Thursday, May 28, 2009

Take Five

I heard somewhere that if any five people guess the weight of any individual they will always be right if they pool their answers and average them.   Always.   I want to find out more about this.  Did they find that four people wasn't quite enough?  Six too many?   How steeply does the effect fall off?  Can five people be collectively clever about matters other than body weight?  We know that once you get into the 500's -- the size of the US Congress, for example -- the net wisdom is equivalent to that of a box of round rocks.  In fact, it seems there comes a point when a group goes from wise to normal to flawed to aggressively stupid.  Not only wrong, but destructively so.   So if five is wise and 535 is destructive -- there must be some gradations in between.   The Supreme Court is nine people, but perhaps this is because in any 5-4 decision we can be confident that the majority of five has nailed it.   Our founding fathers were anything but stupid about such things.  How many FF's were there, by the way?  Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington...hmm.

I happen to serve on the five member board that  governs our little town here in Vermont.  We're pretty good together.  We've never tried to guess anybody's weight, but I think we'd do okay at it.   We come up with sound solutions for things like bridge decking, gravel crushing, and employee insurance plans.   I think we could do more if given the chance.  It might be interesting to try.  What if the federal government simply jobbed out a couple of its more nagging issues to five member selectboards around Vermont and New Hampshire?   Let's say here in Dummerston we look at the North Korea issue on Wednesday night after the new dump truck bids are opened.   Maybe Newfane could take a crack at the Guantanamo thing.  How could they possibly make it worse?  Lebanon, NH would be perfect for health care reform.  They have a hospital there and everything.   Climate change?  Toss that bone to the farmers up in Rutland.  They know their weather.  Illegal immigration?  St. Albans up on the border -- our front line against the Canadian horde.  Education reform? -- look no further than any Vermont town with a school in it.   You could bankrupt forty-nine states  (not counting California, that's a gimme) with the sheer complexity of Vermont's education funding formula.   We know how to overthink education up here and any five of us could fix it.   Right after we find Osama.  And guess his weight.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reform You Can Believe In

I got an email today from the president asking me to help him out of a jam.  Specifically, he said, “Tom I need your voice on health care.”   I was kind of busy, but  decided to take a cue from Governor Huntsman and do for my country what the president asks just because he asks.   It’s the kind of American I want to be.  No matter that I know nothing about health care reform and have nothing to add to the debate.  That hasn’t stopped anybody else.  So, Mr. President, here’s my voice.

The biggest thing people seem to fear about health care reform is that the government is going to get involved in our medical decisions and mess everything up.  Step back and think about this for a minute.  Our current health care system is unwieldy, mismanaged, unfair, expensive and inefficient.  In other words it essentially is a government program already.   We could make the switch over a weekend and nobody would even notice.   Instead of calling some 25 year old business graduate at your HMO and arguing with her over the prescriptions your doctor thinks you should have but she doesn’t, you could be calling some 25 year old social science graduate in a government agency doing the same thing.

Insurance companies give a six inch thick manual to all the people who answer their phones.  It’s called The Big Book of No.  Somewhere in it is a reason to decline any request whether trivial or life-threatening.  Sort of like the IRS or FEMA.   Putting incompetent people into key decision making positions – a public sector specialty – would not fix any of the problems, but it would finally provide an understandable reason for them. 

If you annoy your insurance company they can simply drop your coverage and stop taking your calls.    What is a government run health care program going to do if you tweak them off – deport you?   If you get a particularly surly government account manager or health care provider you can always write an angry letter to your senator or congressman.  [I just had a moment of clarity about why the House and Senate aren’t wild about health care reform.  You really are all alone out there on this.  No wonder you wrote to me.]

In short, and in conclusion, Mr. President, nationalizing our health care system will accomplish one huge and unlikely thing.  It will take all the fear, loathing and anxiety now directed in a hundred scattered directions around our health care world and focus it on one person:  You, sir.  But if you can take, I’ll do my best as well.   It’s just the kind of American I am. 

I hope this did some good, Mr. President.  If you ever need me for anything else you have my email address.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Something's Bugging Me

The brain, they say, is a muscle that can and should be exercised.   Think meathead.  To this end I've decided to think about one thing every day I've never thought about before.  Today it's going to be the bugs on my windshield.   Now that summer looms here in the country I have noticed an ever expanding sample of bug guts between me and the road ahead.  It gets more difficult to avoid thinking about them.   My early musings about these splatters led me to a question I can't answer or shake -- Where are the rest of these bugs?   I see the soft insides, but with rare exceptions there are no crunchy parts.  This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that our roads and highways are littered with bug bodies.   Many millions of ecto-empties.  For birds and other critters that live on these bugs it must be a depressing sight.   Perhaps it is the lowest form of bird that works its way down the shoulders poking through bug shells like beer cans hoping for one little swig here and there.   

This is what I have been thinking about, and now this is what you are thinking about.   Don't thank me, but do let me know if you think of something new.   We meatheads must help one another.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Pilates Appointment in Samarra

I'm sitting in an Internet cafe in Vermont composing a blog entry on my MacBook.  I have a cup of Free Trade Panamanian coffee on one side of my gleaming laptop and an iPhone on the other.   My hat bears some indecipherable indigenous symbol from Guatemala.   I'm wearing Blundstones -- the only shoes I ever wear -- and a Patagonia SPF-50 hiking shirt.  I'm suddenly transported to an April day in 1975 in East Lansing, Michigan.  I was hanging out in an off- campus beer pub at midday in my Roman sandals, bell-bottoms, flannel shirt and ponytail reading the collected indecipherable works of Ezra Pound when it suddenly occurred to me that I was an idiotic and embarrassing cliche.   I made immediate emergency plans to drop out of college, hitchhike Out West, and become a hard-drinking-hippie-redneck-vagabond-itinerant-worker-Neal Cassady-Jack London-Woody Guthrie-anti-literary-working-class-hero.  Cliche that you popular culture bozos!

My how time wounds all heels.  As I sit here mortally re-infected with main stream cultural sensibility and style I realize there is no place to run this time.   At least no place I'm willing to go.  I'm reminded of the parable passed along by W. Somerset Maugham that John O'Hara used to title his novel Appointment in Samarra.  This is all there is to say about that.

A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant's horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, "That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

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