April 2012

On Writing

Writing tends to be my weakness. I’ve never felt comfortable composing a sentence, let alone a paragraph, chapter, or book. Those that read what I have posted will quickly identify grammatical errors, spelling errors, and nonsensical sentences. When pointed out to me, I can immediately identify what I did wrong, though I rarely see these mistakes during the composition of the writing. Perhaps this was the fault of the public school system and me not getting Mr. Boniwell for senior high school English class. College English classes were a total joke and didn’t require one to be able to write or even to spell. Much of the writing done in college is in a technical style, which has some rigid forms and is much easier to master than writing on things philosophical or as commentary. Regardless, one will note that I have written a modest amount (see the Veroffentlichungen section of this webpage). I also am chiefly responsible for Occasional Specimens, a newsletter that our practice sends out every 3-4 months. Unlike my Reading List which is quite lengthy, I have no aspirations to write anything major at this time except for short blurbs on this blogsite. I will die without a magnum opus unless you call my Ph.D. thesis a magnum opus—it is more like an opus dei.
My fascination with writing is provoked by seeing others writing and getting published. Particularly, I noted that brother Dennis used to have an ACC Journal, edited by him and Jim Fodor, and eventually Joe Haring. These journals came out during the years 1983-1987 at a time when I was living in Chicago and enduring residency and doing my Ph.D. work. Dennis had attempted to reform the AC Church to thinking more about their doctrine and belief systems. These Journals have been recently scanned and posted on the internet, with only 1 issue missing. In the long run, I’m not sure if the publication did any good, but I’d have to allow the editors to speak for that. Dennis no longer belongs to the ACC and lives out of the country. Joe Haring is dead, and Jim Fodor now teaches at a Papist college, with a belief system that I’d identify as theologically liberal (i.e., non-Christian). Many of the other authors no longer belong to the ACC or have moved on in life. Maybe they were writing to themselves?
Which leads to the question as to why we write? Perhaps most writing is writing to the self. Perhaps it is a clarification of the mind, an organization of thoughts, a systemization of concepts, a way to pass time. I wonder of all that is written, how much is actually read. Anything longer than what I have written up to this point tends to be passed over, as the contemporary mind cannot tolerate an attention span greater than about 30 seconds. because it is easier for anybody to write and publish to the world, we are barraged with massive volumes of “important” script that we could not possibly have the time to read, even should we be able to read for 24 hours/day and live as long as Methuselah. This constrains me to write less, write pithy, write summaries of thought rather than volumes of detail. Anything more than what can be read in several minutes will be a matter of writing to the self.
So, I will read much, and write little.

Classics of Russian Literature

Classics of Russian Literature, by Irwin Weill (Teaching Company) ★★★★
I originally started to listen to this series several years ago and found it to be somewhat boring. I made it through about 4 lectures. Recently, I devoted myself to reading Dostoevsky and returned to this series. Having read some Russian literature, Weill began to make sense, and I found the series to be considerably more enjoyable. Weill’s attention is definitely directed toward Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. He spends several lectures apiece on 20th-century writers, though Solzhenitzen is given only one lecture. Many of the 20th-century authors were quite appealing after Weill’s discussion, but the particular book or play was either unavailable on Amazon.com or moderately expensive, and not available for Kindle. This was a touch frustrating. In all, Weill presents an appealing presentation for delving into Russian Literature and an excellent summary for the person versed in the Russian author.

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment (Film) ★★★★★
This is a Russian adaption of the Dostoevsky novel by the same name, made for television, and in 8 episodes. Having just read the novel, I was quite curious about seeing how a Russian filmmaker would render the novel. This series stuck very close to the book, and minimal artistic license seemed to have been exercised. The sets and acting were for the most part superbly accomplished. There were only a few rare scenes where the acting was slightly “soap opera-ish”. Raskalnikov was totally superb in his acting. The filming was superb. On Amazon.com the only real complaints were about the subtitle translation. True, there were frequent misspelled words and grammatical errors but these were never so egregious that one could not immediately figure out what was said. For those who love Dostoevsky, this is a MUST have. Do NOT get Hollywood versions of the Dostoevsky novels, as they have been best performed in the motherland. If you must have the movie in English and don’t know how to read subtitles, then you shouldn’t be watching movies at all but going to English school. Betsy and I are now working through Brothers Karamozov and soon the Idiot, both also made for television, the Brothers Karamozov (soon to be reviewed) is equally superlative in its production and accuracy to the novel. Nothing is better than reading the novels themselves, as Dostoevsky’s writing style and the minor nuances of his text could never be completely put on film. I would highly recommend reading these Dostoevsky novels before ever watching the films.

Sermons on Romans

Sermons on Romans, DM Lloyd-Jones ★★★★
Lloyd Jones would spend Friday evenings at church slowly working through the book of Romans in an expository fashion. This took him a number of years to accomplish, preaching a total of 353 sermons in the series. This makes for a total of 290 hours and 20 minutes of sermon. Lloyd Jones numbers among the great preachers of all time, preaching in a conservative fashion from the Reformed perspective. In most cases, he is fairly conventional, though at times he does bring objections to the most eminent Reformed theologians. In particular, his perspective on Romans 7 is unique, in that he holds this chapter as speaking of the non-converted sinner under conviction of sin. So, it is neither the non-converted person you would find on the street nor the converted. His perspective on what Paul meant by “Israel” and the “Jew” are also somewhat at odds with convention, though he is quite firmly not a British-Israelite. Altogether, it is solid teaching and very informative. These sermons were listened to by me over the last several years while I was riding the bicycle on the trainer in the garage. As you might detect, I worked out a lot.

Hospital Ramblings

Several days ago, I was asked to attend a meeting put on by the hospital in conjunction with outside consultants, seeking ways to improve the working environment in the hospital. The focus seemed to be directed at the operating rooms and surgeons. The consultants were ex-Air Force fighter pilots who now work in the private airline industry flying jets and running this consulting firm. The theme of the discussion was that by utilizing various organizational and procedural methods, the airline industry has been able to significantly cut back its accident rate, implying that the same methods can be brought into the health care industry to reduce the number of mistakes.
The discussion immediately began to focus on critical aspects of relations between physicians, nurses, and techs at GSH. There was a prevailing notion that the old behaviors and attitudes of surgeons would no longer be tolerated, as it was destroying the ability of nurses and techs to work constructively and contribute to the well-being of patients. Surgeons, so it is said, do not listen, and operate under behavior patterns that assure that mistakes will happen. Procedural techniques to fix this problem include creating pauses before cases and having debriefings after cases. During regular operations, hostile relations will be sought to be removed in order to allow the free interchange of information among all parties involved in patient care.
There is much good to this model. It realizes that the surgeon is not God and cannot have command of all aspects of things in the operating room or on the patient floors. It appreciated that various other disciplines such as nursing, dietary, physical therapy, and others have contributions that should be considered in the physician decision-making process. This model realizes that when there is a breakdown in comfort among various groups interacting in a hospital, mistakes are going to be made that were otherwise preventable. I raise absolutely no objection to these ideals and feel that GSH needs to recruit assistance from outside themselves to correct these relational issues. Yet, there is something missing from the discussion noted by the surgeons but nobody else. To that, I will address.
The grass was never greener in the past. Yet, it seems like the hospital is now trying to fix something that they spent the last twenty years destroying. I am not sure that the airline industry and the plethora of consultants have a grasp as to what is really broken. I recall the years when I would make rounds twice a day. During these rounds, I was usually accompanied by either the patient’s nurse or the charge nurse. Ideas were exchanged, thoughts on patient care discussed, and then some social exchange occurred. I knew the name of all the nurses on the surgical floor, as well as their hobbies, family situation, and length of time that the nurse had been at GSH. None of this occurs anymore. It’s not just the nurses’ fault. With declining reimbursement, I had to be busier to maintain a solvent practice, meaning that more surgical cases had to be performed, leaving me less time for other things. The tension between family, hobbies, and work usually meant that compromises had to occur at work. About ten years ago, I stopped doing evening rounds. At that time, nurses also stopped rounding with the doctors. Because the hospital had to cut back on employee costs, nursing aides were the first to go. This meant that nurses had no time to round. Then, electronic medical records came into being, which meant that nurses had not only less time with the physician but also less time with the patient.
Meanwhile, inappropriate behaviors by physicians had become of increasing importance to hospitals. All it takes is one mean-spirited, demanding physician in a bad mood, or, perhaps a kind but incompetent physician in any mood, to make life miserable for everybody in the operating room and on the ward. Oddly, throughout the 20 years of my time at GSH, there has ALWAYS been one or two physicians under extreme fire from the administration. Somehow, when one naughty physician is appropriately silenced or removed from staff, another physician rose to take their place. Often, this was a physician who may have had just slightly inappropriate behavior in the past, but then received the spotlight, which assured that the intensity of maladaptive behaviors would increase. The physician might have been sent to anger management training (no comment on that, watch the movie Anger Management!), or worse yet, sent to Seattle for psychological investigation and therapy. Should a hospital need to appropriately remove a physician from staff, lawsuits could be expected, unless the hospital had adequate documentation to support their claims of persistent and enduring physician misbehavior. Thus, the evolution of incident reports. Incident reports are written now for every possible behavior that might be interpreted as maladaptive, including walking onto the wards with crossed eyes. Any joke, any statement, any reference that might be overheard and misinterpreted by the hearer would lead to an incident report. When a real incident occurs, then the hospital will enquire of all employees as to comments or statements that might have been uttered by the doctor producing the incident. These are all kept in files outside of the purview of the physician. Oddly, the only person in this grand production that was not writing incident reports was the physician, regardless of the misbehavior of the employee toward that physician.
Not surprisingly, the ultimate result of this has been a widening rift between physicians and the hospital. Those physicians who are most dependent on the hospital, the surgical specialties, and OB/Gyn, have had the hardest time adapting. Surgeons have complained bitterly in the past about the widening rift between the surgeon and the hospital employees, but this has fallen on deaf ears. Thus, when the hospital shows an interest in correcting the alienation of surgeons with the rest of the hospital community, it represents a favorable move that hopefully is not too late in coming.
I had mentioned that surgeons and surgical subspecialties have been defined as having the greatest behavior problems at the hospital. What is it that is different about surgeons that make them bad boys? Is it that it takes a certain greater amount of ego and ambition to be a surgeon than other specialties of medicine? Only a select few wanted to go into surgery in the past since the training was extreme, and the risks that the surgeon would take were extreme. I saw many bright young doctors drop out of surgical residency in order to go into a specialty that possessed a tincture of sanity. The few that survived residency often went into fellowships, which were even more demanding on the person. After about 5-9 years of abuse in the training program, the young surgeon would be spit out onto the community in order to practice their trade. Their ability to do brutal things to a patient and yet have them survive could for the most part be attributed to ingrained habits, routines, and developed skills that occur automatically. Success in the operating room is possible when the techs and nurses mesh with the particular style of the surgeon. Of course, this is far more critical for large, complex cases than for small routine procedures. The stakes on complex surgeries tend to be huge, and the ultimate responsibility rests upon the surgeon to get the patient through. It is known that post-operative care is just as critical as intra-operative care, and so similar demands are placed on the nurses and ancillary personnel on the floor to perform commensurate with the expectations of the surgeon.
What happens when the system breaks down? Complications occur, patients die, and fingers get pointed in all directions as to responsibility. Physicians become angry, nurses and techs become frightened or despondent, and further disruption of the system into a fatal spiral occurs. The hospital responds with checklists and policies. Niceness is enforced. Feel-good sessions are enacted. The root problem is ignored.
The surgeon used to be considered as captain of the ship. The airline pilots who were consulting for GSH acknowledged the importance of having a captain on an airplane. The pilot of the airplane has sole responsibility and is allowed the final decision for matters of concern that occur on an airplane in flight. Because of the breakdown in relations between surgeons and nurses/techs, there is no captain of the ship in a hospital. Decisions are made during my meetings and multiple consults. Everybody deserves an equal say in the decisions. If a nurse or other employee feels the physician to be in error, they have the hospital support to correct that decision and change the physician’s order or not fill the doctor’s order. This has happened to me many times and has happened many times to other physicians that I know of. To respond in an emotional manner would generate an anger management recommendation to the doctor.
The airline equivalent is appropriate here. In order to keep things totally safe, we should spend the rest of our life taxiing our airplanes around on the tarmac. The stewardess (now called flight attendant) would have a chance to drive the plane on the tarmac once in a while. Everybody will feel warm and fuzzy.
It is hard to compare the world of the airline pilot and that of the surgeon. The example of following protocols is often given of Captain Scully landing the AirWest plane in the Hudson. It was a tremendous decision. Oddly, he didn’t call a case management conference. He didn’t hold a discussion of options. He didn’t worry about offending the co-pilot, who happened to be flying the plane at the time. He immediately took total control of the plane. He would have not tolerated a stewardess protesting his decision and might have even acted in anger if the stewardess had the audacity to do such a thing. Surgery is always operating under an adverse event. Things are never normal, which is the reason for surgery. Much is not predictable. The human body is not a finely tuned aircraft whose every part and function is known. If we really had to compare the airline and health care industry, then we should force the Airline industry to operate mainly in inclement weather, with a 30% unreliability placed into all the instruments. The pilot could never totally trust his instruments. I really don’t think we’d see the same industry-wide track record for the airline industry. We might see more pilots forced into anger management classes for failing to respond properly to extreme stress.
Physicians used to be the orienting factor for quality health care. Many of the great clinics, such as the Mayo Clinic, Oschner Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Virginia Mason Clinic, and others were created around a single surgeon who attracted patients. These physicians set the tone of excellence for the entire clinic. Today, hospital advertising tends to promote first-class facilities and techniques such as laser surgery or robotic surgery. Doctor names are rarely ever mentioned. When doctors are illustrated, it is typically a room with either a team of physicians and nurses and ancillary people or a group of physicians together. In a sense, this is understandable. But, it is like advertising an orchestra while focusing on the second violins and never mentioning the conductor. The second violins are vital, but nobody really cares who is playing second violin if the conductor is von Karajan.
The old paradigm of private practice medicine tended to keep the physician stable in the community. Now, physicians tend to be employed by hospitals or large physician groups, and their life situations tend to be far more mobile. As an example, hospitalists have been at GSH for at least 7-10 years, with 10-15 physicians in the group, yet only three of the hospitalists now at GSH have been at GSH for over 2 years. It becomes hard to build functional teams when most of the physicians and employees on the team are transient. Worse, without a stable physician base, it can be challenging for hospitals to promote physicians on their teams. Thus, the public focus is on things that do not promote quality, such as new hospital buildings, new computer informatics systems, and new gizmos in the operating room.
My solution to this whole problem was somewhat novel and required a Sabbatical to realize. After returning from Sabbatical in 2009, I decided that the safest solution was to never, ever do a complex case again. My patient outcomes at GSH historically have been superlative for thoracic cases, hepato-biliary and pancreatic surgery, gastric and esophageal surgery, and complex oncologic cases. Regardless, with a system that I viewed as broken, I was uncomfortable having my patient risk the hospital experience under my responsibility. I do not feel that the hospital has yet allowed surgeons to be the lead driving force for quality improvement. Therefore, I have advised complex surgical cases to go to the university for their surgical treatment.
The system is broken between physicians and the hospital and its employees, and I’m delighted to see the hospital taking a preliminary move toward identifying the problem and trying to fix it. I do NOT want to be misinterpreted as implying that this is a problem limited to my hospital. It is a problem that exists in most hospitals in the US and represents the changing culture of health care. For my hospital, it is most vital that they respond quickly to an ever-deteriorating condition of dysfunctional relationships. Thus, my strong support for bringing in an outside agency to help restore a workable dynamic in the hospital.

Understanding Photography Field Guide

Understanding Photography Field Guide by Bryan Peterson ★★★★★
This is a great little book that I mostly skim-read. Peterson writes well and covers a plethora of subjects in the small soft-bound book. There are several things that make this book a good read. First, the book is loaded with little gems to make your photography easier and better. It is not a comprehensive manual on how to take special types of shots but simply offers the best advice for just about any circumstance, whether it be macro photography, night photography, people pictures, etc., etc. The second thing I really appreciated with the book is how Peterson would often show a very bland shot, and then show the same shot taken with a few tweaks that turn the scene into a phenomenal photograph. He tells you exactly what he does, giving all the camera setting information for you to know the precise conditions of the photo. It is a fun read, not the best book for a photography novice, but a very helpful read for a middle-of-the-road photographer.

The Emerald Forest

The Emerald Forest ★
This movie is supposedly based on a true story and is presented by various eco-environmental groups as a moving and compelling argument to save the rainforests. Because of its high reviews on Amazon.com, I decided it demanded a re-watch, having seen it many years ago. The story is quite simple. A young engineer in charge of building a dam in the Amazon basin is out with his family near the construction site, when the young (about 7-year-old) son is taken captive by a tribe that was isolated from civilization. This boy grows up in that tribe and becomes a leader. Ten years later, the father eventually finds his son but is caught in the cross-fire of inter-tribal warfare. The raiding tribe has made contact with civilization and has procured machine guns, and thus have hauled off the young ladies of the tribe to be prostitutes. Meanwhile, their son weds a young tribal lady, only to find her as a captive of the warring tribe. Using his now alienated father for assistance, the girls are rescued and the son decides to stay primitive rather than go back to his roots. Upset with the dam that father has built, son calls on the frogs to make it rain, and a heavy rain coupled with new sympathies of father, father dynamites the dam and the progress of man is halted.
While this movie is reportedly based on a true story, it is quite clear that much of the events are fictitious. Hollywood needed to make a statement and didn’t seem to be concerned about the truth. Thus, when they made statements at the end lamenting the loss of the primitive savage and rain forest, they give numbers that any credible thinker would question. The filmography of the movie was okay, but not great. It is clear that the film crew had three or four locations at most. But, what about the movie? Why would it get such a low rating from me? This movie would be best thought of as a merger of Al Gore in Inconvenient Truth and Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon, with a storyline written by Margaret Mead. The scriptwriter had tried to develop the innocent savage theme of Margaret Mead, perhaps not realizing that most of what Margaret Mead wrote about her adventures to the South Pacific were a total fiction, and should have been condemned to the genre of the Harlequin Romances rather than credible science. Unfortunately, Mead was devoured by the non-critical ideologues of academia and was sold as an argument against civilization and for the peace-loving, amoral primitive man, not driven by money, greed, or passions. This movie makes light of the alternate belief structure of the primitive Amazonian. They are able to call on the frogs to make rain, without explanation as to how they might have the power to do this. This leads to a beautiful non-sequitur, in which we should not destroy rain forests because if we were sensitive to “Mother Earth”, we could pray to frogs who would help us destroy the advance of modern technology. The movie leaves out that these primitives live in constant fear of the spirit world, which is an ugly taskmaster, and not the benevolent loving God of the Judeo-Christian faith. A favorite scene of the movie was the swimming hole, where the naked young Amazonian men would meet the equally naked young Amazonian women. It was a mixture of the opening scenes from Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” and various scenes from the Blue Lagoon–entirely fictitious and entirely wishful for free-love without bounds or constraints or defined morality. If only the scriptwriters could actually live in one of these communities for a while to see that the female always takes a seriously subservient mode to the man. But, academic fictions contribute to even more fiction, and the most gullible among us, the Academics, sell this trash to us without any thought as to its truth content.
The movie poorly asks the question as to which culture or civilization is best. Is it the primitive native of the rainforest, or is it the so-called civilized man? The referential framework for making this judgment in the movie is the question of who treats the earth the best, and clearly, the primitive native wins out. But, that is not really a fair question, since it is not the primitive native making this assertion, but rather, it is the civilized man using the technology and knowledge that is despised to fight technology and “knowledge”. It suggests that there is a primitive knowledge that is lost (note the very last statement of the movie!), but the movie makes clear that what is lost is a “knowledge” of the spirit world, a world that most modern man chooses to believe does not exist, but those that are of a Christian heritage would ascribe to the demonic world whose torments are best to be delivered from.
Regarding the concern that anthropologists have to preserve primitive cultures, that is total hypocrisy, since they wish to have access to these cultures, but nobody else. After all, if a primitive culture exists that you don’t know exists, it doesn’t matter whether or not they exist. Yet, the obsession with preserving primitive culture as a reference point for where modern culture has gone wrong fails. Margaret Mead used several isolated cultures in Samoa and New Guineas to build an argument for feminism and sexual liberation, an argument that is specious at best by denying what we see in man every day as a depraved person. We build utopian or mythical worlds to escape what we see as evil in our own culture, yet fail to grasp that we are chasing nothing but a fantastical creation of our mind devoid of reality.
In conclusion, the movie is inconsistent and ambiguous enough to make any decisions regarding either cultural judgments or environmental concerns. The movie offers no greater reference point for making any further judgments, either regarding morality or culture. Thus, one must turn elsewhere for these decisions. It is no wonder that The Emerald Forest has not had a lasting impact and no wonder that the environmental movement and anthropology comes across as a touch insincere.

The World’s Greatest Structures

Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity, by Stephen Ressler (Teaching Company) ★★★★
This is a fascinating tour of structures mostly built within the last 100-200 years throughout the world, with an orientation around first bridges, and then buildings. Ressler is a civil engineer, and so the orientation of the course was entirely around the design and mechanical features of bridges and buildings that have allowed for their great length or height. It is a most fascinating story of design failures, learning curves, and serendipitous success.  Ressler is reasonably non-technical, though I wish he would have included at least one lecture on the real mathematics of design–not all of us are science dummies. Ressler has an interesting style of teaching, but is most effective. His personality struck both Betsy and me as a cross between a close friend R.B. and Mr. Know-it-All Bullwinkle Moose. Both Betsy and I enjoyed this lecture set tremendously both because of the topic and the teacher, and recommend it to our friends.

Schubert: The Complete Songs

Schubert: The Complete Songs, with Graham Johnson ★★★★★

This is a fairly long work of 40 CDs representing the complete songs of Franz Schubert. The common aspect of the Hyperion production is the pianist, Graham Johnson. The vocalists are a broad assortment, many quite well-known names, but all being superb in their delivery. The recordings are also completely top-notch. The length makes this a little challenging to listen to all at once, and this is my second time straight through. The brilliance of Schubert as a songwriter is reflected strongly in this production. The song cycles, especially Schwanengesang, are superlative. The entire cost of this set is a royal bargain, worth any classical collection.

Zemlinsky: Choral Works

Zemlinsky: Complete Choral Works and Orchestral Songs, conducted by James Conlon with the Kölner Philharmoniker ★★★★
Zemlinksy was a Viennese contemporary with Mahler, Strauss, and Schoenberg, and acquainted with all of those. Being mixed Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic, he eventually emigrated to NY City in 1938. Unfortunately, his life was always spent in the shadow of his better-known contemporaries. His music resembles a merger of Mahler and Strauss. The EMI performance here is apparently a reissue, as EMI seems to be the only record company that has produced Zemlinsky’s works in depth. He is a worthy composer and most of his works do not deserve the obscurity that they have received. This album will definitely be enjoyed by those who enjoy choral works from the turn of the 20th century Viennese genre.