#143 Personal Words (2005)

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

For the last four years, I was blessed to work for a man I respected and trusted.  A couple of those years were the best experience in my working life.  I'm not saying the company, the school, for which I've worked has been respectable or trustworthy; just the man.  However, it has been a rare enough experience just having the opportunity to work for someone with positive qualities that it has spoiled me for the usual management riffraff.  This man, Michael, quit today.  The school's management didn't think Michael's leaving was important enough to let the rest of us know, but the word spread through the staff like a fire of despair. 

The last year and a half has been tolerable, but in decline.  The people who own and mismanage the school are the usual lot; boy-men who couldn't make a sane decision if their inheritances depended upon it.  But that hasn't mattered for the past twelve years of the school's existence, because Michael could always be counted on to make the important decisions for the organization.  While the owners rattled around in their palatial offices, posing for portraits and polishing their egos, Michael hired staff, distributed resources, settled disputes, and moved the school from a dilapidated warehouse in Minneapolis to a shining new facility in St. Paul.  When every major step was completed, the owners would make a hand-waving appearance and express wonder at their miraculous accomplishments. 

Other than being a bit irritating, most of us didn't mind their ignorance, because Michael knew who did the real work and he made us into the kind of team that rarely exists outside of myth and dreams.  Today, members of that team met in hallways, the parking garage, and at least one bar to mourn the end of a workplace era.  I heard expressions of anger, disappointment, sorrow, and pain from people working in sales, maintenance, administration, and (above all in an educational institution) the teachers.  The loss of no other person in the school could have inspired so much emotion, and we've had some sad losses in the last couple of years.  If both of the school's founders had died in the floods of New Orleans, a bare fraction of that passion would have been generated.  The feeling in the school was similar to what I experienced in 1963, as a school boy, when President Kennedy was assassinated.  Hearts were broken, spirits were crushed, bonds of friendship and common goals were damaged. 

Of course, the mismanagers were oblivious to all of this because they were distracted, as usual, by illusions found in their office mirrors. 

As I sat in a bar with friends, fellow instructors, listening to plans for revolt, alternative business ideas, descriptions of escape routes, and general melancholy, I tried to come to peace with my own future.  Not long ago, I planned to spend the rest of my working life with this group.  For the first time in my adult life, I had been part of what felt like an indestructible force; like an NFL offensive line, and I was watching it dissipate like a beautiful sunset fading to darkness.  For me, the school isn't a serious place without Michael there.  What we do, suddenly, seems pointless without his encouragement, honest faith, and vision for our institution and our students.  Michael believed in what we did, he supported it.  Michael had taught every class we taught.  He understood our industry and our technology.  He recognized and attempted to fix problems before we saw them coming.  Even if the industry we represented is mostly in the past, he believed that we could guide our students into the future, making music and changing lives.  He created the school's mission and he believed in it.

What's left is about money, power, and the usual suspects are in control.  Something extraordinary has been turned ordinary.  It's incredible how easy that is to do.  Destruction is always easier than creation, but it's not as inspiring.

September 2005


When Liars Use Numbers

New PictureDon’t ask why, but I was looking at an Amazon customer product review today and discovered that the numbers didn’t “add up.” The review (see right) average of 4.3 out of 5 stars is grossly optimistic. Just looking at the star ratings without any sort of analysis you’d notice that 36% of the reviews are 3 star or worse (“It’s Ok.” or worse). 26% are 2 and 1 star ratings (“I hate it.” and “I don’t like it.”) If you really get critical, even a 4 star rating just means “I like it,” so even a 4 star rating is pretty dismal. How is it possible that this product has earned a “4.3 out of 5 stars” average rating?

So what would actual statistics applied to this particular product return for an average rating? If we go for a simple mean average, the sum of the review scores divided by the number of reviews (and the definition of “average” that most of us assume), we’d end up with a 3.72 star average score (just below “I like it”): not bad, but not somewhere between “I like it” and “I love it.” If Amazon were being totally disingenuous, they’d use the mode average, which would be 5 stars and practically every product would have a 5-star average rating because American consumers tend to “love” everything they buy. Apparently, Amazon’s rating system is based on the median average (the middle number, when they are ranked in order) or something close to that.

The takeaway for me is that I won’t pay any attention to Amazon’s average rating ever again. They and their suppliers are counting on our tendency to trust “customer reviews” and ignore the way those reviews are scored or what they really mean. Amazon has proved, again, “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Including me.


#142 Fools are Us (2005)

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Or, in regards to the subject that I am developing here, did our national business model create our national foreign policy or did the foreign policy come first?  My bet is on the business model.  I suspect that our cut-throat, amoral corporations and the execs that squirm within created the mess that the rest of the world sees as the United States. 

As a nation, our "leaders" have often acted as if the rest of the world, especially the third world, is populated by complete idiots.  Our current government is particularly arrogant in its expectations of the rest of the world, but they are just the logical extension of a long history of overconfident, under-skilled  politicians and bureaucrats.  Ever since the United States began to formulate a foreign policy, that policy has been directed by the assumption that everyone else is an idiot and we are so clever that they won't see through the thin veneer disguising our national purposes.  The fact that our politicians and their henchmen are as transparent as fine crystal has never occurred to arrogant American lunkheads from John Adams to G.W. Bush.  They simply see their malevolence as being so complicated and intricate that no one outside of their inner circle could possibly sense their motives. 

We haven't had a sophisticated Executive, Congressional, or Judicial branch since the early 1960s.  And the intelligent leaders didn't amount to more than a hand full of fingers before that.  Cats can predict the motives of the overwhelming majority of human politicians.  A pigmy child extracted from the depths of the most remote area of Africa could, in seconds, size up any of our federal or state bureaucrats and anticipate their actions.  Our national motives are as simple and impure as those of any villain ever dreamed up by Marvel Comics, "'We want your natural resources, all of them, and we will pay bottom dollar to get them.  We'd prefer to wreak your culture and crush your dreams in the process."  Even if the rest of the world was completely populated by morons, that message wouldn't be subtle enough to fool anyone who doesn't drool a in Texas accent.

Our management class is a carbon copy of our government class.  These "elites" stumble through company meetings, delivering foolish platitudes and grade school ultimatums, assuming that no one foolish enough to be employed by a company so disorganized as to hire them for management could detect deception if it were printed in a frame surrounded by flashing "lies, all lies" signs.  If anyone in the room is stupid enough to accept anything they say as worthwhile, that person is clearly management material.  They lie and cheat and stab each other, and the rest of their countrymen, in the back over power and wealth.  The difference between our executive class and Mafia dons is so minimal that the two swap positions without skipping a beat.  All the while, they assume the rest of us are too stupid to do anything about their crass manipulation and gross corruption.

In a way, they are right.  We take far too much abuse from the 1% who own 90% of our country.  Third world terrorists are quicker on the uptake than US voters.  The average man living on the streets of Calcutta knows more about what goes on in Washington D.C. than does the typical American voter.  It's incredibly embarrassing to admit that my own country appears to be the world's most universally hated and feared villain, but it's better to acknowledge that and fight against the inbred self-proclaimed royalty that owns the United States than it is to pretend crimes are not being committed in our name.  You can't fix anything until you recognize it needs fixing.  A startling majority of Americans seem to be too stupid to know when they ought to be asking for a little lubrication with their shafting. 

It's not like the execs are stunningly clever.  These are not people who are bright enough to learn from history, books, mathematical simulations, or remedial tutoring of the sort provided to the ruling class through their Ivy League institutions of slower learning.  They do not realize that eliminating freedoms, driving the middle class into poverty and servitude, terrorizing the third world, and acting as the planet's corrupt Chicago Police force is a sure formula for mass riot and individual violence.  When people do not have political outlets for their grievances, they are forced to resort to physical outlets.   You can bottle beer, but you can't hold your thumb over progress.  The human race is progressing, regardless of the efforts of the current administration, the U.S. military, or mismanaged multinational corporations. 

From the mismanaged side of the equation, the perception is anything but confused.  Most employees think management is overflowing with idiots.  Decisions are handed down without even the slightest clue as to the cause, effect, or purpose.  Every word uttered by mismanagement seems to be designed to demotivate, irritate, confuse, disorganize, or incite riot among the employees and alienate customers.  As I have written before, in every company I've ever worked, if the top management were to contract a disease that caused them to vanish, instantly, in their offices, it would be weeks, months, or years before anyone noticed they were missing.  Universally, the thing that would instigate a search for the missing execs would be a sudden increase in profitability, efficiency, and morale improvement beginning the moment the dead weight vanished. 

Abusing and destabilizing the countries from whom we depend upon for natural resources has been a terrible, vicious, failed experiment.  New York on September 11, 2001 suffered for all of our sins in that regard.  Allowing ourselves to be similarly abused at work and in our communities has resulted in the depersonalized, culture-of-one society that appears to be so susceptible to degenerative "life style marketing." 

Many of us have resorted to looking for a pill that will counteract our national low self-esteem and non-existent sense of community and purpose.  Pills won't help.  Treating the symptoms only works when you treat the right symptoms.  The cure is revolution in the voting booth.  We'll find a cure when the majority of citizens are taking part in the political system with an educated, motivated, outraged purpose.  Until we are "mad as hell and we won't take it any more," we're going to be stuck in crappy jobs, mismanaged by inbred idiots.  Until we want to honestly respected as "the leader of the free world," we'll be ordered about by fourth generation political hacks who only serve international corporate masters and have no interest in the fate and future of this country.  We either stand up and act like citizens of a free country or fall down and serve as floor mats for the ruling class.  There is no middle ground.

September 2005


#141 The Selfish Class (2005)

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

I wish this rant was only directed at the ruling class.  I wish the rest of the country was as disgusted and tired of a social system that discriminates against everyone from the handicapped to the working poor to the middle class who bear the burden of every responsibility this nation has taken on.  But it's not.  The real failure of our modern state is because more than half of the country is too damn dumb to think for itself and, on the rare occasion that group thinks at all, it only thinks in the most uncomplicated selfish terms.  Human evolution is the history of people learning to cooperate in the interest of their family group, community, and culture.  The Selfish Class has lost this evolutionary drive.

You could place a little of the blame for this wide-spread cultural suicide on the blitz of marketing that has been aimed at the general public, attempting to convince us that we "need" gadgets, toys, synthesized food, recreational drugs, overpriced personal vehicles and housing, and powerful international corporations to complete our lives.  Marketing has worked to create a society that is solely concerned with individual material solutions to social problems.  A lot of money has been spent in this effort, so you could say that is why we're so selfish.  You could do that, I can't.  I think anyone who buys a new car based on inspiration provided by a television ad is too dumb to vote, make important personal decisions, or breathe without instruction.  The state of modern marketing is so low-brow that it amazes me anyone ever watches an ad or buys a product that was mass marketed.

The existence of a television ad promoting a product means that product's value has been dramatically sacrificed to pay for the ad and the morons who conceived it.  But the Selfish Class is largely driven by the instructions they receive in "lifestyle ads" and those instructions run counter to the best interests of the culture.

The biggest share of the blame for the growth of the selfish cancer is from our lack of national leadership.  Or, to be more accurate, this disease is a result of of their leadership.  Like most degenerate cultures, we have a completely self-indulgent ruling class who are only interested in their own short-term immediate gratification.  The Bush's, the Gates', the Jobs', and our hierarchy of idle and semi-idle (executives, for example) multi-generational spoiled rich children contribute nothing more to the culture than poor role models for the working class and wannabe-rich-middle class.  Everything in society and business is top-down and if the "leadership" is foolish and short-sighted, so goes the rest of the country.

But I digress. 

The modern American average Joe or Joan is a proud member of the Selfish Class.  Mostly, participation in the class is how they are kept in line.  They labor mindlessly under the illusion that "anyone can succeed" and "if you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere."  All kinds of people can't make it here: people with families, people with dependent adult family members, people who have had their lives interrupted by illness, people who have had their jobs shipped overseas for cheaper labor, and the usual cast of characters who fall through the growing spaces in our ever-deteriorating social net.  The Selfish Class doesn't care about the problems of the unfortunate many.  The Selfish Class can barely be bothered to care about problems within its own family and, when the kids become disobedient teenagers, the Selfish Class often "disowns" its own children and tosses them out like stale bread. 

The Selfish Class is particularly incensed when it finds itself on the outside looking in.  When that happens, they are usually convinced that the entire social net has been assembled to ignore their life-style-threatening problems.  Then, they vote to "fix" the system.  Of course, since they're perspective on what's wrong with the system is so narrow and erroneous, they vote ignorantly and short-term selfishly.

A couple of years ago, a conservative Selfish Class acquaintance (redundant, the Selfish Class is always conservative) found himself suddenly unemployed (for the third time in a year) with a ton of debt and no savings.  Unless a member of the Selfish Class has been thoughtfully provided an untouchable trust fund they are rarely able to save for more than a moment's pause in cash flow. After a few weeks of fruitless job hunting, he applied for state assistance and found that the state did not consider him to be particularly destitute.  After all, he possessed a garage full of motorcycles, three new upscale four-wheeled vehicles (for two family drivers), a home (with three mortgages), a house full of modern expensive gadgets, two kids enrolled in a high-priced private school, and a small collection of recreational club memberships.  The state implied that he could do considerable cost-cutting and make a few sacrifices in expenses and belongings before he would qualify for state assistance.  He was outraged.  From his perspective, everything he owned, every one of his activities, every extravagance in his life was "necessary" and justified.  That a lowly state employee could suggest otherwise was an affront to his status and self-image.

Because he is white, young, healthy, well-connected, and possesses a collection of employable skills (all obtained in a Minnesota public vocational education system that is now being abandoned), he was only out of work for a few weeks.  After his experience at the edge of being inconvenienced, he has become convinced that the social net is worthless and should be dismantled.  It didn't work for him in his hour (literally) of need, so it is obviously not working for anyone who matters.  This is a close to a perfect Selfish Class response as anyone could create.  "If it's not all about me, what is it good for?"

The Selfish Class is what put G.W. Bush in power.  G.W. and Co. may not be the brightest lights on the Xmas tree, but they can read these Selfish simpletons like an Archie and Veronica comic book.  All they have to do is act naturally, in fact, since current conservative leadership are the most selfish people on the planet.  To appeal to the Selfish Class, you only have to speak to their immediate self-interests.  The Selfish Class does not care about the fate of life on earth, they care about themselves now, today, this moment.  The Selfish Class has children, but they are supposed to be mirror images of themselves and if those children stop reflecting their parents' they are abandoned as easily as any animal leaves its offspring.  The Selfish Class is willing to sacrifice the health, security, and welfare of the people of the rest of the world for unlimited use of the world's resources.  And yet, they express horror and confusion when the people they have sacrificed strike back with the same weapons and brutality that have been used against them in the interests of the Selfish Class. 

The worst thing about our current state of egocentric self-interest is that it is self-sustaining and regenerating.  A top-down corruption is the worst system failure an organization or society can suffer.  When the entire leadership is corrupt, the majority of citizens simply follow their example.  This isn't anything new, something invented by the new right.  In fact, it's the oldest political system on earth.  It's also the most fragile.  A country mostly populated by lazy, selfish people is easily destroyed by natural catastrophe, internal revolution, external attack, or a combination of these forces.  The lack of community that is the core of the Selfish Class is also the downfall of that same group.  A community without an interlinking support system that protects the less fortunate, educates the ignorant and the young, provides for the common good to equalize opportunity across economic levels, and protects and listens to the canary-in-a-coal-mine voices of dissent is easily fragmented and destroyed.  We have become that kind of community and our vanishing personal rights and growing economic imbalance is just a sign of where that is taking us.

August 2005


#140 Why Do Conservatives Hate the United States? (2005)

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

Ok, I admit it.  This rant was inspired by conservative propaganda that begins or ends with statements like "why [Michael Moore/Liberals/The Liberal Media] hate(s) America."  But at the core, I believe that conservatives, especially the radical (is there any other kind?) religious right, hate the United States and the representative democracy that it represents.  I don't mean "dislike," "mistrust," or have a reasonable disagreement among patriots and well-meaning, honest men and women.  I mean hate. 
First, our current herd of neo-conservatives are stupid.  The "America" that they imagine liberals hate doesn't exist.  It never existed.  "America" is a pair of continents; not a country, system of government, or a collection of ideals.  We have North America, of which the United States of America is a part and we have South America where US corporations have a lot of financial interests but no honestly held rights or morally earned privileges.  The bulk of the folks who claim to love "America" don't even know where the United States ends and where America becomes other countries, cultures, and economic systems. 

Even more to the point, I doubt there is anyone living on this continent who hates the soil and the continental shelf upon which they live, liberal or conservative.  "America" is a pair of continents (with an often-contested sub-continent, Central America, connecting the two larger land bodies); not a culture, social or economic system, or a flag-symbolized nationalistic god-fearing corporate prison camp.

Hell, most of the nationalist right-wing "Americans" don't know much about the United States geographically, historically, politically, or in any other critical specific.  They chant about "America, the Christian Nation" and babble their foolish notions of capitalism, taxation, and defending the homeland in exactly the same words (other than the actual language) as did their idealistic predecessors, in Nazi Germany.  When it comes time for them to demonstrate their understanding of the foundations of the nation, the principles of economics or democracy, or their legitimate rights and responsibilities, they are often and usually found to be missing in action.

In modern history, these radicals, misnamed "conservatives" have been on the morally wrong side of every national crisis since before 1776.  Conservatives opposed the Revolutionary War and the concept of representational democracy.  The first conservatives to pollute the New World's political thinking fantasized that Kings and Queens and inherited wealth and power was vested by the gods and mere mortals were incapable of divining the gods' will in matters as complicated as creating a civil and just society.  Dumb-asses, all of them.  Our first conservatives were known, by the country's patriot forefathers, as "Tories."  If you are interested in finding yourself on the morally right side of practically any disagreement in the history of humanity, determine which side the current breed of conservatives has selected and join the opposition.

Following the footsteps of the country's first conservative dolts were slave owners.  They were the second American wave of god-fearing conservative big thinkers and they fantasized that their ability to terrorize other people, initially including other white folks, somehow illuminated their moral superiority.  This pack of inbred hillbillies were willing and nearly able to disassemble the Union in favor of an economically degenerate system based on slaves and serfs with a collective government that mostly resembled Jolly old England from the previous unenlightened centuries commonly known as "The Dark Ages."  Fortunately for us, them, and the rest of the world, the liberals of the 1860's decided that living next to a pack of moral decadents was unacceptable and we had a Civil War that put to the test upon which side the gods actually stood.  Again, conservatives turned out to be on the down-slope of cultural and human evolution and they had their asses kicked by bleeding heart liberals and the power and creativity that is commonly found only in liberal cultures. 

The gods weren't on their side, either.  If gods exist, it's hard to imagine their preference being for evil, selfish, vicious, and simple-minded humans.  I could more easily imagine a god only interested in cats than one who would pick Karl Rove or G.W. Bush as an eternal neighbor. 

However, if conservatives can't do anything else they can breed like vermin and they kept reproducing their progeny, misinformation, and ignorance all over the country, especially in the south and the hillbilly segments of the Midwest and west also known as "the Bible Belt."  Even after having their asses kicked and their ill-founded faith in their gods' will proven to be false, they continued to imagine that white people had some inherent superiority over other cultures.  Shortly after the end of the Civil War, economic and social discrimination against everyone but rich white people became the southern standard. 

The sludge at the bottom of the intellectual pool, dumb poor whites, somehow managed to become convinced that they had some interests in common with dumb rich white people.  Dumb whites dedicated themselves to protecting rich folks from non-white poor folks.  This misdirection resulted in the Civil Rights Movement and we wasted nearly one hundred years in making our national intention semi-coherent.  In the meantime, we have had Civil Rights Acts passed and ignored in 1886, 1957, 1964, and 1991.  All the while, conservatives still battled to preserve discrimination, segregation, and outright hostility toward people of varying races, religions, and political beliefs.  Just another example of how much conservatives hate the democratic intentions of the United States of America. 

World wide conservatives did their best to allow their fellow true believers in Nazi Germany to complete the extermination of Jews and other "undesirables" deemed to be imperfect non-Aryans in the 1930s.  Eventually, liberals became irritated enough at this vicious and inhuman activity and, once again, conservatives had their asses kicked.  A fair number of conservatives are so disturbed by this ass-whipping that they deny the existence of the entire period of history, commonly known as World War II.  Many of these inbred morons wear swastikas on their clothing and body art and claim to be "Americans" while hating the government of the United States of America and doing everything within their limited mental capacity to undermine the process of democracy.  More examples of conservatives hating the USA.

Conservatives drug the nation into Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq, twice.  Not in the interest of spreading democracy, but in the interests of the military-industrial complex that desperately needs wars to sell it's products.  Of course, the bonus was international corporate access to Iraq's oil resources.  Hardly a moral issue. 

Every issue with an attached real moral value is, and has been, opposed by American conservatives.  From women's rights to ecological conservation to racial equality to public education to the social safety net, conservatives have consistently come down on the side of international corporations and the interests of the ruling class.  Conservatives, without fail, have fought against progress, justice, freedom, peace, and common sense since the founding of this country.  Most likely, conservatives have argued against all of those things since the first group of cave people decided to band together. 
The great migration of southern whites to the Republican Party, which became blatant during the Carter Administration and resulted in white backlash and Reagan's election and the current radical Republican domination of the federal government, was all about racism and the long, ignorant history of poor white trash whose irritation is easily misdirected by international corporations and idle rich white trash.  You can't fool "all of the people all of the time," but you can fool these dumb fucks without putting up much of a show. 

The "values" represented by the Red States are limited to gun ownership, anti-feminism (thinly disguised as the "life" issue), the establishment of a national religion, and white power.  Not one of these issues could be described as central to the founding of the United States of America.

Conservatives protect the status quo, by definition.  Conservatives do not invent, improve, or initiate anything for the betterment of the country or the world.  They inhibit, repress, and regress at every junction of human, and especially the United States', history.  The reason they hate the United States of America is that this union of citizens, under the banner and protection of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, is liberal by its foundation and nature.  Liberals are progressive, conservatives are regressive.  The United States of America was a progressive, innovative, liberal idea. 

England was conservative in 1776 and still is, today.  The Soviet Union and Germany's National Socialist (Nazi) Party were conservative.  Iran's Assembly of Experts is conservative and so was Iraq's Arab Baath Socialist Party and Hussein's  Revolutionary Command Council.  These government systems were "loved" by the local conservatives and hated by the same countries' liberals. 

In this nation, when the government is obeying the law and serving the interests of the majority of its citizens, conservatives hate their government and want it changed by any method possible.  When the government is trampling personal rights and representing international corporate interests, conservatives are happy as hogs overdosing on PCP.  American conservatives have never loved the concept of the United States of America.  From the cocaine fields of Columbia to the Aryan Nation's compounds in the Pacific Northwest, conservative Americans have found things to hate about the United States of America.  The ideals they hate are what all intelligent citizens should all love about this country.  Freedom is a liberal goal.  Justice is a liberal ideal.  Equality and prosperity is the result of a liberal culture.  Those are the things conservatives hate all over the world and those are the things liberals must fight to protect. 

August 2005


What Are We Doing Here?

A few months back I gave my grandson the hardest piece of advice I’ve ever passed on. He was not looking for advice from me and had already decided his short term path, which was to gather some money and take a trip to meet his biological father. College was not in his short or long-term plans after one semester of community college and a fairly awful experience with what passes for high school in Minneapolis. When he asked me why I was going back to school, I told him my reasons and his would be very different. At 67 and retired, I was in the Southeast Community Technical College Guitar Repair program because I hoped to learn about guitar repair and construction, but going to college isn’t about that for a young man. Our education system has been selling itself on the educational/broadening-your-horizons claim for years and it’s bullshit. You go to college to get a degree; a piece of paper. If you get distracted by a drive to learn something you’ll fuck up the march to the degree and you’ll end up discouraged, disoriented, broke, and paperless.

“I don’t need this,” is the natural response to test material. You cram for the test, temporarily memorize the materials, take the test, and dump the faux information. Learn it and dump it. This is what passes for education. Teachers justify this process as “teaching students how to learn,” but that’s also bullshit. Kids know how to learn. They don’t know what to learn and too often the characters who end up at the head of a classroom in most colleges wouldn’t know useful information if it smacked them in the face.

As Garrison Keillor said, MFA stands for “my fabulous adolescence.” More often than not, kids are going to college to get their parents off of their backs, so they can continue their childhood activities with room and board included. They aren’t driven by any sort of occupational passion because kids rarely are. Their passions are for silly shit like noodling around on a musical instrument, playing video games, reading fantasy books, bullshitting with their friends (usually virtually via texting because carrying on a conversation in person would be too taxing), and watching movies or television. An education that provides some value to this kind of kid requires discipline, expertise, and a solid foundation in the sciences, liberal arts, mathematics, and the hard stuff. College has never been for everyone and building a higher education system that accommodates every lazy-ass wannabe is a waste of resources. Let them carry on their fabulous adolescence on their own time.


The Price of Thankfulness

We have a lot to be thankful for this season. We’re in a home we like, in a town we’ve loved for two decades, with new friends and a close family nearby. Financially, we’re better off than most people our age and who were without any significant kind of inheritance or hand-up from our parents. While I was marveling at our good fortune this morning, some not-so-pleasant memories of how we got here came back to me.

In my 30+ year career in music and manufacturing music equipment, I pretty much broke even, economically. The ten years I burned in medical devices—first with Telectronics in Denver followed by Guidant in Arden Hills—were pretty much the source of our current financial stability. After a move to Indiana to work for Washburn/Soundtech turned to crap, a friend opened the door for me into medical devices. Mostly, I took the job because I’d thought medicine had actually done my father some good when he had a heart attack and several bouts with cancer. In retrospect, I probably misread/misinterpreted that event, too. I jumped into medical devices with both feet and as little head as possible. After a 25 year career in manufacturing and field service, I felt that I had a lot to learn and a lot to give to my new employer. Five years later, Telectronics Pacing Systems was all but dead, due to a series of FDA Class I recalls and stupid management decisions and I was looking for a new employer.

I had, however, learned a lot. I’d been part of teams that studied drug and device clinical trials and helped write Tele’s Implantable Cardio-Defibrillator (ICD) FDA trial and product submission. I’d been tossed into the field to learn how to assist in pacemaker implants as part of a trial-by-fire “training system.” I was included in the Education Department’s line-up of “experts” who trained sales representatives and doctors and nurses on the company’s products. I took a large hit in income to get into a new industry, but my temporary single marital status and Colorado’s cost of living was so far below California’s that I made up for a lifetime of living-on-the-edge in a year. Suddenly, I was a homeowner and had savings. My starting wage at Telectronics was pretty sad, but I made up for it by living cheap and repairing a crap-load of audio gear and selling it until I had a stake for a down-payment on a house.

Five years later, Tele was in shambles but I had a “career,” a substantial salary history in medical devices, and some expertise in Tele’s unusual technology that was marketable. So I marketed it. I hustled myself to several pacemaker/ICD companies and ended up getting a good offer from CPI which was about to become Guidant. There were some glitches; CPI separated from Lilly and the pitched and promised pension vanishing before I arrived was one serious glitch. The company hired me like I was a fairly experienced journeyman AAA pitcher, though. A signing bonus, a generous moving allowance, living quarters assistance, substantial assistance in buying a home in Minnesota, and the kind of income I’d made in California, plus bonuses, minus California's cost of living.

I’ve been poor and I’ve been middle class. My “personal Great Depression years” were long, instructive, and sobering. Anytime I’ve been paid more than minimum wage I’ve assumed that something, sooner or later, will go wrong and I’ll be back on the streets without notice. I may be the most economically conservative person I've ever known. I always assume bad times will quickly follow good, even though that has only occasionally be true for me.

The "something that went wrong" with Guidant was Guidant. The company had a reputation, when it was Minnesota's CPI, of making solid, reliable, long-lasting devices with no flash, a little too much size and weight, and basic features. The new Indianapolis Lilly/Guidant management was—empowered by way of outrageous stock options and bonuses—to drive that staid car over a cliff. They pushed marketing and features over the traditional CPI product and corporate qualities and severed the links between manufacturing, quality control, and product development. I moved departments, a couple of times, and my last assignment—quality assurance engineer—was where I finally realized that nothing I could do would affect any outcome in that homicidal, suicidal, and grossly mismanaged corporation. My last assignment was to decouple a product failure database—that I’d spent two years building from scratch—from component and field failure descriptions. The reason for scrambling my database was to prevent the FDA from easily determining relationships between similar and reoccurring product failures; resulting in investigation and likely product recalls.

The Fortune Magazine article, rating Boston Scientific’s acquisition of Guidant as the “2nd worst deal ever” said this about the company’s misfortune, “Guidant CEO Dollens agreed to postpone his retirement to shepherd the transaction with Johnson & Johnson. But what should have been a victory lap turned into a slog through the swamp. In March of 2005 a 21-year-old student named Joshua Oukrop, who had a Guidant defibrillator implanted in his chest, died of a heart attack while bicycling. The defibrillator short-circuited, failing to release the shock that could have saved his life.

“Guidant had discovered the short-circuiting problem three years earlier and had corrected it in new models. Yet the company never informed doctors that devices already in use carried a small but potentially fatal risk of failure. Oukrop's cardiologist complained to Guidant that it should immediately warn doctors about the short-circuiting problem. With the story about to break in the New York Times, Guidant finally came clean, issuing a recall of the flawed defibrillators in June. ”

As usual, Fortune and the major media got most of the story wrong. That “small . . . risk of failure” was actually pretty substantial in the Ventak Mini I & II devices and the PRIZM I & II “fix” didn’t do much to make Guidant’s later devices better. Guidant’s ICDs failed often and catastrophically, sometimes delivering a fibrillation-inducing shock as the device’s last “act” before battery failure. Every one of those failures crossed my desk and ended up in my database. About the time in early 2000 when I was ordered to de-link those product failures, the database contained just short of 1,000 such failures with an unknown number of related patient injuries and deaths.
(Unknown because no one wanted to know that number.) Not long after I got the order to scramble my database, I had some sort of mental breakdown and lost the ability to read. (No, I’m not kidding. I couldn’t even sort out the text under newspaper pictures. Even sportswriters went beyond my capabilities.) For more than a year, I sat at my desk watching product failure data collect dust in my file cabinet, hoping for one patient-advocate doctor to call and ask “Have you ever seen this before?” Finally, it was obvious to me that I was broken and I went on medical leave for a month; until I terminated my Guidant employment rather than carry on the farce that I could do that work again after I "recovered." If I were to keep doing that work, I would have died in more ways than one.

One of those injured patients was a young woman, a single mother my daughter Holly’s age, who had experienced some sort of cardiac issue that gave her cardiologist an excuse to ablate much of her heart’s electrical system. As a result, she was dependent on the device for her heart rate and had been convinced that the defibrillation feature was also useful. (It rarely is.) She’d experienced one of the Mini I failures (and survived the associated shock) and had received an “under warranty” Mini II as a booby prize. Along with that “warranty replacement” came an additional $100,000+ in debt. The company had added about $20,000 to her debt load, since the Mini II was that much more expensive than her failed Mini I, and the hospital and doctors made up for the rest. She wasn’t really calling to complain, but she was hoping there was something I could do to help her find a way to something more reasonable, debt-wise. We had several conversations, as I collected information on both her product failure and the procedure’s billing history. She was the only patient/medical professional I’d talked to who could verify that the device delivered an unintentional shock before failure.

I called everyone who would talk to me about her medical and financial situation. The doctors didn’t give a shit. The company’s sales rep was downright hostile. The hospital accounting people were clueless. Finally, I lucked into discovering that hospitals sometimes have “patient advocates.” This hospital had one who actually wanted to do her job. We came up with a deal, the hospital would absorb all of the charges except the doctors’ bills if I could get the company do refund the replacement device charges. She went first, so I could use that to shame our accounting/sales assholes into doing the right thing. Finally, Guidant’s bean-counters coughed up the refund. Now, I had an ethical hospital doing the right thing and a let’s-pretend-we’re-humans company doing the right thing, so I went back to the doctors. I got the anesthesiologist to kill his bill and the cardiologist gave back a little of his. That was the best I was going to get, so the $100k bill was down to about $8k. Still way too much for a single mother who’d been kicked in the head with medical problems and expenses, but it seemed pretty good to me at the time.

I called her back and got an older woman on her phone. It was her mother. I explained why I was calling, sort of proud of myself for having done something “good” for the first time in my 10-year medical device career. She listened and said, “Thanks for calling, . . . [she] died last week. She had another heart attack.” Another “heart attack.” From what I knew, the chances were good that her Guidant device had blown itself up and killed her. We talked a little more. I hung up and went home for the day. The next day, I called the sales rep and tried to get him to have the device explanted and sent back for analysis. It had been cremated with her, which happened all the time even though cremating lithium-ion batteries is a really bad idea.

You can’t beat cremation for an evidence destroying procedure, though. The doctors didn’t want to know what had happened, the sales rep sure as hell didn’t care, the company was working hard to be sure its ass was covered, and I felt like I might as well have killed her myself.

Not long after that, I left the industry and wrestled with myself for months before I went back to fixing music equipment and, later, teaching. Every Thanksgiving since, I’ve thought about her and my involvement in her “care.” If you want to know why I dislike and distrust doctors, here’s Reason #1; not one doctor in the hundreds I talked to cared why their patients’ device failed. If they’d have asked, I’d have told them. I have no idea who Joshua Oukrop’s doctor was, but he is the needle in a haystack of careless, selfish, lazy and rich doctors who don’t care about patients any more than corporations like Guidant do. Finding a good (as in “not evil”) cardiologist is harder than finding a moral and honest Republican.

I kept a floppy disk with all of my device failure data until we moved this past year, in hopes that someone might ask for it for the first few years and out of habit after that. Tossing that disk into the trash was almost like a ceremony of resignation. Along with it went my medical device resume and all of the stuff I’d written for that industry over my 10 year career. I wish I could forget it ever happened, especially to me.

The experience broke a few bits of me that will never heal. When my wife and I recognize how lucky we are to be where we are today, in retirement and in our home with friends and family, I can not help but remember what I did to get us here. And who paid for it.