Sunday, September 27, 2009

The big box in the sky

In the summer of 2006 we visited Innsbruck Austria. When in Europe, it's obligatory to visit the local cathedral. One of the big attractions in Innsbruck is the HofKirche - built in the 1550's by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

Just above the altar, I noticed an interesting architectural detail. There was big glassed-in suite with a great view of the proceedings - it looked kind of like a luxury box (sky box). I guess it makes sense, after all, you can't expect the emperor to sit in the pews. I'm sure it was catered, had a bar, and probably a couple of big screen TV's. I kind of expected to see George Steinbrenner peering down imperiously from the windows.
In the USA our cathedrals are dedicated to sports.

In 1965 the city of Houston built the Astrodome. The architecture wasn't ornate, but the effect was stunning. Huge indoor stadiums are commonplace today, but when it was built, the Astrodome was considered the eighth wonder of the world. These structures aren't Chartres or the K├Âlner Dom but they sure are big.

Actually, the most important innovation of the Astrodome wasn't the indoor stadium, or even artificial turf, it was the the luxury box.

Since then, sports franchises have turned the luxury box from a VIP perk, into a major source of revenue. The New York Yankees reportedly charge up to $600,000 a season for some of these suites.

It's comforting to know things haven't change all that much.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

My encounter with 'socialized' medicine

In December 2006 I visited the Emergency room in Toledo Spain. The visit was precipitated by a recurrence of inflammation in my left eye - a condition that I have experienced several times over the past few years.

I took a bus to the Hospital Virgen de la Salud (Toledo municipal hospital) first thing in the morning. My Spanish isn't very good so I took Eva as translator. The ER didn't look all that different from a US hospital, but the experience was very, very, different. There was a crowded waiting room and an admissions desk.

"The experience was very, very different."

We explained my problem at the window, and they collected my name, address, and other information. They didn't ask about insurance or a credit card. They sent me immediately to the specialists office inside the building. Eva went to the crowded waiting room, which was for relatives only - patients are admitted right away.

The ophthalmologist was busy with another patient. I waited in the hallway next to a very sick woman on a gurney. After a few minutes she was taken into a room and I was left alone. I waited for 10 minutes.

The doctor did not speak much English. I wrote out on a piece of paper "HLA-B27", which is the genetic marker for my condition. He seemed to recognize this and he examined me with a Baush & Lomb slit lamp that is identical to the one my ophthalmologist uses at home. The doctor wrote me a prescription and sent me om my way.

I checked out at the ER discharge desk. The bill was about 90 euros ($110 at the time), and as a non-citizen the hospital would bill me later. "I live in the US, let me pay now," I suggested. They looked confused. I couldn't pay now - the ER didn't have a cashier. The sent me on my way with directions to the pharmacy.
"My visit to the emergency room took 45 minutes - total."
Eva and I got lost, but a local woman showed us the way to the pharmacy. It was a small room with a pharmacist behind a big white counter. They only sold medicine, no soft drinks and bateries and makeup. The pharmacist gave me a bottle of brand name Pred Forte, the price was printed on the bottle - 3.50 euros (about $4 US). My pharmacy at home lists the identical drug for around $50 - I get it for a $20 copay.

Same drug, 1/10 the cost.
Other than the (lack of) waiting, the examination and treatment was identical to the care I get in the US.

Here are the differences I observed between socialized medicine in Europe and private medicine in the USA:
  1. I was not asked me for insurance or credit card on admittance.
  2. I did not have to wait in the emergency room.
  3. The doctor saw me quickly, and had the first-rate equipment in his office.
  4. They discharged me without asking for payment.
  5. The hospital bill was about $110.
  6. The identical prescription cost 10% of the US price.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Stone Mountain North Carolina

On Friday Diane and I hiked up to the summit of Stone Mountain NC, elevation 2305 feet. The morning was clear and cool after a night of thunderstorms.

I took the time to make a pencil drawing. Like most pencil drawings, it came out smudgey. I think I'll switch to pen & ink.

Here's the photo. Note the drawing pad on the ground next to Diane.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The biggest discovery ever - literally.

A group of astronomers picked a tiny empty spot in the heavens. As far as anyone could tell, there was nothing there - just blackness. How small? Take a grain of sand and hold it at arms length and you can visualize this tiny speck. They pointed the Hubble telescope at it for 10 days and took a very long exposure.

The picture turned out to be far from empty - it showed nearly 10,000 separate galaxies. These weren't stars, they were galaxies made up of hundreds of billions of stars each. Only about 6 dim stars were even visible in the picture.

It's not exaggeration to say it would be impossible to exaggerate the size of this discovery.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Squirrel Xing

We were driving on route 143 (Cherohala Skyway) in western North Carolina when we noticed some odd structures along the highway. They were tall phone poles with sections of PVC pipe nailed to them in an ascending pattern. Since there were no wires on the poles, we were curious about what they were. Fortunately, a display at the next scenic overlook explained everything.

These are highway crossings for the Northern Flying Squirrel. The critters don't seem to be able to cross the road without being squashed or eaten by predators. The poles allow them to climb up and glide safely across. The PVC pipes give them a place to hide when a hawk attacks them. See the full story at

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Libertarians in the library

I was in the Cary public library today. The guy in front of me asked the librarian if they had any large print copies of Ayn Rand. Does anyone else see the inconsistency here?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sounds funny to me...

The other day I was thinking about humorous songs. I googled the question, but didn’t come up with any satisfactory answers - mostly I discovered that other people don't share my sophisticated tastes. One list featured the top 50 humorous songs of all time, unfortunately, 48 of them were by Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al is funny enough, but he needs to be taken in manageable doses.

Using a strict scientific methodology, I came up with a list. My criteria are 1) no parody, and 2) deep philosophical content.

Bruces’ Philosophers SongMonty Python. My all-time favorite.

Istanbul (not Constantinople) – The Four Lads (1953), They Might Be Giants (1990). This song explores the historical name of the city known as Byzantium, Constantinople, and more recently, Istanbul.

Charlie on the MTA. Kingston Trio (1959). A 1948 campaign song for Boston mayoral candidate Walter A. O'Brien of the progressive party. Based on the tune of "Wreck of the old 97", it decries subway rate increases.

Eric the Half-a-Bee – Monty Python. Another profound exploration of philosophical themes.
"Half a bee, philosophically,
must ipso facto half not be."
Werewolves of LondonWarren Zevon (1982). Easy to play. “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking in Soho in the rain. Looking for a place called Lee Ho Fooks, gonna get a big plate of beef chow mein” (Sounds a lot like to "Sweet Home Alabama")

Friday, March 06, 2009

La Alhambra

Maybe it's just because I arrived before dawn, and the moon was up, and the black night sky was just turning blue, but I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. "Al Hambra" means "the Red One" and you can see why; when the morning sun shines on the towers of the Alcazba, they glow red, and then later a blinding white.

The city of Granada is old and hot and dusty, but the Alhambra sits high above it on a commanding hilltop. The fortress was built by a Muslim sultan in 1333, and has somehow survived over six hundred years of vandals and grenadiers and fascists.

The interior is built around shady gardens and Islamic arches and cool running water. If I were rich, I'd like to spend a week there just sketching or painting watercolors. If you avoid the big attractions like El Partal and the Patio de los Leones, the hordes of tourists aren't that bad.

* * *

A note about the name: I saw several signs that referred the "The La Alhambra". Since "La" is Spanish for "the", and "Al" is Arabic for "the", you could translate the name "The The The Red One". This is almost as redundant as my favorite pleonasm: "The LaBrea Tar Pits", which translates literally to "The The Tar Tar Pits".

Monday, March 02, 2009

Tony Lama style 6210 brown, size 15.

Back in 1986 I decided it was time to get a proper pair of boots. It was a nice spring day, so I hopped on my motorcycle and headed across the border to Cheyenne Wyoming. The ride takes you north through the high plains along the front range mountains of Colorado.

As the spring air spills over the mountains, it rushes downward, building up speed and temperature. This phenomena is known as the Chinook wind, and by the time it hits the plains it can gust up to the 70mph and be quite warm. A wind like that will break loose anything not solidly moored. This includes a lot of plastic Wal-Mart bags, and more than a few tumbleweeds.

The tumbleweed is not native to North America and is usually either "Kochia" (Kochia scoparia) and Russian Thistle (Salsola kali). These invasive species have a unique way of propagating. The plant dies back over the winter, and the bushy top part breaks loose from the tap root. As the dried shell is blown across the land, it disperses thousands of tiny seeds. When a Chinook wind blows down the mountains, every tumbleweed on the front range heads for Kansas.

Tumbleweeds can grow up to 6 feet in diameter. When you are heading North at 70 mph on a motorcycle, and a 6 ft tumbleweed crosses your bow, it can be disconcerting. Fortunately, although quite large, they are mostly air. Despite a few direct hits, I made it safely to Cheyenne.

The stores in Cheyenne are, well, appropriate for southern Wyoming; they tend towards farm and ranch supplies. Beef is cheap out west, so they grow some big boys. Those big boys have big dogs, which is a good thing, because I wear a size 15 boot. I picked out a nice pair of brown Tony Lama's.By 1990 my riding days were over, but the boots were still going strong. That's Bill contemplating the very same size 15 boot. He had big boots to fill, in a physical, but not a metaphorical sense. Just a few years later he was borrowing them.

I've still got the boots, although it's time for a resole. Riding a motorcycle isn't any fun in the insane commuter traffic of the triangle area. I've still got my class C motorcycle endorsement, but I don't have the urge to get a new bike. A horse sounds a lot more enjoyable. I don't ride very well, but it should be easy to learn. I'm halfway there already- I've got the boots.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where is the TV remote?

The remote control unit is remarkably wily for an inanimate object. Despite a lack of legs, it can crawl into some extremely inaccessible places. Mine always seem to escape into the kitchen, or burrow deep into the couch.
Here is a stupid, but amazingly effective way to keep from misplacing remotes: attach a shoelace, or some other long string to it.
You don't have to tie it to anything. This long tail makes it difficult for the remote to crawl under furniture, or walk away without being noticed. When it does get away, you will see the tail hanging out, and reel it back in. I haven't lost one in years.

Monday, January 19, 2009

El Greco meets Norman Rockwell

Spring on the Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton 1945

I've always admired the work of the American painter Thomas Hart Benton. He painted the gaunt and hungry American farmers and landscapes of the Midwest during the 1920’s through1940’s. The figures are beautifully painted with an unsentimental dignity - a cross between Norman Rockwell and the renaissance painter El Greco.

Bootleggers, Thomas Hart Benton 1927

It seems like Benton was not much admired in the art world. I don’t quite follow the politics, but apparently Benton hated the whole New York art scene. He was a self-declared “enemy of modernism”; in 1941 Time magazine referred to him as "tough, swart little Missouri Painter". (I think this translates to “yokel pain-in-the-ass”).

Agony of the garden, El Greco 1590
© 2008 Raoul Rubin