Social Media and the Wit and Wisdom on Facebook

Sometimes Facebook serves as something to occupy me while I’m on hold with my doctor’s office or waiting for a voicemail prompt that actually has something to do with why I’m calling.

And then there are those times when a Facebook post smacks me right in the area that is rumored to contain something capable of rational thought.  Two such posts just got me:

1)  Paraphrased: Those folks worried about destroying history by tearing down Confederate statues will be thrilled to learn about books, and 

2)  Also paraphrased: In July of 1776 a bunch of New Yorkers tore down a statue of George III, thereby making it impossible to learn who won the Revolutionary War.

This social media thing just might have a future……

Attention All Hackers!

We now have a distinguished (“very distinguished”), appointed Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity.

I can’t help being surprised, very surprised, that our President is still claiming massive, very massive, voter fraud.  There are dozens of excellent, very excellent, studies and research papers on the subject.  A simple, very simple, search using the phrase “voter fraud” produced a large, very large, number of hits (6,080,000), among which are various, very various, conclusions that voter fraud is statistically insignificant, very insignificant.

But insignificance is not my main, very main, concern today.  I can only wonder what a group of appointed members of an advisory committee might do with the records of (200 million?) voters.  Send them a postcard asking for proof of life?  Ask the ones who chose to register as Democrats or Independents whether they might want to make a switch?  Make those records available to already drooling, very drooling, cyber crooks making plans to grab all that information for their new, very new, credit cards, bank accounts, etc.?

Can’t help being concerned, very concerned.  (And yes, I’m imitating the style of the almost daily, very almost daily, barrage of tweets from, well, you know…..)  Puts me in mind of “Rain Man,” who said such things as: “I’m a good driver. I’m a very good driver.”  Or Demi Moore in “A Few Good Men,” who, upon hearing the judge deny her objection, said: “But your Honor, I strenuously object,” which of course didn’t persuade the judge to reconsider his ruling.

Still, I strenuously object to creating a new and massive pile of personal, very personal, information in the office of a newly appointed advisory commission.  Do they even have an office?

Too Many Words

A few years ago I came across a newspaper article titled something along the lines of: “Random Word Generator for Managers.”  The article included a lengthy table containing several columns of words one could choose to produce a phrase that sounded quite impressive but meant almost nothing.

In today’s world we are able to search the web using “Random Phrase Generator” and come up with dozens of entries claiming to produce intelligent-sounding phrases one might use to impress readers.

The late, great Elmore Leonard often advised aspiring writers to “Leave out the parts people don’t want to read,” and became successful doing just that in a long list of western and crime novels, many of which became movies.

I thought of all this a few days ago when I read this description in our local newspaper: “dynamic zero-depth aquatic play area.”  I am in awe of the skill it takes to use those six words to say “sprayground,” which is the word used in the master plan developed by the Parks & Recreation Advisory Committee I served on for a couple of years.

My vote was one of the unanimous cast by the Committee to approve, among many other things, “spraygrounds” (I think it was 3 or 4 of them).  A sprayground is a plot of ground outfitted with water jets that are programmed to go off at random.  The idea is for children to run through the plot to laugh, get wet, and cool off, in that order, when the water shoots out.

It’s a great idea, cheaper than a pool, easier to use, safer, and less expensive to maintain, and I probably would still have voted for it, but if they’d called it a “dynamic zero depth aquatic play area” I’m certain we would have wasted some time trying to figure out what that meant.  Really. 

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…..

Ten Weeks a Russian

How it all got started

In the Summer of 1965 I was one of a group of high school Russian language teachers who embarked on a ten week journey to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly called the USSR, or simply, the Soviet Union. Funded by the Natonal Science Foundation, the purpose of the journey was to improve the Russian language skills of the teachers so that their students would have the benefit of teachers who had actually spent time living the language and exploring the culture they were teaching.

Indiana University (IU) today offers a Summer Language Workshop in many languages. In 1965 the Russian program included the summer journey to the Soviet Union.

After a week of orientation at IU, during which we were required to sign a pledge to speak only Russian, even to each other, for the duration of the trip, we boarded a flight from Bloomington, Indiana and connected in New York with a flight to Copenhagen, Denmark, where we completed testing in speaking, listening, reading, and writing Russian.

Where we went; what we did

Our first stop after the testing was Leningrad, today returned to its historic name of St. Petersburg.

Our other destinations included Rostov, Piatigorsk, Sochi, Kiev, a sports camp in the Caucasus Mountains, and, of course, Moscow at the finish.

At each stop we presented our passports at the hotel reception desks, where our passports were held until we were checking out of the hotel to travel to another location. That practice made us more than a little nervous, what with being in the Soviet Union without a passport during the Cold War.

At each stop the entire group was together for breakfast, morning lectures, guided tours, and lunch.

We were advised that the lecturers and tour guides were experts in their fields. For example, the woman that took us on a four hour tour of Leningrad was a professor of Russian literature. She told us about a famous Russian author who wrote many of his works in Leningrad and preferred corner apartments. She pointed one out that the author had rented.

After lunch we were usually had free time for shopping, attending films, additonal touring, etc. A few of us were fairly good basketball players and we made some friends at most of our stops by finding local games. Some of us were also skilled at finding places to have a beer or two and made friends at those and other places as well.

The sprayground

(Note: I first heard the word sprayground when I was a member of my local parks and recreation board. A sprayground today is an area set aside for children to skip through gentle jets of water that are turned on randomly.)

Our Leningrad visit included a side trip to Petropavlosk, often called the Russian Versailles, where I saw my first sprayground. The laughter of children drew me to a section of the beautiful summer palace of the Czars where the children were scrambling around a set of paved trails. Every so often jets of water erupted through the entire square causing the children to run and laugh and get wet. The water was aimed randomly through the square; some were four to six feet high, some higher. All in all, a lot fun was happening. I noticed a small man who resembled one of Disney’s seven dwarfs sitting on a chair facing the square but mostly out of view of the children and people like me who were watching the kids have fun. Turned out he operated the jets of water by pressing on a switch of some kind with his foot. He waved us away with a smile when we tried to talk to him. He was obviously having a great time. Our Intourist guide told us operating the sprayground was his job.

What do you bring to the Soviet Union?

At IU were were encouraged to bring a collection of photographs we could show our new Russian friends, photos of our families, homes, schools, and others which would give the people we met some idea of what home was like for us. I showed my photos at every opportunity, but it was 1965 and I noticed many of my new Russian friends giving each other glances that suggested they thought I was showing them propoganda and not genuine photos depicting my life back in the U.S.

What we learned about how Russians think

First of all, every one of us came away once again convinced of how much all human beings have in common. Russian people were concerned about work, children, other family members, friends, living conditions, health, aging parents, and so on – all the day to day things all people are concerned about.

I never encountered anyone who was deliberately unpleasant or rude. On the contrary, people I spoke with were courteous, and surprised if not astonished, that Americans were studying Russian language and culture. Though just a few of us managed to be invited to a residence, those that did, myself included, enjoyed an abundance of hospitality and good will. And vodka.

Almost every person I met was genuinely interested in America. So many told me that when I returned home I should tell everyone I can that the Russian people do not want war – with anyone. (Remember, this was 1965. The Cold War was still a reality, and many we encountered had memories of the terrible things that happened in their country during World War II, just twenty-five years ago.)

Spooky stuff

Some of my fellow teachers reported being followed occasionally. I did not experience that, but did miss the diary i was trying to write to preserve some of my experiences. The diary disappeared from my room in Leningrad and reappeared in my room in Kiev a week or two later. I recall thinking my Russian writing skill was awful at best, and that whoever tried to read my wrtiting had a good laugh at second-grade Russian written by an American language teacher..

Things were different there; a few examples

Using public bathroom facilities meant you had to pay a few kopecks (about a nickel) and there was usually an attendant to make sure you paid and sometimes to provide soap and advice.

In a pub in Leningrad two of us sat in a bar with a local we’d met at a book store. When the waitress came by he ordered nine bottles of beer, three each, a bowl of caviar, a dish of butter, and some black bread. When we asked why nine bottles and so much snack food, he told us that waitress wouldn’t be back for an hour or more because she worked in three or four other nearby bars.

Each floor in our hotels was staffed by a “dyezhurnaya,” usually women, usually older if not elderly, usually at a small desk by the elevators, and usually nosy but very pleasant. We were told to leave our room keys with her when we left the hotel.

At a famous and famously huge (a hundred or more tables organized in a circle) Moscow ice cream restaurant several of us sat down at an empty table when we reached the head of the line. After waiting fifteen minutes or so we asked a passing waitress if she would please let our waitress know we were ready to order. She told us the waitress that took care of that table was on vacation.

Shopping and Aeroflot

We managed to do some shopping for typical Russian souveniers; e.g., nesting wooden dolls (matrushka). I brought home a balalaika (triangle shaped Russian guitar). At every stop there were shops exclusively for tourists (beriyoski). Those shops typically had better quality items than the other shops and the big department store in Moscow (GUM, pronounced “Goom”).

Small restaurants, sandwich shops, were a challenge, a five-step process: 1) select an item, 2) wait in line to pay for it, 3) wait in line with your receipt to give to the person who would make it, 4) wait for it to be made, and 5) eat.

There were many automats; that is, refrigerated units containing a variety of food items on rotating trays. You pressed a button to rotate the trays to the item you wanted, inserted the correct amount of money, opened the little door guarding the item, took it out, and sat down to eat or just wandered down the street while eating.

We travelled mostly by bus and train, but did fly on Aeroflot (“Ah-arrow-float”) twice. Our first airport adventure was arriving early and not boarding until two hours after the flight was scheduled to leave. The aircraft was in sight, but the Aeroflot staff told us they had to wait until more people wanted to take the flight.

Refreshments aboard the flight consisted of hard candies, black bread and butter with caviar, and water.

Speaking only Russian, even with each other

We did. All of us. Russian/English dictionaries were part of our every day accessories, but by and large we all got by without referring to those books as often as we thought we would.

To be sure, there was a wide variety of skill levels in our group. To say the least, at the beginning of the journey I was not one of the more skilled in any aspect of getting by in Russian only. But even the least of us was surprised at how quickly we picked up much more than what we started with. It only took a few days, even for me, to improve speaking, listening, and reading skills. Writing was another matter: not so easy and none of us did much writing. As mentioned earlier, I did attempt to keep a diary, but in general we were too busy to do much writing; busy soaking up everything we could to bring back to our students.

Two amusing results of weeks of Russian only.

First, several Russians told me I spoke with a Swedish accent. I am Swedish on my father’s side, and did learn some Swedish as a child, but for that to come through twenty or more years later in Russian just made me wonder how. And smile about it.

And second, I had so completely immersed myself in the language I used it a few times the first week or so I was back home, in situations that left the persons I spoke to somewhat bewildered. For example, when a grocery store clerk asked: “Is that all?” my response was: “Da, eto fcyo, spasiba” instead of “Yes, that’s all thank you.”

Going home

We had our last look at Russia as the airliner taking us to Helsinki, Finland, for our exit testing. The subjects were the same and the entrance testing: Ruddian language speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Our scores all dramatically exceeded the entrance testing scores. Our professor told me mine had improved the most. No surprise: I had much more room to improve than my colleagues.

Back home

Curiously, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when our airliner landed at Kennedy Airport in New York. Despite the welcomes we enjoyed, all the wonderful people we had met, and all the learning we had accomplished, I was glad to be home. Not Gary, Indiana yet, and not my actual residence, but home.

A few photos

Instead of Overbooking……

Nobody asked, but I have the answer to airline company overbooking, and I learned it in the summer of 1965 while on a graduate Russian language study tour of the USSR.  The tour was managed by Indiana University and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Our group, 25 high school Russian language teachers, showed up at the airport for a flight from one Soviet city to another. We were on time.  In fact, we were a bit early. Our departure time came and went, and we waited.  And waited.  Finally the professor in charge of our little group asked whether the flight had been cancelled, the aircraft was in need of repair, or what other reason explained why we were waiting for more than 2 hours for our flight. The answer: “We are waiting for more passengers to fill the seats that are still vacant.”

Problem solved.  Instead of overbooking, just don’t take off until the seats are all spoken for.

And thank you for flying Aeroflot.

Arithmetic and Health Care

Kevin Schulman, M.D., professor of medicine at Duke University and visiting scholar at Harvard Business School, provides us with a brief and, thank you very much, understandable explanation (Raleigh News & Observer, March 23, 2017, “Why the health care market doesn’t work.”)

First, the concept of any insurance system: we all pay into a pool of money that is used to reimburse us when whatever is insured is damaged and requires some of the pooled money to be fixed. Or, in the case of health care, healed – we hope.

In short, all of us who put money in the pool are sharing the risk. Few of us will avoid the misfortune, the need to have a car restored, a home repaired, a business to prop up after a fire or other disaster, a serious health problem treated, and so on. Those of us who never suffer such misfortune help finance the relief for those who do. (Somewhere along the line I recall reading that Ben Franklin either invented the concept of insurance or transplanted it in the Colonies.)

Health insurers are stuck trying to predict the ratio of healthy to sick people who will sign up for their policies. It’s not much of a stretch to grasp that the larger the number of sick policyholders the higher the cost of the insurance. That’s why the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare – I never could figure out which was which; a smidgen of humor there…..) had a provision requiring people with no health care to pay what amounted to a tax.

For the pool to work, everybody has to jump in.

Next, here is the arithmetic to demonstrate the importance of the healthy/sick ratio. Dr. Schulman provides a conceptual model. “The key question is what proportion of the population who sign up for insurance will be healthy.” Suppose 80% of the population is healthy and each of those healthy people will require $1,000 a year for their health care services. The other 20%, sick people, will require $10,000.

80 healthy people x $1,000: $ 80,000

20 sick people x $10,000: $200,000

Total: $280,000

Cost per person ($280,000/100) $ 2,800

Decrease the number of healthy people to 70% and you get:

70 healthy people x $1,000: $ 70,000

30 sick peopole x $10,000: $300,000

Total: $370,000

Cost per person ($370,000/100) $ 3,700

Note the difference between $2,800 and $3,700 is $900. As a percentage, the difference is 32%.

Does 32% ring a bell, sound like a number that closely resembles the increases in health insurance premiums we’ve been hearing about?

What happened is that health insurance industry estimated (guessed) wrong. They used the 80% healthy percentage and wound up with the 70%.

And then there is the assumption that doctors and hospitals will work together to bring down the cost of health care? Why on earth would they do that? We have a profit based, market driven health care system, the object of which is to make money. Where is the incentive to lower prices?

If we start over with our health care system, shouldn’t the foundation principle be that we, the people, have an inalienable right to health care? If we don’t start and stick with that principle, the health care system will always be great for some, barely adequate for many, and attainable only in emergency rooms and the rare clinic for many more.