Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn Moves On

Motion picture and stage director Arthur Penn has died in NY a day after his 88th birthday. Penn came to national prominence with the release of "Bonnie & Clyde" in 1967. The movie's radical departure from typical Hollywood fare in its embrace of romanticized social misfits and stylized graphic violence struck gold in the anti-establishment youth consciousness of the late '60s and set the pattern for a generation of films in a similar vein; "The Wild Bunch", "Taxi Driver", "Apocalypse Now", "A Clockwork Orange", "The Godfather" and "Dirty Harry" among others. Their success was the death knell for the previous era of pictures and the people that made them. Super stars like Doris Day, Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra, along with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Blake Edwards and Douglas Sirk no longer satisfied audiences that had acquired a cynical worldview. Many of the mainstays of older cinema drifted into television and a new group took their place in the movie industry. Penn was among the vanguard of this trend that included Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and others.
I was an extra on Penn's next big project, the screen adaptation of Thomas Berger's novel, "Little Big Man", starring Dustin Hoffman, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan and, once again, Faye Dunaway. The reminiscenses of 121 year old Jack Crabb, captured by the Indians as a child and raised among them, eyewitness and participant in the battles of the Washita River and Little Big Horn, friend of Wild Bill Hickock and acquaintance of Custer, are used as an allegory of the US presence in Southeast Asia. As a cavalryman, generally involved in battle scenes that were directed by Hal Needham, I was involved personally with Penn only occasionally. He seemed to be the kind of director that took a lot of shots, hoping that at least one would survive the editing process. While many of the cast and crew circulated about the set and engaged in the kind of social interactions you might expect in that kind of a situation, Penn himself didn't associate much with the proletariat of the cinema industry.
"Little Big Man" was a popular and critical success, more so than "Bonnie & Clyde", and while it wasn't the ground-breaking effort of its predecessor, it may better stand the test of time.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Art with Meaning

The American Swedish Institute, a fabulous castle, sits on the corner of 26th and Park in south Minneapolis, MN and, on the south wall of this unique building, is the "Visby Window". This stained glass window is copied from an oil painting by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist that memorializes an incident that occurred in 1361 in the small city of Visby, Gotha, Sweden. King Valdemar Atterdag and his Danish troops had surrounded the town. The king sits in the square on his throne with hogsheads before him that the citizens are filling with their portable wealth, coins, jewelry and gold and silver plate. Danish troops in the background wait for orders from the king to sack and fire the town. In the foreground the mayor and his wife and children cross the square in humiliation, sorrow and rage.

Valdemar inherited a kingdom that had been bankrupted by his father and previous Danish monarchs. Upon accession his goal was to pay off the kingdom's obligations and restore it to its former glory. One of his methods was to do just as he did with Visby. The threat of violence was used to extort wealth from its owners, to be used by the extortionist for his own purposes. Valdemar is, at that point, the effective government of Visby and the residents are in no position to resist his demands. No doubt later he sent his men from house to house to search for hidden assets and probably offered rewards for information on those assets that may have set one neighbor against another. The Visbyians saved wealth was now gone forever. Valdemar didn't have the option of investing his confiscations in common stock or mutual funds. What wasn't spent in soldiers' pay and armour was kept in a locked room and doled out to buy the things he couldn't steal.

This work of art encapsulates the relationship between the individual and the state. Valdemar is the state, an entity that requires no cooperation from the individual to rearrange or negate that individual's private property. In the ensuing 650 years it has become easier for the state to accomplish the same things. Armed government agents in the US enforce tax laws; confiscate cars, real estate and currency; arrest and incarcerate those that they determine to have failed to forfeit what the state demands. There's really no difference between Valdemar Atterdag demanding the silverware of a Visby fisherman and the US government demanding its share of a truck driver's paycheck.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Lewis Thomas talks about Health Care circa 1976

The Health-Care System

The health-care system of this country is a staggering enterprise, in any sense of the adjective. Whatever the failures of distribution and lack of coordination, it is the gigantic scale and scope of the total collective effort that first catches the breath, and its cost. The dollar figures are almost beyond grasping. They vary from year to year, always upward, ranging from something like $10 billion in 1950 to an estimated $140 billion in 1978, with much more to come in the years just ahead, whenever a national health-insurance program is installed. The official guess is that we are now investing a round 8 percent of the GNP in health; it could soon rise to 10 or 12 percent.
Those are the official numbers, and only for the dollars that flow in an authorized way--for hospital charges, physician's fees, prescribed drugs, insurance premiums, the construction of facilities, research, and the like.
But these dollars are only part of it. Why limit the estimates to the strictly professional costs? There is another huge marketplace, in which vast sums are exchanged for items designed for the improvement of Health.
The television and radio industry, no small part of the national economy, feeds on Health, or, more precisely, on disease, for a large part of its sustenance. Not just the primarily medical dramas and the illness or surgical episodes threaded through many of the nonmedical stories, in which the central human dilemma is illness; almost all the commercial announcements, in an average evening, are pitches for items to restore failed health: things for stomach gas, constipation, headaches, nervousness, sleeplessness or sleepiness, arthritis, anemia, disquiet, and the despair of malodorousness, sweat, yellowed teeth, dandruff, furuncles, piles. The food industry plays the role of surrogate physician, advertising breakfast cereals as though they were tonics, vitamins, resoratives; they are now out-hawked by the specialized Health-food industry itself, with its nonpolluted, organic, "naturally" vitalizing products. Chewing gum is sold as a tooth cleanser. Vitamins have taken the place of prayer.
The publishing industry, hardcover, paperbacks, magazines, and all, seems to be kept alive by Health, new techniques for achieving mental health, cures for arthritis, and diets mostly for the improvement of everything.
The transformation of our environment has itself become an immense industry, costing rather more than the moon, in aid of Health. Pollution is supposed to be primarily a medical problem; when the television weatherman tells whether New York's air is "acceptable" or not that day, he is talking about human lungs, he believes. Pollutants which may be impairing photosynthesis by algae in the world's oceans, or destroying all the life in topsoil, or killing all the birds are being worried about lest they cause cancer in us, for heaven's sake.
Tennis has become more than the national sport; it is a rigorous discipline, a form of collective physiotherapy. Jogging is done by swarms of people, out onto the streets each day in underpants, moving in a stolid sort of rapid trudge, hoping by this to stay alive. Bicycles are cures. Meditation may be good for the soul but is even better for the blood pressure.
As a people, we have become obsessed with Health.
There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying. We have lost all confidence in the human body.
The new consensus is that we are badly designed, intrinsically fallible, vulnerable to a host of hostile influences inside and around us, and only precariously alive. We live in danger of falling apart any moment, and are therefore always in need of surveillance and propping up. Without the professional attention of a health-care system, we would fall in our tracks.
This is a new way of looking at things, and perhaps it can only be accounted for as a manifestation of spontaneous, undirected, societal propaganda. We keep telling each other this sort of thing, and back it comes on television or in the weekly newsmagazines, confirming all the fears, instructing us, as in the usual final paragraph of the personal-advice columns in the daily paper, to "seek professional help." Get a checkup. Go on a diet. Meditate. Jog. Have some surgery. Take two tablets, with water. Spring water. If pain persists, if anomie persists, if boredom persists, see your doctor.
It is extraordinary that we have just now become convinced of our bad health, our constant jeopardy of disease and death, at the very time when the facts should be telling us the opposite. In a more rational world, you'd think we would be staging bicentennial ceremonies for the celebration of our general good shape. In the year 1976, out of a population of around 220 million, only 1.9 million died, or just under 1 percent, not at all a discouraging record once you accept the fact of mortality itself. The life expectancy for the whole population rose to seventy-two years, the longest stretch ever achieved in this country. Despite the persisting roster of still-unsolved major diseases--cancer, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and the rest--most of us have a clear, unimpeded run at a longer and healthier lifetime than could have been foreseen by any earlier generation. The illnesses that plague us the most, when you count up the numbers in the U.S. Vital Statistics reports, are respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, which are, by and large, transient, reversible affairs needing not much more than Grandmother's advice for getting through safely. Thanks in great part to the improved sanitary engineering, nutrition, and housing of the past century, and in real but less part to contemporary immunization and antibiotics, we are free of the great infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis and lobar pneumonia, which used to cut us down long before our time. We are even beginning to make progress in our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the chronic illnesses still with us, and sooner or later, depending on the quality and energy of biomedical research, we will learn to cope effectively with most of these, maybe all. We will still age away and die, but the aging, and even the dying, can become a healthy process. On balance, we ought to be more pleased with ourselves than we are, and more optimistic for the future.
The trouble is, we are being taken by the propaganda, and it is bad not only for the spirit of society; it will make any health-care system, no matter how large and efficient, unworkable. If people are educated to believe that they are fundamentally fragile, always on the verge of mortal disease, perpetually in need of support by lealth-professionals at every side, always dependent on an imagined discipline of "preventive" medicine, there can be no limit to the numbers of doctors' offices, clinics, and hospitals required to meet the demand. In the end, we would all become doctors, spending our days screening each other for disease.
We are, in real life, a reasonably healthy people. Far from being ineptly put together, we are amazingly tough, durable organisms, full of health, ready for most contingencies. The new danger to our well-being, if we continue to listen to all the talk, is in becoming a nation of healthy hypochondriacs, living gingerly, worrying ourselves half to death.
And we do not have time for this sort of thing anymore, nor can we afford such a distraction from our other, considerably more urgent problems. Indeed, we should be worrying that our preoccupation with personal health may be a symptom of copping out, an excuse for running upstairs to recline on a couch, sniffing the air for contaminants, spraying the room with deodorants, while just outside, the whole of society is coming undone.

Lewis Thomas, A Long Line of Cells, 1990

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Spent One Whole Frigid Winter Here

Deep in Alaska's Interior, a deserted hot springs lodge fades into history
by Tom Moran/ For the News-Miner
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The steaming hot springs waterfall cascades down from the source  of Melozi  Hot Springs into Hot Springs Creek below. Jay Cable stands atop the  falls near the springs’ hot tub. Photos by Amy Marsh
The steaming hot springs waterfall cascades down from the source of Melozi Hot Springs into Hot Springs Creek below. Jay Cable stands atop the falls near the springs’ hot tub. Photos by Amy Marsh
A photo of the now-derelict indoor pool, taken from a Melozi Hot  Springs brochure. Photos by Amy Marsh
A photo of the now-derelict indoor pool, taken from a Melozi Hot Springs brochure. Photos by Amy Marsh
Tom Moran enjoys the hot tub at Melozi Hot Springs after a brief  rain shower. Photo by Amy Marsh
Tom Moran enjoys the hot tub at Melozi Hot Springs after a brief rain shower. Photo by Amy Marsh
Jay Cable pauses in front of the “Reindeer Cabin” at Melozi Hot  Springs. According to BLM records, the cabin was built almost a century  ago to accommodate servicemen stationed at Kokrines. Photo by Amy Marsh
Jay Cable pauses in front of the “Reindeer Cabin” at Melozi Hot Springs. According to BLM records, the cabin was built almost a century ago to accommodate servicemen stationed at Kokrines. Photo by Amy Marsh
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Time had stopped at Melozi Hot Springs.

In the resort’s handsome main lodge, we found bookshelves displaying copies of “People” and “Cosmopolitan” from the early 1980s. Disused fishing poles crouched in the foyer of the handsome log building, next to board games and frisbees that hadn’t known the touch of children in at least a decade and a half. Manila folders full of tax records and visitor inquiries from 1985 yellowed in file cabinets. Jars of spices and dry beans lined kitchen shelves, waiting to be served to guests who checked out for good in the last millennium. After 20-odd years as a working resort, Melozi Hot Springs had been given over to dust and echoes.

Hearing tales of the place, my friends Jay and Amy and I journeyed to Melozi in July to see it for ourselves. Reaching the resort — located about 30 miles northeast of the Yukon River village of Ruby — had once been a simple matter of landing a bush plane on the Melozi airstrip. But the strip today is washed-out, overgrown and unusable, so it took us a flight from Fairbanks to the village of Ruby, a 30-mile ferry up the Yukon River, and two days of hiking over the rainy, windswept spine of the Kokrines Hills before the resort came into view in the distance.

Long though it was, the trek was not without its rewards. Melozi’s appeal a s a bush getaway was apparent as soon as we spied its idyllic outdoor hot tub, perched on a bluff above Hot Springs Creek and affording sweeping views of the bald Kokrines peaks in the distance. More remarkable is where the hot water goes from there: it cascades down the 20-foot bluff in a scalding waterfall, emptying into the creek and fostering a muted rainbow of algal stalactites along the way.

Though isolated, Melozi is no secret. The roughly 130-degree springs were first found by Alaska Natives, and were later enjoyed by servicemen working a telegraph station in the now-deserted Yukon River village of Kokrines. In 1911 the Army built a two-room building at the springs, a sturdy log structure known as the “Reindeer Cabin” after reindeer herders who relaxed at the springs in later years.

The modern life of the resort began in 1966, when Leonard and Pat Veerhusen, a middle-aged couple living in Galena, took out a 20-year Bureau of Land Management lease on Melozi and moved in. A skilled carpenter, Len Veerhusen spent a decade fashioning a comfortable getaway out of a mosquito-ridden patch of spruce. He built the sizable main lodge, four guest cabins, the outdoor tub, and an indoor thermal pool, along with a garage, smokehouse and other maintenance buildings. Water from the springs supplied hot baths in some of the cabins and even a couple of flush toilets.

Veerhusen died in 1976, and the resort continued to operate under a series of owners and proprietors; according to BLM records, Melozi drew anywhere from a couple dozen to a couple hundred guests each year and never turned much of a profit. In 1996, dissatisfied with the ownership group’s fulfillment of lease terms, the BLM let the lease run out and didn’t offer it for renewal. Since then Melozi has gone unused, quietly but definitively reverting to ghost town status.

What is startling about Melozi is how little the years have weighed upon it. Only a few buildings seem beyond repair: A huge hole has pierced one wall of the Reindeer Cabin, the garage is caving in, and the roof over the pool has collapsed. Otherwise, Veerhusen’s sturdy log construction has stood the test of time. Roofs are intact and strong shutters and thick walls have kept the bears out. Though there have clearly been multiple visitors in the days since the place shut down — we found evidence of a number of people passing through, including a large group from Switzerland that moved in for most of a month — Melozi’s isolated location has mostly saved it from vandalism and litter.

And it’s also largely kept souvenir hunters at bay. A mostly intact ATV still waits in a garage, an out-of-tune piano in the main lodge. Pots, pans, dishes and cutlery fill the kitchen. Ancient snowmachines, their engines stripped, fade into the forest.

More memorable are the lingering personal touches: in the Reindeer Cabin, guests’ business cards are pinned up, illuminated now by light streaming through the hole in the wall. Dozens of sketches of children are tacked inside a doorway. In the main lodge, a bulletin board exhibits fading snapshots: a man astride a cut log; two men examining a bush plane in the snow; a toddler naked save for cowboy boots. A couple of personal journals rested on the bookshelves; written by a former owner, they catapulted us back to 1981, when summer guests were a regular occurrence, meals included fresh vegetables from the on-site greenhouse, and the psychological toll of a lonely Melozi winter evoked shades of “The Shining.” The sense of piled-on years, of wild stories lost to memory, was palpable throughout, creating an atmosphere equal parts sad and inviting. Everything we touched was both a memento of the place’s livelier days and a reminder of its decay.

The three of us stayed in Melozi for two days, soaking endlessly below the hot waterfall and sitting in the outdoor tub until the heat overcame us. We wandered the weedy grounds, took photos of the buildings, poked through dusty shelves and boxes, and raised countless questions about the people who had come before us. In the old papers of the main cabin, we found some of our answers. What we could not know, though, was whether Len Veerhusen’s dream might ever live again.

Despite the tremendous hardships involved in operating a place like Melozi, the thought doesn’t seem impossible. The final ownership group (which disputes the BLM’s actions on the lease) maintains a claim on the physical property, while a list the BLM keeps of people interested in Melozi’s fate is 23 names long. The BLM field manager for the area says a new lease on Melozi would require someone willing to take stock of the place, to clean it up, and to somehow make it into a profitable proposition. So far no one has stepped up to the plate.

As we reluctantly loaded up our packrafts to depart, the future was on our minds: a three-day packraft float down Hot Springs Creek and the Melozitna and Yukon rivers to Ruby, the flight back to Fairbanks, the resumption of our lives. We left behind a spot that, for the time being and perhaps forever, is trapped inextricably in days gone by.

As the waterfall receded behind us, a quote came to mind, one I had seen on a business card pinned up in the Reindeer Cabin and which seemed to sum up the mixture of solemnity and exuberance that permeates Melozi Hot Springs.

“We live in the present,” reads the card, “And dream of the future. But we learn eternal truth."

Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Deep in Alaska s Interior a deserted hot springs lodge fades into history

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dead Heat

We've had some primary elections and soon we'll have real elections. In the run-up to these elections we'll hear the results of little phony elections that candidates, parties and news organizations like to hold so they can pretend to predict the future. These phony elections are called polls and their results cause millions to be spent or withheld in individual races and provide endless fodder for commentators and pundits that analyze the supposed preferences of likely (maybe) voters and provide reasons why one candidate is sizzling and another flaming out. However, if the polls reveal that two candidates for a post have nearly the same potential support at the polls, those two are said to be in a "dead heat".
A dead heat is a term from horse racing. It describes a race result where two or more horses have reached the finish wire at exactly the same instant. It doesn't have to be for first place. There are dead heats for second or third or other placings as well. In modern racing cameras are used to determine the placing of runners and the occurrence of a dead heat. The term is never used to describe the placing of the runners at any time during the race. While the race is being run, the horses could be neck and neck, or side by side or together but there is no dead heat until the race is completed. For this reason the use of the term "dead heat" in the typical political context is erroneous and stupid.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Keep them away from D.C.

It would require a constitutional amendment but it's long past time for the US Congress to join the rest of us in the twenty-first century. The constitution requires that both houses of the Congress meet every year in the same place. It doesn't say what place. Of course, communication in 1787 was a little different than it is now. It was either done by face to face conversation, the verbal delivery of messages, or written notes and letters. For legislative business to be transacted with any degree of efficiency it was a necessity that the members of Congress be in the same place. This is no longer true. Even while our elected representatives and their immense, unelected staffs, are sequestered along the Potomac during the legislative season, they now communicate just as the general public does, on the telephone, with email and by fax. Today there is no justifiable reason, from the point of view of the citizenry, for these 535 solons and their assistants to gather together to accomplish their ends. Indeed, there are many reasons why they should not. Foremost is that once elected these people literally make their home in the D.C. area. They are no longer easily available to their constituents and are physically removed from the obvious and subtle day-to-day concerns and conditions of the people they represent. Secondly, instead of being exposed to a daily stream of local voters with their own requests, the legislator in Washington is preened, petted, cajoled and flattered by a legion of paid lobbyists that move from one office to the next, one table at a gourmet dining spot to another. The members of the two legislative houses are a willing and happy captive audience for a huge lobbying industry made up of friends, relatives and former legislators that are able to congregate in this unlikely spot to concentrate their efforts. Far better it would be if the lobbying effort were forced to diffuse across the country, its effects diluted by target dispersal.

This is a proposed constitutional amendment that needs to be inserted into the congressional agenda regularly until the population is able to recognize its worth and act accordingly.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Try and imagine this:

Updated: Thu., Sep. 2, 2010, 12:58 PM home

Madoff investors oppose payments to bankruptcy trustee

Last Updated: 12:58 PM, September 2, 2010

Posted: 12:58 PM, September 2, 2010

Hundreds of Ponzi king Bernard Madoff's victims today challenged the latest bill from his bankruptcy trustee, which seeks more than $34 million for 120 days of work.

The Aug. 20 bill, for services rendered between Feb. 1 and May 31, works out to more than $5,000 a day for court-appointed trustee Irving Picard and more than $283,000 a day for his firm, Baker & Hostetler, court papers say.

"On an annualized basis, this would be $104,900,950," according to the objection filed by Diane and Roger Peskin, Maureen Ebel and "several hundred" other unnamed Madoff investors.

Their Manhattan Bankruptcy Court filing says that "investors have no ability to evaluate the efficiency or professionalism of the work covered by these applications" because Judge Burton Lifland ruled that Picard and his firm "do not have to file their detailed billing reports."

But they say that "despite the expenditure of more than $2.3 million per week in professional fees and expenses, the trustee has still not determined 2,995 customer claims constituting $14 billion of the $20 billion of claims the trustee has said he will recognize."

The filing also alleges that while Picard has claimed to have recovered $1.5 billion in assets to distribute to Madoff's burned investors, nearly $100 billion was "simply sitting in bank accounts in Madoff's name when the trustee was appointed."

Picard spokesman Kevin McCue declined to comment on the filing, but noted that "any fees paid to Irving Picard and Baker Hostetler are not paid out of the funds recovered for the victims," but by the industry-funded Securities Investor Protection Corporation.

"Therefore, everything recovered for the victims will go to the victims, not to Mr. Picard or the law firm," McCue said.


Absolutely amazing. No wonder there's so much love for the legal profession in the hearts of normal America. Itemization of the bill? Fuggedabowdid. Best of all, the fees, as Mr. McCue said, don't come out of the recovered funds, but from some other mysterious pot of money, so everythings really just O.K.