Thursday, January 13, 2011

Travel to Galapagos II: Exploring Darwin's Islands

Frigatebird
( Read my Blog entitled Travel to Galapagos I: Quito, Equador)

The Galapagos Islands are one of the best and easiest to reach destinations outside the continental United States. It is surprisingly close and not outrageously expensive (as compared to Europe).

They offer rare and beautiful flora and fauna, great scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities, and a warm climate twelve months of the year.

Galapagos is chock full of  gorgeous animals and birds that have been indigenous for several millennia.  Prominent are the Iguana, blue footed booties, frigatebirds, land turtles and flightless cormorants. We were fortunate to see the albatross, which we had previously seen nesting on the South Georgia Island, which is a terminal at the other end of the migratory journey of these magnificent birds.

What I did not anticipate was the remarkable geography and how it  revealed the origin of species to the brilliant eye of Charles Darwin.

The Galapagos Islands lie about 600 miles west of the South American mainland. They were unspoiled and uninhabited for several thousand years. Even the pirates would not use the islands as safe haven because of a scarcity of fresh water.

The islands are not only remote, but they are largely isolated from each other.  Many of the animals cannot fly or swim from one island to the other. Thus many species have been confined to  their own self contained habitats for thousands of  years

Charles Darwin was a naturalist traveling with an English expedition that was mapping the western side of South America.  He was charged with identifying the plants and animals he encountered along the way.

When the ships reached the Galapagos Archepelago, Darwin was overwhelmed by the hundreds of animals and plants that had never before been seen in the western world. He dutifully sketched, and cataloged these new found species and carried his treasure trove back to England.

During the return trip he pondered on the significance of all the information he had gathered.  For instance he was struck by the fact that there were different species of mockingbirds on the various islands. These birds were similar in appearance but could not mate with their cousins from other islands. He firmly believed that these different mockingbirds had a common ancestor at some point in history, and wondered how they could evolve into different species.

He thus deduced that these birds living separately and apart  had been required to adapt to the demands of their own environment. He concluded that the animal that could adapt tended to propagate more abundantly and gradually the survivors passed their traits on to subsequent generations. Inasmuch as the mockingbirds on separate islands were confronted with different environments, they had evolved in different directions until they ultimately became different species.

Darwin thus anticipated what twentieth century scientists confirmed that environmental adaptation can alter our genetic makeup. As far as I know, the discovery of DNA did nothing but confirm the accuracy of his observation.

It is an unique and exciting experience for the traveler to visit these Island, which are largely unspoiled, and observe the flora and fauna in the same light as Darwin did. I have three specific recommendations  for the trip:.

- Read a good biography of Darwin.

- Be sure to travel by boat, while you are there.  It is important that you see as many islands as time permits and the boats are the most efficient means of getting around.

- Be sure to bring along some very good walking shoes and be prepared to walk over demanding surfaces of volcanic rock, which are everywhere.  It is not a place for flip flops.

And, of course there is one more recommendation - have a great time.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Spanish Wedding

I am not sure what I expected a Spanish wedding to be like. I suppose I had conjured up an image of traditional Spanish dancers with black vails and patent leather shoes. I also anticipated much pomp and circumstance. Whatever image I may have had, it was shattered by reality.

Monty and I flew into Madrid where we met Teodoro Nieto, an artist Monty represents and a long time friend, along with Franz and Laura Reinart. Franz is German born but had migrated to Mexico where he met and married Laura, who is a native born Mexican. They live in San Diego, but most of their business interests are located in Mexico. Laura serves as a North American representative for Teodoro.

We rented a car and drove with the Nieto entourage to Ayllon, a small town of about twenty five hundred residents located about eighty miles from Madrid. Although Teodoro has worked and lived for most of his adult life in Madrid, he has maintained strong ties with Ayllon, where he was born and now owns significant properties. The great majority of his landscapes portray Ayllon.


Allyon, Spain
View Ayllon, Spain in a larger map

The wedding took place in a small community was about five miles from Ayllon. Oscar Ramirez, the groom, lived in that small town of about 500 people and was its mayor. He owned and operated a vineyard nearby. The bride named Lorena was Teodoro’s daughter. She ran a restaurant in Ayllon, which her father owned.

Our group arrived at the little country church about five minutes before noon, when the wedding ceremony was supposed to begin. I was fearful that we would be late. After all, we usually show up a half an hour in advance for Birmingham weddings. To my surprise, although there was an enormous crowd in front of the church, no one had gone inside. The church could seat no more than about one hundred people but two hundred had been invited.. It appeared that all the invitees had come. Therefore not all the guests could be seated in the church.

We entered the church in order to get a good seat, which was no particular problem because no one else seemed to be in a hurry to go inside. The bride and groom arrived separately and fashionably late. I expected to see a procession with bridesmaids, ushers and the grand entrance of the family, but it did not happen that way. The bride and groom ambled in with the rest of the crowd. Lorena was wearing a long green dress, but it hardly appeared to be what we would consider a wedding dress. A band consisting of a flute, drum, tambourine and a couple of horns began playing music which was joyful and loud, but not very religious to my ear. The entrance of the bride and groom appeared to be quite similar to that of a politician entering a rally.

Lorena and Oscar took their seats at the altar accompanied by Teodoro, the father of the bride, and the mother of the groom. Henar, the mother of the bride, sat somewhere near the front.

Hollywood could not have found a more appropriate priest for the occasion. He was probably no more than about 30 years old. He stood about five foot five inches tall. Despite his youth and short stature, he had already acquired the demeanor of a parish priest, with an angelic look and a broad comforting smile.

The guests began to file in occupying all the seats, packing the aisles and slipping into every available nook and cranny. So much for our great seats. Our main view was of the back of the necks of persons who were standing in the aisles. Still others who could not find space stayed outside looking in through open doorway.

The service went on for at least and hour and a half. Since it was mostly spoken in Spanish, we could not follow what was being said most of the time. Monty detected at one point that the priest was repeating the Apostles Creed.

At another point, the priest seemed to using the word “bambino” frequently. I have known that Catholic priests encourage the couple to have children early and often, but his instruction in that regard seemed a bit superfluous in this instance. Lorena was already carrying a baby. She was about four months along and clearly showing. There was no shame or embarrassment, though. She was happy, her parents were happy, and I believe the priest was happy to see the early arrival.

At another point, the priest turned his attention away from the bride and groom and received the two children of Lorena’s sister, Ruth. The priest then baptized them. That was a first for me. Obviously the priest was open for business and prepared to take on any religious duties required of him at that time.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the music during the service. There was a trio of sopranos who performed from time to time during the service along with the band. They sang a couple of songs I did not know, although they produced a pleasant pastoral sound which seemed to be inspired by the madrigal music of the Renaissance.

Then came the only point in the service performed in English when the trio sang “Moon River.” Where did that come from? Ir reminded me of the time that Tutter Tyndal of our church allowed a performance of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” at the wedding of Tim Hudson, who is now a star pitcher with the Atlanta Braves. This wedding was really getting to be interesting!

Later on the band performed an African piece which I believe was the theme song of the TV show “The Ladies Number One Detective Agency.” By that time I thought nothing would surprise me.

When the service came to an end, the guests began to leave the sanctuary while the wedding party was remained at the altar. This made some sense and because the aisles were so clogged that the bride and groom could not get through. However, even guests continued to leave until no one was left in the sanctuary .except the wedding party and a few stragglers such as Monty and me.

Then Lorena, Oscar and their families strolled out with little fan fare. When Lorena and Oscar reached the doorway a celebration erupted into a frenzy the band playing in the parking lot. There was hugging, kissing, laughing and joy like I have seldom seen. The men grabbed the groom and threw him into the air. It was noisy, raucous and just plain fun.

But Spanish weddings are not limited to the church ceremony. The entire crowd migrated to Ayllon to the restaurant owned by Teodoro. there was a new band with many hor d’oeuvres served and drinks flowing. The Spanish seem to drink a lot but do not take strong drinks. In that way they can continue to party for hours without peeling over. And they love to dance. The Spanish are graceful dancers, and they are tireless.

Lunch was served in a seated dinner at four o’clock. During the meal, many of Oscar’s contemporaries would shout at Oscar. I could not translate what was being said but it was apparent that his friends were doing their best to embarrass Oscar, probably by referring to past misadventures. Oscar was up to the task and would responded with his own retorts.

I was able to understand one of the guests who shouted out,”Kiss the Bride!” There was no response. Then he repeated, “Kiss the bride!” Still no response. The rest of the crowd started to join in by chanting in unison, “Kiss the bride! Kiss the Bride!” Finally the couple relented, stood up and joined in a warm embrace - and everyone cheered. The Spanish know how to have a good time.

After the lunch the dancing resumed. Monty and I were exhausted and decided to retire to our room for a rest. The party was still in high gear when we returned in two hours, and it did not appear that anyone, old or young, had left.

Dinner was served at eight thirty. Mercifully it was a light meal featuring the Spanish version of sandwiches, but the party was showing no evidence of slowing up. About ten thirty Monty and I gave up and went in for the night. We understand that Teodoro closed the party at midnight.

We had planned to leave the next morning to drive over to the Pyrenees for a few days. We were ready to leave by nine thirty. We wanted to say goodbye to Teodoro and thank him for his hospitality, but were concerned that we would not be able to see him. Surely he would sleep in to midday after that ordeal. Nevertheless we stopped by the restaurant, and, somewhat to our surprise, Teodoro was busy at work cleaning up the mess created the night before. It turned out that he had gone to sleep at two in the morning and awakened at five to start work. We also saw Ruth who was supervising half dozen workmen in the ballroom cleaning up and setting up for another event that would start the next day Next came Henar The whole family was there except Lorena.. No, I was mistaken. Around the corner came Lorena in her work clothes.

I was stunned at the sight. Obviously the Nietos work as hard as they play. They are quite a family.

I would never have felt that any wedding was worth traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to see, but I was wrong.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Teachers and Test Scores

It is not fair to blame Paul Hubbert, Executive Secretary of the Alabama Education Association, for all that is wrong with our school system. We suffered for many generations with poor schools long before he came along. Nevertheless, he manages to be identified with substantial road blocks to progress in education.

It is noteworthy, then, when he makes a sound point. I am referring to his opposition to using test scores to evaluate teacher performance. It is understandable why the boards may want to find an objective measuring stick to determine promotions and retention of teachers. With strong tenure rules, the incompetent teachers seem to be embedded in the system. Bureaucrats need an objective test that is both fair and effective in weeding out the incompetents. Unfortunately test scores may be objective, but they are not a fair measuring tool.

I do not think that these tests were designed to evaluate teachers or schools. They are supposed to assess the progress, accomplishments and capacity for learning of the individual student. The tests provide valuable information which should enable the school to determine the needs and opportunities available to that student.

Using test scores to make hiring, firing and retention decisions is based on an assumption that teachers have the capacity to materially affect those scores. That is simply not the case. For instance, Mountain Brook students regularly score at the top and those from poorer communities bring up the rear. Is it realistic to suggest that the teachers in a black belt county can under any circumstances teach their students up to the Mountain Brook level? I have no hesitation to suggest that the students of the worst teacher in the Mountain Book System would easily out perform those of the best teacher in one of our poor counties. On the other hand I suspect that the star teacher from the poorer school would be much the better teacher.

Therefore, where is the fairness in comparing teachers on a test score basis when they are not working on a level playing field?

A common retort would be that the teacher should be measured by the “improvement” in test scores instead. The assumption there is that all teachers in all systems have been performing poorly in the past and even an average teacher should be able to raise the scores. Do I need to answer that argument?

Then there is the teacher who does in fact raise the scores but has turned the class room into a year long cram course for the test. This can be done by finding in old tests and looking at the tendencies that would indicate what will be asked. (Law graduates do this all the time when preparing for the bar exam.) If the score has been raised, it means nothing other than that the school has learned how to short cut the system. It does not indicate any inherent improvement in the quality of the education.

The truth is that successes of great teachers are not measured by improving statistics but by their impact of the teacher on individuals one by one. Most people who are successful in life can point to one or two of such teachers and are grateful for the profound impact those teachers made. That is what teaching is all about.

I wish I could say that this phobia over test score evaluations is harmless, but it is not. In the first place, it represents a gigantic misuse of scarce resources. But it is much more. It stifles creative teaching. I had much rather my child be exposed him to the magic of Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott, rather than pouring over old tests.or listening to a lecture on how to eliminate the obviously wrong answer on a multiple choice test in order to improve the odds of finding the correct one.

Worst of all, the test score is so simplistic that the school boards (who are a big part of the problem but not the subject of this blog) act on misinformation and come up with poor choices in the direction of their school systems. Their job of making personnel evaluations is extremely difficult and can always be flawed, but there is no panacea. Drawing draconian conclusions based on a multiple choice tests is both meretricious and misguided.

Mark up an attaboy for Paul Hubbert.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mosques and Demogogues

The dispute over a mosque across the street from Ground Zero is an excellent example of how democracy can get steered into the Theater of the Absurd. (I am not sure what Theater of the Absurd is all about, but it sounds like an apt metaphor.)

The Imam in charge of the proposed mosque stated that he was seeking to serve as a bridge of understanding between Islam and the United States.

If that was his goal, he got off to a bad start. New Yorkers are super sensitive about the Twin Towers, and their pain has not subsided. Thus a highly predictable uproar erupted over the proposed facility. As best I can tell the local officials jumped in quickly seeking some solution that would be satisfactory to the Imam and would abate the criticism. I have not heard anyone claim that there was any genuine objection to some compromise effort. In fact it would be reasonable to assume that the support of the local authorities would in fact aide the effort of the Muslims to build bridges.

Under any circumstances, every politician who feels the need for publicity seems to be conscience stricken to step in and be of assistance.

One such politician was Congressmen Rick Lazio, who is engaged in a heated contest for governor of the state. He seem to be certain that the problem was caused by the ineffectiveness of the state attorney general, who happens to be his opponent. He suggested that the Imam may be using money from nefarious sources which needs to be investigated before the mosque is approved..

That is fine indeed, but, apparently, he did not think up this idea until the polls told him that the proposal was extremely unpopular with the electorate. Moreover, he has an Italian name. That makes him Italian, not American. He must have some connection with the Mafia - at least as much as does the Imam with the Al Qaeda. Why isn’t he taking his witch hunt to Manhattan to find out the source of funding of at least half of the finer Italian restaurants in the city?

Then the matter was ratcheted up again by our President, who has a disconcerting habit of opening his mouth before his brain is fully activated, entered the fray. He wrapped himself in the comforting arms of the Bill of Rights. He said that the Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque in accordance with local laws.

It is reassuring to know that the First Amendment has not been abrogated recently, but he injected a non-issue into the conversation.. No one claims to be denying the freedom of religion to the Muslims. Even he seems to recognize by implication that the issue of where the mosque might be located is a matter of local law. What the President did was mischaracterize the facts so that he could utter an inapplicable principle relating to a situation that does not exist.

The President’s position was not good politics, either, since about a fourth of the population believes that he is Muslim, himself.

Now the runaway train is totally out of control. Newt Gingrich equates the location of the mosque next ot Ground Zero with placing Nazi headquarters next to a holocaust memorial. The Democrats loved that. Now the Arab world has been encouraged by our President to believe that a substantial segment of our country is attempting to override the constitution in support of efforts to persecute the Muslims who live here.. People in all continents of every persuasion are now weighing in - all because our politicians stuck their nose into a matter that probably would have been handled best by the persons in the City of New York who have been entrusted with the responsibility of dealing with the situation.

Ain’t democracy great!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Travel to Galapagos I : Quito, Equador

Monty and I have just returned from a trip to Equador and Galapagos Islands. We first went to Quito for a short visit, flew on to the Islands and boarded a small ship that cruised around the Archipelago, and then returned to the port city of Guayaquil. I plan to report on my reactions to this very exciting trip in ths series of four postings.

I did not know what to expect from Quito. I knew it was the capital but little else. As it turned out, Quito is a very interesting city with one of the best preserved old towns in the world and a rich history.

The city itself is a metaphor for a paradox. It has many beautiful buildings constructed in the European style and yet it is bordered by the slums we come to expect in less developed countries. It is a major international city plopped in the middle of the Andes Mountains over 9,000 feet above sea level. The contrast of a modern city surrounded by the rugged mountain is landscape is overwhelming. It is located on the slopes of an active volcano and within about a mile of the equator.

How could this immense, sophisticated city emerge in the remotest of possible locales rather than on the Pacific coast? I can only speculate that Quito was located where it is for military reasons. The Spanish must have found a need to establish a presence in the mountains in order to sustain the conquest of the indigenous people who for their own reasons lived in the heart of the Andes.

Under any circumstances it is not surprising that Quito a was the first city to be designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

The people of Equador also piqued my curiosity. Our guide said that eighty per cent of the inhabitants are of Indian stock. Unlike Mexico and many Central American countries, neither the invasion of the Spaniards nor the transporting of Africans to the Western Hemisphere seem to have made much of a dent into the Equadorian genetic pool. As a result, these people give us a peek into what the Incan people must have been like. They are very short in stature but very muscular, and appear to be somewhat mild mannered. Even their food is less spicy than that found in some of the neighboring countries. I saw very little begging or evidence of idleness. Our jingoistic caricatures of hotheaded Latins loafing around aimlessly is not substantiated by these people.

Equador on the surface seems to be a relatively stable economy with an emphasis on a robust fishing industry, a wide variety of agricultural products and some oil. I got the feeling from the people I talked to that there is a nervousness about whether this stability can continue. A major threat is cocaine. The government of Columbia, which is next door, is engaged in a war with its drug lords. So far Equador has been spared from being a significant player in drug trafficking, but the Columbian drug lords are slipping across the border to set up operations that could be a serious problem down the road. Second, Equador’s current president is flirting with Chavez of Venezuela. There is a concern that the Equador’s bustling trading relationship with the United States could be disrupted if the Venezuela populist movement slips into the Equadorian political landscape.

I have run into many people who express a desire to visit the Galapagos Islands, but there is very little mention of the mainland portion of the trip. If you of that persuasion, let me assure you that you are in for a surprise.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Stabler Health Cost Reduction Plan

I have identified four primary sources of the rise in costs - the impact of medical research (2/26/10), restrictive entry into medical schools causing anti competitive pricing (3/2/10), an over insured population (3/5/10), and tort law suits (3/9/10). These four issues must be addressed in order to contain health costs. Here are the components of the Stabler Health Cost Reduction Plan:

1. Medical schools must reorganize their teaching methods, particularly in the clinical programs, and use their impressive resources more efficiently in order to double or triple the number of doctors produced each year. If medical educators really put their mind to the project, I suspect that the additional tuition income would come close to covering the marginal costs of educating additional students. The economic savings coming from increased enrollments would significantly reduce costs, increase the availability of medical services and thus produce a far superior health care system.

2. I propose to limit tax deductible plans to those that pay no more than 80% of the ordinary medical costs with a 20% deductible paid by the insured. I believe that in most cases the cumulative savings from lower premiums would exceed the cost of paying the larger deductible. With low cost plans being the norm, universal coverage would be much easier to accomplish.. Moreover, the patient who has a 20% stake in the cost of medical services will pay much closer attention to how the money is spent. The Stabler Plan would allow greater, but not 100%, coverage for catastrophic expenses and would provide some sort of welfare payments for the indigent.

3. It is doubtful that the pace of medical research will ever happen, nor should it. The only way I can see that its effect on medical costs can be reduced would be to invest more public moneys into research to replace the work of pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies. Public investments do not need to be recovered out of the proceeds of sales. Nevertheless, the savings, if any, from that source would require much more investigation and study that I am capable of producing.

4. I see little prospect of material cost reduction coming out of tort reform as long as health care is dispensed in a noncompetitive environment. Therefore, the Stabler Plan requires that the supply of doctors and other health professions be dramatically increased before tort reform is included in the program. (See my discussion in the posting issued on 3/5/10). It would be unconscionable to give the doctors full immunity from the consequences of their tortious actions. Two features of tort reform have merit, however. Punitive damages deserve to be curbed, or even abolished. I believe that it is the province of the criminal laws to mete out punishment. The proper role of civil law suits is to compensate victims for their loss. Second, tort laws could be amended to give the medical professionals a good faith defense. Most medical procedures have a risk attached to them. The defendant who can prove that he or she acted in good faith and with diligence should be given a break.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is Tort Reform Really the Answer to Rising Health Costs?

Is Tort Reform Really the Answer to Rising Health Costs?

Tort Reform is one of the cornerstones of every Republican health care proposal. Normally the tort reform package proposal takes the form of some sort of cap on recoveries. Tort reform is not simply a cost savings device. There are considerations other than cost that weigh heavily in the tort reform debate. My limited concern at this point is whether tort reform can induce meaningful cost savings.

The proponents frequently make the argument that there are too many frivolous malpractice claims. It is true that there are many frivolous claims because, at least in Alabama, the defendant prevails in a very high percentage of the claims filed. Nevertheless, I submit that it is not the frivolous claims that raise the costs most significantly. It is the meritorious claims that cost the big bucks.

Costs of tort reform can be easily identified because virtually every practitioner carries insurance and the premiums define the dominant cost. The complexity comes from the fact that the premiums vary widely based on the specialty. The highest premiums are paid be obstetricians which have been reported to be in the range of $150,000. The reason for this are because babies suffer the most serious damage and have the longest life expectancy extending the time that they may suffer the consequences of an adverse event. Both factors run up the cost of claims dramatically. These premiums are not typical. I suspect that the premiums for pathologists would be toward the bottom of the scale and would be negligible, but other specialties are spread all over the landscape. The point is that there is more need for reform for some aspects of the practice than others.

I cannot figure out whether tort reform would have any effect on the cost of medical services. As I have discussed in another posting, the doctors enjoy monopoly power which means that they can raise their prices above the competitive level. Insurance would be classified as a fixed cost. As I recall from distant studies of price theory the true monopolist will raise prices until the price matches the marginal cost. Marginal cost represent the additional costs for serving one more patient. The cost of insurance does not materially increase when a patient is added.

Put another way. Competitive prices have a close relationship to costs. In a competitive environment additional costs translate into higher prices. On the other hand the monopolist charges what the traffic will bear regardless of total costs. Therefore, it would seem to me that the cost of insurance does not govern the prices set by the medical profession for their services.

I suspect you can detect, that I really do not fully know what the economic impact of tort reform on the cost of health care would be. I would like to find studies done by respectable academicians (who are not employed to find a predetermined answer). Under any circumstances I do not believe that tort reform is likely to produce substantial cost savings..

This is the last posting for the week. I will publish the next one on Tuesday, March 16, 2010 . At that time I will discuss my ideas as to the most effective means of containing health costs.