Friday, September 30, 2005

What Exactly Did He Say?

Monday I took advantage of my Santa Rosa commute to visit Spirit Rock Buddhist meditation and retreat center in Marin. I went to their regular Monday evening dharma. This evening hosted a special guest, A.T. Ariyaratne (Ari), billed as “the Ghandi of Sri Lanka”. Jack Kornfield, very well known among my more Berkeley/spiritual friends, hosted.

Ari was super charismatic. In a cute, high pitched voice, he told us about the meditation session he led with 650,000(!) people in attendance, on the importance of practicing loving-kindness as a first step towards erasing barriers between people and fueling compassion. A high-impact guy.

He then explained that when he led groups of volunteers in paving roads between villages in Sri Lanka, people asked him why he uses manual labor and doesn’t use bulldozers. Because, he said, we’re not building the road, the road is building us…

Sounds great, but Ari was slowly beginning to personify in my eyes the reasons that countries like Sri Lanka remain so poor.

IMHO - when you use the latest in medical technology – which they slowly are – you get to population growth at a scale that forces you to use other modern technology such as bulldozers. You can’t really avail yourself of one while disdaining the other.

But the other 499 people in the room didn’t seem to feel the same way. They were eating it up.

Finally Ari expounded on his views on abortion. Abortion prevents a soul from incarnating. The soul remains angry and hovers over, trying again and again to be born. The people that were killed suddenly in the world trade center – their spirits still hover their because the suddenness of their death prevents their reincarnations. Back to abortion: Ari adamantly stated that it’s an act of violence and should never be done unless the life of the mother is in danger.

The overwhelmingly pro-choice room fell silent, so Jack Kornfield transliterated

“Ari is against late term abortions” he said.

That certainly didn’t sound like what he said. Why couldn’t Kornfield let Ari speak for himself? Ari didn’t correct him. I think he realized we all understood what he really meant.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Yesterday at the airport I stood impatiently behind a woman taking money out of an ATM machine. I was running late, and she had stepped up just as I was approaching the ATM. I bided my time by reading over her shoulder. ATM fee - $2.50. Sum she withdrew - $60. That comes to a 4% fee (!) for ATM use.

I’m always aggravated by ATM fees. My solutions? I try to use my credit card as often as possible (no, I don’t pay late fees), and I try to get cash at the supermarket checkout line – there’s no fee there.

In a pinch of course I do use the ATM. But then I always take out the maximum allowable sum, usualy $300. Taking out $60 with a 2.5% fee? Unless you have a real reason to be afraid of theft, if you’re going to use an ATM, always take out the maximum amount… Obvious advice I guess…

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Runyon Canyon Yoga

I tried it today for the first time. Runyon Canyon Park is in Hollywood above Hollywood Blvd at the intersection of Fuller. There is yoga there every day, 10:30-11:30, on the grass, under the shade of beautiful old trees. Good instructor. Class by donation. You can't really work up the intensity that you get at an indoor class - the ground is a bit uneven and hilly... but it's great fun as an outdoor alternative. The diehards take a hike up the canyon after class.

There are Three Types of People in the World...

Those that know how to count, and those that don't...

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


This weekend, on the urging of my film editor that has studied Persian, I went to the concert of the great Perisan Diva, Googoosh, at the Western Forum. It was an anthro-political phenomena. The crowds that practically filled the stadium were almost exclusively Persian. The dress was glittery. The women had large dark eyes outlined with black pencil, and thick black or dyed blond hair. The language was Persian. Many people brought young children. Everyone seemed excited, mouthing along with the songs,

The concert started on PST (Persian Standard Time), two hours late. Very similar to my very own IST (Israeli Standard Time). The music was beautiful. Western arrangements for eastern/arabic style music. I would have loved to understand the words but Googoosh sang and spoke only in Persian.

And for the grand finale? The singers held up large pre-Shah Iranian flags, everyone stood up, and they sang a pre-Shah Iranian anthem, Ey Iran

People left laughing and talking happily. Great energy…

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Bailing out the U.S.

I had dinner last night with a technical guru from one of the major European manufacturers of cell phone infrastructure. He's here meeting with representatives from the U.S. armed forces because..., well because they have a problem, and this European corporation is chipping in to help gratis.

The problem is that in New Orleans, after the prolonged power outage, many of the cell phone towers went dead - their battery backup ran out, and service was cut. The various america relief forces - National Guard, Army, Navy, police etc., all have excellent field communication equipment. But none of these systems can talk with the other. And what is the solution - to setup an ad-hoc cellular network. This European company is actually drop-shipping huge cellular phone base stations complete with diesel powered generators to create a phone system that the various relief forces can use to communicate among themselves.

So of course I asked why the U.S. can't pay for all this. Well, he explained, the problem is that no one wants to shoulder the burden - the state, the city, the federal government - it's a stalemate. So for humanitarian reasons the company is shipping this super-pricey equipment without a purchase order and without any guarantee that it will ever be paid for.

It's a bit equivalent to me going out and panhandling on the excuse that I can't get my shit together...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

800 or 10,000?

So in continuation of the Katrina saga – how is it that the estimate of 10,000 dead (yes, 10,000, that was the headline a few days ago…) has now dropped to about 800 or less? Isn’t it somewhat shocking that the counting was so way off?

By way of comparison, In 9/11 the ultimate count was within 25% of the starting estimate… Even in the Asian Tsunami the death toll was within about a factor of 4 (higher) than the original estimate (250,000 to 300,000). Not a factor of 10(!).

Which jogs my memory about another aspect of the Asian Tsunami. You probably remember that a high percentage of the dead in Thailand were vacationing Europeans. Well, just a week before the Tsunami, the week before Christmas, I was in Sweden to visit Ericsson. My first visit ever to Sweden. And in the Asian Tsunami, over 500(!) Swedes died. That’s out of a population of about 9 million. As a percentage of the population that would be the equivalent of 12,500 dead in a U.S. natural disaster. Hair-raising.

Another thing that comes to mind is an article I read recently about the Jenin “massacre” that wasn’t. In April 2002, after Israeli forces entered Jenin to uproot Palestinian terrorists, and after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in the collapse of a building there, word spread that Israeli forces had committed a massacre there, killing civilians and burying whole families under the rubble. This rumor was abetted by the fact that the Israeli army had decided that the situtation in Jenin was too dangerous to allow correspondants into the area. Faced with an information vacumn, foreign correspondants seized upon Palestinian statements that a massacre had occurred, that over 500 Palestinians had been killed. The Israeli army had not been counting Palestinian casualties, and when the army spokesman was asked how many Palestinians had been died, he estimated 250. And so the massacre story was substantiated.

Except that it wasn’t true. In the final count, the Paletinian dead amounted to 52. The Israeli army ultimately claimed that only five of them were civilians. I’m not commenting here about the Israeli presence in Jenin, but on how even the Israeli army was completely off in its estimate.

But back to New Orleans. I’m trying to figure out what this huge discrepency between casualty estimates and reality means…:

How does one estimate how many people were killed in a natural disaster? Well, first of all you try to estimate how many people could have been there in the first place. Granted, with New Orleans that was difficult. Second, you count how many people are reported missing. Third, you check a few buildings or a limited area and try to extrapolate. So what happened here? Well, seems like a combination of things:

1. The media threw out estimates with scant evidence.
2. No one at the institutional level even tried to make a reasonable estimate of missing people.
3. The poor of New Orleans are assumed to be nameless. No one even tried to estimate missing people through missing person reports.

I could add many more theories. I find the inept disaster response in New Orleans to be horrifying and in some respects downright criminal. As far as the errors in estimating the dead, it’s a combination of difficult circumstances, institutional ineptness, and media credulity. I’m somehow most bothered by the numbers that the media threw out, because they seem to bring into serious question the veracity, integrity, and utility of the established mainstream media.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Stereotype Confirmed

A fascinating article from the International Herald Tribune about the wage gap between men and women endorses something I said in a previous blog entry – that unmarried and childless women earn more than unmarried and childless men (17% more). I had postulated this was true, based on my limited dating world experience, but had never seen it quantified.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Campari Spritz

Highly recommended. This is the drink Venetians seem to drink every day around 7pm, on the Piazza, after leaving work and before going home for dinner. It’s slightly bitter, slightly sweet, and very good.

1 bottle (4 cups) Proseco (or other bubbly white wine)
¾ cup Campari
2 cups soda water (optional)
½ cup orange juice (optional)

Mix and serve

Medical Insurance, Part II

After a long back-and-forth with a friend about health insurance in America, I thought I’d clarify a point I was trying to make in an earlier post.

The issue with being uninsured in the U.S. is that not only do you have to pay for health insurance out of your own pocket, but that the cost of any treatment, in particular any treatment related to hospitalization and procedures such as tests and imaging, is two to five times higher for the uninsured than it is for those that are insured. Literally. That’s because insurance companies have pre-negotiated discounted rates with providers. If you’re an uninsured individual you don’t have that, and after you’ve used the service, you’re not in a great negotiating position…

So what are the conclusions?

1. Buying a very high deductible insurance plan is much preferable to having no insurance. Not because of what the insurance company will pay for you, but because of the lower rates you will pay.
2. There should emerge a market for infinite deductible insurance – meaning an insurance wherein the only benefit you get is the benefit of a negotiated rate. The insurance company doesn’t actually pay your bill, it just pre-negotiates the price.

#1 is actionable by people that are uninsured – and is highly recommended by yours truly. #2 depends on the evolution of a market, and on consumers understanding that this type of insurance is a worthwhile investment. That may be a lot to ask. But for reference, such insurance plans do already exist for specific services, such as Orthodontics. I also suspect that the commonly used Vision Services Plan (VSP) is essentially such a plan.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Different Coverage

I read the English online version of the Israeli paper, Haaretz, and was surprised in the last few days to find it had absolutely no coverage of the devastation in New Orleans. Finally my son pointed out that the Hebrew version of Haaretz did have it, in fact New Orleans was the top of the news.

I can only speculate why the English version would be so different. Perhaps it assumes that if we read English, we can get that get our international news elsewhere. Perhaps it doesn't want to offend...

Well Put

From David Brooks' editorial today in the NY Times about New Orleans:

The first rule of the social fabric - that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable - was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina 2

I don’t have to reiterate that the images from Katrina are shocking. But here’s what I find even more shocking. Before it made landfall, predictions were that Katrina’s winds would hit 140 miles per hour in New Orleans. It only reached 100. Predictions were that many/most of the cities levees would be breached. Only a few were. There was 24 hour notice.

How is it that the city was not entirely evacuated? Many people stayed in the city because they didn’t have the means. Others stayed out of foolishness and either died or have to be extracted. No, it’s not possible to force everyone to evacuate, but the numbers are shameful.

How is it that as late as yesterday, the only police on the street were the 1,500 local police? Why weren’t there federal reinforcements from the start? Is it news that when a place is evacuated (even only partially) looting occurs?

I could of course go on and on, and I don’t have most of the facts. But it seems like the only group that was ahead of the crest here was the media. Emergency management seems to be following events with wallow-through-mud slowness… It feels like we’re a third world country.