Sunday, February 28, 2010

We Need To Pass Health Care Reform Now!

OK, I admit it. I don’t have a life. How else can I explain my watching almost all of the 7 hour Health Care Summit last Thursday led by President Obama and attended by Democratic and Republican legislators?

It’s not that I expected all that much. But it was at least worthwhile to see what would happen if the sides engage each other across the table. All too often, we see legislators on both sides share their viewpoints on media outlets that are friendly to their viewpoints. For example, the Democrats appear on liberal friendly MSNBC while the Republicans appear on conservative friendly Fox News.

But to nobody’s surprise, the two sides had irreconcilable differences. The Democrats were worried about insuring as many of the 45 million uninsured as possible. The Republicans were worried about how much covering these additional people would cost.

The Democrats asked whether there was any compromise that would enable President Obama’s proposed reforms to pass with some bipartisan support. The Republicans wanted the process started over from scratch. It is widely accepted in Congress that the more a bill can be delayed, the more likely it is to die. So isn't starting all over just another way to kill health care reform?

Even conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat had this to say about the Republicans in his op-ed piece
Six Hours of Hot Air!

(President Obama’s) Republican opponents, meanwhile, were out to disprove the notion that they have no ideas on health care reform. Not so, America, not so! They have two ideas, malpractice reform and interstate purchasing, which they clung to all day like Al Gore with his lockbox. Also, they had several piled-high copies of the lengthy Senate health care bill, and a slogan to go with them: “Let’s start over from a clean sheet of paper.” What would end up on that paper? Why, malpractice reform and interstate purchasing, of course!
But one thing more than anything else signaled that there was no way to bridge the partisan gap. While the Democratic proposal would insure about 30 million of the 45 million uninsured, the Republican version would insure only about 3 million of them! Many bills have been passed by legislators reaching across the aisle and working for a common goal. For example, if both the Democrats and Republicans really wanted to find a way to insure 30 million Americans, there would be hope of getting something accomplished. But when one side wants to insure 30 million and the other side only wants to insure 3 million, there is no common goal to work for which makes compromise just about impossible.

So the only possible way forward for the Democrats is to go it alone and pass legislation through the Senate by using reconciliation which only requires a simple majority instead of 60 to bypass a Republican filibuster. While the Republicans see this issue mainly in terms of dollars and cents, pro-reform people see this as a moral imperative to alleviate the needless suffering and dying by those who do not have health insurance. For each day we delay, more people suffer and die needlessly. We need to think about this when deciding whether to pass health care reform now or just delay it endlessly!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Greatest Animal Welfare Scandal of our Time

One of the highlights of the year for US dog lovers is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show held each February at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It is considered by many to be the most prestigious dog show in the world next to Crufts in the UK. I like dogs very much but admittedly not enough to own one. I’m lucky if I can take care of myself let alone a dog!

But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying other people’s dogs on the annual telecast that concluded last Tuesday. I root for my favorite breeds on TV along with the spectators at the show.

But the inquisitive part of me wondered about a number of things surrounding these dog shows. One of those was how the winners were picked. I know that it’s not about whether one breed is better than another. That would be like deciding whether vanilla or chocolate ice cream is objectively better. Instead it’s about judging how closely a vanilla ice cream meets its own standard of excellence compared to how closely the chocolate ice cream meets its own standard of excellence. And so it is with dog breeds at these shows.

So at least in theory, every breed has an equal chance of winning. But the history of the show has examples of breeds that have been frequent winners along with many breeds than have never won despite being part of the show for over a century. What’s with that?

So a judge of a group of different breeds literally has to remember every detail of the extensively detailed breed standards of each of a couple dozen dogs he or she has to judge to be able to pick a winner. Can they really do that?

Even more incredible is the best of breed judging which is not normally shown on the telecasts but you can check out the Golden Retriever judging
in this video link. Here the judge has to pick a winner from a group of forty dogs who practically look like clones of one another. If the dogs were separated from their handlers and put into a group, one can’t help but wonder how many of the handlers would be able to pick out their own dog?

But most important is the issue of why so many of those dogs within a breed look like clones of one another. The answer is that the dogs are bred to all have the same physical attributes as those in the published standard for that breed. Whichever dog comes closest to that standard is normally declared the winner. But the big problem with this is that
inbreeding is often used to set the physical characteristics of the dogs to be able to compete in these shows. And especially when overdone, the health of many of these breeds has been severely compromised.

A 2008 BBC investigative documentary,
Pedigree Dogs Exposed is an emotionally gripping story of what they call “the greatest animal welfare scandal of our time”.

The one hour video can be viewed online by opening
this link.

The dogs are falling apart. And the number of genetic problems are increasing at a frightening pace.

We are in effect, breeding them to death.

People are carrying out breeding which would be first of all entirely illegal in humans and secondly is absolutely insane from the point of view of the health of the animals. In some breeds they are paying a terrible price in genetic disease.
One of the breeds examined is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel which was estimated to have as much as one third of the breed affected by syringomyelia, which occurs as a result of the skull being too small for the brain which can result in agonizing pain for the dog.

In addtion, they have an incidence of heart disease about 20-25 times as much as other breeds.

By the time they are 5, half of all Cavaliers will have a heart murmur…By the time they are 10 or 11, almost all Cavailiers will have a heart murmur of some description.
The excellent Animal Planet series,
Dogs 101 describes the mitral heart disease of this breed in some detail but doesn’t mention anything about syringomyelia.

And the documentary goes into how many other breeds are suffering similar fates.

Much of the blame for all of this is given to the existence of dog shows. In addtion to breeding more for appearance (which wins dog shows) than health concerns, a number of dog show winners with genetic health problems have been known to produce many offspring because of the lucrative amount of money that champions can bring in breeding fees.

There is nothing wrong per se with breeding purebred dogs for physical traits. This preserves the identity of each of the breeds. The problem is when the health and vitality of the breeds are neglected in favor of physical standards that win dog shows.

But in fairness, the blame must also go to those who mass produce puppies not for the love of the breed but instead to satisfy the demand for some of the most popular breeds.

Most likely, breed standards used in dog shows will have to be relaxed somewhat to allow more healthy dogs to enhance the genetic pool. And health standards at dog shows have to be enforced to not allow dogs who clearly have health problems to compete.

All it takes is enough people who truly care about the welfare of these animals to speak out and do something!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day! - Except in Saudi Arabia

Valentine’s Day has been declared illegal in Saudi Arabia! In accordance with this ruling, police are raiding gift and flower shops there, confiscating all items that are red, including flowers.

This has to be a joke. Right? Surely, something over-the-top like this can only exist as a spoof. But as anyone who has lived or worked there can tell you, this is no joke
My job as a sales engineer gave me the opportunity to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on four occasions back in the 80s and 90s. It was a culture shock unlike any other that I have experienced. And it started when I arrived for the first time at customs in Riyadh. Since my flight arrived there at about 2 in the morning, I expected things to go quickly. Wrong! It was a seemingly endless line that wasn’t moving anywhere. After about two hours, when I got near the customs inspectors, it was apparent why it was taking so long. The inspectors were thoroughly looking through each and every item in each and every suitcase. Opening cologne and after shave bottles looking for alcohol. Thumbing through magazines for any possible photos of scantily clad women. Checking any food items to make sure that they contained no pork.

Until very recently, no public theatres were allowed to exist. And TV back then consisted of two channels, Saudi 1 and Saudi 2. Saudi 1 was in Arabic. Saudi 2 in English (presumably for the benefit of foreign expats) had mostly children’s programming along with westerns. This was to avoid programming that gave any significant roles to women. (To this day, women are not even allowed to drive on public roads.)

In such an environment with so little to do when not working, I have never had the urge for a drink any more than when I was there. Fortunately, there was always access to
siddique, a black market moonshine that had a faint smell of nail polish remover but tasted acceptable mixed with tonic and lime. Even in as strict a country as Saudi Arabia, prohibition still doesn’t work!
So when there was outrage here in the US over our troops in Desert Storm having their mail opened by Saudi censors when they were stationed there, I knew this was little more than business as usual.

But what is most controversial about Saudi Arabia is its governmental backing of
For more than two centuries, Wahhabism has been Saudi Arabia's dominant faith. It is an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don't practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Critics say that Wahhabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
This has resulted not only in the Saudi government’s strict control of its people but also a tremendous control over the religious education of its youth. Critics have cited that teaching this belief in others being heathens and enemies has led to hate filled people on their way to possibly becoming terrorists.
Freedom House, an organization that is an advocate on human rights issues including religious freedom, published this scathing report titled Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerance.
This report has been written in response to concerns over whether adequate reforms have been implemented in the Saudi government’s educational system. After September 11, 2001, complaints were voiced around the world, including by the U.S. government, that Saudi schools demonize the West and the “other (religions).”

Senior Saudi government spokesmen have also acknowledged this as a problem, and have repeatedly pledged that reform is underway or completed. Yet our findings contradict Saudi Arabia’s public claims that it has removed all such material from its educational texts.

As demonstrated by excerpts from the dozen current Islamic studies textbooks analyzed in this report, the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the “unbeliever,” that is, Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others. This ideology is introduced in a religion textbook in the first grade and reinforced and developed in following years of the public education system, culminating in the twelfth grade, where a text instructs students that it is a religious obligation to do “battle” against infidels in order to spread the faith.
When 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers who attacked America on 9/11 were discovered to be young Saudi nationals, it is no wonder that many Americans came to the understandable (but incorrect) conclusion that Islam is inherently a religion that is all about hate and intolerance.

But in truth, it is more about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia. The report continues..

Adherents of Wahhabism constitute a small minority within world Islam, yet, Saudi Arabia is trying to assert itself as the world’s authoritative voice on Islam.

(It has) control of Islam’s two holiest sites and the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam. This role, along with its vast oil wealth, has been used by Saudi Arabia to lay claim to being the leading power within all of Islam and the protector of the faith, a claim emphasized in the Saudi Basic Law.
If these criticisms of Saudi Arabia are as true as they appear to be, some diplomacy needs to be done to try and prevent the emergence of future generations of terrorists. And if that doesn’t work, they need to be publicly called out for their lack of cooperation. But who is going to do that? The US is in a very awkward position since it is so dependent on Saudi oil. Perhaps this is best done by the other Muslim nations that practice Islam with peace and tolerance but have had to endure a bad rap on Islam because of a small number of their extreme fundamentalists who are out of control!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Let's Finally Get Rid of Those Utility Poles

After looking at this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo taken after the major snowstorm that hit here in Pittsburgh and later Washington D.C., I had an Andy Rooney moment. In my best Andy Rooney voice, I thought out loud, “Did you ever wonder why we still put up with all of those ugly utility poles and wires all over the place?”

As it turns out, back in 2005 the real Andy Rooney did a 60 Minutes essay on this subject titled
America Should Go Wireless.

How in the world did we ever allow the power companies and the telephone companies to disfigure our landscape with their tangle of wires displayed on 50-foot tall poles?

They dominate our skyline. If there are good, natural, full-grown trees in the path of the pole-borne wires, power companies regularly disfigure the trees by cutting holes in the foliage. They chop off limbs to let their wires through.

Eliminating the eyesore of utility poles by running lines underground would certainly make our neighborhoods more attractive looking and not coincidentally, increase property values. But converting to underground lines is expensive and tough to justify strictly on the grounds of aesthetics.

But when we consider the hundreds of thousands who lost their power in the Mid-Atlantic states along with Washington D.C. area, it is fitting to ask if we can do something to reduce the number of power outages in the future. And make no mistake, this is far more that an inconvenience to these people when they lose their heat in frigid temperatures. (Gas furnaces also need electricity to run the controls and the air blowers.) Not only is this dangerous to especially the elderly, but many people get sick or even die from carbon monoxide poisoning trying to use alternative means to keep warm.

Many if not most of these power outages were due to the use of overhead lines — or more precisely, trees falling onto the power lines. (Post-Gazette photo)

In the summertime, it is lightning strikes and high winds that wreak havoc on overhead lines.

And when vehicles crash into utility poles, severe injury or death is the usual result.

Most new construction in the last 30 years or so in cities and suburbs has been built with
underground wiring instead of utility poles. And this means that for street lighting, lightweight aluminum poles are used that snap off on impact, thus saving lives and preventing serious injury.

But converting existing areas to underground wiring can be expensive and disruptive. Which is why it is said to be impractical. But repairing massive outages like the one this weekend in a timely manner
is also expensive. For example, with all of Allegheny Power’s line crews out doing repairs…

Allegheny Power also has also contracted with up to 1,000 outside contractors and brought in hundreds of trained crews from other utilities not hit by the storm in western Ohio and southern New York.

With a state of emergency declared by the areas affected, much of the tab will be picked up by the state governments or more likely the federal government. So why not use some of the federal stimulus money intended for rebuilding our infrastructure on converting some of our overhead lines to underground ones? Admittedly, it is not practical to do it everywhere, but it is reasonable to expect that our utilities keep data on which areas have been the most trouble prone — most likely it's where trees and overhead lines are in close proximity to one another. Can’t we at least prioritize these areas first to give our spending the most bang for the buck?

Getting rid of utility poles is not a cure-all. Some parts of the power distribution system still have to be above ground so there will still be some outages due to weather — but not nearly as many. Which means not nearly as much hardship like that experienced by hundreds of thousands this weekend who lost their power.

We are good at putting our money and efforts into emergencies and disasters during and after they occur. But spending money on trying to help prevent them isn’t worth it to many of us. When will we ever learn?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Is Health Care Reform Still a Priority?

Before watching President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, I had concerns that health care reform would no longer be a real priority of his administration. I still feel that way now.

It wasn’t just that the President didn’t mention health care until about 30 minutes into his speech. It was the emphasis that the first 3 priorities for this country are jobs, jobs, and jobs. Most likely, this was in response to Republican criticism that he “wasted” all of last year on health care reform instead of jobs which they said should have been his real priority.

But President Obama never intended the health care reform process to take all year. He originally wanted to have a bill passed before the August recess, but that was delayed so his opponents could spend the August recess subverting the reform process during the heated town hall meetings that made the news almost every night. In fact, it took a heroic effort just to get a Senate bill passed by Christmas Eve.

But as vitally important as jobs are, a case can be made that health care reform is even more important. While losing a job is bad enough, getting seriously ill or injured without access to health care for lack of health insurance is more immediately devastating. It can lead to financial catastrophe and the loss of ones home. Even worse, it can lead to needless suffering or even death. In a previous posting,
Letting Those 44,000 People Die, a study showed that on average, 122 Americans die each day due to lack of health insurance. Only in America!

I think that much of the problem President Obama has in convincing others to support health care reform is due to his overly studious manner of explaining his positions. As NYT op-ed columnist Charles Blow writes in
Lost in Translation:

(President Obama) seems to believe that if he does a better job of explaining his aggressive agenda, then he’ll win hearts and minds. It’s an honorable ambition, but it’s foolhardy. People want clear goals, clearly defined and clearly (and concisely) conveyed. They’re suspicious of complexity.

Obama has to accept that today’s information environment is broad and shallow, and we now communicate in headline phrases, acerbic humor and ad hominem attacks. Sad but true.
While the president explains the nuances of his health care reform package, his opponents are responding with catch phrases like avoiding “the government takeover of health care” which are far more effective at stirring up emotional support. By the way, it annoys me how every Republican who appears on political interview shows unfailingly speaks about health care reform using this phrase. But nobody ever calls them out on it despite the fact that the Democrats’ health care reform is primarily about exerting more control over the insurance companies who are getting rich while denying coverage and not the health care providers themselves.

The president says that if his reform doesn’t go through, many more will lose their insurance. This is like saying that a terminally ill person is going to be sick for a while longer. While that’s true, it greatly understates the situation. Instead of just talking about more people losing their insurance, he needs to say that over a hundred people are dying every day in the US from lack of health insurance and will continue to die each and every day that we delay health care reform! When viewed in this way, the robotic response about "the government takeover of health care” would come off as pretty insensitive, not to mention downright weak. And those whose plan is to delay health care reform until it dies will be seen as being the cold-hearted people they really are.

It’s far too easy for many in Congress to be disconnected from the plight that many of our uninsured have to endure. After all, many of these people are quite wealthy and enjoy excellent health benefits to boot. This would change if they were to see all of the people in line for free health care at the latest of the
Free Clinics just held in Hartford, CT. But instead, they stay away (most notably Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman) not wishing to be embarrassed. If the cause of health care reform was conveyed by the president and his supporters with the emotional passion of Ed Schultz in this video after he spent the day at the clinic in Hartford, we might well have had a bill signed into law by now.

But it takes much more than strong rhetoric. President Obama has said in numerous recent appearances that Congress has to "finish the job on health care" but without offering any guidance on how it’s to be done. Right now with newly elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown providing Republicans with the 41st vote to ensure a filibuster on any further Senate health care votes, the only way forward appears to be for the House to pass the Senate version as is, warts and all which can then go straight to the president’s desk for signing. The changes the House Democrats feel need to be made can then be passed later on in the Senate through a process called reconciliation which cannot be blocked by a Republican filibuster.

So far, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says she doesn’t have the votes in the House to pass the Senate version as is. But the Obama team has to assess what other options, if any, there are for passing health care reform. If there are no other viable options, President Obama has to show leadership by getting the House Democrats in line to pass this historic piece of legislation. Once this is done, we can then make our top priorities jobs, jobs, and jobs with a clear conscience!