Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 2nd, 2010

The crisis of middle-class America

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Edward Luce at FT.com (Financial Times):

Technically speaking, Mark Freeman should count himself among the luckiest people on the planet. The 52-year-old lives with his family on a tree-lined street in his own home in the heart of the wealthiest country in the world. When he is hungry, he eats. When it gets hot, he turns on the air-conditioning. When he wants to look something up, he surfs the internet. One of the songs he likes to sing when he hosts a weekly karaoke evening is Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black”.

Yet somehow things don’t feel so good any more. Last year the bank tried to repossess the Freemans’ home even though they were only three months in arrears. Their son, Andy, was recently knocked off his mother’s health insurance and only painfully reinstated for a large fee. And, much like the boarded-up houses that signal America’s epidemic of foreclosures, the drug dealings and shootings that were once remote from their neighbourhood are edging ever closer, a block at a time.

What is most troubling about the Freemans is how typical they are. Neither Mark nor Connie – his indefatigable wife, who is as chubby as he is gaunt – suffer any chronic medical conditions. Both have jobs at the local Methodist Hospital, he as a warehouse receiver and distributor, she as an anaesthesia supply technician. At $70,000 a year, their joint gross income is more than a third higher than the median US household.

Once upon a time this was called the American Dream. Nowadays it might be called America’s Fitful Reverie. Indeed, Mark spends large monthly sums renting a machine to treat his sleep apnea, which gives him insomnia. “If we lost our jobs, we would have about three weeks of savings to draw on before we hit the bone,” says Mark, who is sitting on his patio keeping an eye on the street and swigging from a bottle of Miller Lite. “We work day and night and try to save for our retirement. But we are never more than a pay check or two from the streets.”

Mention middle-class America and most foreigners envision something timeless and manicured, from The Brady Bunch, say, or Desperate Housewives in which teenagers drive to school in sports cars and the girls are always cheerleading. This might approximate how some in the top 10 per cent live. The rest live like the Freemans. Or worse.

It only takes about 30 seconds to tour Mark’s 700sq ft home in north-west Minneapolis. Cluttered with chintzy memorabilia, it was bought with a $50,000 mortgage in 1989. It is now worth $73,000. “At one stage we had it valued at $105,000 – and we thought we had entered nirvana,” says Mark. “People from the banks kept calling, sometimes four or five times an evening, offering equity lines, and home improvement loans. They were like drug pushers.”

Solid Democratic voters, the Freemans are evidently phlegmatic in their outlook. The visitor’s gaze is drawn to their fridge door, which is festooned with humorous magnets. One says: “I am sorry I missed Church, I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.” Another says: “I would tell you to go to Hell but I work there and I don’t want to see you every day.” A third, “Jesus loves you but I think you’re an asshole.” Mark chuckles: “Laughter is the best medicine.”

. . .

The slow economic strangulation of the Freemans and millions of other middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years. Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.

The trend has only been getting stronger. . .

Continue reading. There’s a video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:16 am

Departing: Hospice care

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The GOP really, really doesn’t like hospice care or end-of-life counseling. The reasons are unclear—perhaps they believe that they, themselves, will not have to go through the death experience, as it were. I’m of an age at which the end of life is starting to come into view, and I think that hospice care and end-of-life counseling is a very good—and merciful and charitable—idea, despite the "death panels" that the GOP labels them. (I think the GOP has somehow the idea that this kind of care is actually some sort of execution.)

At any rate, Atul Gawande has an excellent article on the considerations and tradeoffs in helping people through their deaths. Highly recommended. It begins:

Sara Thomas Monopoli was pregnant with her first child when her doctors learned that she was going to die. It started with a cough and a pain in her back. Then a chest X-ray showed that her left lung had collapsed, and her chest was filled with fluid. A sample of the fluid was drawn off with a long needle and sent for testing. Instead of an infection, as everyone had expected, it was lung cancer, and it had already spread to the lining of her chest. Her pregnancy was thirty-nine weeks along, and the obstetrician who had ordered the test broke the news to her as she sat with her husband and her parents. The obstetrician didn’t get into the prognosis—she would bring in an oncologist for that—but Sara was stunned. Her mother, who had lost her best friend to lung cancer, began crying.

The doctors wanted to start treatment right away, and that meant inducing labor to get the baby out. For the moment, though, Sara and her husband, Rich, sat by themselves on a quiet terrace off the labor floor. It was a warm Monday in June, 2007. She took Rich’s hands, and they tried to absorb what they had heard. Monopoli was thirty-four. She had never smoked, or lived with anyone who had. She exercised. She ate well. The diagnosis was bewildering. “This is going to be O.K.,” Rich told her. “We’re going to work through this. It’s going to be hard, yes. But we’ll figure it out. We can find the right treatment.” For the moment, though, they had a baby to think about.

“So Sara and I looked at each other,” Rich recalled, “and we said, ‘We don’t have cancer on Tuesday. It’s a cancer-free day. We’re having a baby. It’s exciting. And we’re going to enjoy our baby.’ ” On Tuesday, at 8:55 P.M., Vivian Monopoli, seven pounds nine ounces, was born. She had wavy brown hair, like her mom, and she was perfectly healthy.

The next day, Sara underwent blood tests and body scans. Dr. Paul Marcoux, an oncologist, met with her and her family to discuss the findings. He explained that she had a non-small cell lung cancer that had started in her left lung. Nothing she had done had brought this on. More than fifteen per cent of lung cancers—more than people realize—occur in non-smokers. Hers was advanced, having metastasized to multiple lymph nodes in her chest and its lining. The cancer was inoperable. But there were chemotherapy options, notably a relatively new drug called Tarceva, which targets a gene mutation commonly found in lung cancers of female non-smokers. Eighty-five per cent respond to this drug, and, Marcoux said, “some of these responses can be long-term.”

Words like “respond” and “long-term” provide a reassuring gloss on a dire reality. There is no cure for lung cancer at this stage. Even with chemotherapy, the median survival is about a year. But it seemed harsh and pointless to confront Sara and Rich with this now. Vivian was in a bassinet by the bed. They were working hard to be optimistic. As Sara and Rich later told the social worker who was sent to see them, they did not want to focus on survival statistics. They wanted to focus on “aggressively managing” this diagnosis.

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:13 am

A tooth, ready for its close-up

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You really must watch this brief video, zooming in to a healthy tooth. Very interesting structure.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Science, Video

Religious bigotry in the US

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Still alive and active, as noted in this report from the Center for American Progress, received in an email:

In December, the New York Times reported that "for months," hundreds of Muslims had been gathering every Friday at an abandoned building two blocks north of the World Trade Center for prayer and readings from the Qur’an in Arabic. A group of Muslims purchased the building — which had been damaged from debris resulting from the 9/11 attacks  — and now, led by the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Initiative, plan to build a 15-story Islamic community center there that will include a mosque, an arts center, a workout facility, and other public spaces. ASMA founder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said the project "sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11." "We want to push back against the extremists," he added. Other faith leaders offered support for the project. "[Abdul Rauf] subscribes to my credo: ‘Live and let live,’" said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a spiritual leader at a nearby synagogue. "Building so close is owning the tragedy. It’s a way of saying: ‘This is something done by people who call themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says,’" said Joan Brown Campbell, a Christian leader in New York. Despite interfaith support for the project, the idea of having a Muslim center anywhere near Ground Zero has set off right-wing outrage based in bigotry, paranoia, bias, racism, and intolerance.

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Brush tests: Vintage Blades soap

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I had very good lather from Creed’s Green Irish Tweed shaving soap, but that soap retails for $68/tub. What about a soap at the other end of the price range? Vintage Blades LLC offers a triple-milled tallow-based shaving soap (like Crred’s) for much less: $25 in a wooden bowl, or $12.50 for just the refill. So for the next few days I’ll use this soap with various brushes.

First up: the Omega Lucretia Borgia synthetic-bristle brush. Once again, as with the Creed’s, a truly great lather Again, I took my time in loading the brush, and the brush deliver: ample rich lather for three passes—and plenty for more, in fact.

The Merkur Slant with its Swedish Gillette blade smoothed the stubble away flawlessly, and a splash of St. John’s Bay Rum aftershave brightened the morning (overcast with fog, in fact) considerably.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 9:07 am

Posted in Shaving

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