Tuesday, April 21, 2009

If this is Saturday, it must be intermission

Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests are playing on Broadway, and if you devote a Saturday you can see all 3 plays of the trilogy in one long day. Guess where we’ll be on May 23!

Then we’ll go see Mary Stuart on Sunday. But we’re not going to West Side Story on Friday night, because seeing 5 shows in one weekend would be silly.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Can you pay me now?

Today’s Globe article says that Beth Israel Deaconess (our hospital) has stopped sending insurance claims data to Google Health to use as medical records. A patient finally pointed out that it could be a problem when his medical records falsely claimed that he had an aortic aneurysm and cancer in his brain and spine. I know that I was surprised to receive a postcard saying that I had multiple sclerosis a couple of years ago due to a similar misunderstanding of insurance claims data.

Medical providers want insurance companies to pay claims, because otherwise they don’t get paid. And insurance companies set up huge and complicated sets of rules that say that they’ll only pay for certain tests, procedures, and medications if the patient has certain conditions. So the medical providers routinely lie get creative with the billing codes. I think of it as insurance fraud, but medical providers and insurers think of it as just the way the system works. What’s the harm in telling the insurer that the patient has brain cancer if that’s what it takes to get the medically necessary MRI covered?

Apparently, the harm comes when a hospital forgets that their insurance claims are spun out of a fine blend of whole cloth and necessity, and starts conflating the deliberately false insurance claims with the only somewhat error-filled medical records. Then patients get outraged, and the media sees a fun story, and the hospital ends up admitting that they shouldn’t have pretended that their insurance claims were true.

I hate the resolution of the story. I hate that everyone accepts the idea that insurance claims should be filled with false information. The Globe and the hospital have used this story as an opportunity to explain why medical providers lie on their insurance claims, and to explain why insurance claims contradict medical records, but not to advocate for truth in billing. We don’t need an insurance system that practices medicine by spreadsheet, and we certainly don’t need to train yet more generations of health care professionals that lying is a core component of patient care.

20 windows to go

We have an old house with old windows. Many are single-pane wooden replacements on bad aluminum tracks, and many are 130 years old with wavy glass and proper sash weights but with laundry cord instead of sash chains or sash rope. The windows are 2 over 1, which isn’t a particularly interesting style. Still, I was excited when I found out that there was someone in the Boston area who restored and repaired old windows. Restoration seemed like a more thoughtful approach than replacement. Then we got the quote accompanied by a laundry list of tasks that we would have to find someone else to do, such as weatherstripping and refinishing. We also discovered that several (most?) of our storm windows were installed incorrectly, we had a number of very damaged sills, and replacement became the clear choice. We’re very happy with the 3 replacement windows we had installed last year, and I’m glad that the federal government is willing to chip in $1500 towards doing a bunch more this year. But I’m also glad to discover that there’s someone else in Boston now who restores old windows for the houses where that makes sense to do, and who takes a more full-service approach: Window Woman of New England.

Monday, April 13, 2009

This post is derived entirely from natural ingredients

FoodEssentials.com is a good start towards making it easier to shop when you have food allergies or food restrictions. SelectWisely.com makes laminated cards listing food allergies in multiple languages that you can take with you when you’re traveling. And Wikipedia still wins for clearest and most comprehensive explanations of ingredients like guar gum (which is kitniyot, in case you’re wondering).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

This post is five days too late, or 352 days early

For those who feel overwhelmed by the obligations of preparing for Passover, a voice of reason. For those who do not attempt to rid their house of chametz before Passover, perhaps a different sort of voice. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz explains why various aspects of Passover cleaning are important, and makes the task seem less overwhelming.

My idiosyncratic approach is to use Passover plates, but not Passover cookware or serving pieces or silverware. I follow the ingredient restrictions that are specific to Passover, from chametz through derivatives of kitniyot, but not the year-round rules of kashrut. (So a cheeseburger is fine for me, as long as it’s on matzah instead of on a roll. Corn syrup and soybean oil are right out, though.) And I try to ignore the box of Bisquick that somehow got left behind in the kitchen when we cleared out such things before Passover, because moving it is more likely to wind up with chametz in my food than leaving it in place. I’ve followed basically the same set of rules throughout my life, so it works for me. And even though my set of rules for myself is different from Rabbi Berkowitz’s set of rules, I think his reasoning works well applied to a different set of rules.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Politics and chainsaws

A couple of days ago, we received notice that the city is going to cut down the three remaining large trees on our street. They’re reconstructing the street and sidewalks after doing gas main and water supply trenching, and the city engineer’s office wants to take the easy approach rather than work around the larger trees.

The tree warden’s public hearing about cutting down our trees is scheduled for Passover seder, which isn’t an entirely convenient time for us to go. So yesterday I sent e-mail to the tree warden saying that I object to cutting down the trees, and asking whether the e-mail would be given equal weight to showing up at the meeting.

This morning the doorbell rings at 7:30, and it’s the tree warden at our door. Even though more than 20 people reportedly got together on Saturday to complain to each other about cutting down the trees, I’m apparently the only resident who has actually filed an objection. The tree warden was very nice. He explained that my e-mailed objection would be just as objectistructive (obstructilicious?) as showing up at the meeting, and that by law if even one person objects, then only the mayor can authorize cutting down the tree. But he’d really like me to withdraw my objection on one of the trees, which has a rotted trunk and needs to come down regardless. We had a long arboreal conversation about the tree hearing process, about the zelkovas and ash trees in the playground next door to us, about Asian longhorn beetles in Worcester and ice storms and mutual aid.

I’m stunned. The city has never welcomed public input, let alone engaged in an actual dialogue. Sadly, my lack of faith in the city was restored when I went to the city engineer’s office today to ask about the plans for the street and sidewalk reconstruction and about new trees. They claim to have held a neighborhood meeting about the plans at an unspecified time and date (and that nobody in the neighborhood ever heard about). They would never consider adapting plans to existing trees or to community input, they are actively seeking to eliminate all planting strips between sidewalks and streets, and they will not plant any public shade trees that will grow as high as the power lines. Their strong preference is for a monoculture of Bradford pears which stay small and break apart in winter weather as soon as they reach maturity, and there is nobody responsible for that policy to communicate with.

In a closer to ideal world, the neighborhood would have an opportunity to get together and discuss various options, such as sidewalk width, adding planting strips or not, what sorts of trees to plant, whether sidewalk bumpouts would be useful for traffic calming or planting beds or trees or bike racks or benches, what our parking needs are, etc. The city engineer’s office could have material to review that applies in general cases, some preliminary ideas about the engineering plans, and then hold an actual two-way discussion. Once the plans are drawn, they would distribute the plans to the residents, preferably with a descriptive summary, such as “We’re going to repave large sections of the road, except at the most trafficked intersections where we want to leave the failing patches; we’re going to tear out the sidewalks and curbing and put in new sidewalks and curbing in approximately the same places; we’re going to cut down all large trees and allow the contractor to bill the city for trees that were planted two years ago as if they are new trees; and we will pave over any existing space around trees that allows rainwater to reach the tree roots.” Actually, I guess the plans are clear without a descriptive summary.

It’s not the ultimate decisions that are the failure point. It’s not even the lack of imagination. It’s the lack of communication and the lack of care, as if the city is a slumlord and we are all just tenants. Local democracy doesn’t need to feel like that.

And sometime in the next couple of days, I need to decide whether to make the tree warden happy, or hold a line against the city engineer’s office’s miserable attitude. I wish I could do both.

In loving memory of my first crosscut shredder

Since doing my taxes requires going through all the loose papers in the house first, my first spring cleaning task involves sorting everything not yet filed away in my home office. That always makes me more receptive to articles about organizing, and the best personal account that I’ve read in a long while is by Sara Rimer in The New York Times. The reader comments are great as well—full of suggestions, alternative viewpoints, and a sense of collaboration.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Two Men and a Set

Two Men of Florence, currently at the Huntington Theatre, has a stunning representational set. A rotating floor painted with an outline map of the world, a separately rotating small center, enormous surrounding walls filled with pillar candles, and a literally stellar backdrop. The curtain runs on a circular track that traces the outer edge of the map, and scene changes are generally accompanied by the curtain being drawn across our view and around to the back again to reveal our new location: an effective way to convey movement, distract the eye, and provide brief breaks from a very wordy script. The realistic and detailed costumes, furniture, and props are also beautiful; Francis O’Connor has done an incredible job as the designer, and I wish the theater offered tours of this set. Or home installations.

The play dramatizes Galileo’s rise to prominence and his relationship to the Catholic Church, and sweeps us up in Galileo’s excitement over his discoveries. The putatively central conflict of the play between Galileo’s work and Pope Urban VIII’s concern for the power of the church and the need for mystery is muted, however, by Galileo’s certainty that the world will always welcome explanation and reason. As a modern audience steeped in science and reason, we are already in Galileo’s pocket. Because Galileo never seems to grasp the basis of Urban’s concern, neither can we. Indeed, Galileo’s devotion to the Catholic Church allows us to avoid any sense that siding with Galileo is in some way renouncing faith, and casts Urban in a comically evil light.

The Inquisition, on the other hand, turns out to be downright friendly. Sure, they burn someone to start the play, and people express their concern when Galileo is summoned to the Inquisition, but the Inquisition was apparently run by concerned and reasonable men who are shocked, shocked to find themselves instruments of a vengeful Pope. And the Pope is not portrayed as wrong because he is suppressing reason or banning books or punishing faithful followers, but wrong primarily because he bans a book that he had previously granted license to publish.

Jay O. Sanders is compelling as the alternately navel-gazing and star-gazing Galileo who has a gift for explanation and a flair for making fools of people. Edward Herrmann, who I adored on Gilmore Girls as the loving and prickly grandfather weighed down by responsibilities and an overly developed sense of propriety, is solid as the loving and prickly Pope weighed down by responsibilities and an overly developed sense of propriety. The side characters are mostly one-dimensional foils or stereotyped comic relief, which is a terrible waste of some great local acting talent from the likes of Jeremiah Kissel and Molly Schreiber. Dermot Crowley gets the only decent supporting role as Urban’s sympathetic sidekick who is also betrayed at the end of the play, just in case we aren’t certain that the Pope is no longer a likeable person.

The flaws in the conceptualization of the play don’t interfere with it being an interesting and enjoyable 150 minutes of theater. The individual scenes flow well, the dialogue provides plenty to mull over, and the set, well, you can always just sit back and admire the set.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Let a hundred formats blossom

My good friend Vardibidian has posted a thorough response to Mr. Schnittman’s inane meanderings through a fraction of the problems facing trade publishing. Mr. Schnittman posits that trade publishing is a Ponzi scheme, where advance sales of new titles finance the continuing losses on previous titles. Leaving aside Mr. Schnittman’s apparent failure to understand the difference between cash flow and accounting, which Vardibidian is rightly perplexed by, Mr. Schnittman is correct that trade publishers would be in a better financial position if they paid their authors less and reduced their printing and shipping costs. (All other things being equal, which of course they never are.)

Vardibidian is also correctly dubious of Mr. Schnittman’s ex cathedra declaration that “Ebooks, if successful, will sink the trade publishing industry” as being remotely connected to the significant problems of trade publishing. Ebooks as a mode of publishing are orthogonal to a financial model of publishing (of which there have historically been a large number). Implementing ebook publishing is costly in many ways, and potentially rewarding in far fewer, so for quite a while publishers tried to mislead each other into diving into ebooks in the hopes that their competitors would drown, or at least smack their head on something hard. And they tried to talk down ebooks to their authors and customers, which is what Mr. Schnittman appears to be doing, so that the publishers wouldn’t be forced to Change.

But I’m not here to mock Mr. Schnittman for his absurd argumentation, nor to praise Vardibidian for trying to make sense of it. I’m actually here to highlight a comment made by James Embry on Mr. Schnittman’s post:

While, for many authors, the most crucial function of the publisher is to find the book’s audience, many established authors have a locked-in audience, and many of the younger, web-savvy set, are actually better than most publicity departments (OUP exempted, natch) at marketing themselves as well as their output.
The strength of those blockbuster authors is the core of the problem for trade publishing. Trade publishers depend on them, and the entire traditional trade industry has organized itself around precisely those authors who no longer need the trade publishers to find their audience. So trade publishers need to figure out what their role is. To provide an editor? Proofreader? Book designer? These are all individual tasks that are easily outsourced, as many employees of trade publishers have discovered. Production and distribution remain tasks that most authors will continue to need some company’s infrastructure for, whether the books are delivered to customers in print or in electronic form. The technical requirements of creating and distributing ebooks for a large number of reading platforms are, in addition to a cost and a headache, an opportunity for publishers. They should be embracing the complexities, because those complexities are a way to remain indispensable.

The good old days

From Boomerang, a Dutch e-card site