10 Weeks a Russian – Addendum 1

A few messages have arrived telling me the photos didn’t come through well or didn’t come through at all. I’ll try to fix that, but if I can’t get the job done on WordPress and you’d still like to see the photos, send me an email (ejb240@gmail.com) and I’ll send them to you.

Some have asked for a few more interesting things that happened on the trip and about whether my family and friends had a lot of questions.

For a few weeks I was invited to make presentations to a few service clubs (Rotary, Optimist, Kiwanis); my 15 minutes of fame. As for family, they seemed happy that I’d managed to return home. My Lew Wallace H.S. Russian language students in Gary, Indiana, were very energetic with their questions and interest in the souveniers I brought home.

One of the best in my souvenier collection was a set of copies of a book titled “Kartinny Slovar,” Cartoon Dictionary, which contained what the title suggests: lots of drawings of different situations with captions in Russian. For example, a drawing of a youngster asking a policeman for directions. In that example, the caption contained a brief conversation between the two. Seeing “lessons” in a form that was almost a comic book was no small attraction for high school students.

As for other interesting things, imagine seeing former Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev walking by the displays from the World Fair held in Moscow when Nixon was President. He was by himself, without any entourage, smiling and waving to everybody; just another Muscovite out for a stroll on a pleasant August afternoon.

And the books; everywhere books. Book stores, book kiosks, sellers pushing carts loaded with books; everywhere books, and everywhere people reading books. All in Russian, of course, and all remarkably inexpensive. At a time when a hard cover book in the US was priced around ten dollars, a similar book in the USSR was two or three dollars.

And the omnipresent “babushkas,” middle aged to elderly Soviet women, who admonished anyone who threw away anything any place other than in a proper trash container and gave other directions and motherly advice without hesitation; for example, telling me it was too chilly to be without a sweater one morning.

And the streetcars, buses, and subways, where one got on board and placed the correct amount of money in the proper container without any involvement or supervision from the drivers and other staff. The Soviet public transportation Honor System. And if you didn’t have the money, no one said a word, not even the babushkas.

And the vending machines on the sidewalks dispensing “gazirovnaya voda,” the Soviet equivalent of a carbonated soft drink. There was one glass. You turned the glass upside down over a shelf in the front, pressed a button, and a spray of water rinsed the glass. You turned the glass over, inserted the coin, and a drink was dispensed. You drank it, repeated the rinsing, and replaced the glass for the next person. The waste water ran down the sidewalk to the street. It truly was 1965.

And when we checked out of a hotel and boarded our bus, the bus didn’t move until someone from the hotel appeared and gave the driver approval to depart. Our supervising professor from Indiana University (IU) told us the bus didn’t leave until the rooms were checked to make sure we didn’t take anything we shouldn’t have taken. Fortunately our IU advisors had also warned us about taking hotel souveniers and our bus always got the go-ahead sign.

If I remember any more, I’ll peck out another addendum…..


George Washington on Political Parties

From President George Washington’s Farewell Address, referring to political parties:

“However combinations or associations of the above description (of political parties) may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Those Colonial graduates sure knew how to use the English language, and predict the possible dangers inherent in our political system…..

Foreign Relations Briefing

For a stunning wake-up call and briefing on foreign affairs, see Robert D. Kaplan’s article: “Old World Order – How geopolitics fuels endless chaos and old-school conflicts in the 21st Century” in TIME magazine, March 31, 2014.

“Mr. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm. He is the author of 15 books on foreign affairs, most recently Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.”
A few samples:

“Whereas the West has come to think about international relations in terms of laws and multinational agreements, most of the rest of the world still thinks in terms of deserts, mountain ranges, all-weather ports and tracts of land and water.”

“…the home (Sevastopol, in the Crimean Peninsula) of Russia’s warm water fleet could never be allowed to fall under the sway of a pro-Western government in Kiev.”

“Damascus is not the capital of Syria but only that of Syria’s most powerful warlord, Bashar Assad.”

“China/India – Because of the Himalayas, India and China have developed quite separately. But the collapse of distance has put them increasingly at odds.”

“South China Sea – China claims most of the sea with its ‘cow’s tongue,’ as the area is called. Vietnam and other nations have claims that overlap.”

“While our foreign policy must be morally based, the analysis behind it must be cold-blooded, with geography as it starting point. In geopolitics, the past never dies and there is no modern world.”

Take (Read) With Two Tissues

Somewhere in my write-only memory there is a note that the older one gets the more tears will roll down the cheeks.

Have a couple of tissues handy when you read Joe Klein’s cover story “Can Service Save Us?’ in the July 1, 2013 issue of TIME magazine, also billed as “Our Annual National Service Issue.”

I admit it.  I have worn out a dozen or more soap boxes on the subject of national service, insisting that our great country is missing an essential element to stay great; namely, a system, program, call it what you will,  in which every citizen is required to serve his or her country.  Doesn’t have to be in the military, and doesn’t have to be for more than a year or two, but by not having such a requirement we miss having a citizenry that understands what it means to serve and we do a disservice to the memory of those who served before us and gave so much.

Without trying to repeat everything in Klein’s thoughtful and superbly written article, here are a few highlights:

In increasing numbers, our returning combat veterans are suffering from PTSD.  Also in increasing numbers, many of them are defeating that horrible illness by engaging in service projects that help others; e.g., helping the Oklahoma tornado clean-up.

A group known as “The Mission Continues,” based in St. Louis and founded by Eric Greitens, “…is at the heart of a growing community service activism among this generation of combat veterans.”

A group known as “Team Rubicon,” based in Los Angeles, “…has a roster of about 7,000 veterans ready to do disaster relief around the world.”

First Lady Michelle Obama has begun a program called “Joining Forces” to help and support veterans.

42% of Americans have not done any volunteer work in the past year, but 57% favor a national service program for people to serve our country in a military or civilian capacity for a year or more.

Klein wasn’t satisfied to simply write about service.  He spent Memorial Day weekend with 60 Team Rubicon volunteers helping with the Oklahoma City tornadoes clean-up.  The group was led by Michael Washington, a former Marine Master Sergeant (ret.) and Seattle firefighter.  Known as Top to the group, he told Klein about the son he lost in Iraq and the new purpose he found in working with Team Rubicon.  “I’m in this for good,” he told Klein, “I’m anywhere they want me.”

At a Memorial Day service in the Home Depot parking lot on Southwest 19th Street, Top led the event reading the Gettysburg Address.  He ended with the words familiar to all of us:

“That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

And then the group went back to work.  And that’s when I reached for another  tissue.

Tickled by the Sunday News

These days it’s not often we smile at the news.  But somebody at the Raleigh News & Observer got a giggle out of us this morning.

Stories from Fresno, California; Orlando, Florida; and Savannah, Georgia, informed us that we Americans waste about 21% of our food each year, weight too much, and line up outside outside a restaurant famous for its rich menu items – all on one page.

(Page 13A, Raleigh News & Observer, June 23, 2013)

Steven Brill on Health Care Pricing and Profit

Steven Brill is the author of the article reviewed in this post, the March 4, 2013 TIME magazine Special Report: “Bitter Pill: How outrageous pricing and egregious profits are destroying our health care.”  He is also the author of “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools,” the founder of Court TV, and the founder of the periodical “American Lawyer.”

I’ve been putting off this post for a few weeks due to the sheer volume of the article: 36 pages with photos, graphs, charts, and sample invoice sections.  I’ve read the article several times and marked it up trying to pick out the highlights, only to come to the conclusion that in order to do justice to the piece I’d have to post a 25 or more page review.  Every point the author makes is important, most are surprising, and many are just plain depressing.


1)  We “…spend almost 20% of the gross domestic product on health care…more than the next 10 biggest spenders combined…,” but studies have shown our results are “…no better and often worse….” than those of countries that spend about half of what we spend.  The cost of Hurricane Sandy – $60 billion – is nearly equal to what we spend on health care every week.

2)  Congress does not allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices or the cost of medical devices; e.g., canes and wheelchairs.

3)  There are 7 health care industry lobbyists for every member of Congress.

4)  Hospital charges are determined by something called a “chargemaster,” apparently a “massive computer file” of charges that one hospital executive described as a list “…set in cement a long time ago and just keep going up automatically.”

5)  The article contains dozens of examples of hospital charges 10-50-100 times higher than Medicare pays for services, bandages, test strips, etc., yet the numbers show that hospitals still make money on Medicare patients.

6)  “Nonprofit” hospitals are making millions and paying millions to their CEO’s.  (In a list of the 10 largest nonprofit hospitals operating profit ranged from $118 million to $770 million, and CEO compensation from $2.2 million to $6 million.)

I have only scratched the surface of the issues and examples provided in the article.

What to do about all this?  A few of Brill’s suggestions:

1)  Tighten antitrust laws so that fewer hospital conglomerates can bully insurance companies.

2)  Tax hospital profits and put a surcharge on all hospital administrative compensation.

3)  Do away with chargemasters.

4)  Amend patent laws to limit drug company exploitation or set price limits or profit margin caps.

My hope is that this brief review encourages a study of the complete article.  Congratulations to Steven Brill and TIME magazine for setting out issues that should be acted upon by medical experts and our leaders in Washington.

The article concludes with a quote from Gerard Anderson, a health care economist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who says the “…obvious and only issue…” in the health care debate should be that “All the prices are too damn high.”

A Wave of Change in the Education of Our Children

          Though it was many years ago, my first attempt to make a living was as a high school teacher and coach.  Of the many lessons I learned while confronting a hundred and fifty or so teenagers every day in classes on mathematics, Russian language, and computer programming (FORTRAN), two stand out.

          First, there was the desk sign my mentor at Rich Central in Olympia Fields, Illinois gave me on my first day.  “To Teach Is To Learn Twice” it read.  Wisdom at its most pure.  When you think you really know something, try explaining it to someone else.  You will quickly discover that trying to transport what is in your mind to someone else’s mind is quite the challenge.

          The second lesson was that high school teaching was more than formulas, vocabulary, and paper tape (dating myself!) transmissions to a computer at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  I quickly discovered that those hundred and fifty teenagers were, in varying degrees, in need of no small amount of ratification of ideas about character, about the famous words of J.C. Watts, African American and former congressman (R-Oklahoma): “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.  There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.”  (I had to get by without Congressman Watts’ quote, as the quote came years after my high school teaching, but I hope my message at the time was equivalent to his eloquence.)

          And now along comes Salman Kahn, son of a father from Bangladesh and mother from Kolkata (Calcutta), India, raised mostly by his mother in Metairie, Louisiana, now 35, a “geek celebrity,” creator of over 3,000 online educational videos viewed by 160 million students (since 2006) in 234 countries and subject of a 5-page article in the July 9, 2012 issue of TIME magazine, Kayla Webley, author..

          The “Kahn Academy” is, simply put, “…the largest blended-learning experiment in the nation.”

          What is the experiment?  Instead of classroom lecture by day and homework away from school at night,  students receive their instruction from videos at night and come to school to do the exercises during the day with teachers available to help and encourage.  In other words, turn the school day and night upside-down.

          The videos are not simply lectures on a computer screen.  They include interactive exercises.

          Advantages include allowing students to work at their own pace and “…go to school to demonstrate their learning…” and receive person to person help.  Webley mentions that some teachers worry that students will reach graduation with different skill sets and that students in low-income districts may not have access to computers at home.

          Another potential problem I would add is the unmotivated student.  Asking him or her to hook up with an instructional video instead of the dozens of other things kids would prefer to do doesn’t seem likely to work out.  Then again, the traditional classroom approach hasn’t solved that problem either.  Could be that the individual attention inherent in the Kahn approach would make a difference.

          Personally, as a teacher I would have liked to try Kahn’s upside-down learning approach.  I think young people would learn more from their teachers by conversing with them than by sitting at their desks while the teacher lectures.  I don’t see why there could not also be times when a teacher discovers a large number of students are “stuck” on a particular concept and addresses the situation by calling for everyone’s attention for a few minutes to straighten things out, then returns to assisting individuals who still may need help.

          Support for Kahn’s work has come from an impressive list of people and companies, including Bill Gates ($4.5 million), Google ($2 million), Netflix CEO Reed Hastings ($3 million) and Irish entrepreneur Sean O’Sullivan ($5 million).

          The numbers don’t lie.  The Kahn Academy is already being used in 15,000 classrooms.  More than 2 million exercises are being completed every day – today.  There are 5 million kids out there already using these videos each month.

          I see a tsunami of change washing over the process of educating our children.