Friday, November 18, 2016

The Chinese Wildfire Hoax

Friends and family back in Georgia have been dealing lately with something out of the ordinary and outside my own experience -- a series of big wildfires scattered all across the Southern Appalachian mountains. One of the fires, the Rough Ridge fire in the Cohutta Mountains, is said to be perhaps the largest in North Georgia's history. I've seen satellite images of smoke covering the northernmost third of the state, reaching down to Atlanta and Athens. It seems a bit unreal.

If it's the same Rough Ridge area that I once went camping with my father and brother, then it is some very rugged terrain firefighters have having to contend with.

Of course, in the heavily wooded mountains of Georgia and North Carolina, there have always been the occasional forest fire, though none from the past that really stand out in my mind.

Back in the days when my father was young, there was the habit of burning off the underbrush in the mountains in springtime, all the better for the grazing cattle that farmers let range freely during the summer. But that practice ended long before I was born.

As a kid, I can recall seeing just one wildfire, from a distance at night. It formed a crooked orange line in the dark as it burned on the side of Talona Mountain (which we called Reed Mountain, for some reason), an isolated "monadnock" that rose within easy viewing distance of my family's home.

And when I was in college at Young Harris, essentially at the base of Brasstown Bald, Georgia's highest peak, there was once a fire somewhere in the area. It was serious enough that the Forest Service asked for students to volunteer to help with the fire fighting. My classes wouldn't allow me to join, but some of my friends did and came back to school at the end of the day sooty and looking a bit exhilarated. I did envy them for the experience.

In any case, never when I was living in Georgia would there be so many fires burning at the same time, especially in November. Typically, autumns were coolish, and a bit wet, not what I would think of as fire season. 

The photos and reports that I'm seeing now seems like a smaller-scale version of something out of the American West, where fire is often enough an inescapable part of life. I know a family in Colorado who had to evacuate their house a few years ago due to an approaching fire and can still point to the spot just across the road where the flames thankfully came to a halt. And this is not not far from Storm King Mountain, where 14 firefighters lost their lives in 1994, a grim reminder of the deadly and destructive power of uncontrolled fire. 

A couple of years ago, we were driving across northern Arizona when the news came over the radio that 19 "hot shot" firefighters had similarly died at Yarnell Hill some 60 miles to the south of us. Later that night, we could see a small fire burning on Dean Peak in the Hualapai Mountains near Kingman, the faint smell of smoke noticeable in the car as as we sped down Interstate 40. 

Of course, fire is also a huge concern in Finland, a country made up almost entirely of forests. Fire prevention is taken very seriously here, and a typical feature of the evening news in summer is the latest update on which parts of the country are under metsäspalovaroitus ("forest fire warning"), when open fires in woodlands is strictly forbidden. Sometimes the entire country is under such a warning. That was surely the case in the summer of 2006, which was incredibly dry. Finland avoided major fires then, but even in Helsinki you could sometimes not avoid the smell of smoke reaching all the way from across the border in Russia, where numerous fires burned out of control for days, due to the lack of resources or motivation to extinguish them. 

Luckily, no lives or structures have been lost to the North Georgia blazes, and at the moment smoke is the biggest threat to people. But the smoke, if nothing else, is unpleasant and potentially unhealthy. The Atlanta area was placed under a Code Red air quality alert, indicating the smoke can be harmful for everyone, not only children and those with respiratory ailments. 

And conditions don't seem likely to improve. Apparently, there's a chance of rain this weekend for the area, but before that temperatures are still expected to reach 24 C (75 F), which to me seems unnaturally high for a week before Thanksgiving.

Nowadays, when every little thing gets politicized, I'm amazed I haven't yet seen anyone trying to score political points over these unprecedented wildfires, and I hesitate to do it myself (a bit).

I've always been extremely annoyed by conservative pundits or talk show hosts who poke fun at the notion of global warning wherever there is an usually big winter storm somewhere. Erick Erickson comes to mind, declaring something like, "Well, with all the snow covering Buffalo right now, it sure looks like 'Global Warming' to me. Ha, ha, ha!" Or something like that. Appealing to the common sense of the common man.

Hearing this kind of nonsense always makes me want to pull my hair out, thinking "No you idiot, you have to look at the trend, the overall trend. You can't look at just one isolated event and declare that climate change is bogus." Especially, when the event goes against the prevailing trend.

By the same token, you should also guard against making too much of an unusual weather pattern when it seems to confirm the reality of climate change. You never hear folks like Erick Erickson doing that.

That said, rare drought conditions and historically bad wildfires certainly seem to fit predictions of a rapidly warming planet. You would think the warm, tinder-dry conditions in the Southern Appalachians in late autumn would make local people, many of whom voted for Donald Trump, stop and consider that maybe this is a sign of global warming. Maybe it's not a Chinese hoax after all, despite what Trump has claimed over and over again.

You would think they might finally take the issue seriously and be alarmed that the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency might well be a climate change denier.

Or, maybe not. Maybe they'll just breathe in the pungent smell of burning timber and, with a sense of self-satisfaction, think to themselves, "Ah, nothing to worry about. That smells like Trump's America to me!"

Wildfire in California, 2008. 
Photo: Bureau of Land Management.

Monday, November 14, 2016

One Man's Political Correctness...

Listening to news and analysis following the shocking election of Donald Trump last week, I heard someone suggest that the number-one fatal mistake that Clinton made was that she used the word “deplorable” when referring to Trump supporters.

Never mind that she was talking about one subset of Trump's supporters, for example, those from the alt-right who have a habit of gleefully sharing Internet memes featuring Pepe the Frog or monkey caricatures of Obama.

That distinction, of course, got lost, and it seems every last Trump supporter felt insulted by her remarks. No doubt that was not Clinton’s intention, but it did open herself up for misinterpretation. It was political malpractice in the extreme, so the commentary went, to use such a derogatory term for any voter.

That got me to thinking. Looking at it that way, it was political in-correctness that did Clinton in. She applied an offense, impolite term to a large group of people. She painted a lot of folks with the same broad brush. She forgot to be politically correct.

This is hugely ironic, of course. Folks who constantly warn that America is endangered by “political correctness”, folks who shrug off the notion that there’s anything wrong with Trump calling illegal migrants “rapists and murders” or Syrian refugees “terrorists” or women “fat pigs”, these same folks take offense, YUGE offense, when called “deplorable” by Hillary Clinton. And, oh yes, “irredeemable”.  

Should they take offense? Maybe so. Actually, who could blame them? Should hard-working undocumented workers from Mexico take also offense being called “rapists” by Donald Trump? Well, heavens forbid no, because that was just Trump speaking his mind, and as we all know “speaking your mind” is the highest form of expression. Clinton, on the other hand, was just being condescending and rude. 

Logical, right?

The thing that has bothered me for so long about the right's obsession with the “political correctness” boogieman and Trump's willingness to give it the middle finger is this: using measured language and holding back your most primal thoughts might actually serve a purpose in a society where not everyone is a clone of yourself. It might help moderate the temperature of personal interactions. It might help maintain social harmony. It might help people get along.

Maybe you desperately want to tell the guy sitting in the pew next to you in church that he’s an “asshole”, because deep down inside that’s what you think he is. Maybe you're dying to tell your wife to for God's sake please lose some weight. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be like Trump and throw off the shackles of political correctness and just say out loud what’s on your mind?

Such liberating free speech can have consequences, however. Your fellow congregant might stand up and punch you in the nose. Your wife might exact revenge in unspeakable ways. American voters might discover more reasons to despise Hillary Clinton. And Donald Trump might succeed wildly and get himself elected president.* Things work differently for him, it seems.

Last week on Facebook, I called Trump supporters “gullible” and was promptly told to “shut up”. Maybe I deserved that. What I said was insulting, especially if his supporters didn't really believe his endless casual lies, but supported him for purely cynical reasons. 

But it was what was on my mind at the time. I was just saying what I thought. I wasn't holding back. 

Well, that's not entirely true. What was really on my mind was far worse. So, now I have a dilemma. In the future, should I be more politically correct and refrain from saying anything remotely insulting about anyone who voted for Trump. Or should I take the less politically correct road traveled by Donald Trump himself and call many of them ignorant (as opposed to merely "gullible"), or even racist? 

I always thought I was much more comfortable with the first option, but maybe I should get with the times and go with the other one.

* By the Electoral College, not the popular vote. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Net Stupidity - The Voter Fraud Edition

A few weeks ago, I saw on the Internet one of those provocative memes about all the voter fraud that supposedly took place in the 2012 presidential race.

At the top of a list of "very suspicious" voting "irregularities" was the fact that in 59 districts around Philadelphia, not a single vote was cast for Mitt Romney. Not even one.

This, the "author" of the meme informed the Internet universe, was a "statistical and mathematical impossibility". 

Now, I'm pathetic at math (ask my wife), but even I realized that that was a dumb statement. "Impossibility" is a strong word. The rest of the list of alleged Democratic transgressions was even more sketchy.

I really don't understand why people who are trying to make a point have to resort to making stuff up. I guess it's because the facts, in some cases even reality, are otherwise not on their side. Sad.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mökkis and ERs

Here in Finland, we are in full autumn mode, meaning the days are certainly shorter and often gray, and plant life has either died or shed its leaves or otherwise gone into some form of suspended animation.

For my family, it also means the end of the mökki (summer cabin) season, the end of frequent trips by my wife and I out to our little sauna-cabin on the water.

While we certainly enjoy being there, paying attention to all the activity – both human and wildlife – on the bay below our log cabin, much of our time there is spent working, since we still have plenty to finish up to make it a place for fun and relaxation. One day, we’ll get there.

Still, this past summer there were fewer of those work projects to do, and perhaps because of that we needed fewer trips to the Emergency Room. In fact, none.

The summer before was different. That summer I gained some first-hand experience of the Finnish medical system.

Now, I’m not naturally inclined to publicly share details of doctor visits. But, with health care once again front-page news in America due to Obamacare insurance premiums going up sharply next year, this seems like a good time to share some personal insights on how it works over here.

Luckily, I haven't normally been in much need of medical care, not in recent years anyway, and for nothing life-threatening. I’ve been very fortunately that way. Knock on wood.

Of course, I can’t take any credit for that, other than by not smoking or overeating and generally trying to stay active. Staying well, as we all know, is not only a matter of choice. No one wants to be sick. It’s not a matter of consumer demand. Hospital visits are not on anyone’s shopping list. Illness and accidents happen to us -- hopefully not often -- and not because we wish for them. 

Anyway, in the summer of 2015, I made three visits to the ER (päivystys, in Finnish), all because of our mökki. Well, rather, because of my own carelessness, at the mökki.

The first incident occurred when my wife and I took a stab (groan) at trimming the broad sweep of reeds that grow off our shore. Most of these reeds can be reached only from the water. So, while my wife paddled our canoe back and forth among the tangle of vegetation, I sat in the front armed with a sharp sickle. A very sharp sickle.

I was doing a respectable amount of damage whacking at the reeds, mowing them down, so to speak, as they swayed in the breeze until – for reasons that remain unclear to me still – my free hand got in the way.

It wasn’t a huge cut actually. It was mostly a clean slice down the side of one finger, but it did bleed profusely, and there was a flap of skin dangling from the finger.

My wife hurriedly paddled us back to the dock. It was clear that some stitches were needed to keep the flap of skin in place, so a trip to the doctor was in order. While I held my finger tightly in a cocoon of paper towels, my wife drove me back to Helsinki to the Malmi hospital. The hospital in Porvoo would have been almost as close, but the one in Malmi is closest to our home, and thus the one we're supposed to use for non-routine health issues. And at least we knew how to find that one.

The ER wasn’t very busy. After a bit more than half an hour or so in the waiting room, I saw a doctor (female) and nurse (male) who cleaned the wound and stitched the flap of skin back in place. They were both young and, I have to say, insanely good-looking. That has not always been my experience in Finnish hospitals. Checking my records in the health system database, they could see I probably hadn’t had a recent tetanus shot, so they gave me one of those just to be sure. 

My wife and I were back at the cabin before sauna time, though there would be no sauna that night due to doctor’s orders. Obviously. 

My previous experience with Finnish emergency rooms has mostly involved broken bones. Not mine, but my kids. ERs in Helsinki are busy places during the annual ski holidays in February, when school kids are off for a week of what is hoped to be prime skiing, sledding, and skating weather. And, unfortunately, these are the times that all three of my kids have broken arms or hands while enjoying the slippery white snuff that makes winter bearable.

Myself, the only bones I’ve ever broken have been an occasional toe and once a couple of ribs that I cracked when I fell off a ladder while putting shingles on the roof of our outhouse (a classic mökki mishap, that one!).

I didn’t see a doctor for those injuries, because, seriously, what can you actually do for a broken toe, or even a cracked rib? There’s not much point bothering with a doctor in such cases.

In the case of my second ER visit in the summer of 2015, there was.  This incident also involved a ladder at the mökki. I was working there alone, trying to finish up painting the sides of the cabin in late September while the decent weather still held. Attempting to reach a tricky spot under the eaves, I set up the ladder at a ridiculous angle and, with brush in hand, quickly climbed up it.

A minute or two later -- I don’t know how long for sure -- I woke up on the ground. I had a sense of having laid there on the gravel for some time, almost relaxing, maybe sleeping, yet conscious of the radio on the porch broadcasting news from NPR.

Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I realized I must have hit my head on the porch steps. My side hurt like hell. After slowly sitting up, I felt extremely groggy, like my head was full of cotton.

I phoned my wife, who was at work. She was in a meeting and couldn’t answer the call, so I sent her some WhatsApp messages, which I found difficult enough to tap out on my phone. Some minutes later, I looked at what I had written and had no memory of doing so. I felt mystified by how such messages could have gotten on my phone.

But my wife did get the messages, and was concerned enough to set out for the mökki to take me, once again, to the ER in Malmi.

This time the ER was busier, and it was a different doctor who checked out my head before sending me down the hall to have my ribs X-rayed. Nothing broken. Apparently, all I had suffered was a mild concussion. It took altogether about two hours.

One of my sons, however, was worried by the fact that the doctor hadn’t ordered a CT scan. Eventually, he convinced me to go back a couple of days after my initial visit and see if I should get a scan. It’s true I still had a headache and had been noticing a persistent ringing in my ears.

This third trip to the Malmi hospital was on a quiet Saturday morning. It didn’t take long to see a doctor (again a different one), who agreed that the persistent headache and ear-ringing might call for a CT scan. There results were reassuring, no brain swelling, no cracked skull. Before lunchtime, we were heading back to mökki to continue painting, this time a bit more carefully, to be sure.

A few weeks after these hospital visits, the bills started coming in. The first one was €32.10, the next one €32.10, and the last €32.10. That’s the flat “office fee" everyone pays for a trip to the ER. The sum total of my medical expenses that summer came to less than €100 (about 115 dollars). That’s for three trips to the ER, the suturing of a finger, an X-ray, a tetanus shot, and a CT scan.

What does this mean for my insurance premiums, deductibles, co-pays, etc.? Nothing. I do not have insurance. I do not need insurance, not with the kind of “single-payer” universal health care that we have here in Finland.

To many Americans, this is “socialized” medicine, a concept they are so very afraid of and opposed to. For the life of me, I can’t see why that is. Well, actually, yes, I can. They have been persuaded, you might even say brainwashed, to be hostile to it, just on principle, without really knowing what it’s about, without understanding it.

And, sadly, that is one reason I think reforming health care in the US, of which Obamacare might eventually prove to be only an ill-fated half-measure, will continue being the touchy and tumultuous political nuisance it is today. 

The sickle that did the deed.
(And this motif is not in any way a commentary on Obamacare. Quite the opposite.)