Saturday, June 26, 2010

Keep going, Bruins!

Who would have thought that the USA soccer team would have been eliminated from the World Cup before the UCLA baseball team was eliminated from the College World Series? Yet that's what happened today, with Ghana beating Team USA 2-1 and eliminating them, while UCLA clobbered TCU 10-3 and moves into the final best-of-three series against the winner of this afternoon's Clemson-South Carolina game.

As I noted, I have paid attention to college baseball only sporadically. Having watched the UCLA games, however, I'm impressed by the quality of the players and the winning spirit of the team. Pitcher Trevor Bauer, of the discolored cap, who went 8 innings today, seems representative -- somewhat eccentric, but damn good.

Go Bruins!!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The way some people are

Early on in my illness I had plans to keep a diary, but most days I just wasn't up to writing, and even now, with the incision almost healed, I still can't spend more than a few minutes at the computer without feeling some sensitivity in the incision area and flat-out running out of ideas. But there is one memory from our first hospital stay that I wanted to record because I found it so striking and unusual.

When we went to Cedars-Sinai the first time, my wife Jen stayed in the room with me on a cot they brought in. She also helped out whenever and wherever she could -- sometimes making the bed, collecting stool samples (ugh!), cleaning me off, cleaning the room sometimes -- just generally making herself useful and helpful to the nurses. The nurses simply gushed with appreciation. Jen ask a few why they were so effucive, and they said it was extremely unusual for spouses and/or family members to be helpful in the hospital. She and I found that rather surprising. You would think family members would be eager to help, but apparently most of them are more than happy to let the nurses do everything while they just sit around. Maybe it's because hospitals are so expensive they figure they'll get their moneys' worth of care and not pitch in? I simply don't know. But I found it surprising and a little dismaying.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Those who have done the thinking will at the moment of crisis be ready to invoke the decisions they have long since made. The capacity to say them nay depends not alone on the enjoyment of higher authority, but much more on the possessions of an alternative idea." -- Bernard Brodie

I took a class on nuclear weapons and their implications from Bernard Brodie at UCLA way back in the day, and was im[pressed with the rigor and breadth of his thinking. This quote may in part explain why.

Life lessons from Rembrandt

Frankly, I expected "How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self," by one Roger Housden, which has been on my shelf unread for a couple of years, to be more of an art book. (I got it with the idea of giving it to my son's then-wife, an artist, but they divorced almost immediately amid way too much drama.) The title really should have tipped me off, however. It's more of a self-help/inspiration book, centered around Rembrandt's life and especially his self-portraits, which he did at every stage of his career. Now Rembrandt was not a conventionally handsome man. Housden's point is that the self-portraits not only show different moods at different stages of his career but are unflinchingly honest -- warts and all, so to speak. When he was down, the self-portraits look almost ugly.

Rembrandt went from unknown to highly celebrated and successful to being something of a forgotten has-been forced to sell all his possessions to survive during his career. The lessons Housden takes from the life: Open Your Eyes and follow your passion; Love This World as you find it; Troubles Will Come to anybody; Stand Like a Tree when you think you're too weak; Keep the Faith in yourself and the power of love; and finally Accept the Inevitable when your time comes.

Not always completely inspired, but it has lots of illustrations from Rembrandt paintings, and that can't be all bad.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The future of choral music?

Even if you know what's coming, this will be fascinating, perhaps even amazing to you. This guy wrote a piece of choral music, then made the music available for a free download on the Internet. He asked people to video themselves singing one of the parts and got 185 responses from 12 countries, then blended them all together to make a choir. The results are quite astounding. Rough translation:

warm and heavy as pure gold
and the angels sing softly
to the new-born baby.

You won't regret clicking on it. Thanks to my old chorus director Don Morris for finding this and bringing it to my attention. He suggested that maybe 25 years from now people will e-mail their parts in and if it's good enough they'll e-mail you back some applause.

McChrystal: the flawed flogging the clueless

Since I'm on a leave of absence I don't have access to the Rolling stone article about Afghan campaign top general Stanley McChrystal, but here's a link to a piece with some key excerpts. His comments look to fit the classic Washington definition of a gaffe: an inadvertent or inconvenient dollop of truth, the eternal enemy of all things governmental.

I'm convinced, for example, that McChrystal's characterization of Obama as ill-informed and somewhat disengaged about Afghanistan is almost certainly true. Obama had no background in or interest in foreign affairs before being elected, and his decision to call Afghanistan the "right" war was strictly political, to countermand the impression that he is a war wimp. He seems to have no clue just how complicated Afghanistan is -- or how unnecessary it is for the U.S. to fight there, given that the Taliban is an indigenous Afghan movement and al-Qaida, which does have international ambitions (though little operational capacity) has no real foothold in Afghanistan. The fact the al-Qaida and the Taliban are different outfits that don't have identical agendas seems to have escaped him.

While McChrystal's slams at the administration (except for Hillary) ring true, however, his own plan is deeply flawed and rife with wishful thinking. Classic counterinsurgency doctrine depends on a stable government with a reasonable amount of popular support and effective security forces to succeed. This is hardly the case in Afghanistan, where Karzai's rule doesn't extend beyond Kabul and the government (and Karzai's brother) are profoundly corrupt and unpopular. Not only is it unnecessary for the U.S. to dictate the political outcome in Afghanistan, it is most unlikely to succeed in a country with deepseated suspicion of outside powers and no desire to have an effective central government. So there are no good guys in this flap.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Reading a few novels

I love reading books of all kinds, but for the past several years I have limited myself, reading almost exclusively to books that I planned to review for the Register's Commentary pages or that related directly to reasonably current events I was likely to write about, which has meant almost exclusively books with fairly direct relevance to current events. While off with my illnesses, I decided to expand my reading horizons a bit, with mixed results.

I've had a couple of Harry Kemelman's books on my shelf for a while without reading them. He's the creator of the Rabbi detective David Small. I read "Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home," and found it quite satisfactory. An intriguing and credible murder mystery told within the context of tales of dissension within the congregation. I'm sure I would enjoy all the other Rabbi mysteries. I also read "The Nine Mile Walk," a collection of short stories about Prof. Nicky Welt, a bright prof who solves mysteries as something of an afterthought. I found them clever but not as satisfying as the Rabbi Small book.

I also read "The Schirmer Inheritance" by fabled spy novelist Eric Ambler, and found it altogether satisfying and intriguing. Lots of twists and surprises and a conclusion one didn't necessarily expect.

I also slogged through Henry James's late novel "The Ambassadors," and sad to say it confirmed my incomprehension that many consider him the finest novelist of all time. It certainly explored the psychology of the main character rather thoroughly, it told the story skillfully from his perspective, and it was nice to have characters with some intellectual depth. But in the end one still didn't care all that much about them, and the actions at the climax were insufficiently motivated. I'm not all that tempted to read more.

UCLA baseball? Who knew?

When I was in college I don't think I went to a single college baseball game, even though I attended quite a few sporting events, including not only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's (then Lew Alcindor's) first appearance on campus and a bunch of rugby games, for heaven's sake. I have been aware that a number of UCLA players, notably Troy Glaus, have distinguished themselves in the bigs, but I've never paid much attention to UCLA baseball or college baseball in general.

Then a few weeks ago, having more free time to channel-surf than any non-invalid would, I became aware that UCLA was playing Cal State Fullerton for the right to go to the College WOrld Series in Omaha. Having worked in Orange County all these years I was aware the CSF is a perennial power and occasional national champion. So I was pleased that UCLA beat them and then, on Saturday, I believe, beat Florida rather decisively in the first round of the CWS. The Bruins are playing again today, and I think I'll give them a watch.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bringing opera to the people

If this performance by the Philadelphia Opera Co. doesn't bring a smile to your face, you're deader than I would have been if I hadn't had surgery:

Quote of the Day

"Thought . . . is the dignity of a man, and no man is rising but in proportion as he is learning to think clearly and forcibly, or directing the energy of his mind to the acquisition of truth. Every man [we would say person; this was written in 1840], in whatsoever condition, is to be a student. No matter what other vocation he may have, his chief vocation is to Think." -- William Ellery Channing

A noble sentiment, no doubt, but one wonders whether more than a small minority are really capable of critical thought. Albert J. Nock eventually decided that most were not "educable," and claimed that coming to that conclusion made him happier. He no longer wasted his time being impatient with slow-witted, unreflective people. They were what they were.

Lakers win, thugs embarrass us

I was enthralled that the Lakers won last night, especially considering the effort required to come from behind after Boston dominated the first half. (I've been paying close attention to the Lakers since the late 1960s, when they had West and Baylor and that gritty little Bruin Gail Goodrich and could beat anybody but Boston, so I'm not a Willy-come-lately.) I was less than thrilled, however, that a few thugs and drunks thought it would be cool to run riot, burn a taxi, make some efforts at looting and generally embarrass all of Southern California. Such idiots provide justification for a heavy police presence and feed the impression that without the police out in full riot-gear force, chaos and disorder are ever-present dangers. A moment's thought would confirm that the government creates much more chaos and disorder than it prevents; indeed, the announcement that the police would be out in force, as well as the media coverage, may have fed the appetite of the idiots.

Good post-surgery news

We went to see Dr. Nissen, the surgeon who did my Whipple operation, yesterday, and the news was all good. The open wound is healing nicely, though it might be another two weeks rather than one week before it is fully healed (this is a tribute to my wonderful wife Jen, who after some squeamish moments has handled packing the wound terrifically). The best news, however, is that the post-surgical pathology report came in. The tumor was so big that the surgeons weren't sure whether it was ampullary (confined to the bile duct area) or in the pancreas. It turns out to have been ampullary -- if it had been pancreatic, apparently it would have been tantamount to a death sentence. So the prospects for a full recovery are excellent. We'll do chemotherapy, but it's to make sure no undiscovered malignancy has spread to elsewhere rather than to fight an identified malignancy.

Details about chemo are still to be worked out, but we're feeling optimistic and terrific just now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Language ... is the indispensable mechanism of human life. To be able to read and write is to learn to profit by and to take part in the greatest of human achievements -- that which makes all other achievements possible -- namely, the pooling of our experience in great cooperative stores of knowledge ... From the warning cry of primitive man to the latest scientific monograph or news bulletin, language is social. Cultural and intellectual cooperation is, or should be, the great principle of human life." S.I. Hayakawa, from "Language in Thought and Action"

Afghan minerals: Blessing or curse?

The news that Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, might turn out to have $1 trillion-with-a-t worth of mineral deposits might offer some promise of relief from the grinding poverty the country endures -- or not. Unfortunately, the record of countries with big resource pools is not exactly encouraging. For the most part governments tend to nationalize such resources, which means that the government and those with political clout reap whatever benefits are to be had, while the rest of the people get the shaft -- and the situation is aggravated by just how rich some favored people become.

As Amity Shlaes suggests in this piece, there's a better way -- establishing and honoring property rights. But the odds on it happening that way are not exactly encouraging. Perhaps, given that Afghanistan has never had an effective central government, tribal and regional leaders might be able to stave off a complete power-grab at the center. But if power corrupts, the prospect of power and wealth can corrupt pretty effectively also.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Quote of the Day

"O life, you should never have begun, but since you did, you should never end! There is nothing more sought after or fragile than you, and he who loses you once recovers you too late." -- Baltasar Gracian
Some other Gracian quotes.

Toward honesty in college athletics

It was announced a few days ago when I didn't much feel like sitting in front of a computer, but I think a comment might still be apropos. I had almost no feeling of Schadenfreude when it was announced the USC had serious sanctions imposed on it by the NCAA -- two years of not being able to go bowling and the loss of 30 athletic scholarships over three years -- even though USC is UCLA's traditional rival. One doesn't really want to see a rival crippled by outside parties; one wants to be able to beat them when they're attheir best.

The larger issue, however, is the fiction -- the cult -- of amateurism in college athletics. I don't think it's likely, but I would love to see it abandoned. The amateurism requirement is a hangover from the 19th-century aristocrats who helped to establish the Olympics and other modern sports and claimed to believe that "gentlemen do not take money for playing games" -- which helped to eliminate competition from poorer kids who might need to take money. We would be better off, I think, if colleges that wanted outstanding sports programs openly paid "student-athletes" and dropped the pretense. As it is, schools with, for example, outstanding football programs, reap monetary benefits, while the athletes risk injury providing the product for the price of an athletic scholarship. Better to stop pretending and have athletes paid openly, perhaps even negotiating fees year by year. It wouldn't be inconsistent with going to classes and getting a degree, and in fact it's likely that fewer would leave early for the pros.


Healing nicely

Just in case anyone is interested, I am healing rather nicely. I guess the fact the there was a big pocket under my incision, which led Dr. Nissen to remove staples and leave a fairly large open wound over part of the incision, has made the process slower than it might have been ideally. But after some tentativeness the first couple of times, Jen has become quite expert at "packing" the wound -- i.e., filling it with gauze to absorb various stuff -- twice a day, and does it without causing pain. The wound is noticeably healing and becoming smaller each day. When we were in the office last week, Dr. Nissen and Honore estimated it should be fully healed in about two weeks from last Thursday. Then they'll design a chemotherapy regimen.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Cult bites Barack

The building aftermath of the Gulf oil-spew demonstrates, as a side effect, the absurdity of the modern habit of treating the president and the presidency as near magical in power and ability. People are said to be upset with Obama because he hasn't been angry enough or the fedgov hasn't done enough. It's almost as if people expected him to don a wetsuit, be impervious to the pressure, and dive down with a blowtorch and fix everything.

All this is part of the Cult of the Presidency, seeing the president as the First Teacher, First Parent, First Avenger, First Mentor, First Moralist. In the real world Obama is stuck moving back and forth between ineffectual and perhaps phony anger and reassurances. Don't know yet whether this is Obama's Katrina. It doesn't deserve to be, perhaps, but he does deserve to have one.

Back from surgery

In fact I have been somewhat remiss. We have been home since last Wednesday night. The surgery seems to have gone well; in fact immediately afterward Dr. Nissen told Jen I was "rock solid stable." However, it was extensive surgery, and the aftermath is not over. The day we were to leave, Dr. Nissen came in, looked at the big incision in my stomach (21 staples, vertical), said "that's not good" and pulled out about 10 of them in the middle, revealing an open wound. He explained that if it healed with a pocket it would have a tendency to collect liquid and would not be good. So he informed Jen that she would have to pack the open wound with gauze twice a day. She said, "You're kidding," but he finally talked her into believing she could do it. And she has. The wound is healing from the inside out.

On Monday we ran out of the good gauze and had some uncertainty, so Honore, the nurse, asked us to come in to the office. She said the wound was looking good and gave us some softer gauze. Things are going OK, in short, but full wound healing will probably take another couple of weeks. Then chemotherapy. I don't know how often I'll feel like posting, but I'm here and all right.