Tuesday, February 23, 2010


My sweet daughter used to make an L on her forehead at me a lot. Powerful expressions always originate with the very young, and of course it took me a while to "get" what this expression meant.

It has taken me my entire life until, perhaps, about now to decide that no matter how often I earned the nickname HardLuck, I am precisely not a Loser.

Lately, I whine about what the Health Insurance Industry does to me - they have systematically rejected every single claim, except for the incidentals, for my recent hospitalization. The total bill is enough to wreck me, and having paid my premiums doesn't begin to cover my obligations up against the set of rules they have for me to break unwittingly.

But the good news is that they are showing their hand. Demographically, they should consider me on their side in the Big Fight. They should bend over backwards to convince me that we really do have a fair and honest and worth-preserving system of health care. I'm one of the lucky ones who's recently enough unemployed actually to have health insurance, and still luckier to continue to be able to pay their premiums.

But just like Dick Cheney, they can't help themselves. By their actions they seem to believe somehow that I will be grateful each time they make an exception to their arcane rules that somehow I haven't precisely followed. Most of the time, I'm not the one failing to follow the rules anyhow; it might be the doctor using the "wrong" code, or the hospital passing the deadline for pre-certification, or me getting sick while crossing insurance boundaries. But I'm the one at the end of the line. I'm the one with the fewest resources to fight.

So, the power remains entirely with them to make exceptions, and I should be grateful? Actually, I think I've been granted a glimpse into the hellish orgy which is behind the way profits get made around these parts.

Back in highschool, everyone was shown highway atrocities, enough to make you quite actually sick, for the purpose of discouraging drunk driving. And we continue to be told of what a large percentage of highway accidents are caused by alcohol. For that matter, we continue to be terrorized by stories about drunken airline pilots.

But the message is never conveyed that if you put that many autonomous death machines on high-speed roadways, a certain amount of mayhem is simply inevitable. And it will look just as gruesome.

I prefer to focus on how few fatalities there are, given the nutso system that we have to multiply the consequences of any one of us going off, or making the wrong deer in headlights move, or just being despondent because of some sort of extreme cognitive dissonance.

Leaping ahead here; the terrorists are not the problem. The problem is that we live in a world where we grant the nutjob or the drunk so much power. Every time we think it must have been some Islamic radical, it turns out to have been some neighbor (in the case of Buffalo and Tim McVeigh) or some local nutjob flying his private plane into a building (in the case of Austin) in imitation of the big guys.

And when it really is some Islamic radical, we come up with bizarre conspiracy theories about how it must have been the Big Guy. Which just diverts attention from the fact that the Big Guy was always ready to take full advantage of whatever happened whenever it happened. They tell us all the time that some sort of terrorist incident is inevitable. Is that so that we can prepare for it (how would you prepare???) or so that "they" can?

We are being prepared by a slow but steady erosion of our civil liberties and degrees of freedom, but not the ones that count, like being able to drive cars or fly planes. It's the ones we shrug about which are being whittled away. The ones which, each by themselves, don't mean much, but will add up, down the road, to something which looks very much like Too Big to Change.

Google's gmail wasn't really working very well yesterday. I don't know if this will be documented, or allowed to languish as something that lots of people might have noticed but assumed was something "on my end." We're all vaguely aware of how vulnerable our information systems are. Cybersecurity is generally recognized to be as critical as infrastructure security of any sort. Google gets attacked by overzealous Chinese patriotic students, but that might be a difference without a distinction from being attacked outright by the forces of the Chinese government.

Just as it really doesn't matter who is the pilot of a mobile bomb and what deranged him. The system is simply set such that this stuff has become an inevitability. We like to assign blame, but maybe it's the system that has gone rotten.

Or maybe "the system" is working really really well, but there are some terribly minority winners for whom what they've already won is never enough. Maybe our fear is fully functional for them. If we think the system is busted, wrecked, headed for disaster, then we will remain fully powerless to do anything about it, and the ones who have the power can just keep getting more.

I do think it's about that simple.

The good news is that we will learn to get along because we must. The bad news hardly needs reciting, it's on the news every day, whether it's a Harvard genius toting a gun, or the figment of someone's imagination toting a gun in the UB Library. We're really scared of one another.

But no-one seems to notice how well we do, in fact, get along.

I'm a weirdo on my street, just because, I guess, I'm the only renter. Plus, I'm shy by disposition and don't really know the rules for interaction in the local soap opera. I guess I'm part of it - I wonder what role they have scripted out for me? I could make up some fascinating tales, based on the part that makes it out in public. They'd be at least as believable as the truth, whatever that is. I have no idea what my role is or should be. Honest.

I did not get that job, by the way, where I would be taking on a very public role helping to diffuse the tectonic forces now at the intersection of China and the U.S. This was not a mistake on the part of the search committee, nor does it make me a loser. I was well qualified for the position, and made it to the podium for sure, in a very crowded field. But there was only one position on offer, and I didn't get it.

In a minor sense, I am a known quantity in Buffalo. I am not one of the players. More of a bit part at the fringes who somehow has been in prominent positions at certain moments, but never in a real spotlight. That has been fine for me, but I have also allowed myself to consider myself a loser, even though each time that I have 'failed to succeed' the entire arrangement was a kind of setup. I was a patsy for someone else's failure to set a winnable context.

I guess that makes me some kind of fool, stepping in where more sensible people always have something better to do, or know how to say no. (there's absolutely no way I would have been able to say "no" if I were offered this job. I'm just as scared as you are about being out of work)

Whether heading a school for gifted kids during a stagflationary recession in a shrinking city at a time when "gifted" was a widely derided claim. Whether guiding a high level commission to China without the proper high level alignment back at the home school. Whether struggling to keep up with expectations in a field where those in power all, to a person, announce their utter incompetency (that's what IT work means in case you didn't know what you were doing to those guys who fix your machines).

But it doesn't make me a loser. The losers are the ones who are not allowed to live on my street, and who are therefore concentrated in places I would consider it a risk to my life to live. I wonder how the people who do live there consider it. Isn't it a risk to their lives as well?

Very smart and very well-grounded (sic) people trade advice back and forth, at a very high level - like 30,000 feet in the air high - about what should be done to "rightsize" Buffalo's infrastructure. Which parts should be let go, which bulldozed, which mothballed, since it seems perfectly obvious that there simply isn't enough population of sufficient income to preserve it all.

I don't think I want to live at those 30,000 foot heights. There's no air to breath up there. Well grounded in some esoteric field of experts is not the same as having feet actually on the ground.

I'm guessing that there are lots and lots of people in Sprawlsville who would love to live closer to the action if they weren't so encouraged to fall prey to the notion that everyone in the city is bound and determined get you and yours.

There's a big shopping mall just outside the outer ring of Buffalo called the Galleria. When it was built, it was one of the larger such places in the nation, built to take advantage of the cross-border shopping trends from Canada (depending on the ascendancy of Canadian or American hockey, say).

It's been in the news nationally for not allowing buses from the city to terminate there, leading to the loss of one poor woman's life crossing the quite literally impossible-to-cross highway to get to her low-level job inside the mall.

The first thing you see when you enter the mall are signs announcing that "children" under 18 are not allowed unaccompanied. The assumption is that this too is because of the unruly kids from the city (as if they could get there in the first place).

I happen to know first hand, because I was there, that this rule is because of a very exclusive and expensive private boarding school for dyslexic boys where I used to work. This mall was their Friday night release. During the week, the prescription to empower these boys, who were demonstrably smart (and necessarily rich, which is  neither here nor there) but who had trouble reading; the prescription was to provide order to their lives. And constant phonic drilling.

This was not exactly a military school, but it did set out to internalize order that the students were lacking, in a way often reminiscent of military schools. For the right sort of student, it really really worked. It was liberating.

But if you set these kids loose in the mall on a Friday, with teachers who have been on duty (you had to live on campus to teach there) virtually 24/7, you do have a bit of a problem waiting to happen.

It was these kids who were the reason for the rule at the mall.

As FDR once convinced us, it truly is fear and fear alone which is our adversary.

And if I, a winner in every sense of the game *except* perhaps my own internal impressions, cannot overcome fear, who can?

So, I'll continue to work on it. I'll keep you posted. I still think that the tectonic tensions between China and the US are critically important for us all to worry about, collectively. But of course, they are worries at the level of asteroids possibly coming in from the far reaches of the cosmos if you're on the ground dealing with health and safety emergencies.

The way to bring those issues down to earth, I am fully convinced, is to make it clear on a local level what it might mean to throw out the search for scientific stratosphere-level certainties (religious, technological, blueprinted - it hardly matters, because they're all the very same thing) in favor of a kind of contextualized flowing usage trued against centuries of drilling and practice and recitation. We could use the balance.

The funny thing is that in the so called ghettos, they're already way way ahead of us in the Eastern martial arts training. There may actually be less ground to travel there toward making sense of China, than there ever could be at the University which still only affords a tiny handful of professors and courses.

Well, it's a thought. My strength in my professional life has always and only been my patience. I seem to lend a bit of calm in the face of dire circumstances. It's why I like to sail in the wild weather. It's the kind of fool that I am. It defines my success in the field of IT, overpopulated by over-reacts who love the adrenalin pumping emergencies. I will remain calm, ever looking for ways on the ground to connect with the 30,000 foot perpetual emergency that the smart people in power pay attention to, exhorting us to do the right thing.

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