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January 30, 2014

Rich and poor

An article in New Geography is interesting.

Madison, Wisconsin 53706 is one of the poorest zip codes in the USA. This shows one of the problem with statistics. I lived in that zip code and indeed I had so little money that I slept on a couch (i.e. didn't have my own room) and ate little but potatoes and beans for a year. But I was not really poor; I just didn't have money. The two overlap, but they are not the same.

Among the poorest counties in the USA is where my tree farm are. I guess that explains why I can afford the land. The dominant thing about the place is that it is covered with forests, which I think explains some. You make good money and employ people when you cut trees, but in between you get fifteen, twenty or even thirty years of nothing at all.

Places with unequal income are maybe most interesting. Washington is among them. They are places with really rich people living not far from really poor ones. A surprise for me was Berkeley 94720 where the median income is $16,192 and the average is $79,238. I don't know Berkeley that well, but it always seemed to me to be a lot like Madison. I am not surprised at the poor students pulling down the median, but I am a little surprised to have people rich enough to so pull up the average.

The richest places are still in the old places, mostly New York, NJ, Connecticut and California. If you look at economic power by counties, it still really resides in New York metro, followed by Washington metro.

January 20, 2014

Oral history not worth the paper it’s printed on?

I had an Irish-American friend who hated the English, and he had good reason. Family oral history related how a few generations ago one of his ancestors had been shot and killed by an English officer in a land dispute.  As a result, his family lost the land and became destitute. These kinds of stories helped make my friend interested in tracing his family roots, which you can do now easier than ever with computer records. He was surprised to find that his family was Anglo-Irish and that his ancestors were “English” officers, the villains of the family saga. They could find no records of the specific land dispute of family legend, but if it happened his ancestors were on the other side of that gun.

Oral history is always like that, which is why it often has better stories.  Individuals do it with “fish stories” where their role get bigger and better defined with each telling and groups do it. It is not that people are trying to lie, although sometimes they can be, but memory must be recreated each time we tell.  Some of the details are forgotten, so we fill in what seems best.  Groups get messed up even faster than individuals.   Investigators know not to let eye-witnesses discuss what they saw before they get it down on paper individually.  When people get together, they produce a shared narrative. They help each other remember details.  Some of those details are things that never happened, but the confirmation of the group makes everyone more certain of their memory.  In memory, certainty does not correlate strongly with accuracy.

Oral histories sometimes retain enough facts to make them useful and enticing. The Iliad and Odyssey were passed orally for centuries before they were written down. The 19th Century archeologist Heinrich Schliemann used the books to find the location of Troy. But the details of the war and the personalities are legend.   When I was a nerdy classicist, my friends and I played a game of finding things mentioned in Homer that did not exist during the time of the Trojan War, but were evidently added in the telling, or things that Homer did not understand from the time of the Trojan War and so explained poorly.

Accurate sources and assessing all sources is a challenge for anyone who writes history or even is interested in it. We really can study only the written sources. Some cultures do not produce written sources and no written sources comprehensively cover all the things we may want to know.  People write what THEY think is important. We might want to know something completely different.

There is an advantage to being unknown. I recall reading an essay about the great warrior Crazy Horse.  Little is really known about him.  There are no confirmed pictures.  He made his reputation as a warrior by going on raids of other tribes.  In the raid, people are killed in brutal ways, women are abused and generally misery is inflicted.  What would a detailed and accurate history do to Crazy Horse’s reputation?   If we are doing a history of the West, can we compare the oral legend of Crazy Horse with the historical record of his adversary, George Armstrong Custer?  Crazy Horse’s “history” is much more akin to the legends Libby Custer told about her husband after his death.

Oral history is useful more as a way of understanding what a group thinks about itself today than about actual events of the past.  The narrative is a group effort.  It both shapes the thinking of the group and is shaped by it. That is why it is so popular.  If you don’t have to worry about being proved wrong by a written source, you can speculate and make up better stories.  This might make me an apostate as a historian, but I think maybe it is not so bad to "improve" outcomes.  It is depressing to know your family was a bunch of losers for six generations. Do yourself and your posterity a favor and insert a few stories of overcoming adversity and coming out on top.  You don't even need to make anything up, just re-frame it.  My ancestors were not driven out of Europe by Cossacks because they were drunks, draft dodgers and ne'er-do-wells.  No. They were freedom loving rebels who could not abide spending another day in those oppressive precincts. 

BTW – the story I told up top is not accurate.  I was correct in the general thrust, but my telling had some additional details.  I think they might be true, but I have no real reason to think so.  If I retell it to my friend, he may like my version better and I have no doubt will incorporate parts of it into family lore.  When the story is told in the next generation, some of my story telling DNA will be among the heritage.  Who knows, maybe I got this right by random chance.

That is why when we really want to know we need to find a contemporary written source.  And don't believe what people tell you about the past, especially if the say it will lots of passion. 

January 18, 2014

Reasonably priced health care

My teeth are rotten. It is my own fault. I didn’t care for them when I was young. As a result, I have a big investment in crowns and fillings. Much of this work was done decades ago and it is getting old. I also chipped two front teeth a while back. I decided to get it all fixed, in Brazil. Getting three crowns and four filling replaced, as well as two cavities fixed and my chipped front teeth capped will cost $2553, all in. Lots of money, but only about a quarter of the U.S. price.  Maybe less.

In addition, this dentist can get all of that done in about two weeks. It is different in the U.S.

A few months ago, I needed blood work to test for cholesterol, sugar etc. That cost me only about thirty dollars. And it didn't take much time.

This was all done by private firms/doctors. Brazil has a public system, but those who can afford it usually go to the private system and pay the private doctors themselves, which keeps the costs down. And the medical system in Brazil is still not as lawyer infected as ours.

I am not saying that I prefer the Brazilian system. American medical care is still the best in the world, but it is expensive. We sometimes get more than we would want to pay for. And we don't pay attention because somebody else is paying.

There are a few lessons here. First, medical care can become more of an internationally trade commodity.

A second lesson has to do with delivery. If people pay out of their own pockets, prices remain lower. Brazil is NOT an inexpensive country generally. It costs MORE to maintain an American level of living in Brazil than in the U.S. Restaurants and food cost more. Cars cost more. Electronics costs a lot more. But medical care is cheaper.

January 07, 2014

My bike trails (again)

Broken bridge in Brasilia 

Biking is a big part of my life.  I use my bike as transportation, mostly to work but also in general.  My parents never owned a car.  This made me dependent on feet and pedals.  I got used to it.  I really dislike driving in the city, although I like the highway when there is not much traffic.  This condition is becoming less and less common.

Nevertheless, Brasilia is a challenge.  It should not be.  Brasilia's great climate and even topography should make it the ideal place for bikes, but as I wrote many times before, the basic design is bad.  The city was designed for an earlier time and an ideology that was more interested in cars than people or the environment. 

Still, I persist in riding my bike, even if I have to ride on the grass a lot.  My bridge, however, is can sometimes be a challenge, as you see above. I am a little concerned that I have become so used to this sort of obstacle that I am a little contemptuous of the challenge. I ride right past holes like that. Someday, I could get stuck in the holes or fall in the river.  But not today.

Bike trail in BSB 

I have great confidence that Brasilia will someday be a superb city for bike riding. It can be retrofitted with trails and, as you see above, they have begun.  Unfortunately, that trail doesn't really go anywhere.  It is recreational, not useful for commuting.  It spills into a road and a parking lot, as you see below.  There is not much traffic on a Sunday during the holiday season, when I took the picture, but less pleasant other times. The problem is that much of the poor design was intentional on the park of the designers and has been seen as a heritage issue that shouldn't be changed. I suppose this too will change. 

End of bike trail

January 06, 2014

Healthy McDonald's diets taken with Coca-Cola

It seems that many people in the U.S. maintain a special kind of hatred for things like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. I have been consuming both for my entire life w/o problems. I might say “everything in moderation” but I drink more than two liters of Coke every day and have done for around fifty years. Some would say that was immoderate. But McD can be consumed in moderation and in health. Take a look at this link.

Most of us are familiar with the move "Super Size" where a guy ate nothing but McD all month and got fat and unhealthy. It was mendacious. The man simply consumed lots of fat and calories. Do that with any diet and you get fat.

The link here shows a science teacher in Iowa, who ate nothing but McD and LOST weight, while lowering his cholesterol. He ate Big Macs, but also other things available at McD and did so in moderation with a healthy lifestyle.

I enjoy a Big Mac at least once a week. I also regularly eat pizza, tacos & processed flower. I am happy if my food has GMOs. I drink around 30 liters of Coke Zero each week. I almost never drink water unless mixed with extracts of things like cola nuts, barely, hops, or corn. And I love salt. I do also like vegetables; I eat them with my Rammen. My health is exceptionally good because it is possible to be very healthy w/o going organic.

You just don't need to worry that much. Pretty much everything you eat, drink, breathe or touch CAN cause cancer if you consume too much. But most of us don't. So eat that Big Mac and take large fries if you want. But walk more and be sensible. And, yes, Coke Zero and McDonald's can be part of a sensible diet.

If you eat nothing but rice cakes and organic food, while avoiding Coke, candy, fast foods, booze and donuts, you will not live longer, although the boredom might make it seem that way. 

January 01, 2014

Stickin it to the Man

I have been complaining about how independent-minded people cannot get along in the big bureaucratic organizations as long as I have been working in big-bureaucratic organizations. It is getting to thirty years now and I have been getting along reasonable well in big-bureaucratic organizations. For an even longer time, I have been reading books about independent-minded reformers bucking the system to change the paradigms and make meaningful changes.

I always identified with the plucky outsiders. Most of us do. It is the American way. You can easily see it in the plots of so many movies and books. A group of misfits is picked on and oppressed by the powerful and/or popular people. They continue to do things their way and by the end of the movie are vindicated. As I said, most of us identify with the underdogs and misfits.

It can't be right. There are more than 300 million Americans and ALL of us are rebels? If all of us are a little different and a little rebellious, who are we rebelling against? And if the group of misfits comes out on top, don't they become the in-group. Maybe it is the nerds and the theater kids oppressing the jocks.

I have been reading another of those business-management-behavior books that gives another set of examples about the rebels working on their own turning the tables on the established and powerful. But, as I wrote, I have been reading these sorts of books for a long time. The names are changed and the exact circumstances are different, but the stories are the same. My study of old books tells me that this story has been going on for as long as people could write. Each of the new renditions makes it seem like it is a new discovery, but maybe this is just the way it is, has been and ever will be.

In my own lifetime, I have seen many of "rebels" turn into the establishment that needs to be overturned by new rebels. These erstwhile rebels in general did not "sell out." They simply solved the problems presented them. Yesterday's solutions are often today's problem, which implies that today's solutions will be tomorrow's problems. This seems depressing at first glance and it could be, but I don't think it is. It is simply a matter of growth and change.

Many of the problems of my youth have indeed been solved and the world is generally a much better place than it was back in 1973. Our generation actually did pretty well. I have reasonable confidence that it will be a better place in 2053 than it is today, i.e. the kids will be all right too. But people will still complain, because people complain. We can always imagine better.

I have been complaining about how hard it is for independent-minded folks like me to make it in the organization. People like me like to "stick it to the man." But in the course of all my complaining, suffering and strife, I realize now that I have become the man, or at least one of them. People see me like I saw my bosses of the past. I now understand that my old bosses too were surprised by their own apotheosis or demonization, depending on who was doing the taking and when. These successful folks were - in their own minds - the plucky outsiders who had to push open doors and make the system change. Some were right.

It is a little deflating but nevertheless comforting to realize that we - we plucky outsiders - we are the system, maybe too much to say bricks in the wall but not too much to say links in a chain. It is a great strength of our American system that we can easily absorb good people and ideas from outside the current establishment. We actually live in a state of constant revolution, but w/o the nasty bits associated with those things that happened in France or Russia.

It doesn't work in spite of us but because of us. We "rebels" sometimes don't admit it or even see it. The system works with us and we work with it.  The energy of our discontent is part of its lifeblood. We never get all we think possible because we can envision better than anyone can achieve and it is a moving target. As soon as we get to a place we thought impossible, we start thinking it is normal, deserved and maybe not enough.

Well, looking around on this first day of 2014, I see that things are pretty good. Can I envision better? Of course I can. Is it better than I envisioned by in 1974? Hell yeah. We solved the energy crisis, brought down world communism, reduced absolute poverty by 80%, cut cancer deaths, greatly improved water and air quality, brought back species such as wolves & eagles; the population bomb fizzled; Lake Erie turned out not to be dead and we even got rid of disco & leisure suits. Those were things I worried about back then, I thought there were no good solutions; fortunately, I was wrong.

And still can stick it to the man. Take a look at this clip.

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