A night at the theater, my Hamilton review.

Last night we went to see the musical Hamilton here in Los Angeles. I posted some things on Facebook about it, but wanted to talk about the experience more in depth here.

Three crazy people on the subway

First of all, I’m not going to explain the musical to you. If you don’t know much about it then you really do need to get out more often. Not only is it one of the most award winning musicals, its also a nice bit of history, a ground breaking blend of rap and broadway musical, and a well crafted commentary upon the value of immigrants and people of color to this country. Since it opened in New York the musical has constantly been sold out. When the touring company came to L.A. I figured it was the best chance I would get at seeing it. The show is massively popular here in L.A. too, so tickets were not cheap.

I’m going to start by saying I was probably a fan of Hamilton before you were. That’s not a brag, I have a degree in U.S. History, and Alexander Hamilton was one of my favorites from way back then. This was in the mid 80s, back when Hamilton was still a stuffy old white guy. The question then was, did the modern recasting of the man change him in any significant way?

I first came across the Hamilton from the music. Bits and pieces started filtering into my world, especially after it won so many Tonys. Out of curiosity I downloaded the Original Broadway Cast recording about a year and a half ago. I have loved it from the first listen. I can’t recommend it enough. The music is quite powerful, and does a good job of telling Hamilton’s story, warts and all. If the whole Hamilton phenomena could be reduced down to just this music, I think it would still be a worthy of the praise. It is history brought to life, with all the worry, drama, love, and subterfuge of the founding of our nation, but presented in a three act structure, with all the elements that make for good drama (or for that matter, good story-telling). Just from listening to it you get probably 90% of what goes on in the musical. In fact, there was only one small part of the show last night that strayed outside of the recording (the “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us” scene which I found out was intentionally kept off the recording to be a nice easter egg for those going to the show). My goal in wanting to go was to not just hear the music live (like one might for their favorite rock band), but to see if the staging of the music made the story that much better. The short answer is, indeed it did.

The Pantages

The setting:
Hamilton is being performed at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. It is a lovely setting, an Art Deco treasure, chock full of fun and interesting details. I could spend a week there with a camera and an internet connection, trying to trace down and discover the meaning behind all of the wonderful statues, reliefs, and decorations. If you love art, then just going to this theater is a sight for sore eyes. To my mind the building is every bit as lovely as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or the Parthenon. Mind you, it is lovely for different reasons then those other two architectural treasures, but I think you get the point.

The stage is simple, befitting a musical when the story is told mostly by lyric. There are some fancy parts, mostly the turn-table floor which rotates at times on parts of the stage, but this is pretty low-key compared to some plays and musicals, and never once overwhelmed. The orchestra was pretty reduced with most parts played on modern instrumentation. Much of the music was I believe pre-recorded. It sounded remarkably like the Original Broadway Cast recording, which is probably a very good idea as the music itself is perhaps the musical’s strongest selling point. The actors were individually mic’d so their voices did not have to carry to fill the room, which brings me to one of my big criticisms. From our vantage point, center and close to the stage, the sound was not very good. The actor performing the part of Hamilton was quieter than everyone else in the mix for most of the night, so he was at times difficult to hear. The overall sound quality was only fair. A lot like the sound quality of of your a cineplex build in the 90s. The music was at times distorted and mushy, the sound muffled, the highs clipped, and the midtones over blown. It sounded as if the volume of each singer was constantly changed to match the needs of the music. This is perhaps good stagecraft, but at a few points, especially at the big dramatic endings of songs, the actors sang loud enough that they became too loud and distorted. To be fair, the theater might not lend itself to good audio. All those wonderful art deco details might make for an echoic and mushy room, still when you pay top dollar for a musical I believe having a good sound system does not seem too much to ask.

Mind you, all of these are minor points. Most listeners will probably not notice such things. If you’re a recording engineer then you’ll probably find even more flaws than I did, but for most people the sound will be more than adequate. The music was clear, the lyrics understandable, and sound was loud without being anywhere near to rock-concert volume. My wife and son, both of whom have only heard bits and pieces of the soundtrack, found the music wonderful, and had no problems following the story, even when it was delivered at a blistering rate.

The staging of the music, especially seeing different characters sing the various parts, really made the music come to life. The Original Broadway Cast recording is great, as I mentioned above, but suffers in that you often cannot tell which character is singing what part. The voices of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Arron Burr) are close enough to my ear that I cannot tell by listening that they often trade lines back and forth in a song. Seeing them do so on they stage brought much greater depth to the songs.

Perhaps my favorite example of this was the wonderfully subtile scene in the song One Last Time. The song begins with Washington asking Hamilton to write for him one last speech. Most of the song goes into the reasons for the speech and Washington’s retirement, but near the end we get to hear part of the actual speech itself. It starts with Hamilton speaking the words front stage, with Washington back stage about as far as you can go, directly behind him. The rest of the stage is largely bare. As the song progresses, Hamilton slowly moves back stage, and Washington comes to front stage. When they pass the song goes from spoken to sung, and the voicing seamlessly transitioning from that of Hamilton, the speech-writer, to Washington the speaker. All the while the song is building from just single voice and a cello, to multiple instruments. Near the end the ensemble has come onstage, dressed formally, arranged in couples as if listening to a speech at a park, with the men holding their hats high over their heads in respect. It is lovely, and powerful, and fairly simple. Never once does it get in the way of the performance. The movements and the costumes supported the song perfectly.

Another example is in the song The Room Where it Happens. This is the turning point for the antagonist (Aaron Burr), as the song captures the moment he goes from being passive to active, following, as he later tells him, Hamilton’s example. In terms of dramatic structure, this scene is key to the story. It ties up one theme (wait for it), and introduces another (room where it happens), adding complications along the way. In the cast recording the emotional impact of Burr singing “I want to be in the room where it happens” is not very strong. Seeing it staged you realize this is a life changing moment for the man (and later for Hamilton as well). The music alone does not do this song justice. Seeing it performed really brings it all home.

I could say the same for easily 3/4ths of the songs. The staging really takes them to another level. On some songs, like the complicated relationship between A Winter’s Ball, which runs into Helpless, and finally Satisfied, the staging really helps to understand the story. The songs captures the moment when Angelica Schuyler first meets Hamilton in A Winter’s Ball, and then later rewinds so that she can relive that same moment at her sister’s wedding to Hamilton in the song Satisfied. This is pretty complex for stage craft. Movies often go back and forth in time, but it’s a hard thing to do on a stage, let alone in a song. The staging does both scenes perfectly, changing only a few small parts, which add all the wonderful emotional undercurrent to the story.

Finally, I’d like to mention the actors. On the night we saw it the part of Hamilton was played by Ryan Alavarado, who is listed in the playbill as a standby. Either he was having a bad night, or his performance was not particularly polished. Either way his was perhaps the single “average” performance. This is not a complaint. When you go to the theater you get what the director gives you. Unlike a movie which can be shot with multiple takes, you only get one take on the stage. It either nails it or it doesn’t. Alvarado was a good performer but his voice was quieter (as I mentioned before) and his acting was a bit stiff. Perhaps his was a great performance, but only look worse when compared to those he was staged with, because the rest of the cast really pulled out the stops. Stand outs from such a wonderful cast are hard to find, but Joshua Henry, singing the part of Aaron Burr, really nailed it, and Isaiah Johnson singing the part of George Washington was incredible. His ending of One Last Time was soaring, a great example of how much better theater is at performing a song then any rock band. (Take note. If you’re in a band and really want to take things to the next level, this is what it looks like.) Rory O’Malley reprised his role of King George, since he was part of the original broadway cast. His performance takes a comic part and milks it for all it’s worth, to great effect. He was a show stopper. Finally, of note was Raven Thomas’ performance of Angelica Schuyler. She is listed in the program as part of the Ensemble, not a lead part. How she got the part of Angelica I don’t know. What I do know is she sang and acted as if this was her “shot”, and let me tell you, girlfriend knows how to aim. I expect to see more of her.

So in closing, was seeing the play worth the cost? Yes. The staging makes the play so much better than the music. It adds more drama, more comedy, more sadness, more of everything. In spite of a few quibbles I would go again. Already my wife has said she’d like to. I don’t know that we’ll sit in the same seats, but I have a feeling we’ll be back.

 

 

In memoriam, Mary Souter

Her Royal Highness, Mary Souter

When I was sixteen, I ran away from home. The reasons why are complex, and mostly centered around my teen-aged angst, and undiagnosed depression. Suffice to say I wasn’t that easy to live around, and my own mother wasn’t that easy to live around either. What matters here is not why I ran away, but that I had a safe place to go. I spent that summer at the Souter house, sleeping in Clark’s bed as he was with his father up on some river dredging for gold. I had been to the Souter house often, I was good friends with their son Justin, but that summer was the time I got to really know Mary. Without complaint, or even a bat of her eye, she made a place for me in her house. I was always welcome. She made this clear. Not just with words, but with deeds. When I was at my lowest, she held out her hand to me. It’s the kind of debt one doesn’t forget.

Since that time Mary has been like a second mom to me. We shared inside jokes, argued politics, and she even told embarrassing stories about me. For instance, I used to call her and in my fake Posh accent ask to speak to the Queen. She would return the accent, playing the part of H.R.H. Mary with style. Even now I can hear the way she would clear her throat before putting on that voice. “Oh, hello. This is the Queen speaking….”

After both her sons moved from Clovis to LA (along with an adopted son) Mary, always the dutiful mother, packed her bags and followed. Practically every time I came over to visit Clark, or would see her at one of her son’s (or grandchildren’s) birthdays, Mary would look at me and in her sweet voice say, “You know there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask.” This would be immediately followed by something like, “If Bill Clinton is such a good president, then why is he so corrupt.” And off we’d go into yet a mother political discussion.

Mary was a cheerful and dedicated Republican. We used to joke that if the Devil himself ran on the Republican ticket she would vote for him (he did, and she did). Whenever this was she would smile and approve. If you dropped her in a room full of liberals, not a hard thing to find in southern California, Mary would smile and carry on, not at all phased by other’s beliefs. And yet never once can I recall her not liking a person because they held different political views from her own. The very idea would be revolting to her. In this day of FaceBook and people left and right unfriending over politics, Mary was a true original. She would find the whole anger thing absurd, and more than a little distasteful. Politics were for fun, but friends were serious business.

And practically every time we got into a discussion around strangers Mary would bring up the time she was my substitute teacher when I was in the 4th grade. This happened long before I met her son, and at a time when we lived on the other side of town. Each time she told this story, and I must have heard it once a year for the last 20 years, it gained more in the details, and was embellished each time with more fabrications. It got to the point that it was almost painful for me to listen to. Every time she told this story it embarrassed me. But once she started on it, there was no derailing her. Only now, that I can no longer be embarrassed by the story do I realize it was her way of making me feel a part of the family. After all, it’s practically an unwritten rule that every mom has to tell embarrassing stories about their kids. To her, I was just another son.

When it came time to purchase our home, we knew who to call. Mary the super agent came to our rescue time and time again. I remember telling her we wanted, “the ugliest house on the prettiest block.” The look she gave us was priceless. She’d never had anyone quite describe a real estate transaction that way. We were working under a very short time window, plus Teri was 9 months pregnant, yet she shouldered on with us as we looked at well over 60 houses. If you haven’t purchased a house in LA let me tell you, Some of the agents around here are real sharks. Mary managed to keep a smile on her face in the teeth of some real assholes. Not once did she complain, not once did she say a mean thing about the other agents. When the lady who owned the place we live in now suddenly ended up in the hospital, while we were in escrow, we instructed Mary to go and get her signature, even if she’s on death’s door. To her credit, Mary got us through, even as the selling agent dragged his feet.

Mary Souter was by far the best Toy finder in the universe. Several of the toys she purchased for Trevor lasted far longer than any other toy, from any other source. I remember a set of interlocking cups she bought for him that made bath time with a toddler so much easier. And a stuffed bunny she bought for him when he was around 3 still makes it into his bed every night.

So today we got to go to her memorial. She had a lot of friends and family that she touched, and everyone always had a kind word for Mary. She was that kind of person. Though she will be missed, we were blessed by her passing.

Pease be unto you dear Mary. Be well wherever you may go.

A chance meeting with a passing soul

His name was Christopher, and he was sitting on the sidewalk outside of Trader Joes. I was doing a grocery run because Teri was busy with something, and I got off work early. One of the first things I learned about Christopher was he was going to the hospital. He had a hurt wrist, so he said, had a few possible broken ribs, and sclerosis of the liver. The second thing I learn about Christopher, before I even learned his name, was he was going to die.

“They told me I have 61 days,” he said to me, “I’ve been counting. I still have 40 left.”

When I came back out of the store, both arms loaded with groceries, I stopped to give him some cash. We talked about riding the bus and a few other things. His companion, very much not a homeless man, was named Pedro. Pedro was the kind of guy who ended every sentence with Praise God, or Praise Jesus. I knew the type, hell, I’d been the type. He seems to care, and was apparently going to take Christopher to the hospital, so I didn’t complain, although why they hadn’t gone in the time I was shopping I don’t understand.

Christopher was 51, and looked pretty good. His beard was long, but clean and well trimmed. His eyes were that color of electric blue that are startlingly pure. They were arresting eyes. His hair was turning from blonde to grey, but he had less grey in it than I do. Had his clothes been slightly cleaner he could have passed for an eccentric, and not a homeless man. His wore bright blue tennis shoes on his feet. One lay on its side on the sidewalk, the leg coming up at a strange angle from the foot, like he was woking on turning his ankle further so bottom of his foot could bend in more. The pose was both comfortable and awkward. He didn’t smell much of urine.

We talked about God and such. Christopher didn’t realize the meaning of his name, and when I told him, then Pedro wanted to know right away if I was a Christian or not. Somehow I seem to always do this with born-agains, I pepper the conversation with enough knowledge to make them ask, and then get to tell them I’m no longer a believer. It’s a stupid compulsion on my part. It stems in part from my need to be smarter than everyone else, and also possibly as a way to signal to them that their firm belief is not all that firm. A few times I’ve able to simply ignore Christians, or mouth the “christianese” enough to not draw attention, but today I didn’t.

Pedro wanted to know why I walked away from the faith. They always do. There’s no good answer to that, as least one a christian will understand. Knowing all about the faith, but not being of it doesn’t compute. It’s not a thought that fits within the christian meme. He asked if I was turned off by the church, but the truth is it wasn’t just the church. It was the whole thing. The whole memeplex is a mess. Too self-referential, and offering almost zero room for ideas outside of a very narrow set of beliefs. To me its like trying to build a giant apartment complex in a tiny sandbox with carefully guarded borders. There’s no room. It just doesn’t fit.

In any case I wasn’t there to discuss religion, and I wasn’t the main event. Sooner or later the conversations going to come back to Christopher, he was a drunk, this is how it goes. So I kicked the conversation back to him, and let it run its course.

We talked about a few more things, but I had frozen groceries in my bag, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for a long conversation. I wished Christopher well, and that he’d find sobriety. Then I give a mini lecture on the sacredness of work, explained how Jesus thought work important enough to even quote the OT on the topic (one of the few times he did), and wished him the desire to work hard on his life. For Pedro I wished him nothing, but left him with a pleasant greeting. Like me, Pedro is one of the lucky ones. Finally I wished Christopher luck. He’s going to need it if he wants to live past Christmas.

Then I drove home and put away my groceries.

Here’s the thing. We all have the knowledge that death can come at any moment. This week we had this concept strongly reaffirmed by the horrible shooting in Las Vegas. But the human mind naturally elides thoughts of death. If you try to force someone to pay attention to their future date with the grim reaper it will just piss them off. But occasionally one can approach the idea of their looming demise from an oblique angle, and not have a negative reaction. Christopher is a reminder that we all will die soon. I don’t mention this so you’ll be ready to meet your maker, since I don’t believe in one, but to point out the value of death is life. Death is a reminder to be what you want, to be who you are. If you were given 61 days would you spend it so drunk that you could trip on the sidewalk and break some ribs, or would you do something that made your life count?

Now here’s the real question, why wait?

On the nature of water and houses

Wimbledon Champions Park underwater. Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

As I write this, the city of Houston, and for that matter most of south east Texas, is getting hammered by tropical storm Harvey. Thousands of people have lost their homes to flooding, which is a terrible tragedy. Mind you, this is not a new thing. Floods have been hitting this region of years. There are reasons why Harvey could be seen as especially bad, but flooding is a way of life for some parts of the world, and it will always remain so.

Rather than talk about the tragedy of flooding, or attempt to point my finger in an area I know little about and understand even less, what I want to do here is offer a view towards a new and different future. A future in which I think has room for everyone, regardless of where you live, or the color of your political stripe.

One of the things we learned from hurricane Katrina, and we will learn from Harvey, is that flooding a house is expensive, Once water has reached the walls of a house, the cost of rebuilding it is staggering. Water is absorbed by almost all modern building materials, and once that material has been saturated it will either warp, become susceptible to mold, rot, fall apart, or do a variation on all four. On many houses, once it has been dipped in water, the costs associated with repair are so high that is it cheaper to simply tear down the home and start from scratch.

Now I’m not talking about shacks here, but houses. Homes that were, until the moment the river got a little too high, worth an appreciable amount of the owners net value. Literally, it’s like taking out $100,000 in bills from the bank, and tossing them in the river. Only multiplied by thousands and thousands of homes. The cost alone for replacement is enough to bankrupt most countries, and this from just one part of Texas. And this is not even taking into account the personal tragedy of people losing their property, mementos, and sadly their lives.

But what of there was a different path? What else can we do?

The single largest problem I see is that these houses were not built to be submerged. I’m not talking about the ability to face storm surges like what ripped out a lot of homes on the gulf coast from Katrina, but just being dunked for a few days in water. As long as the current forces aren’t all that high, and in a lot of flat areas that is all the kind of flooding most will see, a house that can withstand 4-6 feet of water, for 2-3 days, and can be livable again with just a few hours of repair, would be a huge cost saver for the state. Sure some of the items in such a house might be damaged, but replacing them is a small cost compared to loosing everything, and with a little planing could be easily remedied. For instance, if every room had special floats designed to hold furniture and equipment, one could inflate them, load them up with valuables, and let them ride out the storm high and dry.

Now this is not a new idea, flood proof homes have been designed and built for millennia. Do a google search for “flood proof houses” or see here, or here. What’s needed is not knowledge, but political will. What if the state of Texas offered a premium on houses rebuilt with flood proof materials or techniques? What if flood proof houses received a huge break on flood insurance? These are just a couple of ways to link the free market to less government costs.

Another idea would be to offer an X prize for flood proof houses, with the winner awarded a contract to rebuild homes in certain flood prone areas. Model homes could be built and tested, with all the data available to the public. People could see what works and what doesn’t, and the total costs would be pennies when compared to what we’ll be spending the next time this disaster happens. Because believe me, we’ll be seeing flooding in America again. There’s a long history of it.

Right now as I write this members of Congress are talking about passing a multi-billion dollar relief package for those effected by Harvey, so we’re sure to see a lot of money spent. Why not take the time and learn from our mistakes? Some places in Texas are going to flood, and there’s not much you can do about that, short of spending billions of dollars in large scale drainage systems, which themselves are likely to fail. Why not instead build houses with nature in mind? House that can be dunked, and then used over again without damage, mold, or loss. Why not spend a little now to ensure later success? That would not only be financially wise, but would also save lives. And isn’t that what our country should be about.

Lets be smart people. Lets spend our money well.

 

Actual evidence showing racism exists in America

Twice now in as many weeks I’ve run across a well meaning white friend who did not quite understand the nature of racism in America. I’m not posting this here to shame them, or for that matter to shame anybody, I’m putting this page up as a handy reference. My goal is to provide a single page with links to scholarly research (not reports, not news, and certainly not fake news) that indicates racial bias exists in America still.

Feel free to link to it if you wish.  (permalink)

For the most part the links go to original studies, not reports of studies. This distinction is important as I would like to present the data with as little slant or bias as possible. This is science, yo, not an opinion piece. Also, I respect that you came here, so I’ll try not to waste your time.

If you run across a good study that you don’t see here, feel free to email me a link. Likewise if you spot any errors please drop me a line. The goal is to keep this page as “objective” as possible with as little bias as I can offer.

 

An oldie but a goodie, from back in the early 1990s on how different races perceive each other:
Ethnic Images

This one is kind of surprising, especially the last part of the abstract. It’s about expulsion rates for children based on race (pdf link):
Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions?

This one is all about perception. It’s a Pew survey not a research paper, so consume with a healthy grain of salt.
On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart.

A paper using resumes and racially biased names. This paper is the one that started me down this path.
Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?

Even the police will not call you back as often with a black sounding name (pdf link):
Racial Discrimination is Local Public Services…

More about racially biased names and assumptions (pdf link):
Looming Large in other’s eyes….

A longer article that references the resume study above, but adds so many more that I’m just posting this here rather than fishing out all of the links.
Think you’re not racist?
Research uncovers our secret prejudices, and ways to overcome them.

One that came out as I was typing this. Apparently police cameras are useful for more than just video.
Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect.

I’m sure there is much more. I’ll be adding to this page as I find studies I deem worthy of your time.

On Dreams and Robust Systems

Last night I had the strangest dream, one that I think has a lot to tell us about the U.S. healthcare system.

I dreamed I was leading a team that was developing a robot. I don’t recall the purpose of the robot, but I do remember there were several teams competing for the same prize, and that my team was succeeding where the others were not.

Now, what you need to understand is that way back in the day (we’re talking the early 1990s) I came up with the idea of a robotic vacuum that I called the Yarn Shark. It was very similar in intent to a modern Roomba. I did a lot of booking up on robotic systems and architecture back then with the idea of making a sellable product. That robot never came about, but the knowledge remained.

So in my dream one of the things we’d done was run a string of LED lights along the inside of the wheels and mount opposite of the lights a single light sensor that could count them as they passed. This was an old school solution to help your robot know where it was at, what its speed was, and in what direction it was traveling. To give you an example, if the wheels on your robot are 3″ in circumference, and there are 8 lights along its edge, then if your sensor “sees” 8 flashes of light, it’s fair to guess your robot has moved forward 3″. Pretty basic stuff.

All of the robot teams in my dream had been using these LED lights to help them navigate. The main difference was that the other teams had very carefully wrapped their lights around the wheels so they were all spaced apart uniformly. But on our robot, we wrapped the lights any old way, not caring how exact the lights were spaced. Now that inexactness of our spacing should have lead to less accurate navigation, as you can imagine, and the other teams assumed. However, the opposite was true. Our robot consistently navigated far better than the others. This was not because randomly spaced lights are better than uniform ones, but because our software design was different.

The other robots relied upon their accurate spacing, and were programmed with the assumption that every flash of a light was a reliable indicator. Our system, by way of contrast, was designed from the get go with the idea that you could not trust what the sensors were telling the processor. In effect, our processor did not trust its sensors to be reliable, and therefore computed its location differently.

BTW this is largely true. In the real world a wheel moves forward and backward in ways that can be surprising, For instance, when a robot is turning the outer wheels roll a longer distance then the inside wheels. Which leads to the question, wheel is the reliable one? If a robot happens to back up and turn, then its possible a light will trigger the sensor while the wheel is going forward, and then backward. Your processor, not being able to know anything else about the wheel, might assume those flashes indicate consistent motion in one direction or the other, when in fact the wheel had gone both ways.

Our software was based upon the assumption that things could go wrong, and therefore it needed to ask itself more questions to be sure of its location. What did the other wheels indicate? What does the forward radar say? Etc. In engineering, this is called a more robust system. It assumes up front that things can go bad, and it reacts accordingly. Mind you, more robust systems are not perfect, among other things they require much more programming, and they take up more processing time than more simple systems. But they have one decided advantage, they’re not easy to surprise. Errors, in such a system, are expected. And this last part was the key to our robot’s success.

And now we get to the point of this essay. You see, I think Healthcare systems need to be designed more robustly. They need to assume from the get go that people are going to screw up, and have a solution at hand when it happens.

Mind you, I don’t go around assuming people are all screw ups, but when it comes to healthcare I think it fair to say us humans, even the most careful thinking of us, do not fully appreciate the inherent problems. For instance, one can be fully insured for medical problems, but if you’re in a bad auto accident, your health insurance will not cover your house payment that you cannot make because you’re lying in a hospital bed instead of at work. Or what happens if you meet the love of you life, get married, and then you both discover your partner suddenly develops a medical problem so severe it requires a transplant? (this is not an idol question, it happened to a family member) And most people do not worry that if they lose their job they will drink themselves to death, but this is happening so much that the life expectancy for white males of middle age has actually dropped in recent years.

Back before Obamacare our medical insurance system simply cut people off if they cost too much. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, eventually the person cut off would usually qualify for medicare. The problem is that last step was pretty steep, because medicare requires you to be broke before its cuts in. In realty, what happened is your insurance would stop making payments, while you continued to need medical care. Next, you’d go through your savings like poop through a goose, and eventually medicare would kick in right about the time you declared bankruptcy. So you would get your medical care, but only after you lost your house, your kid’s college fund, and your car.

This is stupid for more reasons than I care to count, primary among them is the loss of a good tax-paying citizen, replacing them with a tax liability. And all for a cost that would have been simple to fix at the time of the problem. It used to be that upwards of 60-100k people a year went through medical bankruptcies. That is 100,000 tax payers were reduced to welfare recipients, every year! Not only were we still footing the bill for their medical care, but then we all but insured that these people would never help pay for their bills out of their own pocket. Poor people being notorious for not paying taxes like the middle class do.

This is what I mean by not being a robust system. If your healthcare requires you to go bankrupt, it’s not really caring for you, is it? It’s just keeping you from dying. We need something a little more robust than ‘keeping us from dying”. That is not a good standard for healthcare.

And this is where I get back to my dream and robust systems. As we debate our future healthcare system, I think it imperative we keep in mind that humans get sick in unpredictable ways, and all of us need healthcare for the day when the unpredictable becomes the real. We know the unpredictable will happen–we know people will get cancer, or get in car accidents, become an alcoholic, or suddenly need a new pancreas–the problem is we don’t know who. Even worse, us humans are notoriously bad at assessing our needs. Every healthy human you meet between the ages of 16 and 30 are sure they don’t need medical care, which is true for all of us, but especially the young, right up until the moment that it isn’t. And when that happens, when young adult suddenly needs healthcare, should we penalize them for acting in a way that every healthy person does at their age? That seems pretty counterintuitive to me, and yet it’s a part of the proposed new healthcare.

A better system, that is a more robust system, would assume that they young are going to act like the young, and plan accordingly. Like the lights along the rim of the wheels, we can assume they’re all correct, or assume they are not. Which one is the more likely outcome? Well 90% of the time it will be that they are correct, but it’s that 10% error rate that is the most costly. The same thing applies to healthcare. Humans will mostly pick wrong, and mostly they will be okay. But when things do go south, because we know it does happen to somebody, if there is no system to cover that, then the person without coverage goes from an asset to a liability. A liability in which we all foot the bill.

The most important thing to remember while looking into changes to our healthcare, is that at the end of the day we all pay for everyone’s medical care. Something I think the Republicans are not fully aware of. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your skin color is, or what side of the tracks your family came form–at some point if you don’t foot your medical bills, then we do. We meaning ALL Americans. The cost either comes out of medicare, or it comes out of higher premiums for the healthy, but we do pay for it. Ironically, this is perhaps the single most egalitarian thing we do as Americans, we pay for each other’s healthcare.

Knowing that, doesn’t it make sense to pay for medical care in the lease expensive manner? I ask because emergency medical care is a lot more expensive than preventative care. We’ve all know this. It’s far cheaper to supplement a poor person’s healthcare, and have that care be pro-active, than it is to pay for their care in a hospital emergency room. It’s far cheaper to lightly supplement a middle-class family’s healthcare, than to wait for them to become bankrupt and pay for all of their healthcare. In terms of outcomes, one is far more expensive than the other. In other words, one is far more robust than the other.

And when it comes to tax credits verses subsidies, which is the more robust system? Speaking for my family I can say we’d do far better with a tax credit. But I run my own business and we’ve been playing the tax game for years. We’re used to setting a certain amount of our income aside, setting aside more for healthcare is not an issue. Bear in mind, we are very much the exception here. Most people, who are not used to setting money aside with every paycheck, absolutely suck at it. Every time I talk to a new freelancer I hear the same thing, they know they need to set money aside, but they don’t do it. When I first started freelancing I sucked at it too, up until I ran into problems with the IRS. So what’s the likelihood that people are goring to budget for their healthcare sufficiently for a tax credit to be helpful? Just about zero. Again, like the lights on the wheels, is it safe to assume this is going to work, or is it better to assume that people are going to fail, and plan accordingly?

And that doesn’t even take into account that the two systems (tax credits and subsidies) are simply using different words to describe the same thing. Both of them are the government giving money to the people. Sure one can argue that tax credit favor those who are contributing to the economy, but it completely ignores that it also greatly favors the wealthy and those who are good at managing their income, over the poor and those who are poor at income management. Moreover, it penalizes the poor, the very ones who can least afford the cost. That is a system guaranteed to fail.

I’m not trying to sell everyone on Obamacare, or on anything for that matter. What I’m trying to do is look at healthcare like a problem that can be solved, and then asking what the is more efficient, and failsafe way to accomplish it. I think worrying about things like whether healthcare is an entitlement is a poor place to start. If we’re paying for everyone’s healthcare anyway, and we are paying for it, then worrying about which bank account the money comes from seems rather silly to me, especially if it costs us more. Why not instead look at  the problem from the point of view of what areas are going to fail, and then plan accordingly? Why not ask for, and demand, a more robust healthcare system?

Isn’t that best for everyone?

My thoughts on 2016

As I write this it is the morning of December 27, 2016. For those perhaps reading this post in the future, this year has seen what feels like more than its fair share of stars and idols who have died. My Facebook account if full of many curses for 2016, and a lot of hue and cry, some of which I must admit is deeply entertaining on some level, but the general thrust of these posts has sparked me to make this comment.

We have been blessed with many heroes, and not too few villains, over the years, but they are not ours–they do not belong to us–and when they go it behoves us to send them off with the respect and dignity they deserve. We were blessed to stand in the shadow of their light–in what feels like, at times, a very dark world–but now it is up to us to make our own light, however pale it might seem in comparison.

We might say to them, “Goodbye dear friend,” and, “Thank you,” but we must also let them rest in the peace they have richly earned. They had their chance, now we have ours.

Hands

A new story. A fun one, me thinks. Short and sweet.
* * * * * * * * *

Gustavo worked the press on the 20th floor. Cold light slanted into the room from the overhead windows mixing with the dust and the smell of machine oil, and the sound of cars passing on the snow outside. The other machines lay still, the operators home with their families celebrating with lighted trees and fancy dinners.

Gustavo didn’t mind. Without the distractions of their constant chatter he could loose himself in the work. Press here, fold there, cut here, stitch there. It was the mindlessness of it, the way his hands took over and did all the thinking. It was deeply relaxing for him. His hands flew across the machine, pushing and pulling the fabric, sometimes surprising him by their deftness, and surety. Never in a million years could he do this work, his mind was too busy, too unsure, too afraid, but his hands, his hands had no problem. It was one of the things Gustavo liked most about working here, letting his hands go, watching them work the heavy machine creating something out of nothing. It was always a surprise to him., like looking into raw space and suddenly seeing a planet coalesce around a cloud of dust. Pants, shirts, coats, they formed themselves out of flat cloth, and thin thread, changing from raw materials into the something marvelous to wear. To him it was a miracle, every time.

Gustavo’s hands finished up a jacket, and pulled his eyes to the list, forcing him to see what was next on the special holiday rush. A part of his mind was wondering how much his boss made from such an order. Probably thousands of dollars, none of which would come to Gustavo. He didn’t mind though, he had his hands, and a small studio apartment two blocks away. Sure he lived alone, but really what more did he need? He had food, he had a place to sleep, and he had his work. Let the others be distracted by their families and their friends. His was enough.

Then he heard the sound of the workshop door opening, and without turning around knew it was Clarissa who had entered. Clarissa with her long dark hair, and her critical eye, and her stupid little gloves. She was the only one in the shop who did not like his work, the only one who was always critical of him, who could never be satisfied. He had been enjoying himself so much working by himself, but the thought of being trapped all day in the workshop with her made his shoulders slump. They slumped only a little, so little that no one would have noticed. No one, that is, except Clarissa.

“It’s good to see you too, Gustavo,” she said to his back, her biting sarcasm making him slump even more.

He heard the machine behind him start up, the computer opening and closing the valves, letting the steam work it’s way though the system, checking all the tolerances. Clarissa spent the time looking at the order and humming in her off key way. He could hear the sound of her gloves on the keys, the little rasping sound they made with each contact was like a knife to his back.

Gustavo looked to his own sheet, and went to the rack to pull more fabric. The order called for damask so he went through the storage room, his hands gliding over the row after row of draped fabric, sensing their warp and their wave with his finger tips, letting his hands chose the right cloth. They halted on bolt or damask that was light brown in color, and beautiful to the eye. A subtile but lovely pattern worked it’s way thought the weave that was faint to the eye. You had to look hard to see it, but it was there. This particular bolt held very little fabric. Gustavo knew without looking it was expensive. But his hands were insistent, so he pulled it out and carried it to his machine.

Just as he started entering the fabric into the back of his press he heard Clarissa’s voice. “You’re going to use that?”

Without turning, Gustavo shrugged his shoulders. This wasn’t enough of a reply for Clarissa. She stepped around her machine and walked right up to his order, reading the words out loud as if speaking them gave a different meaning. As she read she pointed at the words with her little gloves. The tip of her finger harsh and accusing.

Gustavo continued loading. Truth be told, he didn’t remember what kind of fabric was on the order. He had read it, and his hands had chosen. It was enough for him.

“That stuff is $50 a yard. Are you sure you want to use it?”

Gustavo turned, looking at Clarissa for the first time. She stared at him imperiously, her lips always ready to frown. Gustavo opened his mouth to say yes, his hands had chosen, but caught in her glare his resolve wilted. Wordlessly he waked over to the the front of his machine and read the order for a second time. All it said was damask slacks, with the measurements. Dully he looked at the matching coat he had already created, trying to capture the thoughts that had lead his hands to reach for exactly this type of damask, but under the sharp eye of Clarissa he felt his thoughts fall to pieces, like trying to put on a coat held loosely together with pins but no thread.

Slowly he walked to the back of his machine, and reversed the cloth out of the loading chute. As he carried it back to the storage room he could feel her cold smile. He hated working with Clarissa.

All morning and into the afternoon they worked together. Gustavo sewed, and Clarissa complained. “Are you sure you want to cut it that way?” she said. “Don’t you want a darker thread for that?” she said. “That’s not a good fabric choice,” she said. Nothing his hands did that day pleased her. Every complaint she spoke made his hands a little harder to hear, until finally at 4:00, the order almost complete, his hands gave out. Gustavo found himself standing before his great machine, completely still. He had no idea how long he had been standing there. All he knew is he couldn’t hear his hands. They were mute, they could not speak.

Clarissa came up behind him. He knew because he could hear her soft tread. “If you’re on the clock you need to work,” she said bitterly. Gustavo felt the words sting. There had never been a day where he didn’t work hard for the boss. He loved to work. He loved his hands. No one ever said different.

Then Clarissa placed a hand on his machine, right on top of the fabric he was supposed to be sewing. Gustavo felt the violation to his core. No one put their hands on another’s machine, especially when it was active. A machine could cut a hand to pieces, crush it until it was flat, and sew it into the fabric. All of these things and more. It was a dangerous place for anyone’s hands, even the operator’s. It simply was not done. Gustavo could not have felt more uncomfortable if she had pulled down his pants on a busy street corner, and shouted out loud.

He felt the anger and frustration boil up inside, rising up like the steam in his machine, but just as he was about to speak his eyes looked down. There was something about her hands that drew his eye. Always Clarissa wore her gloves. Always. It was a thing with her. She never touched anything with her hands, claiming they were too delicate. This time, however, he saw her hand was bare, and seeing her bare hand somehow stopped his rising anger like a hammer.

One glance and he could see the problem. Her hands were locked up, controlled, unhappy. No one spoke to them, they weren’t allowed to sing. Her hands were so unhappy they chapped, they bleed.

Without thinking Gustavo let his hands move. They reached out and landed like birds, gently onto the back of her hand. He heard Clarissa let out a gasp at the touch. He heard her inhale preparing to complain, but before she could say the words his fingers moved, they touched, they stroked. They said words to her hand in the unspoken language of caress, they spoke to her hand in the lost language of stroke, they flattered, they teased, they smiled, they loved.

Behind him Gustavo heard Clarissa make a sound. It was a sigh. Not a word, not a comment, just a sigh. It was the nicest thing she had ever said to him.

Then before he could think he had turned and she was in his arms, and his hands were doing things, and her hands were doing things, and he realized she had the most marvelous hands in the world.

After a moment their hands forced them apart. They stood there looking at each other in shock. Gustavo had never known how much his lips were like his hands. He felt a great desire to use them again, on her. To cover her face with his kisses–her face, and everything else.

But his hands, no their hands, were insistent. There was work to do and they were on the clock. They turned to their machines, and worked–she without her gloves, and he without a care. The fabric flew through their machines, the coats and pants came out the other side, perfect and without blemish, their hands doing all the work, their minds completely at ease. Until in very little time the special holiday rush was done and hanging on the rack ready to go out the next morning.

Then with nothing else to do they clocked out. Suddenly they found themselves standing next to each other at the back door, unsure what to do or what to say. Fortunately Gustavo’s hands knew what to do. They always did. Reaching out, they took Clarissa’s poor hands, still naked and uncovered, and guided her to his apartment. There his hands made her a simple dinner, and after both their stomachs were full, they let his lips take over. His lips and her lips. His hands and her hands. And when they were done, when the sun had come up the next morning, his hands fashioned for her hands a set of rings out of thread, one for each finger.

She cried, then he cried, then they went to work. Never again did she wear her gloves, and never again did he live alone. And always, through work, and tears, children, and sickness, their hands were happy.

A thank you letter

This is in response to receiving a new filter kit for our Falsken Water System that removes hard water deposits from the water before it enters our on-demand hot water heater. The text below was emailed to them. I’m placing it here because I thought it deserved more exposure.

 

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to you after receiving your tHT-20RF replacement filter for our Heater Treater 20. This is the third replacement cartridge we’ve purchased from your company. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the packaging. Previous replacement filters came pretty bare-bones, but this one was obviously a well-thought replacement kit. It included instructions, a new o-ring, and even a little silicon lubricant packet. Opening the box (which is also new packaging) was a wonderful surprise. A bit like expecting a Chevy and finding instead a Cadillac. So good job.

But here is the reason why I am writing. Upgrading a product like this is nice, but not always necessary. As your marketing director will no doubt tell you, I am considered a “captive customer,” that is I have already purchased your product (a heater treater, demanded by our plumber as a condition of installation for on-demand heater), and I’m not likely to purchase another. Short of buying a new home we’re pretty much heater treatered up. Sales of incidentals, like replacement filter cartridges, are probably not a big profit center for you, and they certainly don’t generate more profit by adding “goodies” in with the filter.

What this tells me is that someone in your company decided to upgrade your replacement filters, and did so against most of the advice they give you in business school. Even now I bet you have a bean-counter somewhere in your company telling you this was a bad business decision. Well I’m writing to you to tell you different. This was a brilliant move, one I hope more companies will emulate. Whomever made this decision should be congratulated. I used to be a captive customer, now I am a loyal one. This is an important difference, and well worth the extra money you spent on me. Dollar for dollar, this is damn good marketing.

Signed, a very thankful customer,

Eric Tolladay