Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why I Will Not Be Going To See "The Impossible" This Holiday Weekend

I don't usually use this blog for personal stuff, but I think it might be helpful to others if I told my holiday travel story. No movies about tropical vacations interrupted by typhoons, please.

When my children were younger, we went to Aruba several times over winter break. We love the island --- easy to get to, reliable sun, sea, and sand, safe, friendly, and neither too large nor too small. So we decided to go back for Christmas this year, with my wife and younger daughter.

We stayed at the Divi golf resort, a few steps from the beautiful beach. (Great place.) My wife and I went in for a swim. She had a little trouble getting out of the water -- the swells had started to get pretty heavy, and when they broke on the shore, the receding water was hard to walk against. I decided to float around for a few minutes more.

By the time I tried to get out, I couldn't. It turned out there was a storm at sea --- an hour later there were very heavy rains --- and the swells were quite huge. I managed to get myself standing in a position where huge waves were breaking over my head but I also could not walk out of the water at all because of the undertow. I took 3 or 4 waves, timing my inhalations, and then a really big one knocked me off my feet and swept me under.

I smashed my head on an submerged rock, came back to the surface, tried to right myself, got knocked down again, and very quickly some people spotted me and pulled me out. They supported me while I walked up to a place I could sit down while they sought medical attention. Within a few minutes my wife and daughter found me, so I was relieved of any decision making. I was taken by ambulance to the Aruba hospital --- only one on the island but only a block from the beach.

I spent the afternoon in the ER, getting complete head and spine CT scans, X rays, blood tests, etc. Diagnosis: First rib on the left fractured; fissure of transverse process of first thoracic vertebra. 6 cm gash in my scalp required stitching. (Lots of blood I gather, but the stitching was almost an afterthought.) Sundry lacerations on my back, and various limbs probably stretched in ways they were not intended to move. But no concussion, never lost consciousness, never aspirated any seawater, neurological, circulatory, and pulmonary function normal. (Well, as normal as they ever were -- I am a Type I diabetic, so that added a little extra drama during the work-up but made no real difference.) Spent overnight under observation and was discharged the next morning. We spent another 3 nights on the island as planned, not partying quite as hard as intended, and returned home on schedule.

So the bottom line is that I have the privilege of sitting here with the Alamo Bowl on TV in the background telling you how much I hurt all over, but there is actually nothing to do about any of my aches and pains except wait for that rib and whatnot to heal themselves. I have been through this business of fractured ribs twice before, and I hate it. (For those of you haven't had the pleasure, the problem is that almost everything you do with any part of your body, breathing for example, involves contracting your rib cage, and that is extremely uncomfortable.)

On the other hand there are things I would have hated worse than complaining about the pain while watching football games on TV, like breaking my neck and being paralyzed, or smashing my face in rather than needing a few scalp stitches, or drowning of course, which could easily have happened. Cardiac arrest might have been another likely failure mode; I was seriously hyperventilating when I was pulled out of the water and I am, as a waitress kindly reminded me the next night, not as young as I once was. (It is nice to be able to tell myself that those endless hours on the treadmill and ellipse every morning for the past 3 or 4 decades were actually well invested. If you think it's monotonous when you do it, keep it up -- you never know when your heart may need to be able to handle extreme stress.)

So I am very, very lucky.

The hospitalization was great, except for when the big guys transferred my overweight, banged-up body off and on the imaging tables. The doctors all seemed to be Dutch (and they tended to be young female, good-looking, and skilled with needle and suture). A thoroughly professional experience. Total cost, including the ambulance, was about $3000. So thanks to everyone at the hospital, and the overnight nursing staff that watched me closely. You were great.

Thanks of course the the folks who pulled me out of the water, whoever you are. I appreciate it, and it should not go without saying, as we all know that there are those of our species who would not want to get involved.

Thanks to Marlyn and Annie for nursing me, and for putting up with my grumpiness when I want everything put just a little closer so I don't have to stretch! Not the romantic get-away I had in mind.

And finally, in the hope it will do someone some good: Even if there are lots of people swimming and you are on a pristine sandy beach, if the surf looks too big when it breaks, get out of the water. The line between fun and catastrophe is pretty narrow.

Now: more Tylenol, please.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jell-O and US Broadband Inferiority

As you drive from east to west across the US, there is a meridian in the breadbasket, somewhere in the eastern Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, where gelatin salads start to appear in the supermarket deli cases. In the prairies it is not only acceptable but fashionable to serve molded, multicolored Jell-O with grapes, pineapple, and heaven knows what else arranged inside it. Once you get over the Continental Divide the fashion fades out. It's not a thing on either coast.

How did this get started? It's not an ethnic fashion. The folks who settled the Great Plains were Norwegians and Swedes and Germans, and gelatin is not an ethnic treat anywhere in Europe. Or anywhere else, as far as I know!

No, it's because there was a time when only rich folks could make Jello on their farms in the summer. People who were rich enough to have their farms electrified. Once Jell-O got imprinted as a luxury item, it remained fashionable even when everybody could have it.

You see, electricity itself was a luxury in the early 20th century, and gelatin salads were a proxy for being rich enough to have electric power delivered to your place. In her brilliantly troubling new book Captive Audience, Susan Crawford quotes this 1905 dismissal of government interference with the electricity market.

The ownership and operation of municipal light plants stands upon a different basis from that of the ownership of water works, which it is so often compared. Water is a necessity to the health and life of every individual member of a community … It must be supplied in order to preserve the public health, whether it can be done proitably or not, and must be furnished, not to a few individuals, but to every individual.
Electric lights are different. Electricity is not in any sense a necessity, and under no conditions is it universally used by the people of a community. It is but a luxury enjoyed by a small proportion of the members of any municipality, and yet if the plant be owned and operated by the city, the burden of such ownership and operation must be borne by all the people through taxation.
This is exactly the argument being used today against government involvement in broadband. It is why children even in such hardly remote locales as western Massachusetts have to go to public libraries to do their homework. Comcast and Verizon just don't find it profitable to run cables and fibers into rural locales.

Those profits are maximized by managing scarcity. with the cooperation of a deregulatory-minded Congress, always hungry for campaign contributions from big corporations. As a result, what the FCC laughably calls its broadband plan of 2010 would have every American household getting 4 Mbps download, 1 Mbps upload by 2020 --- with 100 million households getting up to 100 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload. The South Korean plan, by contrast, is for every household to get 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) right now!

I recommend this book to everyone. It explains why my ophthalmologist can't send my retinal scans from his Boston to his Cambridge office electronically (that example explains why symmetric channels, with comparable upload and download speeds, are essential for economic development). Why the backup service Mozy will use postal mail to send you your backed up files on disk if your computer crashes -- the files were uploaded incrementally but to download them all at once would take a week or more.

The US is going to be a second-rate economy if we don't wake up to the simple fact that some regulation in communication technologies is needed to create universal service, and ensuring that service is one of the functions of government. Broadband Internet service is like electricity really turned out to be, and not as the privately owned electric utilities wanted the public to see it at the turn of the 20th century.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Educational Wisdom from Another Age department

Continuing an old series.

…[E]ven if we sacrifice the letter of the old Bachelor of Arts degree, we should strive to preserve its spirit. This spirit is threatened at present in manifold ways,---by the upward push of utilitarianism and kindergarten methods, by the downward push of professionalism and specialization, by the almost irresistible pressure of commercial and industrial influences. … The time is above all one for careful thinking and accurate definition. This, it is to be feared, will prove unwelcome doctrine to the ears of an age that hopes to accomplish its main ends by the appointment of committees, and has developed, in lieu of real communion among men, nearly every form of gregariousness. -- Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (1908).

He would have loved Facebook.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Decline of Civilization Department (Part II)

I just filled out a recommendation web form for a student applying to a PhD program at Stanford. The form informed me: "The applicant has waived their right to view this recommendation."

I don't mean to pick on Stanford -- I bet those from other top schools have adopted this convenient barbarism also. I will watch.