pig), if my knee felt sore after playing. I said, no not at all.

I mentioned that I’d had some foot problems, some plantars fascitis and a little tennis toe, but even after twenty years of softball and seven years of tennis, I had no knee pain at all. He still acted very surprised. He had drawn a simple diagram of where the edema showed up, and explained why it could (should) be painful. Then he wanted to show me the actual scans.

I pulled my chair up to look at his computer screen over his shoulder. As he moved through the first series (the process produces 2-d images of the object from hundreds of angles—the effect of moving through a series of images is that of walking around a statue, or turning an object in your hands) he again expressed surprise.

What he saw was a perfectly healthy knee, no pathology whatsoever. Turns out he had originally looked at only a few printouts he'd been given in a folder. The printouts he'd seen were of another person’s knee. Somehow there'd been a mix-up. After verifying that the scans on the screen were my true scans, he seemed relieved. Apparently the (wrong) scans he had looked at that morning contained some fairly bad news.

He apologized for causing alarm. “As long as we caught it before the amputation,” I quipped.

Actually I hadn’t felt alarmed. If there had been a real problem I was lucky to find out about it. MRI scans are expensive and would normally not be available to me. Then, learning that my knee is actually ok, that’s fine, too. Full speed ahead.

But it’s a valuable cautionary tale. When it does it come time to amputate something, I’m going to make damn sure they’re looking at the right scans.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006


The illegals say, “We are not criminals, we only come here to work so we can support our families.”

This attempts to justify an act (illegal residency) because of the goodness of the motive. Ok, supporting one’s family is a good motive. We might quibble with the word support—Jack Grubman felt it necessary to trade millions worth of insider info for a place for his son in an exclusive kindergarten. And, what about the millions of families south of the border that are getting by, somehow, without money from the USA?

When a motive is used to justify an act, we have to ask if there are any acts that could not be justified by that motive? For instance, is it ok for me to murder your family so that my family can survive? Can I push your family out of a lifeboat so my family can take their place?

I flipped past a Board of Supervisors meeting on the tube and heard one supervisor state, “No matter how strong the laws against public urination, the necessity defense will still apply.”

It’s great that the law recognizes that kind of necessity. Ultimately there is no such thing as plain old necessity. It is not necessary that the universe continue to exist. And likewise it’s not necessary that any person or thing did, does, or ever will exist.

Necessity is conditional.

- If I don’t want to pee my pants, I have to pee in the bushes.

- If I don’t eat, I’ll die.

- If I don’t work, I won’t get paid and my family will starve.

- If I get fired my family will starve.

- If I tell the truth I’ll get fired and my family will starve.

- I had to use a corked bat in order to hit enough homeruns to earn the bonus so my family won’t starve.

Necessity is a physical sensation. Cells want to live. Cells want pleasure. Cells want to reproduce. Cells pine for past states of well-being.

For example:

My mom, who had been sliding toward demise for years, had an acute illness that doctors predicted would kill her within a day or two. My mom was beatific. It may have been the novelty of the morphine high, but I think she felt she was going to have a quick death.

She had talked a lot about suicide but found she couldn’t bring herself (her cells) to do it. She had however, documented her desire that no extraordinary means be used to prolong her life.

The only treatment for her condition, a blocked intestine that ballooned her belly like a starving baby, was surgery, and my mom refused. Good for her. Now she was delighted to know she’d be dead within forty-eight hours.

She survived. Against high odds, her condition partially resolved, and she survived another six weeks. She’d had a slow growing form of lung cancer for three years. The hospice nurse reluctantly whispered a prediction of “about a month.”

After going home and seeing her tummy go down, she got bored with the waiting for death routine and wanted to make plans for the rest of her life. She didn’t really eat, so regaining strength wasn’t going to happen. But the cells don’t want to die.

She never got out of bed or removed her catheter or her fentinyl patch. She was on nearly constant oxygen. She died about seven weeks after the onset of the blocked intestine, in a nursing home where I put her after three weeks of home care.

She went to the nursing home as a prerequisite, so we discussed, to deciding on a more permanent placement. The agreement was for a month, to see if she could regain some strength. This was pretty much bullshit, but we couldn’t discount another miracle. (As it turned out, both lungs were full of cancer and there wasn’t any chance.)

There are moments when life-themes trump cell-selfishness. This was the case when my mom first entered the hospital and was told she’d die soon. But it’s hard to sustain for any length of time. The cells are planning to live. For the cells survival feels necessary, even when they are part of an eighty-six year old woman who can’t maintain consciousness despite the oxygen machine pounding away to the max.

What kind of necessity was there that my mom survive another day, another hour, and at the end, another breath? The cells, so unrelenting, are cruel. Let’s face it, life doesn’t care about you or me. It cares only about itself.

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Monday, May 01, 2006


This weekend a pundit mentioned that our war-on-terror enemy is Islamic fundamentalism. It struck me as bold and non-pc, and this was a vanilla-voiced kind of guy. I wondered: why did it seem strange, why don’t more people state this obvious construct?

Because, I figured, our country is run by Christian fundamentalists and they don’t want us to make the connection. I, and I’m sure, poll-wise, most Americans, don’t support either kind of fundamentalism. What we see is one kind of fundamentalism battling another. It’s a dreary drama when you can’t identify with either agonist.

Both fundamentalisms oppose the future. Christian fundamentalism deals with the future by keeping it from taking place, that is, by precipitating Armageddon. The Islamic fundamentalists seek to bar their people from entering the future by denying them new behaviors.

Liberals have been silent on fundamentalism. We shouldn’t fault those who hate the future unless we ourselves can describe some version of the future that’s both plausible and fun. Given population, resources, and aspirations, our species seems headed for a major die-back. The future belongs to those for whom survivalism is enjoyable.

Bush is like Slim Pickens, whooping as he rides the nuke like a bronco, into oblivion. The liberals are at the back of the plane, the engine roar drowns out whatever it is they’re saying.

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