Monday, November 29, 2010

The Doctor will Screw You Now

Let's talk about medical care, the skyrocketing costs, what to do, blahblah ...

Tough subject. I was rice-and-peanut-butter poor after college. Youngest son had asthma, constant ear infections. HAD employee-provided insurance, but massive deductibles and co-pays. Every doc visit was a kick in the nuts. Deeply resented the 'Senior Citizen Discount' signs in the drugstores. No "Young Family" discount. Socialized medicine -- for seniors only.

That experience taught me valuable lesson. Medical care is an inflexible demand. It’s sort of like drug addiction. When you’re sick or dying, you will pay any price to get well. (Same applies to your loved ones, naturally.) So, the medical industry charges what the traffic will bear. Say a visit to the ear doctor costs $80 and that’s all you can afford. You've got insurance that pays for it, except for an $80 deductible. They jack up the price to $800 and you wind up paying the $80 anyway.

Like water, the price of medical care will rise to find its level -- which is the maximum amount of money (begged, borrowed or stolen) people can possibly pay for the care they need.

Because PART of the system is socialized – namely medical care for old people – the medical industry can charge more for that portion of the market. It’s analogous to, say, subsidizing car repair for all vehicles over 15 years old. A radiator hose would wind up costing $500. An oil change would cost $1,000. Because, after all, somebody’s cutting those checks, right?

On top of that, private insurance is supposed to spread the cost throughout a collective risk pool. Instead, it winds up increasing the cost. (Yeah, I know the HMOs, PPA's, etc. were supposed to keep costs down. They just wound up ruining the doctor patient relationship in the effort. Care got worse. But costs still went up.) If nobody had insurance, the medical industry could only charge what people could afford to pay. Because most people are insured, it can charge what it likes because the cost is subsidized. And people with insurance STILL wind up paying as much as they possibly can for the care they get anyway. The people without insurance are, of course, screwed.

Add to this, the pyramid effect. The medical care that does the most good and costs the least is at the base of the pyramid. The top represents high-end technology and Hail Mary plays – like say, intestinal transplants, $8,000 heart pills, surgery for people with a week to live, etc. Care at the top-end does the least amount of good for the most amount of money.

The top of the pyramid is a Delta-T approaching infinity.

I.e.: assuming constant advances in medical science, we can keep you alive to 110 years (at a cost of a billion dollars) or 120 years (at a cost of five billion dollars). Or, to be fair, cure a child with Tay-Sachs syndrome with a nano-bot retroviral delivery system that rewrites the DNA in every cell of their body (at a cost of a trillion dollars).

There’s no upper limit to medical advancement. Hey, good news! But the more advanced it gets, the more expensive it gets. (And let’s not forget the inflexible demand driving the process. Nobody wants to get sick. Nobody wants to die.) So, in the process, basic care gets more expensive, too – or not offered at all.
Sure, for a fistful of dollars you could treat worm infestations and diarrhea in the Third World or make sure pregnant women get enough protein in this country. A few do-gooders will. But that’s not where the river of money will flow.

As long as the medical industry is subsidized, that industry will keep chasing the top end. Why run a Motel 6 when you can run a Ritz-Carlton?

Ultimately, there isn’t infinite money to provide infinite care to everybody. The ugly truth is: Health care must be rationed. A single payer system imposing price controls is probably best and politically impossible. Pay for play is another way to go. That’s probably where we’re going.

PS: I don't blame doctors. "The Doctor will Screw You Now" is just funny -- if unfair. I have to go for cheap jokes as I'm not subsidized.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep song

(to the tune of "Greensleeves")

Do androids dream of electric sheep?
Do robots count them as they sleep?
Are they fond of grazing on hillsides steep …
Astroturf cud in their bellies?

Nexus Fours did farming chores
Nexus Fives were sexual toys
Nexus Sixes are sonsofbitches
Who are fond of gouging out eyes


They came to LA and ripped out hearts
And lost themselves in Griffin Park
Their lack of empathy set them apart
So they got jobs in the film industry


It’s a Blade Runner’s job to track them down
Put slugs in their brains with a bigass gun
I wish I worked as a circus clown
They’re smarter and stronger and faster


They nearly strangled me with my tie
Slapped my gun from my hand and made me cry
Punched through walls and busted my balls
I’m really not good at my job


I'm constantly getting my ass kicked
While Edward James Olmos acts like a dick
His acne scars make me sick
But I loved him in Stand and Deliver


And now one’s chasing me on the roof
With an ironman build and hair like a poof
He quotes William Blake while grabbing a dove
I wish he would fucking shut up


At last I'm fleeing with a robot Sean Young
Who broke my nose but still is quite young
She's almost as whiny as Neil Young
But she's really a snappy dresser


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Achtung, baby

What's the deal with fascists? Do they have bad taste in art or what?

OK. You'd think the stormtrooper set would go for Frank Frazetta-style warriors and gore. Nah. The actual brown and black shirts went in for art with a classic vibe. Clean cut stuff -- weirdly sexless and austere -- ranging from Norman Rockwell purity, to knock-offs of Greek and Roman classicism. It's as if Klingons had a taste for Vulcan art. Why is that?

From "Chaos to Classicism" at the Guggenheim attempts to answer that question -- a retrospective of Europe's classic revival from the end of World War I to the start of World War II.

This movement began as a reaction to the bad scene of the Great War -- which people didn't realize was part of a numbered series yet. Europe came down with a continental case of PTSD. The shattered visions of the Cubists suddenly looked too much like random arms and legs on the battlefield. People wanted wholesome art -- in the literal sense of art that was whole and complete in itself. They wanted Aristotelian stasis -- formal balance, not nervous kinetic energy. Picasso started painting like Ingres -- as the critics were fond of saying at time. Lots of people did.

This art didn't start out as Nazi art. The goosesteppers just took a hankering to it and adopted it as their own. Those poor damn Futurists over in Italy were cranking out fractured fascist art that looked like David Bowie album covers. Out of nowhere, Il Duce went on a Roman holiday and fire them. They all had to find real jobs.

This exhibit has some arresting images, ranging from some of Picasso's more chunky women (with their eyes in the right place) to Nazi Olympic posters to some weird busts of Mussolini -- including one that looks like a 360 degree motion blur. He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake ...

This creepy perfection hasn't gone away, of course. All those wholesome, perfect bodies survive in the world of advertising. The Ubermensch lives on, selling us crap. Today's Aryan Superman works for the Mad Men.

Is wholesome art is necessarily fascist? Intellectually, I don't think it has to be. Emotionally, the art of Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell and their ilk gives me a strong totalitarian vibe. Give me R. Crumb any day.

A dude plugging his wiener into a light socket?

Now that's the art of freedom.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Android Dreams

OK, just in case you've been on Mars for the last few decades ...

Blade Runner (a movie by Ridley Scott) was an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a book by Philip K. Dick). Saying Scott "adapted" the book is a polite way of putting it. It's kind of like saying you adapted the Bible and made Satan the hero. Scott's movie turned Dick's core concept on its head. (More on that in another post.) Short version: Dick's "androids" were heartless, soulless bastards; Scott's "replicants" were sympathetic slaves fighting to be free.

Now that's out of the way, here's the point: Playwright Edward Einhorn has adapted Dick's novel for the stage -- as in really adapted it. His play is a fresh take that forgets Scott's movie ever existed. (Such was the promise.) Up in NYC, an entity called Untitled Theater Company #61 (UTC61) is producing Einhorn's play at the 3LD performance space. Einhorn is also the director. By an improbable chain of events and the personal sacrifice of Su Byron, I caught the opening night.

First, here's my take on Einhorn's take on Dick's book. As promised, Einhorn's version is much closer to the novel, though he does some retooling of his own. No big thing. The book is a subversive black comedy. The play is, too. It's a book of ideas. Einhorn keeps most of those. Most importantly, he keeps the book's heart: Empathy.

That's right, kids! Einhorn returns to Dick's obsession with empathy as the defining human characteristic. Specifically -- in the context of the original novel's fictional universe -- empathy is a stubborn decision to care for others when not caring is the most logical survival response. In Dick's scenario, Earth is hell. It's a rotten, post-apocalyptic world full of radioactive dust and "kipple." (Dick's private word for random junk.) The humans who qualify are deserting the planet like rats off a sinking ship. The humans who remain stuck (because they don't qualify or can't afford escape) find salvation in a religion called Mercerism. (Devotees enter a virtual reality box and experience the martyr's pain). Stranded humans can also take comfort in owning animals. Most of the real ones are extinct, so most people buy robot beasts. (Electric sheep, etc.) Real animals are expensive status symbols. Androids are too -- but they're a perk reserved for colonists on Mars and illegal on Earth. When they escape to Earth, bounty hunters kill them. That's Deckard's job -- and he's torn up with moral conflict about it. As in the movie, he's forced to confront what it means to be human.

Einhorn's adaptation does justice to Dick's brilliantly dense source material -- without any force-fed exposition. His dialogue sounds like actual people (or androids) talking. His scene construction is good, too. What's happening, what's at stake and where the action is going are all crystal clear. (As they aren't in the novel. No disrespect. Scene-setting wasn't Dick's thing -- any more than it was Joyce's.) 

Scott's movie modified Dick's ideas, then blasted them into the cosmos (or greater LA) like an exploded bolt diagram. Dick's original book was much more inward -- claustrophobic, gnomic and hermeneutic -- an exercise in ratmaze philosophy. This production distilled that nightmare into a dense, multimedia stew, complete with vid screens, an opera singer and a dude playing electric cello. The play's mood remains the same: a really lousy mood, with a tiny drop of hope that's probably bullshit. All credit where credit is due: Dick's complicated and possibly crazy ideas may be depressing, but this production makes them easy to follow. That's not easy to pull off.

Einhorn gets some of the credit, but not all. Henry Akona created the haunting, original operatic score. Neal Wilkinson's set design neatly evokes an entropic world full of decaying consumer junk. Kudos also to the actors, who include Alex Emanuel (Rick Deckard), Yvonne Roen (Rachael Rosen/Pris) vocalist Moira Stone (Luba Luft), Christian Pederson (Roy Baty), Ken Simon (Isidore) and neo-vaudeville performer Trav SD (Buster Friendly). Excellent work all around -- a total investment in their characters. They brought Dick's waking nightmare to life -- and brought me to tears several times.

I loved the book and loved the play -- to the extent you can love a bizarre allegory of suffering and redemption based on the private religion of exactly one believer. Am I entirely happy? Eh ... no. I wish Einhorn had stuck closer to Dick's harsh vision. The playwright couldn't resist making the "andys" sympathetic and dropping broad hints that Deckard himself was an android. Cool ideas from the movie. They ain't in the book -- and they blunt the point of Dick's twisted gnostic parable. 

OK, OK. Aside from my objections as a Philip K. Dick fundamentalist, yeah, I dug this play. Einhorn twisted a few elements around, but left most of the plot and characters intact. The mood of the source material remains. It's gutsy and honest -- if unrelentingly bleak. The play keeps the promise most plays break. It takes you to another world. Hey, it's a lousy world -- what'd you expect? You want laughs, see Pee Wee Herman. You want irony ...

The taxi that took us to the play skirted the open wound of the World Trade Center. Couldn't help but think of Dick's propecy of a ruined world.

An as an added jolt of PhilDickian irony, technology threatened to sabotage the opening night multimedia production. The waiting audience wound up cooling its heels for about 45 minutes after the theoretical opening time. Various nervous actors (voices cracking with stress) came out to explain that the show had a snag. One of the vid screens wouldn't work; then they all died. Eventually, they got most of 'em working -- and the show went on.

Tech hasn't enslaved us, yet. But we haven't mastered it either.

Somewhere up in heaven (or perhaps VALIS) I think I can hear Phil laughing.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
A UTC #61 production
Through Dec. 11
3LD Art & Technology Center
80 Greenwich St., New York, N.Y.
Untitled Theater

Monday, November 8, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Apocalection 2012

Just wanted credit for the phrase.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dr. Strangelove's Rainbow

"I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."
Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is an exegesis of Kubrick/Terry Southern's Dr. Strangelove.

If I had the money to go back to graduate school and write my thesis, that'd be it. Since I don't, this'll be the short version. The really short version.

The message of Gravity's Rainbow -- if you boiled it down to a fortune cookie -- would read: Technocratic society has a hard-on for death.

To expand it a little -- what's wrong with Western European society is a form of sexual perversion.

Cutting through the multitude of subplots, there are two central narratives:

#1) Dr. Blicero, an evil Nazi rocket scientist, runs a weird S&M cult on the side at Peenemunde during the Blitz. At the end of the book -- and after the war -- one of his sex partners willingly enters the nose cone of a V-2 rocket as a living, sexual sacrifice. The evil Nazi scientist fires it off into a movie theater and ruins the show. (It's a V-2 rocket -- but it clearly implies the Cold War nuclear missiles it would spawn.)

2) Slothrop, a horny American out of an R. Crumb comic, was conditioned as an infant by Dr. Jamf, an acolyte of Pavlov. The conditioning created a sexual response to a mystery stimulus -- which turns out to be Imipolex G -- an erectile plastic, an artificial, dead thing that mimics the most organic of responses. In the book, this fictional substance is an essential V-2 rocket component. As a result, Slothrop has precognitive erections when he's stationed in London during the Blitz. He bangs a lot of women. Inevitably -- a short time later -- rockets bang down on the site of his sexual assignations.

OK. So let's compare that to Dr. Strangelove:

As with Gravity's Rainbow, the fortune cookie message is: Technocratic society has a hard-on for death.

The movie opens with a sexual image of planes refueling in mid-air. In case there's any doubt, every character's name is a sexual pun implying some sexual deviance or excess: Merkin Muffley, Jack D. Ripper, Buck Turgidson, etc.

The plot: The USSR has a doomsday machine designed to destroy all living things if they're attacked. They keep it quiet -- saving the surprise for the upcoming party conference. Jack D. Ripper, a rogue American general, sends a wing of B-52s into Soviet airspace because he thinks the commies are polluting "our precious bodily fluids" with fluoridation. (The reason he thinks this -- he's impotent.) Top representatives from the USSR and USA meet in the underground "War Room" and collaborate on recalling the American planes. An evil Nazi rocket scientist -- Dr. Strangelove -- dominates the meeting. The American president and the Soviet premier negotiate on the hotline in a Jules Feifferesque parody of an old married couple having a tiff. The effort succeeds -- all the planes return, except for one that can't communicate. Against all odds, it gets through. Major Kong rides an H-Bomb down like a rodeo cowboy -- triggering doomsday. Down in the War Room, Dr. Strangelove pitches a scheme to preserve the world's elite in salt mines -- in a ratio of one man to fifty women, supermodels all. His paralyzed legs are miraculously healed.

The movie ends with an orgasmic montage of atomic bomb blasts, to the tune of "We'll Meet Again."

It's a brilliant movie, but ultimately, it's pop satire painted with a broad brush. Pynchon took its basic concepts and expanded on them, reaching a complexity worthy of Joyce's Ulysses. But the core ideas and images are all there:

The phallic symbol of the rocket.

The orgasmic symbol of an exploding rocket.

The equation of a highly militarized technocracy with sexual perversion.

An evil Nazi scientist who epitomizes this sexual perversion. The name of the character literally spells it out -- Dr. Strangelove.

Gravity's Rainbow is Dr. Strangelove's lovechild.

I could beef this up to a 20-page paper. But that's basically it.

Republican sweep

Gee. This is sorta like dealing with the 1930s crime wave by electing Al Capone mayor of Chicago.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fugate's 104729th Law

Ugly is truth, truth ugly. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.