On the Death of Robin Williams

We all have our demons, the voices that seek to confuse us, ruin us, then laugh at our own destruction. For some people these demons are mere shadows, rarely seen and easily ignored, but for others these demons are as real as anything else in the world. Their voices ring in our ears, their touch as cold and painful as plunging a hand in ice water. They are a constant presence, inescapable and a burden carried through life.

To deal with these demons we often medicate ourselves, seeking oblivion to silence their voices, to dull their touch. Whether it’s cocaine, alcohol or gambling the addictions are an irrational attempt to deal with an irrational situation. These vices provide momentary comfort but only make the demons heavier, stronger, perpetuating a cycle that so often leads to the grave.

Those of us who have managed to escape the cycle, usually only temporarily, understand our fate. We see the demons, every horn and wart, smell their fetid breaths with each gasp of our own, but are too damned stubborn to let them beat us at the moment. Each day, each hour, each second when we don’t succumb to the false cures weakens the demons ever so slightly, making the next day, hour or second slightly easier than the last. But we don’t kid ourselves; no matter how long we’ve been sober the demon is still there. Its voice may be weaker, its stench just a little less pungent, but it will never disappear. It will always be with us.

When we witness one of our own overwhelmed by his demons, it saddens us. Rich or poor, famous or not, we are all united through our struggle against powers we never asked to fight in wars we never asked to be part of, and we are left embittered by the fact that so often those overwhelmed by his or demon are the least deserving of the fate. Why do they fall while so many others who have become real demons tormenting real people draw breath? Where are the inner demons of the men executing women and children in ISIS controlled Iraq? Why aren’t the savages launching rockets as they cower behind children in Gaza immobilized by doubt and fear?

It isn’t fair and yes I’m old enough to recognize that Life isn’t fair. But it sure does suck.

Council Submissions: August 13, 2014

Council Submissions


Honorable Mentions


Non-Council Submissions


We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang

Compare and contrast the following videos. In my opinion Laibach does the Euro-fascist thing much better than the Putinites.

How My 2006 Nissan Xterra Became a Lawn Ornament

 

In 2005 to celebrate her impending graduation from medical school the Wife decided that she wanted to buy a new car. Since she is obsessed with Africa, her idea of transportation is this:

(photo credit: Muda Mrefu)

Of course we didn’t have the money for a Land Rover, particularly one that comes with dents from rhinos, so she ended up settling on a Nissan Xterra. I wasn’t very keen on the truck. Although I had nothing against Nissans the Xterra got terrible gas mileage (17-19 mpg at first) and seemed to be more truck than she needed. But Wife gets what Wife wants, and so we used the USAA car buying service to find and price the Xterra she wanted. We drove to the dealer after settling on a car and price, but as we sat down the dealer refused to sell us the truck at the price negotiated by USAA. Our first mistake was not walking out, but with a youngster in tow and a crest-fallen wife I tried to negotiate the deal myself on the spot – which means I got screwed. I ended up paying about $2,000 more than planned for a stripped down model instead of the fully appointed one USAA promised.

At first things went okay.  The Wife took the truck up to northern Pennsylvania on her rural rotation and the truck seemed to enjoy the rough roads. We quickly learned that while the exterior of the truck was pretty tough the interior suffered from flimsy plastic and vinyl. Within weeks there was our first casualty: the cupholder snapped off from rear of the passenger console.  On one of the maintenance runs to the dealership we asked for a replacement. They said since we broke it, it wasn’t covered by the warranty. They wanted to charge us $500 for the cupholder. A few months later the dog’s claws had punctured through the vinyl cover of the console; also not under warranty – but we spent $400 replacing the vinyl.

The sound system that came with the truck was terrible. Everything that played sounded flat and almost mono. First I replaced the speakers, and there was no change. Then I replaced the car stereo with the exact same Panasonic model I used in my ‘99 Honda. While music sounded better there was something about the truck’s acoustics that just ruined it. It didn’t matter if you were listening to Bach or Bad Brains the sound always seemed smashed together with no bass or treble highlights to speak of.

But hey, we’re adults. We can live with bad sound. What we couldn’t deal with was the gradual decline of the car as soon as the warranty expired. The wheels ate bearings like tic-tacs to the point where once the mechanic needed to heat the axle in order to free them. All four wheels had their bearings and associated control rods replaced at least twice during our 8 years of ownership.

For some reason the car couldn’t maintain alignment which caused me to burn through tires, a problem I exacerbated by buying larger alloy wheels. Yes I am an idiot. I thought that bigger tires would provide the Wife a better ride. All I did was jack up the cost of each tire by $30; there was no change to the ride. I tried to rotate the tires every few months and had the truck aligned about twice a year but never managed to get the treads to wear evenly. Several times I had the car aligned and brought it back to the shop immediately afterward only to be shown the computer printout stating the truck was aligned. It reached a point where I simply thought the roads were made concave and maybe higher center of gravity trucks were more sensitive to this than my Honda.

Small problems continued. I ended up downloading the manuals on the Xterra and hanging out on internet forums, doing the repairs myself. But then the big hits started coming.

First it was the rear differential, setting me back $2400 and a week of a car rental. Soon after that the check engine light started glowing and a trip to the dealership confirmed I needed new catalytic converters for $3,000. At this point the truck was just over 120,000 miles. I ended up replacing the catalytic converters elsewhere with non-OEM cats for $600 but that didn’t fix the problem with the codes. An investigation determined that the 2nd generation Nissan Xterras have cast iron exhaust manifolds bolted onto a cast aluminum engine. Since aluminum and iron expand at different rates, the manifolds tend to develop cracks which allow air into the exhaust. This extra air passes through the catalytic converter and makes the oxygen sensor report the catalytic converter is bad. Another $1000 problem.

On March 30, 2014 while on a business trip the heater stopped blowing warm air. A few minutes later the engine temperature spiked but then returned to normal, and after another 50 miles the heater began blowing warm again. After returning home I took the car to a local mechanic who discovered the transmission cooler within the radiator had failed, allowing radiator coolant to mix with transmission fluid. $600 replacement of the radiator and two system flushes later the transmission slips out of gear, often at critical moments like while turning in intersections. The car suddenly became undriveable, and I had to park it in my field.

It turns out the Nissan Xterra has a transmission computer that actually sits in the transmission fluid pan. As some of you PC geeks may know it is possible to submerse computers in oil or distilled water and have them work just fine. That’s because many oils and distilled water are non-conductive, so while it may look scary, as long as the computer is designed properly for the cooling medium, all will be well. Nissan engineers in their ultimate wisdom decided this was a good idea in the second generation trucks, although the computer was outside the transmission in the first generation trucks. Also they decided to embed the transmission radiator within the engine radiator. This should be no big deal; my Honda has the same configuration. What my Honda does have that the 2nd generation Xterra lacked was a well-made radiator. Nissan’s radiator was defective, and Nissan knows it.

So you have a computer embedded in transmission oil that is cooled through the radiator which uses a 50-50 mix of ethylene glycol and water. The transmission radiator within the engine radiator failed, allowing the antifreeze to sink into the transmission. This caused the overall fluid level to dip. Since the engineers also designed the heater to pull warm coolant from the top of the radiator, the drop in fluid kept the heater from warming up. Only when the engine had warmed up in the cold March air did the fluid expand enough to feed the heater.

But the damage was done. Transmission oil is non-conductive but antifreeze is, and the mixture shorted out the computer. The mixture of green radiator coolant with transmission fluid has even earned a name in the Nissan aficionado community: the Strawberry Milkshake of Death (SMOD) – because that’s exactly what it looks like. Pop off your radiator cap and you’ll find a milky reddish mix. But it’s far from delicious, and Nissan got sued over it.

In 2012 Nissan reached a class-action settlement whereby it extended the warranties of Nissan Xterras and Frontier pickup trucks to 80,000 miles full coverage, 90,000 miles with a $2,500 copay and 100,000 with a $3,000 copay. The meager offerings to Nissan owners only prove what I’ve always believed of class action lawsuits: they are income makers for lawyers and not for the plaintiffs. I never received notice of the settlement nor was I notified of any recall related to the problem.

By this point I was well past the settlement terms. So I did what I’ve done successfully many times in the past: I wrote a letter. I wrote to Jose Munoz, head of Nissan North America.

 

Mr. Muñoz, I grew up loving Datsun. When I see a 280z on the road I notice that I’m not the only one who turns his head to watch that legend slide passed. My very first car was a 1983 Sentra that I bought and taught myself how to drive stick on while leaving the dealer. I put 90k on that car while in college and it never let me down. So as I grew older I always considered Nissan whenever I needed to buy a new or used vehicle.

I like my Xterra. It’s a good solid car with the exception of the damage caused by a poorly engineered transmission cooler. Living in rural North Carolina I need the Xterra to safely take me and my family where we’re going on and off the roads. But the cost of the repair just doesn’t make economic sense and is too much for me to justify putting into the vehicle no matter how much I like it. Still, the idea of scrapping it just offends my environmental sensibilities. This car has many miles left on it before it ends up in a landfill, but I can’t risk driving it until it’s fixed.


 

Weeks passed and on Friday I heard back from Nissan North America.

 

Actually I didn’t get this letter in the mail, although that was the gist of a curt call I had from Meghan at Nissan North America.

So now the Xterra sits in the field waiting for me to decide what to do with it. Replacement of the transmission would run about $3,000. Then there’s still the check engine light issue to deal with plus  new tires for another $2000. $5,000 into an 8 year old car with over a 150,000 miles doesn’t make sense.  I’m driving my ‘99 Honda with close to 200,000 miles on it to dealerships pricing Toyotas and Hondas, and when asked whether I have a trade-in I don’t mention the Xterra because I don’t even know how I’d get it to the dealer to trade in.

As I wrote to Jose Munoz, she is a good looking truck. I can see her from where I write. No rust. No paint issues that a good buff couldn’t fix. She loves the dirt and the North Carolina dust, and she doesn’t look like a suppository the way other SUVs do. When the wife heard about my dealings with Nissan she texted me, “So sad I loved my Xterra but she has broken my heart.” But the wife has a new romance in her life, an Italian Fiat 500 convertible. And I have my trusty Honda CRV which I had ordered specially built for me from Saitama Japan. I’ve sworn the Honda will leave me through my cold-dead hands considering how little trouble that car has given me in 15 years of ownership.

I grew up in an era when few cars made it to 100,000 miles. I’ll never forget pushing my 1983 Dodge Omni into the Toyota dealership in 1987 at 45,000 miles. The car my mother bought with that trade was still going when she traded it in at 150,000 miles. Today used cars often have over 100,000 miles on them. But there are some around like the Nissan Xterra which might look good on the outside but just aren’t built to last the way Toyota 4Runners and Honda CRVs are. It’s been a long, expensive lesson for me.

If I had run that truck into the ground rest assured I wouldn’t  have wasted time writing Nissan, but the fact that it has been a money pit since the warranty expired shows Nissan cannot stand up to its Japanese and European competition in terms of quality.

When I pushed that Dodge into the Toyota dealership I swore off American cars. Almost thirty years later I have not purchased a car made by Ford, GM or Chrysler. Nissan now joins that list.

Why complain? Why waste my time with all this writing? Because the only reason why we don’t pitch cars at the 100,000 mile mark today is because we stopped putting up with badly made cars in the 1970s and 1980s. Today there are many high quality vehicles on the road, but they are only there because consumers expect and demand them. If we let the automakers get sloppy the way the US automakers did in the 1960s and 1970s and don’t hold them to a higher standard of quality, then we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

The Council Has Spoken: August 8, 2014

Non-Council Winners


Bandaging a Finger in New Jersey Shows Rot at Heart of US Healthcare

A NJ teacher cut his finger. After it wasn’t healing properly he visited the ER. No x-ray, MRI or anything more than a bandage, a tetanus shot and some ointment. He didn’t even see a doctor and was instead treated by a nurse practitioner.

He was billed $8,200 for the visit.

He called around and found the going rate at most clinics and hospitals was between $400 and $1000.

I’m not sure which is worse: the $8,200 bill from the ER he went to or the fact that the other hospitals and clinics he contacted charge $400-1000 for the same thing.

The cost of the bandages and sterile supplies was probably a few dollars max. I’ll guess $10 for the tetanus shot.  NPs in NJ probably pull in about $120k with benefits, and that’s on the high side. So if he spent 10 minutes bandaging the patient and another 20 minutes writing up the charge sheet and documenting the visit, we’re looking at $60 for labor. Add in hospital overhead consumed by the patient – everyone he spoke to that helped him in his visit, and the visit likely cost the hospital about $120.

In a free market system we could draw the line there and say, “So how do you justify netting $8000 for the visit?”

But our health care system is nowhere near a free market system.

Consider the fact that hospitals cannot legally turn anyone away due to their inability to pay. I’m not a lawyer and I do believe there are limits to this, but from the hospital’s perspective they can’t have lawyers triaging patients in the ER. So they end up providing free care – free to those who receive it but paid by everyone else.

So we have to add on an “indigent care” tax to that $120. How much do we add? That’s a very good question and one that’s not easily answered, but for fun let’s say $130 – turning the visit into a $250. We’re still a long way from $8,200 but you should begin to get a sense that things aren’t as clear-cut as they should be.

Then there’s the issue of Medicaid. Hospitals have to take it, but the reimbursement costs are notoriously below the cost or providing care. Therefore to keep the hospital profitable (for the few progressives who stumble on this post substitute the phrase “from not going bankrupt” for the “P” word) we need to add the cost of treating the medicaid recipients. How much should that surcharge be? How about $50. So now we’re at $300.

The particular hospital the teacher visited is a for-profit (progressives: substitute the word “evil” here) hospital. At this point the hospital can pretty much charge what it wants, so why not $8,200? When’s the last time you walked into a hospital or doctor’s office and seen a board with a list of services and fees on the wall? That used to be a common site but now it’s almost unheard of. Go into any body shop or auto repair mechanic and you will see signs telling you how much the business charges for labor and for common procedures to your car. Yet when you walk into a doctor’s office or clinic you have no clue to what your treatment will cost even if it’s something minor like bandaging a wound or getting a tetanus shot.

This may make it seem like the doctor is doing her work because she loves it, and that the nurses are taking care of you because that’s just the kind of people that they are. But the doctor has $200k in medical school debt and a mortgage, and the nurse has a kid in day-care that needs to be clothed and fed, and “kindness” doesn’t pay back student loans, mortgages or day-care bills. You are paying a high price for that ignorance but you just don’t know it.

The people who do are the ones without insurance or the under-insured who get hassled by bill collectors, and the few people like the New Jersey teacher who think $8,200 is ridiculous regardless of who pays it.

Americans need to grow up and become responsible for their own care, but that’s the long-term solution. The issue is how do we get there? We can start by mandating transparent pricing wherever medical care is offered. The mere fact this hospital would be forced to put “Bandage a Cut – $8,000” on the wall would likely drive down the costs of the service at that particular institution. Eventually people would become aware of the limitations of their insurance and act accordingly, just as people are aware that they pay more to get their cars fixed at the dealership rather than the local mechanic down the street.

The US healthcare system is such a mess that such a simple solution isn’t going to solve everything. The key is to “do no harm” and make the system worse such as what Obamacare has done.

 

Council Submissions: August 6, 2014

Council Submissions


Honorable Mentions


Non-Council Submissions


Ebola – Don’t Panic But Don’t Underestimate The Virus

As someone who is married to a doctor who spends her vacations in Africa treating rural villagers I take Ebola very seriously, especially since quite a few medical personnel have died from the virus. Although this virus has been infecting people since the 1970s we know very little about it. In the past it has burned itself out by pretty much killing everyone who came into contact with it in the African bush. This time around it has made it to the cities, and news stories are circulating that it has left Africa and made it to Europe and perhaps the US.

The crazies are beginning to take notice. Michael Savage has slammed the CDC for bringing two Ebola victims, an American doctor and nurse, to the US for treatment. He asks, “Why have they brought an infected doctor and another patient from the area of contagion to Emory University in the U.S. when these individuals could treated just as well in Africa? Perhaps they are using these two patients as guinea pigs in a trial for a new vaccine from which billions are to be made if successful.”

Evidently Savage has never spent time in an African hospital. I have seen my share, and if your idea of a hospital is an American public high school nurse’s office except with fewer drugs, then you have a pretty good idea of what constitutes the average African hospital. They simply do not have the resources that Emory does. Could we bring Emory over there? Perhaps in a few months sure, but the Americans had hours to live. Was there a risk to bringing them here? Absolutely, but that risk had to be weighed against the likely outcomes for the two Americans. A few weeks ago someone found a stash of old smallpox vials that had been forgotten. We’ve been experimenting with dangerous biological organisms here in the US for decades; it’s not like this is the first time a virus as notorious as Ebola has been brought to US shores. So the risk was miniscule compared to the odds against the two Americans suffering from the virus. In my view it was the right decision. Oh, and Michael, the gist of your argument makes you sound as wackadoodle as the anti-corporate progressives.

Ebola is a frightening virus, but the way forward is to combat the virus with scientific research, not throwing up the walls and cowering in fear. And it certainly isn’t by using one’s favorite whipping boy to stifle a vaccine.

 

“All this blood we see out here is on Obama’s hands”

Once again the British media covers American problems better than the American media does. This Daily Mail piece interviews ranchers on the border in Texas. Warning: It’s not pretty.

The Council Has Spoken: August 1, 2014

Council Winners


Non-Council Winners


Jesse Ventura’s New Book

Hot on the heels of his legal victory over the widow of Chris Kyle, author of American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura announced the release of his new book.

Update: Here’s one opinion from the NSW (Naval Special Warfare) Community. Evidently I’m not the only one who thinks there’s a special circle of Hell waiting for this turd.

Open Borders Hurt Poor Americans the Most

Something tells me if we were facing an influx of corporate CEOs or a flood of journalists into this country willing to work for less than minimum wage the illegal immigrant invasion would be portrayed differently. In Bracing for Amnesty Matthew Vadum writes,

Although amnesty remains deeply unpopular among the American public at large, the activist Left wants the low-ball estimate of 11 million illegal aliens present in the U.S. to be processed because they see them as future Democratic voters. In addition, many labor unions, such as SEIU (which has executives focused solely on immigration issues) see today’s illegals as future union members. Business lobbies favor amnesty because they crave the cheap, largely unskilled labor.

Vadum captures the unholy trinity pushing for opening our borders to cheap labor. Lost in the rush is the impact on those who will suffer the consequences, the working poor. Those who claim to represent them aren’t. I happen to live in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. The chicken tender scorers at the local Tyson chicken processing plant won’t be seeing higher wages paid for their dangerous and soul-killing work, not when the county is filled with Mexican laborers. But it’s great news for Tyson shareholders and the management who has to keep them happy.

Yet I am perceived on the Left as a racist for pointing this out.

Why I Collect Ancient Roman Coins

In the picture above I’m holding within my hand a silver denarius minted in Ancient Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 180 AD. Emperor Marcus Aurelius was considered one of the better Roman emperors, the last of a string of decent leaders known as the “adoptive emperors” beginning with Nerva and ending with Aurelius’s choice of his biological son Commodus to succeed him. At that point it was all down hill for the empire.

I have begun a modest collection of ancient Roman coins, focusing on pre-Diocletian post-Republic silver coins known as denarii. As seen in the picture above they are quite small, roughly the size of a dime, and usually weigh around 3 grams. As with any hobby the key one can spend too much money. This site specializes in the high end where one can spend thousands on a single coin. Some of these are works of art (for truly beautiful ancient coins check out these Greeks). I stick to a $50 per coin limit.

There’s something sublime about holding a coin that was minted by hands long dead. I find the honest wear of these coins more appealing than the sterile beauty of their high end cousins. This wear is the result of being touched and carried by countless people, and each coin sets one’s imagination alight. Was this a day’s wage for a Roman on a Parthian campaign? Or was it an offering to the numerous gods the Romans worshiped? Then there are the hands of those who kept it over the millennia, first as a store of wealth after the collapse of the empire, then as a curiosity and finally, a reminder of a time long before. I sometimes reflect on Life and see the threads of generations that tie us to our distant past. The strands are clear for the most recent generations, but it doesn’t take long for them to trail into darkness after only a handful of generations. Yet what amazes me is although the strands are in the darkness and we don’t know to whom they tie us, we still feel their pull on us in our daily lives.

The foundation of the calendar that manages our time lay in the reforms made by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The names and duration of all the months are courtesy of Caesar (except Quintilis and Sextilis which were named July and August after Caesar and his successor Augustus). Our political system, our philosophy, even the languages we speak are all tied to the Romans and their idolized yet disrespected  forebears, the ancient Greeks. Everything we do is shaped by the threads which stretch into the darkness and lead back to Rome and the hands that touched that coin, yet these threads remain invisible to us.

But the coins aren’t just about the past, and the threads don’t end with us. They pass through us and it has nothing to do with whether you have children or not.

We are participants in History and we shape its future in ways that are impossible for us to imagine. Dramatic gestures like voting mean much less than the low-level interactions we have with one another. One of the most important decisions I made in my life, to appeal my rejection from college,  was suggested by a co-worker at a video store I worked at. I forget her name, but her words led me to challenge the decision successfully which in turn placed me at a location where I met my Wife. I didn’t know that moment was so important, and neither did she, but her kindness and my humility to accept her advice came at a critical moment. The importance of that interactionhas tempered my interactions with others and made me more positive and helpful with those I meet because I never know if and when I will have a similar impact on them the way that bouncy little college girl at the video store in 1988 had on me.

Just as the hands shaped the Marcus Aurelius denarius, our hands will shape the world of those far into the future who will touch the things we touch, and feel the same tug of threads in the darkness that we feel. We of course will be long dead but our influence will live on just as the Romans does today. Let us hope they will think of kindly and not judge us too harshly, or worst of all, forget us.

Council Submissions: July 30, 2014

Council Submissions


Honorable Mentions


Non-Council Submissions


2 More Years of Failure Instead of Impeachment

John Boehner does have some brains at least. The House Speaker has ruled out impeachment, saying “(I)t’s all a scam started by the Democrats in the White House.”

Boehner is right. The GOP doesn’t need to make a martyr out of the worst president I’ve lived under in my brief lifetime. Better instead to let Obama golf his way through his lame duck presidency as the world falls apart and the Democratic Party’s 2016 chances with it.  Let the Democratic Party own this mess without the distraction of Obama’s martyrdom. They need to savor the failure of his presidency as only his opponents have and face the consequences of their stupidty to raise this inexperienced academic to the most powerful position in the world.

My late mother-in-law used to always tell someone when they complained, “You chose this path.” We as a country chose this path and we are constitutionally obligated to suffer the consequences of our actions. No matter how much I detest this president, I do not want to see him impeached unless incontrovertible proof arises for  “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” All the scandals I have documented on this website, all the idiocy the world and this country has suffered from the incompetence, misguided idealism and sheer greed of this president and his administration do not rise to that standard.

I opposed the impeachment of Clinton when I was a Democrat, and I oppose the impeachment of Obama as a registered Republican. I am relieved to see Boehner appreciates what impeachment means to the political fabric of the United States in contrast to those who will impeach anyone whom they oppose.