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January 13, 2005

Scott's Magic 8-Ball

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"Just ask a question of incredible personal significance, and click the 8-ball for Scott's insight into the matter."

You could do worse.

January 13, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Albert Irvin

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This 82-year-old British painter creates works of astonishing brilliance, energy and color.

They explode off the canvas.

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He's a Londoner who's occupied the same studio in Stepney, East London, for more than 30 years.

Every working day he makes the same journey from his home in the southwest to his studio in the east, via public transport and foot.

Up to the mid-50s, when he was in his mid-30s, he was a largely figurative painter; then he encountered the abstract painters of the New York school, and a sea change occurred.

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His paintings became much bigger; he switched from oil to acrylic in the mid-1970s.

His recent show at London's Gimpel Fils Gallery, entitled "Midsummer," closed last Saturday, January 8.

No matter: as his long-time dealer, they still have plenty of his work available, in the back rooms and basement, if you're interested in looking.

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After all, only six paintings were up for the show proper.

[via Michael Glover and The Financial Times]

January 13, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Why Japanese people smile with their mouths closed (they have terrible teeth)

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You'd think people in a country as esthetically conscious and economically developed as Japan would have excellent teeth - and you'd be dead wrong.

I never noticed during my junior year abroad in college, when I lived and went to school in Tokyo, but it turns out Japan's a first-world country with third-world teeth.

Wait - did someone say intellectual arbitrage?

Didn't think so. Where was I?

Teeth. Focus on teeth.

Nobuko Juji and Mariko Sanchanta wrote about this surprising, unexpected phenomenon in this past Tuesday's Financial Times; the story follows.

    Japan starts to get down in the mouth over its crooked teeth

    Many Japanese women have the habit of demurely covering their mouth with one hand when they giggle.

    To the casual observer, the gesture appears to be just another manifestation of the rigid politeness for which Japan is famed.

    But peer behind the hand, and the reason becomes clear: it is often an attempt to conceal a mouthful of crooked teeth.

    Despite Japan's economic clout and the technological prowess of its companies, experts contend the country's dental services - and the teeth of its people - have made little progress.

    The Japanese, along with the British, share the ignominious distinction of having the worst teeth among G7 nationals.

    Some experts contend that certain developing nations boast better dental services than those available in Japan.

    "The Japanese have much poorer oral conditions than not only westerners but people in less economically developed nations," says Dr Kazumi Ikeda, an orthodontist who has practised in Tokyo for more than 20 years.

    "You would be horrified if you examined the smiles of those who appear on TV or in magazines, all dressed up."

    But in recent years, young Japanese have become more self-conscious about the appearance of their teeth, some influenced by the blinding white smiles of American pop and film stars who grace the covers of local magazines.

    Teethart, which specialises in teeth whitening services (or "teeth manicure", in its parlance), opened its first office in 1995 in the posh Ginza district, and now has 12 salons in Japan.

    The number of its patients has swelled from 1,000 in 1995 to 17,000 in fiscal 2003.

    Capitalising on the Japanese habit of lightening and whitening their skin (known as bihaku, which literally means "beautiful white"), Teethart promises to whiten women's teeth to match their epidermis.

    "Just as your skin is white, wouldn't you like to have white teeth?" asks a Teethart brochure.

    Meanwhile, an increasing number of Japanese are opting for corrective orthodontic work later in life, often in their 20s and 30s.

    Yuko Shinta, 27, who works at a call centre in Tokyo, was fitted with braces this summer.

    Ms Shinta, petite and soft-spoken, is splitting the Y1m ($9,600, €7,300, £5,100) cost - not covered by Japanese national insurance - with her parents.

    "I was actually more self-conscious about the thought of wearing braces as a child and didn't want them," she says.

    "But now, at this age, there aren't too many things that can embarrass me any more."

    But why are Japan's dental services so shoddy to begin with?

    The answer is the country's healthcare system and the dental educational system.

    The government sets dental fees, which promotes inefficiency.

    There is little specialised postgraduate dental training in Japan, so general practitioners sometimes fit a patient with braces.

    "Due to Japan's national healthcare system, dentists are not very enthusiastic about educating patients because there is no incentive," says one dentist who has been practising in Tokyo for more than 15 years.

    "In the States, if you educate patients and they understand more about the products, they tend to buy the products. But in Japan, national health insurance covers everything and the fees are the same for every dentist, regardless of age or experience."

    Traditionally, Japanese dentists have been one of the biggest financial supporters of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) over the years.

    The JDA was the leading contributor to the LDP in 2002, according to local reports, donating about Y460m to the ruling party's operating fund.

    Recently, a furore erupted over revelations that Ryutaro Hashimoto, a former prime minister, had received a cheque for Y100m on behalf of the powerful Japan Dental Association (JDA) in 2001, when he had dinner at a Tokyo restaurant with two former dental association executives, including its head, Sadao Usuda.

    Younger dentists, disillusioned with JDA links with the LDP, are increasingly opting not to join the association.

    Meanwhile, patients are starting to educate themselves via the internet.

    Some are hoping that a more tooth-aware population will lead to better-quality Japanese dentists - but others argue that unless the system of payments and government subsidies is reworked, dentists will have no incentive to improve services and educate the public.

    Slowly, however, the increasingly teeth-conscious Japanese are opting to fix their impacted incisors and crooked bicuspids.

    And if Teethart has its way, all Japanese mouths will soon consist of nothing but gleaming, pearly whites.

January 13, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

'Harbor' — by Lorraine Adams

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This first novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post investigative reporter is superb.

How a blond-haired American woman, educated at Princeton University, can somehow transmute herself into a desperately poor, semi-terror-stricken Algerian illegal immigrant, so much so that it is as if you yourself were experiencing what it is like to be Abdelaziz Arkoun, is nothing short of a miracle.

I remember once reading that the definition of a great work of art is that it is impossible to understand how it was created.

So.

Anyone who believes that terrorism will be controlled or eliminated by pouring ever more money into surveillance and information-gathering should read this book.

What happens in this story is, on the surface, rather simple: a series of young Algerian men, desperate to escape the nightmare of their own benighted small country's internecine warface, which to date has killed over 100,000 people and continues unabated, make their way to America as stowaways on giant tankers.

They spend months locked below deck in the hold, freezing, starving, at risk of being discovered by the ship's crew and summarily executed and thrown overboard.

On arriving at Boston harbor they leap from the ships, then swim the icy waters to shore and make their way to an enclave of their countrymen in the poorer part of Boston.

There they find safety and shelter and food, living sometimes ten to a small apartment, sleeping in hallways and bathrooms, haltingly learning to speak English while pursuing a succession of dead-end jobs under constant threat of being discovered, jailed, and deported to what for most will be certain death on returning home.

Because not to join a jihadist group in Algeria is to be the enemy.

But to join is to become an enemy of the state.

So it is that they seek harbor in the United States.

Things go badly for some.

They turn to crime: petty theft, credit-card fraud, identity theft, then drug-dealing.

Inevitably, they are confronted by elements of radical Islam and told to assist the effort against the infidels.

At the time in which this book is set, pre-9/11, that means preparing to go to Afghanistan and fight against the U.S. or buying and importing various materials to be used for the construction of bombs.

But the anti-terrorist operation of the U.S. government task force watching Arkoun and his brother and friends can't quite get it right: the facts don't add up, nothing is clear, names are confused, Arabic words can have myriad meanings depending on which country the speaker is from, and the takedown of what is believed by the F.B.I. to be a terrorist cell results in the arrest of the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

Just yesterday in the Washington Post I read a story headlined, "U-MD Gets Center for Terrorism Research."

Daniel de Vise, the reporter, wrote the following:

    Close study of terrorist groups could help the government predict when, where and how the next attack might come.... The researchers will work closely with Homeland Security and other academic centers when they produce knowledge that could thwart an attack or lead to capturing a terror suspect.

    Any such effort will help a U.S. counterterrorism effort that too often bogs down in data that are too vague to prompt action and yet too dire to ignore....

The first thing the University of Maryland should do with the $12 million they're getting is to ask Lorraine Adams to speak.

Then give her a faculty appointment and carte blanche.

January 13, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Color, light, sweetness and cold only appear to exist'

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Ivan Kliun, one of the great Russian avant-garde artists of the early 20th century.

More:

"Their material existence can only be apprehended through perception. Ideas and thoughts are in essence products of material processes."

Beyond thought-provoking.

Kliun said, in effect, that the world creates us.

Our sense of self and identity result from thinking, and that thinking is set into motion by what is outside ourselves.

I can't even begin to understand what this means, but I am trying.

Very hard.

Kliun's iconic painting, "Red Light" (leading this post) is one of 250 works in "Color and Light in the Russian Avant-Garde," a show Jackie Wullschlager, the superb art critic of The Financial Times, termed "breathtaking."

About 50 works in this show have never before been exhibited.

That the works survived at all is a kind of miracle.

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George Costakis, a Moscow-born Greek foreign embassy worker, in the 1940s began acquiring paintings by the Russian avant-garde.

There was no official art market for these pictures, which were forbidden and ordered destroyed by the Soviet government.

Nevertheless, Costakis and a handful of others persisted in their efforts to save them.

Costakis purchased his pictures in Stalinist Russia "from the artists and their families, uncovering paintings used as table tops or to keep the rain out of dilapidated barns."

Bad news: the show closed this past Monday, January 10, in Berlin.

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Good news: it's moving to Vienna [Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig; tel: 43 1 525 00], where it will be up from February 18 to May 29. After that it goes to Thessaloniki, Greece [State Museum of Contemporary Art, tel: 30 2310 589 14942], from July 17 to September 30.

[via Jackie Wullschlager and The Financial Times]


January 13, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Star Wars - Pentagon Style

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Yesterday's USA Today brought the latest installment in the ongoing saga about who will ultimately control the nation's intelligence agencies.

Actually, control isn't really the right word: no one "controls" anything that far-flung and embedded in the very fabric of everyday life.

Rather, it's a matter of who seems to call the shots.

Giant bureaucracies, to my way of thinking, can never, ever be controlled, only influenced.

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The Pentagon has been locked in a death struggle with civilian branches of the intelligence apparatus ever since the intelligence-restructuring bill was first proposed by President Bush.

His creation of the position of intelligence "czar," one person directing the entire apparatus, civilian and military, made no one happy but the public, who greeted it as a panacea for 9/11-grade intelligence failures.

How yet another layer of bureaucracy would enhance rather than detract from getting key information to the President and his staff has always been beyond me, but hey, I'm just a blogging anesthesiologist: all that's far above my pay grade.

Anyhow, the Pentagon's latest sally is to push for the creation of a new czar of its own to run military intelligence.

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This would come in the form of a 4-star chief of intelligence.

Four stars is as high a rank as military officers can have, and giving the defense intelligence chief 4-star rank would improve the "throw weight" of the Pentagon in the inevitable internecine battles that are bound to erupt between it and the CIA and other civilian agencies.

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The 9/11 Commission stated that the then-CIA director, George Tenet, was accountable for failures leading to the catastrophe, although fully 80% of the overall U.S. intelligence budget is under Pentagon control.

Here's John Diamond's story.

    Pentagon Mulls Military Command for Intelligence

    The Pentagon is considering establishing a new four-star military command for intelligence, reflecting concern that the powerful civilian intelligence post created by Congress last year could weaken the Pentagon's grip on its vast intelligence assets.

    Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a close ally of President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, says he is reviving the idea that was first floated last fall, after senior military intelligence officers in recent weeks privately signaled support.

    Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the idea is under consideration as part of an effort to improve military intelligence.

    The proposal continues a power struggle between the Pentagon and civilian branches of intelligence that almost thwarted passage of the 9/11 intelligence-restructuring bill last month.

    The Pentagon and its supporters on Capitol Hill want to ensure that the 9/11 law doesn't divert spy satellites controlled by the military from missions intended to support frontline troops.

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    Behind the turf war is a debate over national security priorities.

    The proposal comes amid growing concern at the Pentagon that Iraqi insurgents are winning the intelligence war, striking U.S. and Iraqi government forces at will while hiding within Iraq's Sunni population.

    But there are strategic intelligence priorities competing for attention. With much of the nation's intelligence apparatus focused on Iraq, civilian intelligence has been unable to find al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or produce a definitive picture of suspected nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.

    Addressing the Heritage Foundation last week, Chambliss said his aim was to prevent the new director of national intelligence — the powerful civilian post created by the intelligence-restructuring bill that Congress approved last month — from gaining "an unrealistically large span of control" over military intelligence.

    Whitman said the idea is under consideration as part of the military intelligence overhauls being crafted by Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld's top adviser on intelligence.

    Officially, the Pentagon wants to see Chambliss' proposal in writing before endorsing it.

    "Nevertheless," Whitman said, "we are committed to all efforts to improve and strengthen the national intelligence community and defense intelligence capabilities to meet the needs of the warfighter."

    Cambone declined to comment.

    One reason the proposal is winning support among military intelligence officers is that it offers the opportunity for upgrading the Pentagon's top uniformed military intelligence official to four stars, the highest rank held by military officers.

    The number of four-star officers is limited, and includes such posts as the top two officers in each of the four military branches, the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others.

    Currently, the highest uniformed intelligence post, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is held by a three-star officer.

    The Pentagon is also looking at the Chambliss proposal as a way to ensure it has an intelligence officer of sufficient stature and rank to handle disputes that may arise with the new intelligence czar.

    One obstacle to the idea is the problem of finding money for the new support staff that would likely come with a new, higher-ranking military intelligence chief at a time when the Pentagon is under intense pressure from the White House to cut spending.

    Chambliss, a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, says he will co-sponsor legislation with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., to create a new organization, INTCOM, or Intelligence Command, headed by a four-star general or admiral.

    INTCOM would encompass the intelligence branches of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the three agencies under Pentagon control that run spy satellites and intercept enemy communications: the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

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    Chambliss said requiring the new civilian intelligence czar to direct eight military intelligence organizations is a formula for confusion.

    "How someone outside of the military, like the (director of national intelligence) could adequately and efficiently manage these vast intelligence capabilities by dealing with eight separate Department of Defense members is beyond me," Chambliss told the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

    Intelligence failures prior to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war stemmed primarily from poor human intelligence generated by the civilian CIA, Chambliss contends, yet the intelligence overhaul bill does little to improve human intelligence.

    The 9/11 Commission argued that the CIA director was being held accountable for failures even though 80% of the U.S. intelligence budget is under Pentagon control.

January 13, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The ultimate customer service weapon - file an 'executive complaint'

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Don Oldenburg wrote a most informative column this past Tuesday for the Washington Post's "Consummate Consumer" feature.

The headline was, "The Ultimate 'May I Speak to Your Supervisor?'"

The story was about a retired lady named Bernice McTigue who last September mixed up her commas and periods when paying her Verizon bill.

Long story short: instead of $68.58, she sent the company $6,858.

Yikes.

Turns out it wasn't easily fixed: at least 10 phone calls to Verizon over the next month yielded increasing frustration and anxiety.

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Until someone at the company told her to file an "executive complaint."

The next time she called she first asked to speak to a supervisor, then said, "I'm filing an executive complaint."

It was as if the seas parted.

Instantly she was connected to a higher corporate altitude, where she spoke to someone who treated her "as if we were from the same planet."

A full and correct refund check for the $6,000-plus she was owed appeared in her mailbox within a week.

I find that saying "Dr. Stirt" usually moves things along nicely, but you might not have that option.

I suppose you could say, "This is Dr. Stirt," now that I think about: might be fun to try, what?

If you'd prefer a more universally applicable and practical approach to cutting through the bureaucracy, you might find Oldenburg's story instructive; it follows.

    The Ultimate 'May I Speak to Your Supervisor?'

    Bernice McTigue experienced one of those "senior moments" in September, mixing up her commas and periods when paying her Verizon bill.

    Instead of $68.58, she sent the phone company $6,858.

    Yeah, it's kind of funny - unless you're the one who made the mistake.

    A silly mistake that's easily fixed?

    You'd think.

    But that lost period was the start of an upsetting month for Bea and William McTigue.

    Bea made repeated calls to Verizon trying to straighten out her error.

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    Verizon customer service representatives promised to call back and didn't, she says.

    They said fixing the problem was up to "financial" and someone there would call her back, but no one did, she says.

    All she wanted was a refund - proof that she wasn't out the $6,000-plus - and maybe a customer service rep to reassure her that everything would be okay.

    "One of those customer service ladies told me I should be more careful in the future," says McTigue, a Fort Washington retiree.

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    "Gee whiz, I didn't know that."

    Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell says its customer call centers handle more than 3.5 million customer calls each day.

    "A comparative few calls result in customer complaints," he says.

    "When a customer does have a concern or complaint, the vast majority of them are handled in a professional and timely manner by the Verizon service representatives taking the initial call."

    Not this time.

    Bea's son, Mickey McTigue, says his parents "called Verizon at least 10 times."

    Bea finally got some good advice: File an "executive complaint."

    Most consumers know nothing about executive complaints.

    They don't know that larger corporations like automakers, big utilities and other Fortune 500 companies usually have a formalized process for complaints that are addressed to corporate bigwigs or that threaten realistic legal action, concern an obvious error, bad policy or a legitimate claim to remedial action.

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    Scott Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, an Alexandria firm that studies customer service, says only about 5 percent of customers "escalate their complaints" beyond the first step.

    Less than 1 percent get to the executive complaint process.

    Depending on the complaint, some companies then provide priority handling by people in a position to resolve the problem quickly.

    Mitchell says unsatisfied customers who exhaust the normal complaint process at Verizon and insist on "a higher-level appeal" are usually referred not to the executive complaint team but to its "special customer relations group."

    It reviews the case and works with "the local manager team to resolve the issue."

    That's where McTigue started getting a resolution.

    Other firms and organizations handle executive complaints differently.

    AARP, for instance, has a dedicated staff that works with top executives to determine how to resolve them.

    Of 5 million e-mails, letters and phone calls AARP handles each year, about 15,000 are executive complaints.

    "Especially if it is a complaint regarding their membership or where AARP has taken on an issue," says Ava J. Baker, director of member services, "those complaints are high priority."

    When Bea McTigue did it, she first asked to speak to a "first-line or second-line supervisor," then said, "I'm filing an executive complaint."

    Bea now calls those "the magic words."

    The day she used them, her complaint was turned over to someone at a higher corporate altitude than customer service.

    "She talked to me as though we were both from the same planet and actually called when she promised," says Bea.

    She got her a refund check within a week.

January 13, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Photoenforced.com: 1,000+ Red-light camera locations

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This unique website lists over 1,000 intersections around the U.S. with red-light cameras.

But wait, there's more.

The fines for running each one are also posted.

So you can decide, in advance, if it's worth it.

Red-light cameras, it turns out, are not quite the unabated force for good they seemed at first.

But then, what – or who – is?

I remember an attorney telling me, years ago, something that seemed a revelation at the time, but has become one of my most cherished old saws.

He said, "A client's story never sounds better than the first time you hear it."

Beyond profound – and not just for lawyers. But I digress.

The New York Times had a story in its Circuits section on January 6 about the increased number of rear-end collisions at intersections with red-light cameras, as people slam on their brakes at high speed.

One of the traffic experts quoted observed that it was much better to be rear-ended at 10 m.p.h. than T-boned at 40; true enough, I suppose.


January 13, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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