Thursday, November 19, 2009

Health Care Reform today- time to put it out of its misery

For me, there can be no true health care reform without cost controls. So far, neither the Senate nor House bills do anything to temper physician and other provider fees. The sick will continue to support the lavish lifestyles of those in the “healing professions.” I would rather let the system continue on as is until it totally collapses under the weight of exorbitant costs. Maybe then our leaders will develop the political will to realize that much of the cost of health care is related to provider fees, which are needed, for example, to build ostentatious additions onto their already lavish houses. I now want no reform.

Circumstances are not yet dire enough to convince the politicians that provider fees must be controlled. Let the corporations fall on their knees from the excess cost of insurance premiums, driven by health care costs. The provider guilds and the insurance companies are too strong now.

Let us become even more uncompetitive in the world market place because of the added cost to our goods due to health care premiums. Let’s hope that Senator Ben Nelson, and his cohorts, can put a stop to current efforts to reform insurance, which is only part of what we need.

"The Prisoner"- must see TV

Sometimes television really pays off. AMC recently presented its mini-series of “The Prisoner.” It was an updated version of the classic 1960’s television series, but in no way did it simply retell the same story. The new version is about am employee of a large, secretive company who resigns. The company was heavily involved in personal spying. The story cuts between the main character’s previous life and his new one as Number 6 in a mysterious desert-set place called the village. Jim Caviezal plays 6. The village is headed by Number 2, played by a wonderfully malevolent sir. Ian McKellan. Number 6 has no idea of how he got to the village and why he is there. Over time we find out that 2 is attempting to get information from 6 about his resignation , but even more, to break down his identity so that he becomes as docile, and fearful, as the other village residents. Number 6 and some other residents have memories of their past life, usually from fleeting dreams. All but 6 are hesitant to discuss it since everyone spies on everyone else. Even the children have classroom lessons on spying. The end is surprising and difficult to comprehend but worth the effort. I do not want to give away too much of the plot since it would definitely be a spoiler.

Caviezal is surprisingly good. He has not had a particularly distinguished career and I have tended not want to see him because of his close connection to Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.” I thought it was creepy. Anyway he competently portrays 6’s efforts to remain an individual in the face of strong forces designed to break his will and to confuse him.

McKellan is amazing. He can be kindly, yet subtlely malevant, while confronting a little girl about spying on him. She is eating an ice cream cone. Through smiles and warmth, he extracts a confession from her. He asks if she knows what this means. She said yes, and he says “the clinic.” That’s the indoctrination and reeducation facility. She has a look of fear on her face, and Number 2 says that it’s ok; she could finish her ice cream first. The next scene has a black car speeding away and running over the ice cream cone, with the girl screaming in the background. Number 6 also gives his usually sleeping wife three pills. Their son watches this and becomes curious about the nature of the pills. This same son has a relationship with one of the male spies that watches 6, who catches the young man with his lover. Number 6 uses this to blackmail the son into providing information.

The theme of the show reminds me a bit of the hilarious comedy “Team America” that parodies US forays into other countries in the name of the war on terror. That is, in order to save a country we must destroy it. Number 2 must destroy Number 6’s identity in order to save him, at least according to 2’s definition of save. It also mirrors the notion that in order to treat sometimes differences, e.g., mental illness, it is necessary to break down their self in order to rebuild it correctly, much like the Soviet mental institutions used to house political dissidents.

The village in located in the sand dunes of some desert dessert, although in one scene, the editors forgot to remove one of

California hills appearing in the background. The village is made up of rows of exactly alike A-frame houses. All of the automobiles are strange, retro looking vehicles that are unidentifiable by maker or country of origin. Number 2 lives in the only mansion in the village and he is protected by a phalanx of body guards. There are two multi-story buildings that appear in the distance. They are glass towers that shimmer in the dessert light.

Mysterious holes appear in the ground, which in one particularly horrifying scene, swallow up a small child on a bicycle, while onlookers watch without much reaction. These holes seem to be related to the time when the wife is awake. A large latex-like ball, called Rover in the original series, keeps people from leaving the village by rolling over them and suffocating them or by vaporizing them. There is homage to the original series when Number 2 is in a shop and he looks up and sees an old-fashioned two wheel bike with the huge front- and small- rear wheels. This was the logo for the 60’s series.

The end is very surprising and involves the corporation that 6 had worked in. It is surprising and unanticipated. It was worth the 6 hours needed to watch this series. It was great TV.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Savage Grace"- when is a mother's love too much

Another movie seen in the wee hours of the morning due to sleep disruption:

From Savage Grace is a 2007 film starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Hugh Dancy, and Elena Anaya. The film is directed by Tom Kalin and written by Howard Rodman, based on the book Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson. The story is based on the true story of the dysfunctional, incestuous relationship between heiress Barbara Daly Baekeland and her son Antony.

This is a most difficult movie to watch. Julianne Moore is a great actress. She portrays the lead character, Barbara Baekeland, as an emotional predator who uses sex to deal with her anxiety, loneliness, lack of self esteem, and depression. Moore captures the fracture between Barbara’s ego and superego. She seemingly wreaks her havoc with no sense of remorse or even questioning the legitimacy of what she does. As a former actress, Baekeland took up acting to live out her life. In one scene taking place at the Stork Club, Barbara asks her husband if he would be willing to sleep with the last person he saw leaving the restaurant. He said yes. She became so infuriated that when she left, she hailed down the next car she saw being driven by a man. She got in presumably had a one-night stand with the stranger. In another scene, after confronting her husband in an airport as he was leaving with his girlfriend, Barbara leaves the terminal and flags down a cab. In the next scene she leaves a motel and tries to offer the driver money, which she refuses.

Stephan Dillane portrays her unavailable, emotionally detached husband who is the heir to the Bakelite fortune. He is something of an explorer and raconteur. He does not appear to bond with his new son, But ultimately grows weary of his wife and son and moves into a new life with his son’s ex-girlfriend.

Eddie Redmayne plays Barbara’s troubled son Antony. He is the heir to his mother’s smothering of him. She is so enmeshed with Anthony that taking a bath in front of him (and he in front of her), and having a three-way relationship with one of Barbara’s advisors/sycophants. In all fairness, the “friend” Sam Green later said "it is true that almost 40 years ago I did have an affair with Barbara, but I certainly never slept with her son, and nor did she, to the best of my knowledge. Nor am I bisexual...” But true or not, the scene with the three of them in bed with arms interlocked is certainly a shocker.

Antony is bright and learns several languages. He is a kind of trophy son for his mother. At one party, when all the guests are about to leave, Barbara invites young Tony to read a book in French. The guest wanted to leave and began to take their leave. Barbara became incensed and yelled at them as they left the house.

The most horrific scene is where Barbara is sitting on a sofa with Tony. She begins to feel his crotch, which he apparently responded to. She left the room and came back. She sat on Tony’s lap and proceeded to have intercourse with her own son. When he did not climax, she provided a manual assist. In the next scene Tony stabs his mother and orders take-out Chinese. When the police arrive, after he called them, he was found sitting on the floor next to his dead mother eating his rice.

Yes, this is disturbing stuff. I wonder why the producers thought this would make good box office, or any for that matter. But it is an absorbing look at the psyches of a very dysfunctional family. I do not think that that is necessarily bad if both the viewer and the director are respectful of the difficult material. Here I think it works.

As I mentioned above, Moore is wonderful and Redmayne is surprisingly good given his young age and the content of what he is being asked to do. I think it is a very good movie, but watch it at your own risk.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Atlanta Symphony Concert- rising stars and broken eardrums

I went to see and hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra last night. When I review the ASO, I feel like such a curmudgeon, but…

Here is the program:

TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake Suite
GLAZUNOV: Violin Concerto
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1

Hannu Lintu conducted and the soloist was Tai Murray.

Here is the ASO’s blurb about these folks:
Mr. Lintu, a rising young Finnish star, showcases the world’s favorite ballet music from Tchaikovsky’s version of a Russian legend of enchantment, deception, and love triumphant. The all Russian theme continues as the virtuosic sparkle of Ms. Murray — last seen here in a brilliant performance in 2005 — is paired with Glazunov’s perennially popular violin concerto. Shostakovich’s genius first asserted itself in his brilliant First Symphony, composed as a graduation piece at the famed St. Petersburg Conservatory.

For every rising star I suppose there may be several that are falling. I am testimony to that. But, Mr. Lintu provide some interpretations that were other worldly, but not in a good way. Atlanta Symphony Hall is terrible, but visually and acoustically. But Mr. Hintu’s interpretation exacerbated the situation. The orchestral balances were so off that some of the music was unrecognizable. For example, in the Danse Hongroise from Swan Lake, the second portion of the piece was so unbalanced that the music sounded almost laughable. In this section, the strings play a melody based on Tchaikovsky’s interpretation of Hungarian music. The brass provides a beat. Well under Mr. Hintu let the brass so overpower the strings that all I could hear was the brass. At this point, the ASO sounded like a German “oom pah” band. Maybe the conductor hears different balances from the podium than I do from the hall, but I thought the concert was for the audience and not the conductor. The hall’s deficiencies should help guide the conductor, but it did not. In addition, the introduction to dance was very slow and unballet-like.

The ASO brass may be technically brilliant, but they seem incapable of subtlety. They always seem to be too loud- I particularly find the trombones to be hard-edged and ungracious. Every time I know that there is a focus on the brass in a piece of music, I cringe. Again, it may be the hall.

The Glazunov concerto may be popular and may have inspired Rosza and Korngold (of movie music fame) but it strikes me as vapid- full of pretty music with little development and structure. One criticism of movie soundtracks is that they often have beautiful sounds, but they are disembodied because they usually have no development- so too with Glazunov. His concerto has three movements and is played without break, which for me, adds to its meandering and unstructured quality. Ms. Murray is a powerhouse player with a big sound. Her pizzicati were strong and could be easily heard against the orchestra. Her intonation was very good and she plays without a lot of body histrionics, so prevalent among soloists. By the way, the concertmistress, who had several solos throughout the concert, played with a very tiny sound. I initially thought that her lack of volume was due to acoustics, but Ms. Murray showed that is not the case. Either Ms. Murray knows how to produce a big sound, or her violin had a mic on it.

The Shostakovich Fist symphony may be his most popular, but it is not his best. His later works, which were written against the backdrop of Soviet oppression, are more powerful. Mr. Hintu’s interpretation was strong, but I was so jaded by the stridency of the sound, that I was looking forward to it being over!

Atlanta audiences are very gracious and dispense standing ovations and “Bravos” quite easily. For me, this concert deserved neither. My ear is still ringing from the trombones.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"The Sun Also Rises"- even if it shouldn't

When I get home from traveling, I find it very difficult to stay awake much before 9:00 pm, and I usually awaken around 3:00 am. When I awake, I turn on the TV to see what’s on, other than infomercials. Today I caught about two-thirds of “The Sun Also Rises”, the1950s movie adaptation of Hemingway’s classic novel. The movie stars Tyrone Power, Eddie Albert, Errol Flynn, Mel Ferrer, and Ava Gardner. All were popular powerhouse actors at the time. The story is about the “lost generation,” that group of expatriates who remained in Europe after World War I. I have never read the book so I cannot tell how closely the movie mirrors it.

There are several themes: unfulfilled love as a result of a war injury; obsessive sexuality; ennui; existential angst and alcoholism. Uplifting-no? I found the movie to be a crashing bore. Power, Albert, and Flynn seemed to be too old to play their characters. Only Ferrer and Gardner seemed to be of the right age. The movie was over 2.5 hours long and it could have been edited down to about the usual 1.5 minutes. Many scenes last too long. There is one in which Brett Ashley (Gardner) is flirting with a matador across the table from her longtime love, played by Power. Thejilted war-injured hero  glares at Gardner. I could here in my head the director saying, “Now do a double take and express dismay with your face.” This scene seemed to last forever. The bull fight scenes are interminable and are obviously not real. The matador, Brett’s current inamorato, looks surprisingly feminine in his matador hat. All of the male characters wear some kind of hair grease, and then cover their manes with berets. To me, those omnipresent berets look silly as do the orange scarves that everyone has tied around their necks. My guess is that they made a Spanish political statement at the time in which the movie is set (the 1920s). Maybe the berets just remind me of Monica Lewinsky.

 I could not become invested in the trials and tribulations of these people. Maybe the actors couldn’t get in touch with their characters’ sturm und drang. Maybe it was that passionless style of acting that was so prevalent in the 1950’s. Often movies from the period seem like a series of tableaux inhabited by moving statues. There is another odd scene where Lady Brett takes her leave of her companion to duck into a church for a quick prayer. Gardner stares up at something and moves her lips. The scene does not appear to be shot in a real church, but rather in front of a rear projection screen. It all seemed silly. The shot of Garnder looked like it was taken by one of those mall-based glamour shot photographers.  Flynn’s character rarely stops drinking. I am sure that was Hemingway’s intent, given his own problems with alcohol. But Flynn doesn’t play it well and never really seems to get as intoxicated as would be the case with all of the alcohol his character consumes.

The photography is quite good and captures that sunlit tan color seen in the old Spanish buildings.

I once had a supervisor who said “I won’t stir in your sh*t if you don’t stir in mine.” Maybe I had to stir in too much of Hemingway’s to enjoy this movie.

I recommend this film only to people who cannot sleep at 3:00 in the morning.

Autumn Moon over Bishkek

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

To view photo album, click on


Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, is a country in Central Asia. Landlocked and mountainous, it is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east.

The ethnonym "Kyrgyz", after which the country is named, is thought to originally mean either "forty girls" or "forty tribes", presumably referring to the epic hero Manas who, as legend has it, unified forty tribes against the Khitans. The 40-ray sun on the flag of Kyrgyzstan symbolizes the forty tribes of Manas.

Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic is located just off the northern fringe of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, an extension of the Tien Shan mountain range, which rises up to 16,000 ft and provides a spectacular backdrop to the city. North of the city, a fertile and gently undulating steppe extends far north into neighboring Kazakhstan. The Chui River drains most of the area. Bishkek is connected to the Turkestan-Siberia Railway by a spur.

Bishkek is a city of wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks surrounding interior courtyards and, especially outside the city centre, thousands of smaller privately built houses. It is laid out on a grid pattern, with most streets flanked on both sides by narrow irrigation channels that water the innumerable trees which provide shade in the hot summers.

I visited Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic for about 20 hours. I enjoy visiting former Soviet Union countries because I develop more of a perspective on what it must have like to live in a communist society. As noted above, Bishkek has some beautiful tree-lined boulevards. But I am not sure that I saw anything that merits Bishkek city being called “The Garden City.”

The city’s air is so dirty. There are three very tall smokestacks that loom over the city. At night, the light from auto headlights shines into the dust from the air, as if into fog. I assume that the dust comes, in part, from the smokestacks. The city has many Soviet-style buildings. To me, this style of architecture means some variant of neo-classical style with large flat surfaces of marble or concrete. The buildings are oppressive and usually too large scale for their setting. Like Brutalist buildings in the US, their surfaces collect dirt from the air and the rain to become stained with black gunk. What may have started as a marginally attractive building transforms into an eyesore.

The Soviets also spent little on infrastructure. The highways are rough and bumpy, as are the airport’s runways. The lights along the boulevards on mounted on standards that look like they are made up of erector set pieces. Some of the apartment buildings in Bishkek are large and graceless. Their facades are sometimes overly busy or overly unadorned. My guess is that Soviet architects became masters of creating cityscapes that demoralized the citizenry and submerged individuality into the state collective. Bishkek may be one of the most unattractive cities I have seen.

I was surprised by two things about the people. The first is that they are, on average, quite attractive. The men are tall and thin and the women are quite beautiful. The second is that they dress very, very well. Maybe their style of dress is a reaction to Bishkek’s bleak physical environment. That is, they dress to improve what they look at. It might also be a function of Kyrgyzstan’s low cost of living where nice clothing is affordable. I was surprised to see a 24-hour fashion channel on TV. I saw the same channel that I saw in Dubai. I think that fashion and style are important to the Kyrgystanis and it was great to see.

I met a representative of the World Hunger Program in the hotel where I was staying. She said that they were faced with many large challenges in the Republic. A quick internet search confirms that hunger remains a huge issue in this country. I thought to myself, somewhat facetiously, that this is the explanation for everyone being slim.

One final note, Kyrgyzstan’s government is considered by the United Nations to be one of the most corrupt in the world. Maybe that helps account for its terrible infrastructure and visual pollution.

The Kindom of Bahrain

For photo album go to:

From the US Department of State Website:

Cities: Capital--Manama, pop. (2002 est.) 148,000. Other cities--Al Muharraq.

Terrain: Low desert plain (highest elevation point--122 m).

Climate: Hot and humid from May-September, with average highs ranging from 30o-40o C (86o-104o F). Maximum temperatures average 20o-30o C (68o-86o F) the remainder of the year.

The Kingdom of Bahrain
 I had the opportunity to spend about a day and a half in the Kingdom of Bahrain. It’s a beautiful island in the Persian Gulf and its capital is Manama. Not only did I get to drive around and see the tree of life, I was able to appreciate all that our oil dollars have contributed to the Bahraini lifestyle. While not as developed as Dubai, Bahrain has many new buildings that share the stunning architecture of its UAE neighbor. One of the most impressive buildings is the World Trade Center. Two towers comprise this structure. The towers are mirror images of each other and are connected by three struts, each of which has a wind turbine. Here in the oil-rich Middle East, the Bahrainis are forward thinking enough that they see the merits of wind energy. These three huge turbines generate about 12-15 % of the energy requirements of the towers. At the base of the two towers is the Moda Mall, a very high-end retail center that is lit by fiber optic chandeliers. The mall seems recent ly opened and it was not crowded. Another popular mall in Manama is City Center that has about 350 stores. It is very busy with Bahrainis in western dress. In fact, few traditional abayas and disdashas are seen in Manama. The City Center has a large food court with an array of international eateries. I found that when driving in Bahrain the traffic is orderly and well controlled, unlike Kuwait where driving seems like a free-for-all. At rush hour, armed militia men with machine guns and guerilla paint on their faces patrol each major intersection. Who needs traffic tickets? Bahrain has the reputation of being the Las Vegas of the Middle-East. The country, however, it is neither as glitzy nor vulgar as Sin City; it does, however, permit the sale of alcohol in the major hotels so it has a fairly active night life.

There is much landscaping throughout Manama. There are green spaces and water features. All in all, I thought it quite attractive. If I had to choose a place to live in the desert, I might well select Bahrain.

For a description of my trip to the Tree of Life, see my earlier blog entry.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Tree of Life

I was able to spend a day in the Kingdom of Bahrain this week. Part of the day was spent trying to find the Tree of Life, which is 100+year old tree, probably a Prosopis cineraria (Mesquite), which is considered a natural wonder. This unique tree stands alone in the desert about 1.2 mi from the Jebel Dukhan, the highest point in Bahrain. The source of water for this tree remains a mystery because it stands in a place completely free of water.

I picked up a guide to Bahrain at the airport. It included a map of Bahrain, with the Tree of Life noted as one of the country’s highlights. The map prominently features a deep blue to represent the Persian Gulf that surrounds the island and the roads that lead to the Tree of Life. The map lacked any identification for the roads because most of the roads in Bahrain are neither named nor numbered. While driving to see this wonder in the desert we saw two directional signs, but there was no other signage to one of the Kingdom’s prime tourist sites.

I rented a car since there are also not many organized tours, which surprises me because the Kingdom is something of a tourist destination. The rental car only had about a quarter of a tank of gas. While threading our way around the streets of Manama, the Kingdom’s capital, we made several wrong turns, in part because of the lack of street names. We finally found that coastal highway that would take us quickly and efficiently to the Tree. I was very impressed with the roads and the orderliness of traffic, given that in other middle-eastern countries, traffic in unregulated and something of a free-for-all. We soon realized that we had to purchase gas, so one of us was assigned the task of looking for a filling station. Given that this is an oil-rich country, this would be an easy task, right? Well, not really, since the gas stations are rather dreary little buildings with nothing to make them stand out from other dreary little buildings. Finally we found one and waited in line to fill up. When it was our turn, we found out from the attendant that he didn’t take credit cards. Since none of us had Bahraini Dinar, we had to find an ATM. Having seen a shopping mall a few miles back, we took off back toward Manama, went to the mall, withdrew money, had lunch, and returned to the gas station. A fill up cost us about $9- one of the benefits of being in an oil-rich country. We returned to the highway. After several missteps, we followed a directional sign for the Tree. We ended up on this desert road that was made up of rutted asphalt and white fine powder. After feeling that we were lost in the desert without Moses to guide us, I saw two people who had just left their car. I ran up to them to ask for directions. It’s a good thing that most Bahrainis have some ability to speak English. Anyway, one of the men told me to continue on the road (even though it would be unpaved in some areas) until we came to a roundabout, where sometime after, we would make a left. We would continue on until we find two uprights that would allow only one car through at a time. We would then make a left. We continued on and the road indeed nearly disappeared under to be limestone rocks and powder. We passed a cement factory, many trucks and buses with locals who waved and seemed happy to see the foreign tourists. We passed mini-mountains of limestone rocks and piles of old truck tires. After maybe 10 minutes I lost confidence since it seemed like we should have found the roundabout, I stopped to ask another Bahraini for directions. He was cleaning out his truck with a hose and water was running across the street. He seemed eager to help but did not understand English. I had the tourist map with me so that I could point out where we were going. He pointed in the direction we were going, so I figured we should press ahead. We finally found the pipes that only allowed one car to pass. I turned right onto another highway and we went what seemed to be a few miles further into the desert. Losing confidence, I turned around to go in to opposite direction. We passed large oil field pipes and networks of limestone-covered smaller pipes that were lying on the desert floor. Again, my confidence evaporated quicker than a bead of sweat in the desert heat. I said, in a semi-sarcastic way, “If only god would give us a sign here in the middle of the desert so we can find the Tree of Life.” In about two minutes, I pulled to the side of the road and saw a lime green car coming our way. I got out of my car and waved the oncoming vehicle to stop. The car stopped in the road- it was apparent that there was no traffic coming in either direction. I walked over to the car, the occupants lowered the window. I looked in and saw that they were holding the blue tourist map with the Tree circled. I asked them if they knew how to get there and one said “No, we were going to ask you.” I started to howl with laughter, as did they. It was hilarious to see that they were playing out the same tourist script as us. One of the guys was from Madrid, and one from Sri Lanka. Just as we completed our introductions, a white car with a Bahraini family headed toward us. I flagged them down. They stopped and I asked directions to the Tree. The driver said to follow him. Since he was going in the opposite direction, I turned my rental around and followed our new friends and the Bahraini family. We soon found ourselves at the point of previous indecision where we had turned around. The tree was just a few miles away. Long story short- I asked for divine intervention and indeed- it came.

At the Tree we were able to further talk with our new friends. They were both architects. One had been in Bahrain for one month and one for a year and a half. We spent about an hour at the Tree. Juan, the architect from Madrid, said that they were going to leave to visit the oil museum. I asked if he knew how to get there. He said they would find it just liked they found the tree. We shook hands good-bye. It was a great afternoon, made all the better by the great sense of humor of my traveling companions. It’s great to be a tourist.