Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The End of a Long Road

My father-in-law, Melvin, was an accomplished scientist. He remains one of the more highly published researchers at the Oregon State University’s school of Agriculture. He has traveled the globe collecting rare plants and was instrumental in setting up the National Clonal Germplasm Repository network; a virtual Noah’s Arch of plant genetic material. The first was in Corvallis – there are now repositories all over the globe.

But this great mind at age 88 is being ravaged by the early stages of Alzheimer's. Mel can recall the intimate details of how he discovered the treatment for the plant disease “Pear Decline” but he cannot remember what he did yesterday… or even earlier that day.

Mel learned to drive his Dad’s Model-T as a kid. As he tells it, the old rig wouldn’t make it over Utah’s LaSalle mountains in one run. He and his brother would sit in the back of the truck with a big rock between them. As the T chugged up the hill and over-heated, steam boiling from the radiator, the brothers would jump out and put the rock behind the back wheel to keep it from rolling back down the hill. Once it had cooled down, they would grab the rock and chug up the hill as far as they could go, repeating the process chocking the tire of the overheated T with the rock until they reached the summit.

Two weeks ago while on his way back from his monthly Hort department coffee meeting with other retired professors and technicians, Mel was involved in a car accident. Fortunately for all involved, nobody was injured. But Mel’s car was totaled; too old to be repaired, it ended up being scrapped. Mel later received a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles – he would need to be tested for his continuing ability to drive or lose his license.

Mel recognizes his mental faculties are in decline so after a day of mulling it over, he decided the best thing to do was surrender his driver’s license. This decision was a monumental one for Mel; it marked a milestone in his life… and a blatant reminder that he doesn’t have many more milestones more to go.

In many ways the decision was an easy one for him. Mel's“world” has been rapidly shrinking; he could no longer see to drive at night and he only remembers how to get to a few places like his church or the university campus. He doesn’t remember how to get to our house or even to his wife’s grave site.

Despite the stereotypical metaphor of the DMV as an example of inefficient government bureaucracy, his business with the agency went smoothly and courteously. No long lines or horrendous wait. A few minutes later, when Mel handed the clerk his paperwork with the box checked that he was voluntarily giving up his driving privileges, he told her: “I’ve been driving for seventy-three years and four months.”

He will get his new color picture state ID card in the mail.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

History in Photographs

Ken Burns is recognized as one of the great documentary filmmakers of this century. With works like “Baseball”, “The Civil War” and soon to be released, “Prohibition” his images weave an intricate historical narrative.

An interesting thing about film making, though; it generally involves moving images. Yet Burns’ works contain almost exclusively fixed images; photographs, illustrations and paintings. Most film editing software ( I use Adobe Premiere Pro) allow the editor to animate fixed images, zooming, scaling, shifting axis. This lends a bit more interest to a fixed image and allows the viewer to focus on the scene slightly longer.

An interesting fact is that much of what we know about the Civil War is due to the vast archives of physical images. Many are glass plates, some film on paper. Though celluloid degrades over time, glass plate images are resilient and can last for centuries. With digital technology these can be enhanced through color correction, balance and blemish removal.

Film and film processing is becoming rare, replaced largely by digital camera technology. My wife, who used to develop her own black-and-white film, finally abandoned her 35mm SLR camera and has gone completely the digital route. But the adoption of new technology has now presented us with a new problem – long-term storage and retrieval.

We began collecting digital images with our earliest computers, initially saved to floppy disks, then hard drives. Today in some cases a single photo image file is larger than the entire 20mb hard drive of my first computer! I remember at the time the computer salesman assured me I would “never fill up that hard drive”.

But the insatiable storage demands of data storage, including photographic images, has required me to seek ever larger capacity devices over time. I’ve gone through “Zip” drives, then larger “Jaz” drives. When that became inadequate I began filling up CD’s then larger capacity DVDs; eventually turning to assorted “Tape” drives. As it stands now, much of what I have stored digitally resides on essentially “obsolete” storage devices.

Then there comes that horrible day when the computer fails to fire up. Hard drives have a finite life span, all will eventually fail. My daughter and her husband lost a number of priceless family photos when their notebook PC died. There were no copies, no duplicates.

Of course many today share photographs through uploading them to web archives such as “Shutterfly”, “Flickr” or “Photobucket”. But many online photo hosting services have gone bankrupt and disappeared from the web… along with them your collection of family photos. Will these online resources enjoy the same century long services as have the glass plates and photo paper images from the battle of Gettysburg? Will those photos of your child’s 4 year old birthday party survive somewhere over the next 100 years generations yet unborn to admire?

It’s an interesting question to picture.

Photo above: George Washington Cole, my great great grandfather. Died at the Battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi, 1863

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Health Care Regulatory Malpractice

Back in mid March I went through Aortic Valve replacement surgery. I’m one of the “lucky” ones who have group medical insurance through my former employer. It’s not free though. Here is how the stats for my procedure break down:
Days in the hospital: 23
Doctors and PAs involved in my treatment: 28
Gross charges billed to insurance: $265,136.49
Amount paid by insurance: $246,013.49
Out of cost paid by me: $915.00
Monthly insurance premium: $1,159.52
These are not the final costs; bills continue to “trickle” in. Of the 28 physicians I can recall actually seeing maybe ten.

When President Obama took office, he pushed through an initiative to revamp the medical insurance industry. To my thinking less than half the job has been addressed by this legislation; he focused on the insurance side of the overall health care issue, leaving the medical delivery system relatively untouched. This is like having the fire department trying to save your burning two-story home by trying to put out the fire on the ground level only – the whole upstairs is still a conflagration.

Each of the 28 doctors billed insurance separately, and multiple times for each time they looked at my chart. That means 28 separate financial transactions, not including the labs, hospital, et al. Heck, if a couple of these doctors just wanted to pick up some side revenue, they could have falsely claimed they provided treatment – the insurance company would have no way of knowing. Nor would I.

Pharmaceutical companies charge outrageous prices for their products. True many likely had high product development costs. But they also par with auto companies in the amount of time and money they spend on prime-time television advertising. I have seen as many as three pharmaceutical ads during one spate of commercial breaks. Who pays for that? I can guess.

The two largest medical providers in town share common real estate and parking lots. But they do not share patient medical data between them via their independent computer systems. Yesterday my cardiologist faxed a blood draw request to the lab in the next building. Yes, in the 21st century – FAXED!

I know people love to gripe about government, and Big government at that. But the city doesn’t have two water departments, there is only one DMV in town, people can apply for Food Stamps and Unemployment insurance compensation in one building. More importantly, NONE of these government agencies have CEO’s who draw million dollar annual bonuses.

It all kind-a makes me sick.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Oregon Country Fair

Some call it an "counter-culture event", others a throw-back to the Hippy days of the 1970's. Whatever... the Oregon Country Fair has been a local event since 1969. With attendance upwards of 45,000 fair revelers, the fair draws visitors from throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Having been over a decade since Nancy and I last attended the fair, a group of friends invited us to join them this year. Though not a big fan of crowds, we couldn't resist checking out the Country Fair this year with good friends.

Half of the attraction of the fair are the costumes worn by attendees. We saw Can-Can dancers on stilts, bearded ballerinas and fairies of all ages flitting to and fro. Above, a lone wolf stalks fair goers.

There are upwards of 350 food and craft booths, artists, music and lots of activities for kids. Above, kids peer into a huge Human Kaleidoscope.

Outfits range from the elaborate to the skimpy. Women wearing bras were a rare commodity, and in many cases, tops were dismissed of entirely, replaced by elaborate body paint... or nothing.

I found it interesting how closely the fair almost mirrored the creative and artistic virtual online world of Second Life. The virtual SL world of art, architecture, clothing booths and outrageous costumes emulated remarkably the real life experience of the Country Fair.

Some of us aging hippies were forced to take a needed break to soothe aching feet. I wonder if blue blue body paint helps tired dogs hold up any better?

Half a dozen music stages dotted the grounds. One of the most interesting was the Drum Tower where an incessant beat whipped up the tribal portion of the fair goer's amygdala... mine was pounding in short order, but was easily soothed with a cool hand-dipped ice cream.

I was thoroughly impressed by how well this event is organized. From parking to exiting, and everything in between, friendly volunteers kept operations running smoothly. For an event that attracts attendees one might consider "counter culture" the crowd was fun-loving and convivial; there was no rowdiness or any hint of unpleasant incidents. Alcohol is strictly prohibited and bags are searched before admittance; though there were some questionable brownie recipes passed around and the occasional whiff of smoke from the Cannabis species.

Overall it involved a lot of walking but also a whole lot of fun. We plan on attending the Oregon Country Fair in future years... guys, bring the kids, ladies, leave your bra at home.

Google Images of the Oregon Country Fair

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fruit Off the Family Tree

My cousin Nancy (not to be confused with my wife, Nancy) in recent years has developed an interest in family genealogy. This is not something I am particularly interested in, however cousin Nancy contacted me one day, very excited for me to see a picture she had located of my great-grandfather, Bion Franklin Cole.

Pictured left is great-grandfather Bion, on the right is MY college yearbook photo from 1972.

I'm hoping that the family resemblance is limited to physical appearance only. The brief footnote regarding great-grandfather Bion reads: "...died in 1924 in a Hospital for the insane in Nebraska".

Cousin Nancy will be heading back to the family homestead in Wyoming to run down a lead that another of my grand-something's was possibly involved in a lynching of an alleged cattle rustler. More on that story soon.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Patriotism 2011

From the Old Farmer's Almanac:
"Three American presidents have died on the fourth of July. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, in 1826. They had been rivals in everything, even about who would live longest. Adams’ last words were about his long-time foe: “Thomas Jefferson lives!” In fact, Jefferson had died just five hours earlier, but Adams hadn’t gotten the message. James Monroe is the third president to die on July 4th, but he died in 1831."
So to my fellow countrymen: have a safe happy 4th of July. And to my Brit followers; how would you feel about allowing a few of us back in?