Cancer Blog

Thursday, July 31, 2003

a better way to choose?

Almost daily, I am newly amazed by the internet. What will it be like in ten years? What will we be like in ten years? And almost daily, I learn that I am still something of an internet neophyte. For example, yesterday I first became aware of metafilter.com. It's a group blog with thousands of members. If you want to relive those gut-wrenching morning hours on September 11, 2001, go here to read the initial post on Metafilter and the subsequent comments; it is a way to experience anew how the horrific reality sunk into the collective consciousness. Most of the posts are, thankfully, far more pedestrian; but overall, the site seems to be a useful and timesaving place to go for interesting articles in the daily world press.

It was via metafilter.com that I came across the website selectsmart.com, the topic of this post. A casual browse of the site revealed how behind the times I am to have first discovered the site only yesterday; apparently it has been garnering rave reviews since 1999. The premise of the site is quite simple: among thousands of categories, they match you to your best match within that category through a simple 20-odd question multiple choice test. For example, who should you vote for in 2004? Well, this depends on your stance on a number of different issues. Take their test, and SelectSmart will tell you the candidate that's right for you. What about their methodology? Clearly, these tests are designed first and foremost to entertain, but there may be more to them than that. From the page discussing their methodology:
About SelectSmart.com Selectors
SelectSmart.com selectors are designed to help you narrow down the choices on a variety of topics. We hope that you will view them to be a good starting point. If any decisions are important to you we encourage you to pursue more information. Read books, magazines, and other websites. Consult experts. Throughout this site we link to sites that will help you to learn more and discover your best choices.

The SelectSmart.com Selector Methodology
Our selectors use a numeric point system. If an item has a trait or characteristic you desire, then that item "earns" a certain number of points. In some cases if it is trait you do not want, points are subtracted.

The American Presidential Candidate Selector (and few other selectors) use a slightly different methodology. That is each candidate gets the same number of points per issue. The points may be distributed all to one side of the "fence" or the other. Or the points may be distributed on both sides of the fence--this is especially true of centrist candidates who adopt positions that frequently straddle the middle ground. If a candidate clarifies or changes positions, we adjust the scores accordingly. We continuously glean campaign websites and news articles to understand the candidates' current positions. We use that information to determine the distribution of points. In a number of occasions we are in direct contact with the candidates themselves or their staffs. If you are curious about individual candidates and their rankings, ask one question at time to see their scores.
How good is this in practice? Well, before taking the presidential test, I would have guessed that I would match best with John Kerry. After the test, I learned that I, in fact, match closest with Dennis J. Kucinich, a no-chance-in-Hell Democrat from Ohio. The closest big name did turn out to be Monsieur Kerry; not bad. The test certainly got the most important thing right: Bush was my lowest big name match.

The possibilities are endless with this sort of thing. A couple of other tests I tried were the religion test and the philosopher test. With the religion test, I learned that I would be a very unhappy Jehovah's Witness; again, they're probably right. As far as philosophers, this time the test was right on the button, correctly picking David Hume, my favorite philosopher.

Is this a good way to make choices? (n.b. At this point in the post, the academic in me feels the urge to ramble on with thousands of words of dense analysis on decision making, the implications of tests like these on decision making, the implications of all of this on economic theory, and on and on. This is a weakness, I recognize that, and so will do my best to resist this temptation.) Maybe not, but it can be a useful way to factor out the rational part from the instinctive part in the decision making process. For example, this is a good way for a voter to get a baseline reading on how the candidates match up with them on the issues that matter most to him or her, independent of prior beliefs, charisma, and media hype. But the intangibles like charisma, eloquence, leadership ability, etc. do play an important role in any successful president. Before deciding on a candidate, the informed voter should weigh the tangibles versus the intangibles. I believe sites like this could be useful in helping us separate the two, and thus potentially lead to better decision making. At the very least, the site is an amusing time-waster.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

a nasty opponent

After hearing about my recent pain and confirming the growth of a subcutaneous tumor in my lower back, my oncologist decided yesterday that, yes, now might be a good time to change directions. Before we do that, however, I will have another set of ct scans and an MRI of the brain done this Friday. I will meet again with my oncologist next Tuesday, August 5, to discuss the results of the scans and choose the next course of action.

With the arrival of new pain, I decided last week to give up my teaching duties that were to begin this Monday, August 4. This was a difficult decision, but in light of yesterday’s appointment, it was the right thing to do. For me to have been able to teach the course would have required a best case scenario that was not at all probable. Nevertheless, I am glad I hung with it as long as I did, and grateful to my friend who will now be teaching it for me.

Now, to serious matters. Yesterday, I watched the classic Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal. I won’t get into the details (see the film), but only mention that the main character plays a game of chess with Death. Yes, that Death. It is not too far of a stretch for me to apply this metaphor to my current situation: I am engaged in an ongoing, high-stakes game with Cancer, and it’s my turn to move. Let’s go over the options. First of all, it’s not quite my turn to move. Before I can move, I have to observe Cancer’s last move which will only be fully revealed by Friday’s ct scans. If the ct scans are good, then the move is obvious: do another round of Temodar. If they are bad, then things become more complicated.

In the event that the ct scans are bad, there are several things that I would like to do. The first thing that I would like to do is return to the NIH for one of their latest clinical trials. I contacted the NIH yesterday, they took my information, and someone should get back to me soon. The specific trial that we’re interested in involves the CTLA-4 inhibitor. The only problem is, technically, I am ineligible for both of the CTLA-4 trials (1, and 2) since I have already participated in a gp100/interleukin clinical trial. But what have I to lose? If I can do this, this is my best possible move. If I can’t, my doctor recommends a clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania. Again, there are questions about my eligibility, but we should know soon. This is my next best possible move. If this is not an option, then I will enter a clinical trial offered by my current oncologist here at Vanderbilt. The only problem here is that I can’t start it for six weeks and I might not have that much time. The right move in this situation might be to do some aggressive chemotherapy in the interim and then enter the trial at Vanderbilt. As so often happens, my options may be limited.

Unfortunately I do not know how to play chess. But I do have quite a bit of experience playing my own deadly game with Cancer, and it hasn’t been able to vanquish me yet. Times like this—when the disease forces you to make a move—are the scariest. But they are also the most exciting, and in some ways the most hopeful: you feel like you are actively doing something by picking the next poison, and maybe, just maybe, you might finally stumble on the one treatment that works for you.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

life in a purple state? or, some states are redder than others

Brad Delong recently posted a series of fascinating political maps of the U.S. The point of his original post was to show that the U.S. is not as polarized politically as the standard red state vs. blue state voting map of the 2000 election might lead one to believe. Instead of a two tone world, we get varying shades of purple, and we learn that the real die hard Bushies live not in the South, but instead in the tristate area of Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. The purple map is less depressing to those of us who previously viewed the political geography of the U.S. as the uneducated, cornfed Republican hordes driving the effete democrats into various large bodies of water -- be it the oceans or the great lakes.

Then the magic of the internet kicked in, and Professor Delong was referred to an even finer grained map that shows the intensity of voting by counties. Careful, the red and the blue are switched for this one. Note the strong tendency to vote for Gore if you live near the Mississippi river. So you're fed up with geographic maps that make it look like the whole country is Republican, when in fact most cities voted for Gore and most huge tracts of wasteland voted for Bush? Take a look at this last site which adjusts the size of the state according to population (although, we're back to the red/blue dichotomy). My congratulations to those of you who live in true blue states. I'll console myself with the knowledge that my 2004 presidential vote will be more valuable to the Democrats in a red/purple state than it would be in a blue state (thanks to the electoral college system).

Monday, July 28, 2003

Un Grand Monsieur

Lance Armstrong won his 5th consecutive Tour de France yesterday. Armstrong is probably the one athlete that I admire most and it is because of him alone that I follow the Tour de France closely every year.

This past December I read his autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. And although I usually abhor ghost-written autobiographies by 30-year-olds, I found in this book much to like. The biggest story in his life, bigger than his athletic achievements, is his victory over cancer. Fortunately for him, it only took 4 months, but he faced it courageously and honorably, without all the pathetic self-pity that many people with cancer wallow in. Because of him, I do my best to try to keep in good physical condition: I swim, play tennis, or hike whenever I can. This has no doubt helped me physically and psychologically over the last few years.

He is also an unashamed agnostic, mainly because his natural father was an abusive, drunken Evangelical. This is not giving Armstrong enough credit; he is cerebral enough to reject religion on intellectual grounds, but he also has a visceral repugnance for organized religion that can only come from deeply emotional childhood experiences with hypocrisy. He was often asked what role faith played in his battle with cancer. He would reply respectfully, but firmly, that he is still alive because of the skill and dedication of his doctors. If I survive, it will not be because of the arbitrary will of some higher power, but also because of the skill and dedication of my doctors.

He is a class act, or as the French say, un grand monsieur:
...Asked a few days ago about his reaction to the horde of fans with American flags along the route, he said, "Many times you get next to them and it's a French person. It's strange but many times it happens. I can't complain about the kind of support it is, it's much appreciated." Then he spoke, as he often did before the Tour, about the need to repair French-American relations strained by the war in Iraq.

All his efforts have won over the crowd.

An informal solicitation of opinions from fans during the three-week race showed full appreciation of Armstrong's feats and nearly unanimous respect for him. Again and again, people at the sides of the Tour's many roads described him "un grand monsieur," roughly translatable as "a class act."

That phrase first popped up from a spectator at the first stage to Meaux, on July 6. After a mass crash left Armstrong and dozens of other riders sprawled on the road, the fan said he hoped Armstrong had not been hurt so badly that he would have to quit the race.

"Without him, the Tour loses much of its interest," he said. "Armstrong, he's un grand monsieur." The next sounding came from a policeman on duty near a dun-colored flank of the Izoard peak, high above the tree line in the Alps, on July 14. "Truly un grand monsieur," he said. The gendarme thought a bit and added, "And, of course, un grand coureur," or great rider...
If only our president had the diplomatic charm of this Texan! I look forward to following Armstrong's exploits in the future. I look forward to joining him in the ever-growing club of those who have survived cancer -- currently 9 million strong.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Chronology of a disease

For the record, here is a chronology of my disease:

1977, March 28 - I am born.

1995, August - By chance I notice an ugly looking mole on the upper left part of my back. It looks like a flattened raisin. It is duly removed by a dermatologist. The biopsy comes back positive for Stage I malignant melanoma. The dermatologist does a wide resection removing a section of skin about the diameter of a softball from my back. The prognosis is good: 90% chance that there will be no further complications. However, I must go in for regular 6 month checkups for five years.

2000, July - I go to my dermatologist for the last checkup; everything looks good.

2000, December - I notice a very small lump in my left armpit. I wonder to myself if this is what a swollen lymph node feels like. I don't go to the doctor.

2001, March - The small lump has now grown into a mass the size of a racquetball. I go to the WashU student health center. An alarmed general practitioner refers me to a dermatologist. An alarmed dermatologist then refers me to an oncologist. The oncologist performs a biopsy which comes back positive for Stage III metastatic melanoma. Subsequent catscans come back negative for other metasteses.

2001, April - The tumor under my left shoulder is removed by surgery, the technical title of the operation is left axillary node dissection. Everything goes well. Prognosis: 50% chance of survival in 5 years.

2001, June - I begin high dose Interferon, the standard treatment for those with stage III disease after surgery. This lasts 1 month.

2001, July - Finish high dose Interferon, begin low dose interferon. This is to continue for another 11 months.

2001, October - There is a scare because of suspicious tissue in the left armpit. PET scans come back negative. Everything looks good.

2002, January - Since the side effects from the low dose interferon are not too bad, I decide to accelerate the dosage so that I can finish in late April instead of June.

2002, April, May - The day after taking the last dose of interferon, I notice a small, subcutaneous lump on my right upper back. It is removed and the biopsy comes back positive for melanoma. CT scans reveal a tumor near the gallbladder and possible disease in the lower back. I am now up to Stage IV metastatic melanoma. Prognosis: one year survival rate of 8-10%.

2002, June - I face a dilemma about treatment: stay with my oncologist in St. Louis and undergo intensive biochemotherapy or switch to a respected oncologist in my hometown of Nashville, TN and enter a high dose interluekin/vaccine clinical trial. I choose the latter.

2002, June, July - I undergo the high dose Interluekin part of the treatment. 5 days in the hospital followed by 10 days off and then another 5 days in the hospital. This would be the most difficult treatment that I have endured. The vaccine part of the trial is merely a shot every three weeks.

2002, September - CT scans show that the disease has progressed in spite of the intense treatment. My oncologist at Vanderbilt (Nashville) refers me to the NIH.

2002, October - I am accepted into a highly experimental treatment protocol at the NIH. The latest CT scans do not show enough disease to proceed immediately. First, they must remove some tumor to use in the lab work where they grow special cells that will eventually be reinjected. Since most of the disease is again in the left armpit they perform another left axillary node dissection. The procedure goes well.

2002, November - The October CT scans possibly showed disease near the gallbladder. Just to be safe, they decide to take it out. Again, the procedure goes well: they remove the gallbladder and a quarter-sized tumor. However, I must have measurable disease for them to proceed; after the surgeries, I don't, which is a good thing, so they decide to wait and see what happens.

2003, January - CT scans done at the NIH show no new disease. However a small tumor in my lower back has increased in size slightly. They decide that this might be enough to use as a 'marker' so they go ahead with the preliminary lab work. The lab work fails -- not uncommon, so they tell me to wait and see what happens. Maybe they will surgically remove more tumor and try again.

2003, February - I become very sick with jaundice. Doctors in St. Louis perform an ERCP procedure: they use an endoscope to insert a small steel tube in my bile duct which had been blocked by a tumor near the pancreas. Surgery is not possible to remove the tumor itself. Mysteriously, the jaundice persists

2003, March 3 - I am back at the NIH, yellow with jaundice. I learn that I am no longer eligible for the protocol at the NIH because of the steel tube that was recently inserted. This foreign object makes the risk of infection from the procedure to high. I am referred back to my oncologist in Nashville. The NIH doctors are mystified by my persistent jaundice.

2003, March - My oncologist in Nashville refers me to a GI specialist because of the jaundice. The specialist fears that the liver is fully involved, but a liver biopsy comes back negative. Meanwhile, the jaundice goes away.

2003, April - New catscans show tumors in the liver. A new tumor pops up in my neck. LDH levels in the blood which indicate how fast the disease is spreading are very high, this is very bad. My oncologist decides to go ahead with Temodar, light chemotherapy. I 'celebrate' one year of survival after Stage IV diagnosis.

2003, May - Moderate pain develops in my right side. My LDH levels come down a bit, so we go ahead with another round of Temodar, but with increased dosage. After the course of Temodar, the pain goes away.

2003, June - Third round of Temodar is completed in early June.

2003, June 16 - Cancer Blog is created.

2003, June 26 - Good results from Catscans: tumors in liver shrink significantly.

2003, July - Fourth round of Temodar is completed in early July.

2003, July 17 - Abdomenal pain develops. This goes away after a few days, but then new pain develops in different locations.

There are two pivotal moments here. The first is when I first notice the mole in August of 1995. I have no idea how long it was there before I noticed it, but since it was in a difficult place to see, it was probably there for some time. If it somehow could have been detected earlier, then things might have gone differently. The second is in December, 2000 when I first notice a small lump in my armpit. It was really small, but seemed suspicious. In retrospect, I should have gone to the doctor right then and there instead of putting it off for three months. I am not sure how much of a difference this would have made, but it sure as hell couldn't have hurt. After this, I am generally pleased with what has been done on my end; I never took the easy way out, I was always vigilant, I never ignored warning signs but I didn't panic at every slight abnormality; maybe that's why I'm still here. Who knows? The event this March -- becoming ineligible for a very promising clinical trial at the NIH -- was a big blow. Since then we've been kind of groping along searching for some stability with Temodar.

I've had more than my fair share of bad luck: the disease goes to Stage IV right after I finish the marathon year of Interferon; the labwork at the NIH didn't work; the disease came back and pinched off the bile duct which required the insertion of the metal tube which exempted me from the NIH trial; etc. Such is life.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Recently Read

Joseph Heller (1976) Good as Gold (Simon and Schuster). I am a big fan of Catch-22, so naturally I was intrigued when I discovered a different Heller book on a Gore Vidal reading list. Today I finished Good as Gold, and if you enjoy Heller's humor, i.e. if you found Catch-22 to be excruciatingly funny, then I highly recommend it. Be forewarned, this book is not quite on the same level as Catch-22, but for me at least, it was well worth reading. Here is one paragraph in which the protaganist, Bruce Gold, is conversing with his 'friend' in the White House, Ralph:
"The curious thing about Russia," he joked lightly, putting, in imitation of Ralph, both shoes up on the polished, unscarred coffee table between the facing leather chairs, "is that it's a good place for people who are poor and a terrible one for those who are well off, while this country is just the reverse. Why don't we simply exchange?"
You have to read the book to fully appreciate this... There is more to Heller than his humor, of course; he excels in the very useful enterprise of grabbing his readers by the shoulders, shaking vigorously and screaming: "This is insane! Don't you see? This is not the way things have to be! This is utter madness!" His target in Catch-22 was the U.S. Army in Italy during W.W.II. His targets in Good as Gold are, among others, Washington D.C. and the arch-fiend Henry Kissinger.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The tumors are restless

I've been receiving some ominous signals from my body in the past week, the most vocal of which has been a sharp and persistent pain in the left side of my abdomen. This morning, just when I thought it had moved in for good, lo and behold, the pain eased up. The other signals aren't quite as pressing, but they all point in the wrong direction: occasional aching and burning in the left shoulder and an increase in size of a couple of the subcutaneous tumors. My next doctor's appointment will be a week from today. Before last week, I had expected to do another round of Temodar, but now I'm not so sure. With the pain improving today, I really don't know what's going on.

The most difficult times psychologically are the transitions: the transition from a good state to a bad state is the worst, while the transition from a bad state to a good state, while far better than the alternative, brings its own set of difficulties. This last week, as I prepared myself for the probable worsening of my condition, has been difficult. But I know from experience that pain can mislead, and that I should not assume the worst in the absence of hard evidence. I'll just wait and see what the next doctor's appointment brings.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Globalizing Pains

This article from the NY Times discusses several trends in globalization and the possible impact on the American workforce. None of these trends are new or surprising, but what is mildly surprising is to hear protectionist/unionist sentiment come from unexpected quarters, namely the Republican Party.

I.B.M. Explores Shift of White-Collar Jobs Overseas


With American corporations under increasing pressure to cut costs and build global supply networks, two senior I.B.M. officials told their corporate colleagues around the world in a recorded conference call that I.B.M. needed to accelerate its efforts to move white-collar, often high-paying, jobs overseas even though that might create a backlash among politicians and its own employees.

During the call, I.B.M's top employee relations executives said that three million service jobs were expected to shift to foreign workers by 2015 and that I.B.M. should move some of its jobs now done in the United States, including software design jobs, to India and other countries.

"Our competitors are doing it and we have to do it," Tom Lynch, I.B.M.'s director for global employee relations, said in the call. A recording was provided to The New York Times recently by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a Seattle-based group seeking to unionize high-technology workers. The group said it had received the recording — which was made by I.B.M. and later placed in digital form on an internal company Web site — from an I.B.M. employee upset about the plans.

I.B.M.'s internal discussion about moving jobs overseas provides a revealing look at how companies are grappling with a growing trend that many economists call off-shoring. In decades past, millions of American manufacturing jobs moved overseas, but in recent years the movement has also shifted to the service sector, with everything from low-end call center jobs to high-paying computer chip design jobs migrating to China, India, the Philippines, Russia and other countries.

Executives at I.B.M. and many other companies argue that creating more jobs in lower cost locations overseas keeps their industries competitive, holds costs down for American consumers, helps to develop poorer nations while supporting overall employment in the United States by improving productivity and the nation's global reach.

"It's not about one shore or another shore," an I.B.M. spokeswoman, Kendra R. Collins, said. "It's about investing around the world, including the United States, to build capability and deliver value as defined by our customers."

But in recent weeks many politicians in Washington, including some in the Bush administration, have begun voicing concerns about the issue during a period when the economy is still weak and the information-technology, or I.T., sector remains mired in a long slump.

At a Congressional hearing on June 18, Bruce P. Mehlman, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for technology policy, said, "Many observers are pessimistic about the impact of offshore I.T. service work at a time when American I.T. workers are having more difficulty finding employment, creating personal hardships and increasing demands on our safety nets."

Forrester Research, a high-technology consulting group, estimates that the number of service sector jobs newly located overseas, many of them tied to the information technology industry, will climb to 3.3 million in 2015 from about 400,000 this year. This shift of 3 million jobs represents about 2 percent of all American jobs.

"It's a very important, fundamental transition in the I.T. service industry that's taking place today," said Debashish Sinha, principal analyst for information technology services and sourcing at Gartner Inc., a consulting firm. "It is a megatrend in the I.T. services industry."

Forrester also estimated that 450,000 computer industry jobs could be transferred abroad in the next 12 years, representing 8 percent of the nation's computer jobs.

For example, Oracle, a big maker of specialized business software, plans to increase its jobs in India to 6,000 from 3,200, while Microsoft plans to double the size of its software development operation in India to 500 by late this year. Accenture, a leading consulting firm, has 4,400 workers in India, China, Russia and the Philippines.

Critics worry that such moves will end up doing more harm to the American economy than good.

"Once those jobs leave the country, they will never come back," said Phil Friedman, chief executive of Computer Generated Solutions, a 1,200-employee computer software company. "If we continue losing these jobs, our schools will stop producing the computer engineers and programmers we need for the future."

In the hourlong I.B.M. conference call, which took place in March, the company's executives were particularly worried that the trend could spur unionization efforts.

"Governments are going to find that they're fairly limited as to what they can do, so unionizing becomes an attractive option," Mr. Lynch said on the recording. "You can see some of the fairly appealing arguments they're making as to why employees need to do some things like organizing to help fight this."

The I.B.M. executives also warned that when workers from China come to the United States to learn to do technology jobs now being done here, some American employees might grow enraged about being forced to train the foreign workers who might ultimately take away their jobs.

"One of our challenges that we deal with every day is trying to balance what the business needs to do versus impact on people," Mr. Lynch said. "This is one of these areas where this challenge hits us squarely between the eyes."

Mr. Lynch warned that with the American economy in an "anemic" state, the difficulties and backlash from relocating jobs could be greater than in the past.

"The economy is certainly less robust than it was a decade ago," Mr. Lynch said, "and to move jobs in that environment is going to create more challenges for the reabsorption of the people who are displaced."

The I.B.M. executives said openly that they expected government officials to be angry about this trend.

"It's hard for me to imagine any country just sitting back and letting jobs go offshore without raising some level of concern and investigation," Mr. Lynch said.

Those concerns were pointedly raised on June 18, when the House Small Business Committee held a hearing on "The Globalization of White-Collar Jobs: Can America Lose These Jobs and Still Prosper?"

"Increased global trade was supposed to lead to better jobs and higher standards of living," said Donald A. Manzullo, an Illinois Republican who is the committee chairman. "The assumption was that while lower-skilled jobs would be done elsewhere, it would allow Americans to focus on higher-skilled, higher-paying opportunities. But what do you tell the Ph.D., or professional engineer, or architect, or accountant, or computer scientist to do next? Where do you tell them to go?"

The technology workers' alliance is highlighting I.B.M.'s outsourcing plans to help rally I.B.M. workers to the union banner.

"It's a bad thing because high-tech companies like I.B.M., Microsoft, Oracle and Sun, are making the decision to create jobs overseas strictly based on labor costs and cutting positions," said Marcus Courtney, president of the group, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America. "It can create huge downward wage pressures on the American work force."

Mr. Mehlman, the Commerce Department official, said companies were moving more service jobs overseas because trade barriers were falling, because India, Russia and many other countries have technology expertise, and because high-speed digital connections and other new technologies made it far easier to communicate from afar.

Another important reason for moving jobs abroad is lower wages.

"You can get crackerjack Java programmers in India right out of college for $5,000 a year versus $60,000 here," said Stephanie Moore, vice president for outsourcing at Forrester Research. "The technology is such, why be in New York City when you can be 9,000 miles away with far less expense?"

Company executives say this strategy is a vital way to build a global company and to serve customers around the world.

General Electric has thousands of workers in India in call center, research and development efforts and in information technology. Peter Stack, a G.E. spokesman, said, "The outsourcing presence in India definitely gives us a competitive advantage in the businesses that use it. Those businesses are some of our growth businesses, and I would say that they're businesses where our overall employment is increasing and our jobs in the United States."

David Samson, an Oracle spokesman said the expansion of operations in India was "additive" and was not resulting in any jobs losses in the United States.

"Our aim here is not cost-driven," he said. "It's to build a 24/7 follow-the-sun model for development and support. When a software engineer goes to bed at night in the U.S., his or her colleague in India picks up development when they get into work. They're able to continually develop products."
I think I hear Adam Smith rolling over in his grave. There are several points that I would like to make. The first is that this is a very good article to use in an introductory economics course to illustrate the sometimes counterintuitive workings of basic economic principles and how supposedly very smart people (or admittedly not-so-smart Illinois Republicans) can fail to grasp them. This is growth people, this is the magic of the invisible hand; this is how and why the computer software you use every day will continue to get better and cheaper; this is how and why the economies of countries like India and China will continue to grow at high rates and buy more and more goods from countries like the United States. And what do I tell the American Ph.D., professional engineer, or architect, or accountant, or computer scientiest to do next? Where do I tell them to go? I tell them to look for another job in their field. If they can't find one then they probably weren't too good at what they were doing, and would be better off doing something else. If they're a computer scientist and still can't find a job, I would tell them, hey, you're smart, learn a new skill, get an MBA, become a teacher, it's not the end of the world.

Second point. There is an implicit nationialism, or bigotry, in any debate like this. The bigotry is this: an American job is better than a Chinese job (for example), which is equivalent to: an American is better than a Chinese; or: better that a Chinese go unemployed than an American lose his job to that Chinese. Is it that radical for me to say that this is wrong? I hope not. The fact is that the U.S. is a highly developed, incredibly diverse economy and that China is not. America can afford to shed a few plum jobs in the short term which China so desperately needs, especially if America (and everyone else) benefits in the long run. The American economy is much better able to absorb short run unemployment -- especially among the presumably smart and highly flexible people in the tech sector -- than less developed countries. To inhibit the engines of global growth just because it might inconvenience a few American "professionals" is a crime.

Point three: The Republican Party has the potential to evolve into something really nasty. The Bush administration has already demonstrated it's economic cynicism through steel tarriffs, farm subsidies, and tax cuts, but if they were to try to stop jobs from naturally 'leaving' the U.S., I would throw up my hands in despair and move to Canada. They've already got the Fundamentalistic Christian vote, maybe they're shooting for the union vote too. That would leave the Democrats with the blacks, gays, the highly educated, and not a chance in hell. What happens when the worst get on top? It ain't pretty.

Last point: We Americans have had it pretty good for the last 100 years or so. A lot of it has to do with our natural resources, a lot of it has to with our geography, and a helluva lot of it has to do with our education system and our political institutions. But the rest of the world, thankfully, is catching up, and one of three things will probably happen. Firstly, America could continue to lead the world. This would mean that American institutions would continue to improve, top-to-bottom education would improve, and America would lead the way in a globalized economy. Secondly, and most likely, the rest of the world catches up and America doesn't improve enough in institutions or education to stay ahead. We become just another nation, bigger than most, yes, but just another developed country. Thirdly -- and what some of the people in this article are working to bring about -- America adopts short-sighted protectionist policies to try to preserve our current position at the top, many American companies cannot compete globally, shrink and die off. Our institutions actually worsen, our education does not improve, and in the year 2100 we realize that we've become the 21st century's Argentina: a country whose per capita income has not grown in 100 years.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Maybe There is Hope...

From the Washington Post:
If President Bush is not reelected, we may look back on last Thursday, July 10, 2003, as the day the shadow of defeat first crossed his political horizon. To be sure, Bush looks strong. The CBS News poll released that evening had his approval rating at 60 percent, with solid support from his own party, a 26-point lead among independents and a near-even split among Democrats. Two-thirds of those surveyed could not name a single one of the nine Democrats vying for the right to oppose him.

But "The CBS Evening News" that night was like Karl Rove's worst nightmare, and the other network newscasts -- still the main source of information for a large number of Americans -- were not much better.

The headlines announced by John Roberts, substituting for Dan Rather on CBS, were: "President Bush's false claim about Iraqi weapons; he made it despite a CIA warning the intelligence was bad. More Americans say U.S. is losing control of Iraq. Also tonight, food lines in America; they're back and getting longer."

Brian Williams, filling in for Tom Brokaw on NBC, began: "War zone. Two more Americans dead in Iraq, and now the general who led the war says the troops could be there four more years."

Peter Jennings on ABC gave the administration a break, opening the broadcast with this: "The secretary of state says there was no attempt to deceive the American people about the case for war in Iraq." But then Jennings described Colin Powell's news conference as "damage control," an effort to explain "why the president used some false information in his State of the Union address to justify attacking Iraq."

All of them -- and cable news -- cited the dissonant voices from within the administration blaming one another for Bush's use of a report, which the CIA had long since discredited, claiming that Iraq tried to buy uranium for a nuclear weapons program from the African country of Niger.

Even after CIA Director George Tenet tried to take responsibility for the foul-up, the White House faces a credibility gap that reaches down into the non-discovery of the weapons of mass destruction Bush and his top associates said Saddam Hussein was amassing to threaten the United States.

And the doubts don't stop there. Two and a half months after Bush proclaimed victory in Iraq -- "mission accomplished" -- CBS reported that only 45 percent of the public now believes the United States is in control of events there. On the question of credibility regarding weapons of mass destruction, 56 percent say Bush administration officials were hiding important elements of what they knew or were outright lying.

The next day a Washington Post-ABC News poll reported that while Bush's approval score was still at a healthy 59 percent, there had been a 9-point drop in less than three weeks both in his overall rating and on the question of confidence in his handling of Iraq. Ominously, the poll found a dramatic reversal in public tolerance of continuing casualties, with a majority saying for the first time that the losses are unacceptable when weighed against the goals of the war.

Eight out of 10 in the Post-ABC poll said they were very or somewhat concerned that the United States "will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping mission." And this was before the networks showed Gen. Tommy Franks telling Congress the troops would be in Iraq for years.

If Iraq looks increasingly worrisome on TV and in the polls, the economy is even worse. CBS found jobs and the economy dwarfing every other issue, cited by almost four times as many people as cited Iraq or the war on terrorism. On that black Thursday for the administration, first-time unemployment claims pushed the number of Americans on jobless relief to the highest level in 20 years.

And the most troubling pictures on any of the three broadcasts were those of a line of cars, stretching out of sight down a flat two-lane road in Logan, Ohio -- jobless and struggling families waiting for the twice-a-month distribution of free food by the local office of America's Second Harvest. The head of the agency said, "We are seeing a new phenomenon: Last year's food bank donors are now this year's food bank clients." Said CBS reporter Cynthia Bowers, "You could call it a line of the times, because in a growing number of American communities these days, making ends meet means waiting for a handout."

Some may say, "Well, it's one day's news," or dismiss it all as media bias. But that does not dissolve the shadow that now hangs over Bush's bright hopes for a second term.
Is the conservatively biased media finally coming around?

Monday, July 14, 2003

'At Least He Didn't Say Dang' and Other Follies

Monsieur Bush described the intelligence he receives as "darn good". Watch the video, if you can stomach it. Every time I see him speak in a press conference I experience a fresh horror in realizing that this man is indeed our president.

In tomorrow's NY Times, the killer K's, Krugman and Kristof, sink their teeth into the Iraq intelligence story and tear. First from the mild-mannered Kristof:
After I wrote a month ago about the Niger uranium hoax in the State of the Union address, a senior White House official chided me gently and explained that there was more to the story that I didn't know.

Yup. And now it's coming out.

Based on conversations with people in the intelligence community, this picture is emerging: the White House, eager to spice up the State of the Union address, recklessly resurrected the discredited Niger tidbit. The Central Intelligence Agency objected, and then it and the National Security Council negotiated a new wording, attributing it all to the Brits. It felt less dishonest pinning the falsehood on the cousins.

What troubles me is not that single episode, but the broader pattern of dishonesty and delusion that helped get us into the Iraq mess — and that created the false expectations undermining our occupation today. Some in the administration are trying to make George Tenet the scapegoat for the affair. But Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of retired spooks, issued an open letter to President Bush yesterday reflecting the view of many in the intel community that the central culprit is Vice President Dick Cheney. The open letter called for Mr. Cheney's resignation...

...[T]he problem is not those 16 words, by themselves, but the larger pattern of abuse of intelligence. The silver lining is that the spooks are so upset that they're speaking out.

The Defense Intelligence Agency has had town hall meetings in which everyone was told not to talk to journalists (thanks, guys, for naming me in particular). One insider complains: "In the most recent meeting, we also were told that, as much as possible, we should avoid `caveat-ing' our intelligence assessments. . . . Forget nuance, forget fine distinctions; they only confuse these guys. If that isn't a downright scary dumbing-down of our intelligence product, I don't know what is."

Intelligence isn't just being dumbed down, but is also being manipulated — and it's continuing. Experts say the recent firefight on the Syrian-Iraq border involved not Saddam Hussein or a family member, as we were led to believe, but just some Iraqi petroleum smugglers. Moreover, Patrick Lang, a former senior D.I.A. official, says that many in the government believe that incursion was an effort by ideologues to disrupt cooperation between the U.S. and Syria.

While the scandal has so far focused on Iraq, the manipulations appear to be global. For example, one person from the intelligence community recalls an administration hard-liner's urging the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research to state that Cuba has a biological weapons program. The spooks refused, and Colin Powell backed them.

Then there's North Korea. The C.I.A.'s assessments on North Korea's nuclear weaponry were suddenly juiced up beginning in December 2001. The alarmist assessments (based on no new evidence) continued until January of this year, when the White House wanted to play down the Korean crisis. Then assessments abruptly restored the less ominous language of the 1990's.

The latest issue of the Naval War College Review describes the ambiguities of the North Korean uranium program and argues that U.S. officials "opted to exploit the intelligence for political purposes."

"Is there a parallel with what is now going on, after the fact, in estimates about Iraq?" asked the article's author, Jonathan Pollack, chairman of the Strategic Research Department of the Naval War College, in an interview. "I think there may be."

So that chiding White House official was right: there was more to the picture. But I'm afraid the bigger the picture gets, the more it looks like a pattern of dishonesty.
Now that we're nice and warmed up, let's proceed to the hard stuff:
More than half of the U.S. Army's combat strength is now bogged down in Iraq, which didn't have significant weapons of mass destruction and wasn't supporting Al Qaeda. We have lost all credibility with allies who might have provided meaningful support; Tony Blair is still with us, but has lost the trust of his public. All this puts us in a very weak position for dealing with real threats. Did I mention that North Korea has been extracting fissionable material from its fuel rods?

How did we get into this mess? The case of the bogus uranium purchases wasn't an isolated instance. It was part of a broad pattern of politicized, corrupted intelligence.

Literally before the dust had settled, Bush administration officials began trying to use 9/11 to justify an attack on Iraq. Gen. Wesley Clark says that he received calls on Sept. 11 from "people around the White House" urging him to link that assault to Saddam Hussein. His account seems to back up a CBS.com report last September, headlined "Plans for Iraq Attack Began on 9/11," which quoted notes taken by aides to Donald Rumsfeld on the day of the attack: "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

But an honest intelligence assessment would have raised questions about why we were going after a country that hadn't attacked us. It would also have suggested the strong possibility that an invasion of Iraq would hurt, not help, U.S. security.

So the Iraq hawks set out to corrupt the process of intelligence assessment. On one side, nobody was held accountable for the failure to predict or prevent 9/11; on the other side, top intelligence officials were expected to support the case for an Iraq war.

The story of how the threat from Iraq's alleged W.M.D.'s was hyped is now, finally, coming out. But let's not forget the persistent claim that Saddam was allied with Al Qaeda, which allowed the hawks to pretend that the Iraq war had something to do with fighting terrorism.

As Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence official, said last week, U.S. intelligence analysts have consistently agreed that Saddam did not have a "meaningful connection" to Al Qaeda. Yet administration officials continually asserted such a connection, even as they suppressed evidence showing real links between Al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia.

And during the run-up to war, George Tenet, the C.I.A. director, was willing to provide cover for his bosses — just as he did last weekend. In an October 2002 letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, he made what looked like an assertion that there really were meaningful connections between Saddam and Osama. Read closely, the letter is evasive, but it served the administration's purpose.

What about the risk that an invasion of Iraq would weaken America's security? Warnings from military experts that an extended postwar occupation might severely strain U.S. forces have proved precisely on the mark. But the hawks prevented any consideration of this possibility. Before the war, one official told Newsweek that the occupation might last no more than 30 to 60 days.

It gets worse. Knight Ridder newspapers report that a "small circle of senior civilians in the Defense Department" were sure that their favorite, Ahmad Chalabi, could easily be installed in power. They were able to prevent skeptics from getting a hearing — and they had no backup plan when efforts to anoint Mr. Chalabi, a millionaire businessman, degenerated into farce.

So who will be held accountable? Mr. Tenet betrayed his office by tailoring statements to reflect the interests of his political masters, rather than the assessments of his staff — but that's not why he may soon be fired. Yesterday USA Today reported that "some in the Bush administration are arguing privately for a C.I.A. director who will be unquestioningly loyal to the White House as committees demand documents and call witnesses."

Not that the committees are likely to press very hard: Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, seems more concerned about protecting his party's leader than protecting the country. "What concerns me most," he says, is "what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the C.I.A. in an effort to discredit the president."

In short, those who politicized intelligence in order to lead us into war, at the expense of national security, hope to cover their tracks by corrupting the system even further.
Ok, let's go over our list of impeachable offenses. Adulterous sex with an intern? Check. Manipulation of the nation's intelligence services to wage a war on false pretenses? No, that's okay... Altogether now: God bless America/ Land that I love/ Stand beside her/ And guide her...

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Oil and Power

In this week's print copy of the New Yorker you will find an excellent article by John Cassidy on Iraq's oil. Unfortunately the only thing available on the internet is this miserable press release. If you happen to stumble across a copy of the New Yorker in the next two weeks, read the article; it's well worth your time. Hell, buy a copy, read the article and then throw it away; it's well worth your time plus $3.95.

The big story this morning is that the CIA's George Tenet is taking the fall for the Bush administration regarding the forged Niger uranium intelligence. This is complete bullshit and I hope that in a couple of days it blows up in the administration's face. For more coverage on this issue, I recommend Josh Marshall; he's been posting like mad for the past several days. This is important, but we all know that none of this was ever about WMD, it's all about oil...

Cassidy's article opens with the author touring some of Iraq's oil facilities. Then he zooms out to the bigger picture:
With the exception of its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, Iraq has more oil buried underneath it than any country in the world: a hundred and twelve billion barrels in confirmed reserves, plus an undetermined amount that has yet to be discovered...Iraq has the cheapest production costs in the world, at about a dollar a barrel. (In Texas these days, oil costs about six dollars a barrel to produce.)
Then he zooms out even further to give us a nice twentieth century history of oil and the Middle East. In World War I, it was Britain that secured Iraq's vast oil fields by force in order to shore up its foundering empire, but then...
As the twentieth century progressed, the U.S. gradually usurped Britain's role as the dominant military power in the Middle East. Economic self-interest drove this strategic shift. In 1940 the U.S. produced two-thirds of the entire world's oil supply. During the Second World War, however, fears arose that American reserves might eventually be depleted...The United States has been dependent on Middle East oil since the early nineteen-seventies. In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for Shell Oil in Houston, predicted that American oil production would peak sometime around 1970 and thereafter drop off. Many people in the oil world dismissed Hubbert's gloomy forecast...but it turned out to be correct.

OPEC's intervention [in 1973, tripling oil prices] came as a great shock to Americans, who tend to regard cheap gasoline as a birthright. Until the nineteen-sixties, the Western oil companies had set the price of oil unilaterally, even though their decisions affected the revenues of many Arab regimes...

Nixon [responding to the oil crisis] had set self-sufficiency in energy as a national goal, but most Americans weren't ready to commit to conservation or renewable energy. During the nineteen-eighties, however, American families finally switched to more fuel efficient cars, and American companies adopted more energy-efficient technology. At the same time, non-OPEC countries, such as Mexico and Norway, increased their oil production. In the nineteen-nineties, many members of OPEC breached the cartel's production quotas, and the result was an oil glut. In 1998, the oil price dropped below ten dollars a barrel, bringing gasoline prices down to pre-1973 levels (adjusted for inflation). Many Americans returned to their gas-guzzlers, in the guise of sport-utility vehicles.

But, despite new sources of supply and falling prices at the pump, the dilemma that...Hubbert had identified remained. Last year, Americans burned twenty million barrels of oil a day, about a quarter of the entire world's consumption. More than half of this oil was imported, and much of it came from the Persian Gulf, including some from Iraq...

When George W. Bush, a former oilman, took office, he asked his running mate, Dick Cheney, to lead a high-level review of energy policy. The task force that Cheney put together issued a report in May, 2001, which identified a "fundamental imbalance between the supply and demand" as the core of "our nation's energy crisis." It went on, "Extraordinary advances in technology have transformed energy exploration and production. Yet we produce 39% less oil today than we did in 1970, leaving us ever more reliant on foreign suppliers. On the present course, America twenty years from now will import nearly two out of every three barrels of oil--a condition of increased dependence on foreign powers that do not always have America's interests at heart."

The task force advocated increased spending on renewable energy, and called for a revival in American oil production, partly by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve...
No mention of energy conservation here...
In a less publicised passage, it called on the Bush Administration to make "energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy," and to encourage Middle Eastern countries to open up their energy sectors to foreign investment. It didn't single out Iraq, but Cheney did when he spoke to a group of veterans in Nashville on August 26, 2002. If Saddam Hussein got his hands on weapons of terror, the Vice-President warned, he would "seek dominance of the entire Middle East" and "take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies."

Cheney's speech was one of the last occasions on which the Bush Administration publicly acknowledged the link between energy policy and national security. Thereafter, it adopted the line that its decision to remove Saddam from power had, in the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil."
In this next passage, the author talks with Iraq's interim Oil Minister, Thamir Ghadhban:
After reminding me that Iraq possesses the second-largest proven reserves in the world, he pointed out that it could well be No. 1 in probable undiscovered reserves...
Now back to the bigger picture...
M. King Hubbert, the man who predicted that American oil would run out, died in 1989. During the past few years, a number of geologists have revived his method of analysis and applied it at the global level...If Hubbert's logic works for all countries together, these figures [omitted] herald a dramatic fall in oil production during the next few decades, and a severe energy shortage. "It looks as if an unprecedented crisis is just over the horizon," the Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes wrote in his 2001 book, "Hubbert's Peak." "There will be chaos in the oil industry, in governments, and in national economies. Even if governments and industries were to recognize the problems, it is too late to reverse the trend. Oil production is going to shrink..."

Iraq remains one of the few countries with large supplies of readily accessible oil, and what happens there will have an enormous impact on the global economy..."The biggest hope in the oil world is Iraq," Dr. Ali Samsam Bakhtiari, a senior official at the National Iranian Oil Company, told me recently. "I hope that the people in charge make the right decisions."

For the moment, the Bush Administration is keeping to itself any long-term plans it has...[however:] Francis Brooke, an American political strategist who has been Chalabi's adviser in Washington for almost a decade, told me. "It's time to replace the Saudis with the Iraqis..."

The scale of the task [bringing political stability and economic prosperity to Iraq] is enormous. In a new report, "Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy," several World Bank economists, headed by Paul Collier, a professor at Oxford University, point out that, for developing countries with valuable natural resources, violent internal conflicts are the norm rather than the exception. Angola, Congo, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone all fit the pattern. Raising the prospect of a civil war in Iraq may sound alarmist, but it is another poor, divided country, with a rapidly expanding populace that has been kept together only by a brutal dictatorship. As long as the Americans and the British remain in charge, the bitter rivalry between Arab and Kurd and between Sunni and Shiite may remain in abeyance. But if the coalition forces ever leave, the divisions will surely reemerge, and one of the areas of dispute is certain to be oil...
Whew... This is but one of the several themes in what is a very long, but not a word too long, article. I tried to highlight the major motivations for America's Iraqi conquest. Ok, given that this is Bush's game, does this even make sense within the narrow definition of America's self-interests? It is clear that there is not an infinite amount of oil under the earth's crust --although many conservatives would like us to believe this-- and that before long the shit's going to hit the proverbial fan, and before long, barring the mastery of nuclear fusion, this mighty, but thirsty, global economy is going to run out of gas. In Bush/Cheney's ideal world, the U.S. seizes Iraq, Westernizes Iraqi oil production, blasts OPEC, oil prices fall to $15 a barrel and the U.S. economy gets a mighty kick in the ass from the sudden shot of cheap energy; elections are won, and on and on. Or better, Iraq/Texas joins in with OPEC and the cartel keeps oil at $25 a barrel indefinitely and the Bushies become bigger billionaires, but elections are still won, and on and on.

What this plan does not do is help ease the painful transition that America is going to have to make in the coming decades from an economy that runs mostly on oil to an economy that runs mostly on something else. In fact, it does quite the opposite. If the Bushies succeed, American cars, if you can call them that, would only get bigger, annual oil consumption would only increase -- we'd only suck harder on the straw, hastening, not postponing the unfortunate realization that our Super Jumbo, seemingly infinite, Oil Slurpee is indeed quite empty. The coming down off this oil high would not be fun.

If we were smart, which we're not, we would have implemented massive taxes on gasoline (at the level of Europe) back in the 70's when the original oil crisis hit, and used this money to 1) cut taxes in other areas; 2) invest in a national high-speed rail system; and 3) invest in research into alternative, preferably cleaner, energy sources. But now I'm dreaming...

Ok, so is the best of all possible Bush worlds good for America? No. It is, however, extremely good for Bush and his cronies. Unfortunately for Bush, and unfortunately for the Iraqi people, the Bushies have probably grossly miscalculated... This is another important theme of the article (which, by the way, you should read).

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Life in a Red State III

I just watched a classic American film and one that I strongly recommend to everyone. The film is Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). Absolutely hilarious, moving, etc. I'm no critic so I'll borrow words from the New York Times review:
Robert Altman's Nashville is the movie sensation that all other American movies this year will be measured against. It's a film that a lot of other directors will wish they'd had the brilliance to make and that dozens of other performers will wish they'd had the great good fortune to be in.

It should salvage Mr. Altman's reputation in Hollywood as a director who makes movies only for the critics, and it could well be the high point in the careers of a number of its performers, who may never again be so ideally presented in roles that utilize their special gifts with such affection. What will Ronee Blakley or Henry Gibson or Lily Tomlin or Barbara Harris do for encores? It's a tough question but not an unhappy one.

Nashville, which opened yesterday at the Baronet and Cinema II Theaters, is a panoramic film with dozens of characters, set against the country-and-western music industry in Nashville. It's a satire, a comedy, a melodrama, a musical. Its music is terrifically important—funny, moving, and almost nonstop. It's what a Tennessee granddaddy might call a real toe-tapper of a picture.

There are so many story lines in Nashville that one is more or less coerced into dealing in abstractions. Nashville is about the quality of a segment of Middle American life. It's about ambition, sentimentality, politics, emotional confusion, empty goals, and very big business in a society whose citizens are firmly convinced that the use of deodorants is next to godliness.

Nashville doesn't make easy fun of these people. It doesn't patronize them. Along with their foolishness, it sees their gallantry. At the beginning of the film when Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, Nashville's biggest male star, records "200 Years," a patriotic song in honor of the Bicentennial ("We must be doing something right/To last 200 years"), the movie is amused by the song's maudlin sentiments and rhyme schemes, and by Haven's recording-studio tantrums. But it also appreciates the song's stirring beat and the vast, earnest public for whom it will have meaning.

The film, which has an original screenplay by Joan Tewksbury, who collaborated with Mr. Altman in adapting Thieves Like Us, has a well-defined structure, while individual sequences often burst with the kind of life that seems impossible to plan, though that may be to underrate Miss Tewksbury's contributions and those of the extraordinary cast. I have no idea where the director and the writer leave off and the performers take over.

Whoever is responsible, Nashville comes across as a film of enormous feeling. It's compounded of moments that tingle the spine, as when Lily Tomlin, who makes a spectacular dramatic debut in the film as a gospel singer and the mother of two deaf children, patiently draws forth a story from her twelve-year-old son, in words and sign language, about a swimming test he's just passed...
What is amazing about this movie is that it is a satire about Nashville, and it can be viewed as a viciously biting one at that, but at the same time I can imagine other people from Nashville watching it (perhaps from my family) and seeing it as a stinging satire directed at those characters who were, for example, from California, or Britain, or the rock and rollers, etc. And they'd be right! Nashville is an incredibly funny, poignant, and true portrait of American life. It has to be true; nobody could make this stuff up.

Why am I, a lifelong resident of Nashville, TN, seeing this movie for the first time at the age of 26? I don't know. I was always vaguely aware of it, but nobody from here ever recommended it or talked about it. I wonder how it went over here back in '75? Perhaps in a few years when the internet matures I will be able to retrieve the original review from the local paper, the Tennesseean (I know, I could go to an actual library now, but its not that important to me). Kids from more important cities often get the chance to see their town in the movies, but for me it was both a thrill and a first to see such childhood haunts as Opryland and the Parthenon on the 'big' screen. Of course, in the end the movie just drives home what I've already known for some time: what an utterly bizarre place I come from!

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Mountains, etc.

If you haven't participated in a ‘backcountry’ hike, I heartily recommend it. By backcountry hiking I mean the act of hiking into a wilderness carrying everything that you need for survival on your back, spending at least one night in the wilderness and then hiking out again while leaving ‘no trace’ of where you’ve been. This differs markedly from ‘dayhiking’ which most of us do, if we even hike at all.

Day 1 (June 27)

We set out from the car Friday afternoon onto Big Creek Trail somewhat behind schedule because of various packing mishaps. When first I put on the pack I am unpleasantly surprised by the weight – more experienced hikers know how to pack light, I don’t. The trail follows Big Creek about 6 miles up to our destination, Walnut Bottom and campsite #36. This hike is consistently lovely and consistently -- though not strenuously – uphill.

Campsite #36 is a gem and with only one other group to share it with, we pick a campsite right next to Big Creek itself. We use the two hours of remaining daylight to pitch the brand new tent and enjoy a savory freeze-dried spaghetti dinner. For some time I sit on a rock next to the rushing stream in the twilight. I look at one small rock in the stream itself, a round rock that splits the rushing water. There’s a wonderful regularity to the way the water breaks, yet if you look closely you see that it’s really not regular at all. Sometimes the water surges over the rock, completely submerging it, then, as if the flow of water has abated, the rock sits up more prominently, the top almost dry. If you look closely at the water as it spins off the sides of the rock you discern shapes that freeze for an instant and are then smashed forever in the swirling wash. Like an old Japanese painting the water seems to take the shape of angry clenched fists, or the leaves of some fantastic tree; again, you look for a pattern. After some time you see that there is no pattern; whether you look at the simple press of the water over the top of the rock or at the more complicated curls around the side, you realize that in an action as seemingly simple as water rushing past a rock there is no pattern.

Day 2

On day 2 my slipshod preparation is exposed. We planned to spend three nights in the backcountry with our second destination being campsite #39, about 8 miles away. What I didn’t pay attention to during the all too brief planning phase was the elevation contours on the map: to reach #39 would involve an elevation gain of almost 3000 feet followed by a rapid descent of another 3000 feet; not good. Taking the contours into account, I adjust our route by aiming for a shelter campsite, Laurel Gap, some 6 miles and 3000 feet in elevation gain away from Walnut Bottom. I’m not sure about the shelter: is it ‘nice’, after all, you are supposed to make reservations for it in advance (which we did not), or is it in some way worse than a normal campsite? The first part of the hike is a gentle climb up the Gunter Fork Trail following the eponymous creek. After a leisurely lunch near a waterfall, we begin the most demanding part of the day’s hike: a 2500-foot ascent over two miles. This is hard, I admit, but when we finally reach the intersection with another trail which marks the end of the climb the satisfaction felt is well worth it.

What isn’t worth it, however, is the Laurel Gap campsite. Flies, horseflies, biting flies, biting horseflies, flies of all colors and creeds make Laurel Gap their home. Laurel Gap has no redeeming value: no grand view, no crisp mountain stream, nothing, nada, not even suitable firewood for a campfire. Nevertheless, this will be our home for the next 18 hours. I learn a valuable lesson: don’t stay at shelter campsites. The shelter itself is a Spartan wood and stone structure littered with trash and containing fourteen slots for fourteen would-be campers. Technically you aren’t supposed to pitch a tent, but we do anyway. Hell, who would turn us in? Who else would be stupid enough to stay here?

Day 3

The next day I am eager to strike out early for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to spend an extra second at this God-forsaken campsite and 2) I want to finish the hike today, in other words, all the way to the car. Our main destination is Mount Sterling, a large hill topping out at 5843 feet with a lookout tower on the top. One of the chief characteristics of the Smoky Mountains is dense forests, which means that sweeping panoramic views are extremely rare and thus creating the pressing need for lookout towers. The hike from Laurel Gap to Mount Sterling is supposed to be about 6 miles of relatively flat hiking and then we have a choice: spend the night at the Mount Sterling campsite or continue another 6 miles and 4500 feet down to our car. The hike to Mount Sterling is for the most part unremarkable except for an unexpected and mildly punishing climb at the end. The lookout tower does not disappoint: a dizzying 100+ foot climb to the top yields unsurpassed mountain views. Unfortunately, the weather does not fully cooperate, so what could have been a 360 degree view is instead a cloud-obscured 210 degree view. I never had a fear of heights, but when I go up the first steep flight of stairs my knees wobble. Maybe it’s the fatigue, maybe it’s the wind, maybe it’s the fact that I recently viewed Hitchcock’s Vertigo; in any event, actually reaching the top of the tower is, for me, by no means trivial.

Since we have plenty of time, we decide to go ahead and hike to the car. This we accomplish in under three hours and without major injury. The descent, not a hike really, but instead a controlled fall, is as mentally as it is physically exhausting. With every step you risk everything. The trail throughout is a veritable minefield waiting to exploit a false step, to sprain an ankle, break a leg, or at the very least, send you tumbling pack over heel. I become enraptured with the very process of hiking downhill, the incredibly complex action carried out almost unconsciously by the mind and body. My right foot lurches ahead without knowing where it will land. Seeing a rock, I pivot the foot slightly to avoid it and then once it lands, perhaps in some wet leaves, I evenly distribute the weight to avoid slipping. Meanwhile, my left foot comes into action. I lift the toe and bring it forward but it hits something, a root maybe, perhaps a rock, who knows? No problem, the ankle is limber and the toe bounces off as the foot moves forward; the fall is averted and my pace not at all slowed. All the while my body balances the unfamiliar weight of the pack on my hips and shoulders.

Make no mistake, the hike is very demanding; in fact a week will pass before my soreness entirely fades. Nevertheless, I would do it again in a heartbeat. We did discover a very nice 3 day hike: hike up Bear Creek to Walnut Bottom; spend the night; then hike directly up to Mount Sterling; spend the night; then hike back to the trailhead. A route that’s not too demanding, and damned beautiful.

Why should you backcountry hike? Besides the obvious, I would argue that it’s a great way to add beauty to your life. Most, if not all, beautiful things, whether in a work of art, architecture, or a mathematical proof, have one thing in common: elegance. This is the accomplishing of the most with the least: efficiency, the economist’s dream. Many of us in the modern world don’t have time to bother with efficiency. Why arrange our daily transportation in an efficient way when we can be so much more comfortable (and ‘safer’) in a hulking SUV? In the backcountry, however, efficiency imposes itself on the hiker: whenever you deviate from the most efficient way you are swiftly punished. In the backcountry your life and needs are stripped to the bare essentials, anything more will be paid for by your knees. In this way our lives gain an element of beauty not usually present in normal life: our very act of trudging up the hill or bounding down the mountain becomes an elegant solution to the pressing problem of getting from point A to point B given very binding constraints. Hopefully when we leave the hills the lesson sticks and we look at life a bit differently than we did before, we have a keener eye for elegance and beauty in the day-to-day and perhaps we will structure our lives in a simpler, more efficient way instead of reflexively using brute force. To live efficiently, or better, beautifully, need not be a sacrifice, but can be a great reward in and of itself. And besides, that fast food hamburger tastes oh so delicious after three days of granola bars and oatmeal.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Deep in the Land of Blah

Two doses of the Temodar down, the third, due up in about an hour, will put me over the hump. All in all, it hasn't been too bad this time: I had the usual nausea after the first two nights but even that wasn't as bad as with the last cycle. If all goes as planned, the nausea should be behind me. Oddly enough, the worst part is the actual swallowing of the pills, first the anti-nausea pill and then the four Temodar pills. It must be entirely in my mind. First I took them with water, but then I got nauseous thinking of taking them with water, then lemonade, then root beer, now I've progressed to Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink. Yikes.

After I finish this stuff -- the last dose is Wednesday night -- I'm in the clear until July 28. Almost three uninterrupted weeks of normal life. Not bad at all...

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Life in a Red State II

Now the Sons of Confederate Veterans have jumped into the license plate fray in Tennessee. In an article in today's Tennessean, we learn that the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV for short) have submitted a proposal for their own specialty license plate complete with the Confederate flag. Some choice excerpts:
Just when the frenzy swirling around a state-approved ''Choose Life'' specialty license plate seemed to be subsiding, production could soon begin on another controversial tag.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans plans to submit to the state on Tuesday a proposed design for its specialty tag that includes a picture of the Confederate battle flag.

Lawmakers approved the specialty plate last year, and organizers have collected money from 1,020 people willing to pre-buy the plate. All they needed was 1,000.

Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman Skip Earle of Franklin acknowledged that the battle flag is an emotional issue but said the icon is part of the group's official logo.

''We're just another benevolent historical organization, and we just want to be treated like everybody else,'' said Earle, Tennessee division commander of the group.

Critics have challenged similar plates in other states, landing the plates in federal and state courts. Ultimately the courts ruled the plates were protected speech under the First Amendment and should be issued...

...Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, first sponsored the plate in 1999 but was rebuffed by some colleagues.

At the time, House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, a black lawmaker from Memphis, and the Legislative Black Caucus were the most vocal critics. DeBerry could not be reached yesterday for comment.

DeBerry said then that the use of the Confederate flag would ''bring back something we worked so hard to get out of, the racist mood in this country. We don't need to reinvent the old ways'' of slavery.

Earle called that line of thought the ''typical narrow-minded view of the Confederate flag.''

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, he said, protects and promotes the legacy of the Confederate soldier.

The plate design he is proposing includes the official crest of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has at its center the Confederate flag.

Proceeds would benefit the group's college scholarship program and public relations efforts, Earle said.

He expects the tag to boost membership in the group, which has grown from 1,500 to 2,300 members statewide in the past 15 months.

McDaniel said yesterday he tried to reason with critical lawmakers, telling them if they want to sponsor legislation that promotes certain organizations, they ought to be willing to support organizations that others want to support.

Other Southern states, including Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Maryland, have approved similar plates, Earle said...
Why does this read like an Onion article to me? I'm not sure exactly what the 'legacy of the Confederate soldier' is, but I seriously doubt that the state government needs to aid in its protection and promotion. Christ, have we Southerners nothing better to do? For the record, at least 1/32 of my ancestry fought for slavery and thus I am eligible for membership in the SCV; but for now at least, I think I'll hold off on sending in my check.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

A Modest Proposal

For those of you who are serious about regime change in the United States, I would like to suggest an easy way to make a difference in 2004 -- and I'm not talking about voting. Simply use this tax cut estimator to calculate your 2003 savings from Bush's tax cuts and then do what's right and truly patriotic: donate the amount to Kerry or Dean.


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