Tuesday, August 25, 2009

INSUROCORP defeats socialism!

Libertarianism triumphant:

From the accompanying comment thread at Digby's, reader John Doheny impresses me so much I'm going to quote him in full:

I'd like to hazard a prediction right now. I've been fighting pessimism from the beginning of this whole thing, but frankly, I don't see anything good coming out of this for anyone but insurance companies, even with the 'public option.' Because I've become convinced that Americans are so wedded to their own way of doing things that anything else is not only 'politically impossible,' but actually inconceivable to them.

Most Americans that I talk to (even "progressive" ones) take it as a given that the very best version of a public option would simply resemble "good" private insurance, with the same complex and confusing sets of 'co-pays' and 'deductables' and various other restrictions of service. Those on the right assume it would be even worse through the introduction of "government bureaucrats" who would insert themselves into the process "between you and your doctor." Not to mention the dreaded "rationed care." Frankly, with all this baggage I'm skeptical too. I can very easily envision a public option so compromised that only the poorest and most disenfranchised opt for it.

The whole thing just blows me away, quite frankly. All ideology aside, I was very happy with the health care I had in Canada. Actually "happy" is not the right word. I was indifferent. Never thought about it, anymore than a fish thinks about water. "Health care" as a concept never entered my mind, didn't influence any life decisions about where I lived or worked. When I got sick I went to the doctor or hospital, waved my MSP card, and they did their thing, end of story. There were no co-pays, "patient responsibilities" or restrictions, no things "not covered" or partially covered, no complexity of any kind. If there was a bureaucracy (obviously there would need to be, somewhere) I never had any dealings with it. Decisions were made by me and my doctor.

Were my taxes higher? Slightly, but considering that my premiums were about one quarter of what they are here and there were no additional, hidden expenses, I actually came out ahead. Of the three elective surgeries I had, the longest I waited was four months. The one emergency procedure was done immediately. (This, by the way, is mandated by law in the triage system. Emergencies go to the head of the line).

Having spent the last 6 years arguing with United Health care (and throwing a lot of money at them in the process) I can't see how anybody but a total, blithering idiot would actually prefer things this way. And since most Americans aren't idiots, I can only conclude that the problem is perceptual. Americans simply cannot 'see' the obvious solutions.

I have no idea how one would overcome something like this, hence my pessimism. I think what we're going to see is merely the appearance of 'reform.' What'll we'll get will almost surely be a massive giveaway to private insurance. If we're lucky, we may get some tightening of regulation on the industry, by way of addressing their most blatant abuses. If we're not, we'll wind up 'reforming' medicare into a private, for-profit service. Either way, look for your insurance premiums to double in the next ten years, while "coverage" continues to shrink.

Whenever I want to write about the current health care reform debate, I just end up getting mad and saying "screw it all". I hope John doesn't mind my posting his comments so that twenty other people can read them.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Les Paul

Les Paul, virtuoso guitarist and inventor, passed away Thursday at age 94. Between his legendary guitar design and the numerous studio advances he pioneered, Paul arguably had more influence on popular music than any other figure of the post-World War II era.

Lester William Polsfuss was born on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He started playing harmonica at age eight, and by his early teens had picked up the guitar and banjo as well. He also became a tinkerer at an early age. When he was 10, he made a harmonica rack from a coat hanger. Shortly after, he opened up the back of a Sears acoustic guitar, inserted the pickup from an old Victrola behind the strings, and turned the record player on to create his first amplified guitar.

By age 13 Paul was performing regularly around home as a country guitarist. He dropped out of high school and began landing gigs throughout the Midwest, including radio jobs with Wolverton's House Band on KMOX in St. Louis and on the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago, and also releasing a couple of country recordings under the name Rhubarb Red. By this time, though, Paul had discovered the work of jazz guitarist Django Rheinhart, and became bored with country music. He formed the jazz-oriented Les Paul Trio, moved to New York, and landed a featured slot on Fred Waring's radio program. During this period, Paul continued his experimenting. In 1941, looking for a way to electronically sustain musical notes, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. "The Log", as it became known, was one of the first solid-bodied electric guitars. When he was ribbed by his fellow musicians for playing such a ridiculous-looking instrument, he hid his Log inside the workings of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar.

Paul was drafted in 1942, which took him out to California to work with the Armed Forces Radio Service, where he worked with Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith. After his discharge, he formed a new trio, backing The Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby, who recorded the hit "It's Been A Long, Long Time" with the trio. Crosby also encouraged the guitarist's experimentation; he often visited Paul's makeshift garage studio, and eventually provided financial backing for Paul to build a full-fledged recording facility.

In California, Paul continued the sonic experimentation that built the foundation for the modern recording industry. He altered the speed of recordings to change their pitch and timbre. He experimented with microphone positioning and was one of the first to use reverberation. He found that by playing along with previous recordings, he could literally become a one-man band. In 1947, Paul recorded an instrumental version of "Lover" using eight separate guitar parts recorded on two acetate disc machines. Working with acetate discs required Paul to record each layer of music as a single take. He also built an acetate disc cutter from the flywheel of a Cadillac. Capitol released "Lover" as a single, and it became a major hit. Around this time he met a country singer named Colleen Summers; he changed her name to Mary Ford, a name he picked from the telephone book. But in 1948, tragedy would strike. Paul's car skidded off an icy bridge, severely injuring his right arm and shattering his elbow. His elbow would be immobile for life, so Paul had the doctors set it at an angle that would allow him to play guitar.

Paul and Ford married in 1949, and the duo commenced a string of hits that continued through the mid-50's, including "How High the Moon", "Bye Bye Blues", "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", and "Vaya Con Dios". By this time, Paul had mastered the art of multitracking, combining Ford's vocals with his guitars and other effects to produce a sound years ahead of its time. Paul was now recording on magnetic tape. His friend Bing Crosby had invested in the Ampex Corporation, which developed the first commercial open-reel recorder. Crosby gave Paul the second Ampex Model 200 built, which Paul modified with a second playback head to create a crude form of multitracking using mono tape. This inspired Ampex to build two and three-track recorders, and in 1954 Paul commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track recorder. Ampex completed this project in 1957, which Paul lamented was too late for him to use on his hits, but by the mid-60's the machine was established as the backbone of modern recording.

In 1952, Paul came up with his most famous innovation. As early as 1945, Paul had approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with ideas for mass-producing "The Log", but was rejected. But in 1950, competitors Fender unveiled the Telecaster, which became the first popular solid-body electric guitar model. Gibson offered Paul an opportunity to become a consultant, which led to the creation of the legendary Les Paul electric guitar. Les Pauls quickly were noted for their excellent sustain - the reason Paul began experimenting with guitars in the first place. The other key innovation came in 1954 with the introduction of the humbucking pickup on Les Paul models, producing a clarity of tone then unattainable on other guitars.

The Les Paul was slow to catch on at first with guitarists, though. The solid-body design made it heavier than most competing models - a musician friend once remarked to me, "Those damn things feel like they weigh a ton!" A lot of pop guitarists preferred to stick with their hollow-bodied models, and many country and rockabilly artists preferred the twangier Telecaster. Carl Perkins was one of the few early rockers to play a Les Paul. In the 50's and early 60's, Les Pauls were favored most by jazz and blues guitarists who prized their sustain and its clean, thick tone. Bluesmen Freddie King and John Lee Hooker, among others, put their Les Pauls to good use during that era.

More than anything, the rise of British rock in the mid-60's caused the Les Paul's popularity to soar. Keith Richards was the first British rocker to use a Les Paul extensively, and his peers quickly recognized that the guitar provided the perfect sound for the blues-derived rock they were creating. Soon, Les Pauls were in the hands of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Peter Green, and just about every other notable British guitarist of the time. The Les Paul established the sound that would become the signature of the 60's-70's guitar rock era. By then, though, Les Paul himself had a falling-out with the Gibson company, which stopped producing electric guitars with his name in 1963. But the demand for Les Pauls was so great that Gibson resumed their production in 1968. The latter-day Les Pauls were considered inferior by many guitarists. Those who could afford to do so continued to seek out vintage Les Pauls; every once in a while you'd hear a story that Eric Clapton or some other famous guitarist would find a classic Les Paul in mint condition in a pawnshop in some podunk town. Today, late-50's Les Pauls in good condition bring many thousands of dollars.

During the 60's Les Paul began to recede from the spotlight. Paul and Ford would have no major hits after 1955; ironically, the guitar that he helped create became a chief factor in pushing the style of music he specialized in playing off the pop charts. The couple divorced in 1962. Paul recorded infrequently in his later years, although one of his most notable achievements came in 1976, collaborating with ace Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins to make Chester And Lester, winning a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. The two masters created an impressive blend of jazz and country styles, much of it recorded live in the studio without overdubbing. Paul had quintuple-bypass surgery in 1981. Until his last days, Paul appeared regularly in live performance. He began a Monday night residency at Manhattan jazz club Fat Tuesday's in 1983; when that venue closed in 1995, he moved to Iridium, where he continued to appear each Monday until weeks before his death, often joined by a host of celebrity musicians coming to pay their respects to the master. Although arthritis had robbed Paul of much of his speed, he remained a fluid, tasteful guitarist to the end.

Due to his inventiveness and innovative ability, Les Paul may well have been the most important popular music figure of the 20th Century. Although many artists sold more records, none could match Paul for his ingenuity. His ideas created the foundation that the entire modern music recording industry was built upon.

Readers with a further interest in Les Paul must read this 1975 Rolling Stone interview.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Midweek filler

This month's schedule leaves me little time for posting during the middle of the week. Worse, the network administrators at work have started blocking Blogger. It's not what I wanted to post now, but that's the way it is.

More mindless fun; I didn't want to go a week without posting. Jenn hates when I do filler.

Your Superpower Should Be Mind Reading

You are brilliant, insightful, and intuitive.

You understand people better than they would like to be understood.

Highly sensitive, you are good at putting together seemingly irrelevant details.

You figure out what's going on before anyone knows that anything is going on!

Why you would be a good superhero: You don't care what people think, and you'd do whatever needed to be done

Your biggest problem as a superhero: Feeling even more isolated than you do now

Via Mixter.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Noted in passing

John Hughes: A talented writer-director who will forever be remembered for capturing the experience of coming of age in the 80's, John Hughes passed suddenly on Thursday while taking a morning walk in Manhattan where he was visiting family. He was 59.

Hughes was born in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in the Chicago area, where many of his films were set. He dropped out of college to write advertising copy, eventually moving into comedy writing. This led to a job with National Lampoon, and his first big success writing the screenplay of National Lampoon's Vacation. His first triumph as a director came in 1984 with Sixteen Candles, which led to a string of successful films that summarize the 80's teen experience for posterity: The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In the later 80's he would branch out with more mature fare such as Planes, Trains, And Automobiles and She's Having A Baby. 1990's Home Alone turned out to be his biggest commercial success. By the mid-90's, though, he escaped the Hollywood spotlight and retired to the rural Midwest, operating a farm in northern Illinois at the time of his death.

The word I would use to describe John Hughes' output is "cute". Maybe I was a bit too old to truly relate to his teen flicks. The one film that transcended the formula was The Breakfast Club, where five kids from different cliques are thrown together in Saturday detention and form a bond that overcomes the high school stereotypes. My next favorite is Planes, Trains, And Automobiles, due to the comedic talents of Steve Martin and John Candy. For many I know who are a few years younger than me, the 80's teen movies were the story of their lives, and John Hughes captured that experience so well that he has to rate in the all-time top rank of Hollywood writers and directors.

Among Hughes' talents was his imaginative use of the era's music in his films; Randy Raley compiles some great examples.

Willy DeVille: Soulful singer Willy DeVille died Thursday in Manhattan of pancreatic cancer at age 58. DeVille was one of those guys who never quite made it in the marketplace, and probably deserved a better fate than he received.

DeVille was born William Borsey in Stamford, Connecticut. He dropped out of school at age 16 and started hanging out in Greenwich Village, where he expanded his interest in blues and R&B, especially admiring the work of John Hammond Jr. He made trips to London and San Francisco in the early 70's. Out on the West Coast he formed a band, Mink DeVille, that he brought back to New York with him.

Mink DeVille were featured regularly at CBGB's during the venue's 70's heyday, causing the group to get lumped in with other NYC punk/new wave mainstays like The Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and Television. Their tastes, however, ran more to 60's era Phil Spector/Brill Building pop and R&B, brought to the fore by legendary producer Jack Nitzsche who produced Mink DeVille's first two albums. Their retro stylings were of no interest to late-70's US listeners weaned on arena rock, but the band found an audience in the UK and Europe, where DeVille would remain popular until his death. "Spanish Stroll" became a Top 20 UK hit.

Mink DeVille broke up in 1980, with Willy embarking upon a long and varied solo career, but the pattern had been set. He was well respected by his peers, and worked with venerable R&B songwriter Doc Pomus, Mark Knopfler, and Allan Toussaint, among others. He released a string of blues/R&B based albums that sold respectably overseas, but were barely noticed in the US. In 1988 he moved to New Orleans, and incorporated elements of Cajun music into his sound. He also recorded frequently in Los Angeles, often working with the city's Latino musicians. His 1992 album Backstreets Of Desire, recorded in LA, is considered by many to be his finest hour. The disc includes a mariachi version of the standard "Hey Joe" that reached #1 in much of Europe.

Still, he was a performer who fell through the cracks; I don't think I've heard more than three Willy DeVille songs in my life, and don't really remember any of them. We had some of his albums at KMUW, but frankly, I thought the guy looked like a phony - probably a good reason to not judge albums by their cover. He left without ever receiving his due, and now the rest of us get to catch up.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Fun at the ol' ball park, part II

Should you get overly drunk and obnoxious while rooting for the visiting team at Yankee Stadium, you may be roughly shown to the exits. But in Oakland, now, they don't screw around:

From The Sporting News:

(T)his gentleman, we'll call him Belligerent Santa, was clearly not happy about something going on at the A's game last night. (A YouTube commenter who claims to have been sitting near where the incident took place said it was a loud Texas fan who was yelling inappropriately and got angry when he was asked to quiet down. Judging from how few people were around him, that doesn't really sound like much of a stretch.) After what seemed like a decent amount of time trying to reason with Belligerent Santa, the jig was up, and like that scene from The Hangover, they had to unleash the full power of the Taser.

Next time I go to Wrigley Field, I'm not gonna drink...

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Updates 'n' stuff

My mother's condition has improved over the last week. She is still having some discomfort, but is in relatively good spirits. We saw her doctor Friday. He removed her from the oxygen, and feels that the course of treatment that involves drying up her body's estrogen will keep this type of cancer under control. Thank you, everyone, for your concern, thoughts, and prayers.

The ballgame was excellent. Our seats were in Homer's Landing, an area just behind the center field fence where all-you-can-eat hot dogs, bratwurst, and nachos, along with beer, are included in the ticket price. I had hoped to meet up with Brother Holland, who decided to come over from Kansas City for the game at the last minute, but he was up in the nosebleed seats and we couldn't make connections. He said that he began wandering the ballpark early, since he'd never been to the new Busch Stadium before, and was stuck behind some obnoxious fans. The game was excellent. The Cardinals won 3-1. New acquisition Matt Holliday hit two home runs, and ace Chris Carpenter pitched the full nine innings in his usual efficient style.


The information superhighway to Pole Hill is fully paved at long last. Having given up all hope that AT&T will ever offer broadband in this corner of redneck suburbia, we bit the bullet and signed up with Satan, er, Comcast. Expensive, but it's nice to finally have a 21st Century connection here. Followed that up by buying a nice Gateway rig with one terabyte of hard drive capacity. When I got home, my baby even had it all put together for me. Guys, if you find a gal who will put your computer together for you, that's a good sign that she's a keeper.


Here's a meme I picked up from Kathleen. It's one of those Facebook things. If you haven't seen your bloggy friends lately, Facebook is probably the first place you should look.

Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Sixteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First sixteen you can recall in no more than 16 minutes. Tag 16 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose.

I was actually able to do this in not much more than 16 minutes.

1. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
2. The Rape Of The APE, Allan Sherman
3. The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner
4. Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
5. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
6. Democracy For The Few, Michael Parenti
7. Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
9. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
10. The Civil War, Shelby Foote
11. The Call Of The Wild, Jack London
12. Rock From The Beginning, Nik Cohn
13. The Heart Of Rock And Soul, Dave Marsh
14. My Life, Bill Clinton
15. The Glory Of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter
16. The Holy Bible

Tagging people is so 2005. If you want to give this a shot, leave your list in the comment box, or post it to your blog and leave me a link.