Friday, October 9, 2015


Weathered. Photo by Windi Sebren

A friend of mine posted this picture on social media this weekend.  One word caption accompanied the picture: Weathered.

It took my breath away, and at first, I had no idea why.  I just knew it was simply beautiful. Small traces of what was red paint remained from the long ago, blasted by storm and faded by sun; the wood grain was lifted and cracked from the effects of heating and cooling.  The overall impact was just striking.  It reminded me of worn icons in forgotten niches of Latin churches.  The careworn appearance is not a result of an absence of care.  Quite the opposite.

The more that I think about it, though, I realize that this image is an important thing for me to consider. 

My I-don't-really-have-a-bald-spot combover is not quite covering the places where my 'red paint' is being worn away.  Some days I feel like the chiseling and carving that I once felt defined me - body, face, mind - are irrevocably marred by the passage of time.  The heat, the rain, the storms have all taken their toll. The carving doesn't look as good, and might benefit from a paint job.  Right now, it looks like the owner just doesn't care. 

Quite the opposite.

But I also look at what the storms are washing away: crippling self doubt and insecurity.  They have eroded away some of my sharper edges, especially the need to demonstrate prowess - intellectual, physical, whatever. 

And what is emerging is beautiful, in a very different way than I expected. 

And when I look around at my friends - with the balding pates and the growing paunches and the reading glasses beginning to be perched on noses, I see the same beauty as I see in that weathered panel.  It is striking.  It is powerful. 

And a coat of paint - be it botox or lipo or toupee or spanx - just doesn't look as good as the raw beauty of the weathered surface. 

That weathering tells such better stories.  And speaks volumes to all of the love experienced in the life.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cremora is Flammable; or, LMJ of the week - pyrophoric

pyrophoric: capable of igniting spontaneously in air

"Your mother and I love you, and if you need help for pyromania, we WILL get it for you."

It was the first time I remember hearing the words 'I love you' come from my Dad, directed to me.  A touching moment.

Dad went on to say that he had seen me with the hairspray bombs, and with the hand-held lighter fluid fireballs and with the blowtorches, and the fireworks (....fortunately, he didn't know as much about some of the issues I dealt with in chemistry lab).

This week, I revisited a little bit of that ancient history as I saw an incredible video of a firebomb made of cremora, and I just giggled.  Because, yes, I knew that. 

In 1987, I was working at Dixie Lumber, and had access to a lot of Cremora (TM), and found out how to pour it onto a piece of paper, light a match, and the pour the cremora from the paper over the match.  Impressive fire display.

Action complete, I walked back inside the store, and one of my co-workers looked up and said,

"Um, Barney, you're on fire."

I looked down, and sure enough, the piece of paper had also caught fire.  I ran outside, and blew it out.  Relieved that the crisis was averted, I started back inside.

"Barney, you're on fire again."

Danged thing had gone out, and then relit on my way in the door.  I started at a dead run for the bathroom, so I could douse the flame with water.  But the act of running made the flame flare up.  Brain engaged about this point, and thought (mid sprint)  'If I invert the paper so that the flame is not consuming towards the paper, but away from the paper, it will be slower.

So instead of holding the paper away from me, I flipped my wrist so that the flame was between me and the paper.

And very nearly caught myself on fire in the process.

Five seconds later, the rapid-fire event was concluded, and I emerged sheepishly from the bathroom with the remaining scorched paper and wet ashes in my hand, and tried to ignore the howls of laughter from Steve, my co-worker.  I put up with those jibes for weeks.

I mentioned the cremora incident to my granddaddy a few weeks later (when it was safe to discuss it again), and he said that he had run into the same thing when he was working in the cotton mills.  One part of the process ends up with a lot of fibers floating in the air.  The rule was very clear: when the fibers are thick in the air, you avoid smoking, you avoid sparks, you avoid everything related to fire.  Because if any part of it ignited, the whole room would blow up.  It was, after all, pyrophoric.

Just like the Cremora.

Today, flames are different.  We live in a viral society.  Whether it is memes about Kim Davis, songs by a new performer, videos of kittens, or blog entries calling for the imposition of stiffer penalties on Medicare fraud (well, maybe not yet, anyway), there is a distinct desire for us to see our ideas shared with the world.  We flood our twitter feeds and our social media outlets with ideas, rants, political views, and pictures, hoping that the moment is right, and that the idea will catch fire.

We are hoping to be part of the pyroporphic situation: the perfect combination of explosive materials hanging in the ether, enough oxygen to let it blow.... and we just are waiting on that spark.

Because for one brief moment, we have to believe that we have been part of something much bigger than ourselves.  We were part of an explosion. 

It is understandable.  We are all looking for our tribe, and the bigger the explosion, the more we feel we are connected to the larger society.  We are wanting that moment when we connect with all of humankind, and that we and our whole tribe are one.  So we look for the biggest combustion, and we throw our hat into the ring.  I am against x.  I am for y.  X people are stupid.  Y people are the only cool ones.  And the one that we all agree on:

"I was cool before the hipster movement made not being cool, cool."

Often it is the little things that make the best fires.  That statement of vulnerability that connects you to people.  That act of kindness that is an expression of love.  A gesture that lets a hurting friend know that you care.  It is these sorts of things that really connect us. 

And then we have to go out into the world, and act that way out there.  Starting small fires wherever we go, blazing a trail with our joy.  With our love. Become pyrophoric.  The world needs that, so much more than another cute puppy video.

Dad could have said, "Go and set the world ablaze, knowing that your mother and I love you."  Different message.  Same truth.

Ite, inflammate omnia.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fraud as Manslaughter

NFL star Tyrann Devine Mathieu was in the news again this week.  You might remember Tyrann; he was an LSU star - affectionately known as 'the Honey Badger' for a video that combined a nature video with a highlight reel.  Eventually, Mathieu ended up getting thrown off of the team and expelled from the school for repeated drug incidents.

And for LSU to take that step with a much-touted, much beloved player, he had to really screw up.

This week, he was in the news, not as an Arizona Cardinal, or for anything he did.  But because his mom was offered a plea deal for her part in a $30M Medicare fraud scheme.   Take a second and scan the article. I'll wait.


I'll wait again while that sinks in.

Since taking an economics course in college, I have been fascinated by the concept of opportunity cost.  In this story, I think that recognizing the place that opportunity cost plays is critical in the sentencing of these people. 

Opportunity cost means that any time you make a decision, it is BOTH a decision to do something, AND a decision not to do something else. So, if I buy a package of M&Ms from a vending machine, then I just spent $1.25.  But the opportunity cost are those things that I gave up, in order to buy the package of M&Ms.  I gave up the chance to purchase a Twix bar.  I also gave up a chance to add that $1.25 to my retirement investments.  I gave up the chance to put more money into my niece's college fund.

That is one expensive treat.

Medicare's decisions are no different.  Assuming limited funds (a mere $505B for 2014), the decision on each medical claim is weighed against the decision against paying for another claim.  And the appeal's process is awful - involving 5 layers of oversight that involves two layers where 'NO' is inked on their rubberstamp.

So even with large sums to play with, there are numerous cases where Medicare passes on the opportunity to help some people in need.  Opportunity cost.

$30M is a lot of opportunity cost.  How many kidney transplants is that?  How many people treated for influenza?  How many immunizations, boosters, and treatments would that be?

How many people died?

What is the real cost of a $30M fraud?

The offenders are facing jail time.  Tyrann's mom is facing a year in prison for her part.  The lead offender, Crinel, faces a maximmum of 97 months in prison.  But if you look at the crime in terms of the opportunity cost, then I would recommend that we revisit those sentencing guidelines.

If the 30 mil could have saved a single life, then they are guilty of manslaughter.  If it costs $3M to save a life, then we are talking ten counts of manslaughter. The sentencing guidelines on multiple cases of manslaughter are considerably stiffer than government fraud.

I see possibilities here.  The economic impact sentencing guidelines could be broadened to include other offenses, as well.  Embezzle money from a school district?  Figure out the economic and social costs of having lesser education opportunity for each student.  Then multiply that by the number of students. 

I guarantee that people will think twice about diverting money from the kids after the first offender gets a $15M fine and 75 years in prison. 

Murder charges for Medicare fraud. 

Corruption in constructing roads?  Every pothole that flattens a tire or kicks an alignment out of kilter is now your responsibility.

Suddenly, the prosecution of white collar crime would have teeth - with penalties that fit the crime. 

Let's take another look at opportunity cost.  These kinds of fraud are not victimless crimes.  Shall we stop treating it as though it is?