Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Butterflies and the Bush-on-a-Tree

Sunday last we saw our favorite butterfly for the first time, the Black Swallowtail, feeding in all leisure off the blooms of a rather curious tree of ours. It is a Dwarf Lilac known to the botanists as Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’. I call it a curious tree because it is actually a combined form of a tree below and a bush above accomplished by grafting. The Korean Dwarf Lilac ordinarily has a very short stem of no more than 5 inches, so that the lilac hugs the ground. But look at these pictures:

The trunk of this “tree” measures 3.5 feet from the ground to the point where the branches articulate—thus way taller than the Korean Dwarf Lilac’s natural height. Our tree, therefore, is what they call a topgraft. The top part is a Dwarf Lilac and is called the scion; the trunk must be from a genetically related plant that grows quite high; it is called the interstem. With dwarf lilacs the two interstems normally used are Syringa villosa or the Japanese Lilac (Syringa reticulata). Our interstem is definitely a Villosa, commonly known as Lilac, Late; note, on the picture above, the green branches growing at the stem’s bottom; those leaves are the original leaves of the stem and helped me identify it. The Dwarf Lilac’s leaves are much smaller, darker in color, and of a different shape. But let me emphasize, again, that both the trunk and the top belong to the same genus; genetic similarity is a must for successful topgrafting.

The bloom of our little lily is shown on the left. It has a very faint odor now, but that odor will grow more and more pronounced as we enter the month of June.

Our Black Swallowtails arrived in pairs, one significantly larger than the other. They are very dark butterflies with a distinct yellow marking on the wings. They stood out splendidly against the lilac blossoms so that we could clearly make them out even from a distance; they were our own. Among other butterflies we’ve seen thus far are a Monarch (still alive, looks like), a Yellow Tiger Swallowtail, and a handful of Cabbage Whites. We feel quite comfortable with the butterflies. As for the Syringa meyeri, it will take some time before we get used to its curious duality.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Hidden Logic of Health Care

At my birth in 1936 in Hungary the country already had 30 years of experience with a nationalized health care system, founded in 1907. That program was called “National Workers' Sick-Benefit and Accident Fund”; it was replaced, in 1928, with the “National Social Insurance Institution.”  The country has had such a system ever since, more and more inclusive and entirely state run and funded.  By the way, the first insurance program that only covered part of the population, miners, went back all the way to 1496.

With this in my background, is it any wonder that I have a rather negative view of the health care debates in the United States. Every member of my own family had directly experienced the benefits of so-called “socialized” medicine from birth on forward. In addition, my Grandfather was a doctor; and his grandfather had been a very prominent doctor as well, responsible for all mental diseases in Hungary. Therefore we all had close contact and knowledge of the profession that delivered the services—always being paid civil services wages.

These memories arose today because Brigitte came across a brief book review, H. Gilbert Welch’s Less Medicine, More Health (Beacon Press, 2015). Welch argues that we have too much health care with many decidedly negative concomitants—and that it costs way too much. The brief article also suggested to me that we tend to overlook the fundamental logic of health care—and how that logic is violated when we let the Hidden Hand decide how medicine should be practices.

Another memory arose as well. Once long ago in Kansas City I gave a talk to a group of medical students. I’ve completely forgotten my subject, but afterwards I had a chance to socialize with a small group of students. I made an attempt to discover what had motivated these men (all men then) to follow their chosen profession. An amazing six of the seven people I talked with all pointed to the potentially high income medicine promised them. One man only half shamefacedly confessed that service to humanity had drawn him into doctoring. And yet another: While living in Minnesota, we got to know a skin doctor who’d moved to the United States from Canada and, well-established there, actively boasted that he’d crossed the border because the Canadian system had failed to give him the opportunity to turn his arduous learning into wealth. I’m actually understating what all he said…

The logic of health care therefore runs something like this. Medicine might attract too many people to practice it for the wrong reasons. For them a Free Market medicine provides all sorts of wrong incentives—to treat more, and more intensively—because every transaction increases income. In a socialized framework they can never get rich; therefore those drawn to medicine will be drawn by its inherent character, the opportunity to help people. Much as in Minnesota we changed skin doctors, so throughout our life here we’ve sought out doctors who have the genuine motivation and avoided the others.

With nationally controlled income for doctors, many of the problems cited by Dr. Welch would disappear on their own accord. We’d have much less unnecessary testing, fewer visits, lower administrating staffing, and much more affordable and probably more effective health care. We’ve seen it practiced like that in Hungary, Poland, Germany, and France. When you work as a provider of care in countries like that, you won’t need anyone to manage your wealth. You won’t have any. But you’ll live in comfort. And I’d like to tell all this to the Hidden Hand—if only I could see it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Our Close Maple Neighbors

It is that time of year again—when Maples rain their seeds (link). At our new house we have two maples in quite close proximity, growing on the edges of our neighbor’s lawn. One is a rather stately Silver Maple; its branches shadow parts of our roof from on high, and I mean very high. In the image I show, the maple seeds covering our roof are from this oldster. Next to it, separated by a rather rich spread of lilac bushes, is a Red Maple shading our garage. It is small, with smooth bark (indicating youth) and, at this season, very green leaves. If you are persnickety about concrete, and want it pristine, do not associate with maple trees that shade it. All year long they continuously rain down something: not only seed but of leaves, twigs, and branches too. But sweeping them up at right regular intervals provides a benefit: a feeling of accomplishment on the cheap. It all looks so neat—and tomorrow it’ll need the broom again…

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Self-Evolving Technology

The Self-Driving Car (SDC) shows an interesting aspect of Technology—namely that it seems to have a mind of its own and operates in a Self-Evolving way. If I were still writing science fiction, I’d write a novella with that theme. Not that it would be very original. SF is full of tales in which Technology, usually in the form of robots, evolves to such heights that it dreams of taking over everything.  But why am I picking on the SDC? Because it is one of the cleanest examples of a technology we do not need. So long as some people will be driving cars, the SDC will represent a danger to people, whether in those cars or not. And if people no longer use cars, what use would SDC be? Or is this technology ultimately aimed at eliminating flesh-and-blood drivers in trucking?

Two phenomena seem to be behind the self-evolving character of technology. One is illustrated by that old answer given by the mountain climber. Asked why he wants to risk his life and limb to conquer Mount Whatever, he answer by saying, “Because it’s there.” The other is that at least in its early stages, technology has generally proved beneficial to humanity; its negative aspects have tended to be half-obscured and slow in manifesting; therefore the public, presented with a new device—like the SDC—not only imagines that it will be a blessing but is also inclined to believe that the device will carve a place for itself whether we like it or not. Submission, therefore, is the natural way, no matter what the new technology might be.

Very slowly the world is transformed; but whether in the direction of the better is dubious—and dubious in part because other paths have never been walked. Around here another technological nexus is often much examined: the medical. It has grown in Brigitte’s and my lifetime from a doctor with a black bag making house calls into a veritable Himalaya of large machines on high and a vast jungle of small machines below —thus MRIs, CATs and so on top to small hand-held ultrasound pods on the ground that, pressed against the body, show its innards on a screen darkly. Now Artificial Intelligence is trending toward diagnostics by keyboard and screen. And as the car’s driver is being slowly marginalized, the doctor is gradually becoming a technician. A rather paradoxical outcome of medical technology’s ever growing perfections and spread—the reader should see the medications I’m forced to take and watch me labor dispensing them daily from a forest of containers—is that people live longer and longer, but the joy of that living is less and less and, at shorter and shorter intervals, requires for its maintenance entry into a bizarre machine—which itself holds other smaller weird machines—until, at last one enters the tunnel a final time and passes on with masses of tubes coming out of one’s nose and mouth and creatures holding thunder-dispensers in each hand approaching the chest to start that poor heart again until it cannot any more.

Seriously. The old ways are still with us over very large stretches of the globe’s geography. But another technology, the Media, make us think that leaving the Paradise of Technology for that primitive world would be dreadful. From a distance, perhaps. From up close, Self-Evolving Technology can be quite hellish too.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tea without Sympathy

Thoughts about the coherence of culture arose yesterday as a subject of our morning conversation. Put another way, is there anything resembling consensus in this country or is it rather that multiple groups, with contradictory views, are competing for followers? It might be argued that “competing groups” are a rule and that a situation we see in 2015 was just as true in 1815 or in 1915. Furthermore one needs to be on guard. Chaotic times produce a kind of pervasive discomfort—and the feeling that today’s situation is both new and in a way permanent. Not so. Ours is not the only time when “the center cannot hold.”

Part of the problem with incoherent times is that such periods are matters of perception or feel. They don’t quite reach down to the ordinary levels of practical daily life. When they do, we’ve entered a Time of Troubles. The feel in the 1960s was one of broad consensus; now the feel is one of sharp polarization. But objective measurement of such a pair of suppositions is difficult. One just knows—but how does one know? Largely from the media.

In 1960, for example, the three television stations, ABC, CBS, and NBC, were not meaningfully different. Today there is Fox in addition, MSNBC attempting to balance Fox, and neither much interested in international matters. For that we have CNN—unless a train derails. In 1960 both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were bland; both have developed clear ideological edges since. In 1960 radical right radio had not yet appeared; Rush Limbaugh was still 30 years away; now it is present. Once Congress regularly passed annual budgets; now it is in perpetual deadlock.

From the media, yes—because, in the neighborhood the rule is still to suppress any kind of controversy by simply not talking about polarizing subjects. Therefore the sound of deep conflicts necessarily comes from the media. Polls taken of public opinion are unreliable because, on hard subjects, people echo the blandest opinions, especially if their own gut feel is unpopular in the media. All disagreements are labeled “phobic” and no one wants to be labeled “phobic.” Reasoned opposition to many movements is not heard in an age of abbreviation and slogans. Thus even what little consensus seems to exist is in actuality questionable. Therefore it’s all just a feeling—but we also live in an age in which feelings rank higher than thought.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Where Search and Social Draw their Funds

The Business Pages these days tend to focus on Mergers & Acquisition, Finance, Mobile Devices, and that sector of Internet business represented by big search engines and the social Media.

It is the last category that interests me. There is a great deal of hoopla about Internet companies, but those that provide a free service all draw their income from the Advertising expenditures by the rest of the economy.

So the question arises, how big is that “funding sector.” Is it as large as the media’s interest in Internet startups and IPOs? The surprising answer is that Total Advertising Expenditure in 2014 was $161 billion; that comes to less than 1 percent (0.92%) of the Total Economy measured by GDP, or $17.4 trillion. My number for Advertising comes from Group M, a global media company. Some put the 2014 number at $180.12 billion (1.03% of GDP). In 2008, advertising was $141.7 billion, 0.99 percent of an economy of $14.3 trillion. The Total Advertising Expenditure category has actually shrunk as a percent of GDP.

A great deal of media hoopla, but in reality a tiny and shrinking slice of the economy.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Bradford Pear

A central feature of our backyard is a Pyrus calleryana, commonly known as a Callery Pear, its most widespread variety being the Bradford Pear: a pear tree, in other words. But what we understand when we hear a word like “pear” is not always what is meant by those INON the true situation (to use a Crosswordese phrase). The pears of the Bradford are tiny and brown; most small leaves would support several of the fruit. They become quite hard with time but are good food for birds.

The tree flowers white in Spring, is green in the summer, dark purplish in fall—with the dark, curled leaves clinging here and there well into winter and persistently littering the ground long after the latest raking. And I assure you that raking our yard is a chore.

The loveliness of the tree in Spring—and its equally colorful Autumnal accent—would make you believe that the Bradford is universally admired. It turns out that it has many detractors. I found our tree’s identity almost immediately because the web has many postings with titles like “A Mixed Blessing in the Landscape” and “I just Hate Bradford Pears.” They die young (20 years); their branches angle too steeply into the vertical (exposing them to storm damage), and they are invasive. So far we’ve not encountered any of the negatives and so, with sunshine for an hour or two still ahead, we’re just enjoying our latest inheritance while ignoring the dire warning of the world at large...

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Forgotten Fault Lines

Yesterday, just past noon, an earthquake measured at 4.2 magnitude took place near Galesburg, MI. Its center was three miles underground. No serious damage or casualties resulted. News reports were reassuring: No, rest assured. We’re not in an earthquake zone. Our governor announced that appropriate officials were closely watching developments and ready for anything in the way of aiding the population should more tremors follow.

Back in 2011—I don’t remember what prompted me then—I discovered that our area does too fall into a seismic zone, specifically the New Madrid Seismic Zone—so named because of two quite devastating earthquakes that took place in New Madrid, MO in 1811 and 1812. Herewith a map of the zone showing its extent. From its epicenter in New Madrid, the quakes traveled north- and south-eastward. Eventually they faded away near Boston to the north and New Orleans to the south.

The New Madrid Fault itself is of limited extent, with a length of 150 miles and touching Arkansas , Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Tennessee. But when it becomes active, its radiations go very far.

By chance, certainly, yesterday’s Michigan quake, which did little damage and was hence not much reported, coincided with the riots of Baltimore. We linked the two events here because it occurred to us that the cause of both were “fault lines,” if of quite different kind and origin. The Baltimore fault line may also be found in virtually all large metropolitan areas of the United States. Those fault line began with slavery; hence the fault can be discovered in ourselves; we can’t blame tectonic plates for it. But it did occur to us that where very large collectives are concerned, situations of quite geological magnitude, duration, and unpredictability can be created and, like earthquakes, are virtually impossible to prevent. All that is left to do, after they happen, is to remove the debris and bury the dead. And that activity does not really get at the fundamental problem. For that our collective wisdom, will, and energy are insufficient. Just check back in twenty years and see if anything has really changed—in either kind of possible disaster.