Friday, March 31, 2006

Rainy Day in L.A.

The blog staggers on. It continues to not die. I've been distracted with too much bullshit lately and haven't been able to devote a lot of time to the OG, which is withering away. Our death series was clearly our weakest series yet. I'm making no promises for April. But it is always fun to choose a new theme, get excited about it, and then fail to follow through, so that's what I'll do now.

Tokyo Stock Exchange

Putting death behind us, the new theme for April is economics. Hooray! I can feel the excitement from you, dear reader, just contemplating the thrilling possibilities. Edgy analyses of the bond market, sexy descriptions of floating currencies, provocative predictions about interest rates. Here's our first tip: consider investing in commodities. Copper and gold are at record highs. What gives? The OG explains in April.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Take Back the House in 2006

The OG's first endorsement for the 2006 Congressional elections is Democrat Diane Farrell of Westport, Connecticut, who is challenging long-term Republican Representative Christopher Shays in Connecticut's Fourth District. Farrell is challenging Shays hard on his continued support for the Administration's misbegotten adventure in Iraq, tapping into discontent and anger among Nutmeggers (like your Octopus):
Calling the Iraq war an "absolute disaster," Democratic congressional challenger Diane Farrell said yesterday the Bush administration and the president's supporters should stop talking about victory and instead be focusing on stability in the country.

Americans should hold U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Bridgeport, and others in Congress who supported the war accountable, Farrell said during a meeting with the editorial board of The Advocate and Greenwich Time.

"We have suffered as a country because there hasn't been proper oversight," Farrell said. "To send Shays back would be to maintain the status quo, and I don't think people in this district want to maintain the status quo."
From Greenwich Times.

Farrell is one of several female Democrats challenging incumbent Republican Representatives this year:
Democratic women are running major campaigns in nearly half of the two dozen most competitive House races where their party hopes to pick up enough Republican seats to regain control of the House. Democratic strategists are betting that the voters' unrest and hunger for change — reflected consistently in public opinion polls — create the perfect conditions for their party's female candidates this year.

"In an environment where people are disgusted with politics in general, who represents clean and change?" asks Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Women."
From NYT.

You go, girlfriend! Do like the Octopus and support Farrell in her bid for Congress.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

More navel gazing

Perhaps as my blog entries grow more sparse they will correspondingly grow more precious. That seems unlikely.

I haven’t had as much time this month as I would’ve liked to discuss death. I guess that’s okay. Some day I’ll have nothing to contemplate but death. – when I’m dead. Or perhaps that’s not right. Perhaps when I’m dead, the only thing I’ll be able to contemplate will be life, what’s gone and irretrievable, etc. That contemplation will in itself be a contemplation of death, I guess. But that can’t be right. Just as with life, there will probably be days during my eternity of death—or at least moments—when I’ll just be living in the moment, so to speak, and contemplating the deathness of death.

I guess the difference is that, with life, the thing is bounded by and literally defined by its oppositional state. Death, however, is that endless sea in which we exist (or don’t) outside of life. Or maybe death is similarly bounded by life. Maybe it’s that thing that can only come into being through life and is defined as the state of coming after that other thing.

Or maybe life doesn’t matter in death, because we’re dead and we don’t exist and don’t remember or worry about anything. Or maybe when we’re dead all we do is painfully relive every moment of life, over and over, probably in front of some sort of judging and vengeful audience. Maybe we’ll have to hear our own annoying voices again, as on an answering machine or camcorder tape, making mistakes, lying, sounding idiotic. Perhaps we'll be forced to read our blog entries again and again. Or maybe the gruesome and embarrassing details of our lives will be cut and pasted together to torment us with dreams that will teach us lessons about ourselves – forever.

Or maybe there’s a large sorting machine that is powered by some kind of infernal brimstone-smelling steam
with lots of steel rollers, rubber conveyor belts, and metal slots, which will take us (whatever we have become), weigh our general goodness or badness against some stainless steel moral measure and sort us accordingly for recycling back into the world of the living -- as a moth, a jaguar, a soccer prodigy, or a flu virus.

Or perhaps everything just stops: the chemical energy of the mind stops running across the wires of the nervous system and becomes inert and things fall apart. The memories evaporate as the molecular structures in which they are stored collapse and our matter is transformed into other states of life or nonlife. Because matter cannot disappear, the material of our memories will still exist, just in some other molecular form, in a beetle’s wing, a morning haze, or an infant’s toenail.

But anyway, I’ll have a few more things to say about death before March goes out like a lamb.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Man, Do I Suck at Basketball

Man, do I suck at basketball. I played with my firm basketball team tonight. I hadn't played in a month and a half or so. A few weeks back, I was in a good groove; I was even doing some deep thinking about my jumpshot. (Just scroll down, I am too tired to link right now.) But anyway, I was worried about my reconstructed-ACL left knee. Work's been crazy hectic and I haven't had time to do the necessary weights to maintain the muscles around the knee. I was a little worried that the whole contraption would snap in two again tonight, so I strapped on my Robocop/Forrest Gump ACL brace.

The thing is made out of space-age plastic and is relatively light, but it sort of slows you down to have a two and a half foot piece of equipment attached to your leg. (Not to mention the way it drastically limits your ability to floss.) Our team was small tonight, so, just for kicks, they had me play center. That was fun. Mostly I tried to effectively foul the other team's big men when they came into the paint. Sadly, I didn't have any occasion to do my finger wave after batting a shot into the stands. I scored no points, but had a couple rebounds, and I think one assist. I was scrappy, though.

I'm looking for some light at the end of my work misery. When it comes, I will work on my game and be able to post more triumphant post-game reports. I may even be able to work my way back to my smaller, more stylish knee brace.

Death Series: Dead Ohio

A short post tonight: visit Dead Ohio and learn about Northeast Ohio's haunted places, legends, and abandoned cemeteries. Don't miss the the haunting tales of the Ashtabula Train Disaster or the very scary Franklin Castle.

Monday, March 13, 2006

From the Print Archive

Deferring death once again . . . .

A new feature here at OG: posts from the Octopus's personal print journal. We used to just scan our written entries, until Mrs. Octopus started scaring us with possible identity theft schemes. As I've mentioned, the OG has maintained written journals pretty much continuously for twelve and a half years or so. This relatively recent post comes out of my current journal. It's from last summer, just after we had taken the bar, when we were looking for a place in Los Angeles and the process was getting me down. It features the OG seething through his very generic strain of hipster angst:
In Echo Park, driniking iced coffee and worrying about several things, but mostly about finding an apartment. Dragging ourselves from miserable to mediocre listings across the Hipster Empire, which surges eastward across Los Feliz, Silverlake, and Echo Park, and crashes up against the glass and gloom of downtown. One gets the sense that this hipster amoeba yearns to ooze around and through new downtown to reach and unite with the lost glory of old downtown. A horrific purple park lies in its path.

We are in a coffee shop called "Chango" on Echo Park Avenue. It's on a short block of fancy hipster boutiques -- a hair salon offering $50 haircuts for men, another offering "mani/pedis" on a menu of "hair/nail" options. In the middle, a bodega that holds on, for now. Just like home on scenic and fabulous Smith Street. Feel no guilt, complain about Bush, vote for John Kerry, pick at your $26 entree, and wake up early to make it to yoga class. We all in this ambitious, envious, and anxious class hate ourselves so much. We hate the compromises we make; we hate that we feel like we have to make those compromises (viz., work to live the lifestyle, etc.); we hate the other people like us with whom we compare ourselves, who make us feel as if we have to be a certain way.

Well, anyway, what I meant to say in the last paragraph is that we are trying to make this "Chango" place feel like the Fall Cafe back on Smith Street -- and it does feature the same slightly cooler-than-thou and supercilious waitstaff, the original self-consciously edgy art on the walls, and a cultivated grunginess.

Time to go look at a very trendy and modern duplex on Cerro Gordo. No doubt we will be among a throng of other wannabes at the audition.
From the Private Journal of Octopus Grigori, July 31, 2005.

We in fact were among a throng of other wannabes at the Cerro Gordo duplex. The very nice and offensively stylish landlords very politely handed us a 10-page application, asking us to explain why they should rent their fabulous apartment to us. We didn't get the place.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Death Series: J. Dilla R.I.P.

I hope you’ve all had a chance to hear the last work of late hip hop producer J. Dilla, who died on February 10, 2006 at age 32.

J. Dilla (born James Yancey) was one of the most respected producrs in hip hop, a leader of Detroit’s hip hop scene who worked with Common, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Kanye West, among others. He completed his final album, “Donuts”, from his hospital bed as he was dying from lupus nephritis. Yancey died three days after its release.

The story of Yancey’s determination to finish his last work is incredibly sad, but beautiful.
It was near the end of summer 2005, and James Yancey was sitting in a hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

He couldn't walk. He could barely talk. And after spending most of the winter and spring in the hospital, receiving treatment for a rare, life-threatening blood disease and other complications, he had been re-admitted.

His body was killing him, and little could be done about it.

It was a grim prognosis, but it wasn't deterring him from tinkering with his electronic drum machine.

In the sterile white hospital room, the tools of his trade surrounded him: turntables, headphones, crates of records, a sampler, his drum machine and a computer, stuff his mother and friends from L.A.-based record label Stones Throw had lugged to his hospital room. Sometimes his doctor would listen to the beats through Yancey's headphones, getting a hip-hop education from one of the best in the business.

Yancey tampered with his equipment until his hands swelled so much he could barely move them. When the pain was too intense, he'd take a break. His mother massaged his fingertips until the bones stopped aching.

Then he'd go back to work. Sometimes he'd wake her up in the middle of the night, asking to be moved from his bed to a nearby reclining chair so he could layer more hard-hitting beats atop spacey synths or other sampled sounds, his creations stored on computer. Yancey told his doctor he was proud of the work, and that all he wanted to do was finish the album.

Before September ended, he'd completed all but two songs for "Donuts," a disc that hit stores on Feb. 7, his 32nd birthday.

Three days after its release, he died.
From “The Last Days of Jay Dee”, Detroit Free Press.

The songs on the J. Dilla’s final album are fantastic, layered, visionary. All of the tracks, though, are incomplete: each ends with a rough, abrupt cut. Yancey knew he was dying, and he put together these final tracks ("Bye", "One for Ghost", "Last Donut of the Night", "Don't Cry") are his farewell to the world. Rest in peace, J. Dilla.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Death Series: Edgar Allan Poe

Some of our OG fans may have slight death fixations. But we know for sure that Edgar Allan Poe had a doozie of a death fixation. It was his constant theme
To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes that has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it was frequently, very frequently, so fallen, will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely suspensions, properly so called. They are only temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism. A certain period elapses, and some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But where, meantime, was the soul?

[Poe goes on to describe a case of premature burial.]

The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term, it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus;--but, alas! How fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door. As its portals swung outwardly back, some white appareled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmouldered shroud.

A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her intombment—that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf, to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation. On the uppermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber, was a large fragment of the coffin, with which it seemed that she had endeavored to arrest attention, by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and in falling, her shroud became entangled in some iron work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial” (1844).

Poe’s obsession bled easily into the realm of necrophilia, especially in stories such as “Morella”, “Berenice”, and “Ligeia”, all of which deal with one of Poe’s very favorite topics: the death of a beautiful woman. He called this subject “the most poetical topic in the world.” We promise a fuller discussion of sex and death in a later post. We promise. It will be good. Full of sex and death and many petit morts.

Poe himself died under bizarre circumstances, deliriously wandering the streets of Baltimore, in clothes that were not his own, muttering the name “Reynolds”.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Brief Respite from Bummer Theme

We're now just a few weeks shy of six months here in L.A. I still haven't registered my car and gotten California plates; I've been driving around with my old Connecticut plates. I get the sense that the CT plates cause everyone driving behind me to think I'm some rube.

Anyhow, a few Saturdays ago I did get the smog check required for California registration from a nice Armenian guy in Little Armenia: the Intrepid passed. This past Saturday, I got my 3000 mile oil and filter change. I generally pass my weekends in this manner, ministering to my car. I am, however, proud to say that my car has not had one car wash since we've been in L.A. The Intrepid is thoroughly smeared with bird shit and L.A. funk: I may be driving around a giant H5N1 petri dish.

So, Koreatown is really huge. It's like being in Korea. I like Koreatown. I wish the people there liked me a little more. But, anyway, tonight was our first gook soo experience, at, appropriately, Ma Dang Gook Soo:
Gook soo, especially as interpreted here, is a marvelous thing, flat and slightly stretchy, about the size of fettuccine but more fragile somehow, knife-cut from a thin sheet of rolled dough. The basic gook soo here -- identified on the menu as "handmade noodle" -- is served in a broth based on dried anchovies, clear and slightly earthy, garnished with seaweed, kimchi or bits of meat, concealing a few chunks of boiled potato, and adding a presence, a depth, to the noodles, which seem almost to melt into it.
Jonathan Gold, Counter Intelligence.

I think I like gook soo better than soba, which is saying something for me. One of my favorite restaurants back in New York was Sobaya in the East Village; that place was always packed with hipsters and the soba was mighty tasty. But it was a bit too hip and happening for my tastes. The interior was very chic. Not as chic as the super high-end, offensively stylish Honmura An soba place, but still very chic. Ma Dang Gook Soo is in a mini mall and has a big plastic sign next to the register that says "CASH ONLY". There is a big fat beige pay phone on the front counter, just like the ones in Korea. A large faded photo on one wall shows a village at dawn or dusk, with chickens wandering across paths. Above the front counter are rows of faded but clean square photos of various noodle dishes, all against a teal blue background. They are not backlit. It is a cozy, homey place. And on this cold, rainy night, the milky, earthy anchovy gook soo broth was just the thing to comfort me and help me forget the wet, soulless streets outside. I felt like I was in a place where chickens could walk around in peace, until they were put into the gook soo pot. The broth and the flat, thick noodles were much heartier than soba--simpler, and appealingly plain. I know I am making too much of the surroundings in which I had the gook soo compared to the soba shops, but the distinction seemed clear. Anyway, I have a new favorite noodle.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Death Series: Life Insurance

I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, which used to be called -- and, as far as I know, still is called -- the Insurance Capital of the World. The engine of Hartford and its insurance industry is the power of actuarial science. Armies of actuaries crunch away at probabilities every day in Hartford, determining exactly how much the insurers must demand in premiums for various categories of individuals, sorted by age, health, lifestyle, and travel habits, among other things. On the day I was born in Hartford, an actuary down the street could've consulted a mortality table and read off my odds of dying at 25, my odds of dying at 65, etc. With each passing year, with the steady accumulation of medical and lifestyle history, the actuary's prediction becomes more and more precise, until virtually guaranteed.
The insurer (i.e., life insurance company) prices the policies with an intent to recover claims to be paid and administrative costs, and to make a profit.

Claims to be paid are determined by actuaries using mortality tables. Actuaries are professionals who use actuarial science which is based in mathematics (primarily probability and statistics). Mortality tables are statistically based tables showing average life expectancies. Normally, the only three considerations in a mortality table are the insured's age, gender, and whether they use tobacco. The current mortality table being used by life insurance companies in the United States and their regulators was calculated during the 1980s. There is currently a measure being pushed to update the mortality tables by 2006.

The current mortality table assumes that roughly 2 in 1000 people aged 25 will die during the term of coverage. This number rises roughly quadratically to about 25 in 1000 people for those aged 65. So in a group of one thousand 25 year old males with a $100,000 policy, a life insurance company would have to, at the minimum, collect $200 a year from each of the thousand people to cover the expected claims.

The insurance company receives the premiums from the policy owner and invests them, using the time value of money and compound return principles to create a pool of money from which to invest, pay claims, and finance the insurance company's operations. Despite popular belief, the majority of the money that insurance companies make comes directly from premiums paid, as money gained through investment of premiums will never, in even the most ideal market conditions, vest enough money per year to pay out claims. Rates charged for life insurance are sensitive to the insured's age because statistically, an insured person is more likely to pass away and trigger a claim as they get older.

Since adverse selection can have a negative impact on the financial results of the insurer, the insurer investigates each proposed insured (unless the policy is below a company-established de minimis amount) beginning with the application, which becomes part of the policy. Group Insurance policies are an exception.

This investigation and resulting evaluation of the risk is called underwriting. Health and life style questions are asked, answered, and dutifully recorded. Certain responses by the insured will be given further investigation. Life insurance companies in the United States support The Medical Information Bureau, which is a clearinghouse of medical information on all persons who have ever applied for life insurance. As part of the application, the insurer receives permission to obtain information from the proposed insured's physicians.

Life insurance companies are never required by law to underwrite or to provide coverage on anyone. They alone determine insurability, and some people, for their own health or lifestyle reasons, are uninsurable. The policy can be declined (turned down) or rated. Rating means increasing the premiums to provide for additional risks relative to that particular insured discovered in the underwriting process.

Many companies use four general health categories for those evaluated for a life insurance policy. A proposed insured can move down the scale easily, but moving up the scale is difficult if at all possible. These categories are Preferred Best, Preferred, Standard, and Tobacco. Preferred Best means that the proposed insured has no adverse medical history, are not under medication for any condition, and his family (immediate and extended) have no history of early cancer, diabetes, or other conditions. Preferred is like Preferred Best, but it allows that the proposed insured is currently under medication for the condition and may have some family history. Standard is where most people fall, allowing for everybody who doesn't fall under the previous tiers. Profession, travel, and lifestyle also factor into not only which category the proposed insured falls, but also whether the proposed insured will be denied a policy. For example, a person who would otherwise fall under the Preferred Best category will be denied a policy if he or she is employed in or makes regular travel to a high risk country.
From Wikipedia at Life Insurance.

I've always found the foundation of Hartford's industry on mathematicians working out probabilities fascinating: in some ways, Hartford is the bizarro twin of Las Vegas. The life insurance industry makes its money playing the odds; the insurers rely on their actuaries to figure the odds of their insureds dying early, determining who is a good bet, how much to wager, how much security to demand. The insurance industry thrives when it bets well, when it has got the odds covered.

It is interesting to note that the insurance industry in general has a vested interest in people living healthy lives and not getting into accidents. They make money when everyone lives a long, healthy, happy life. (I wonder if they spend a lot of money to help people do so.) The odd thing about life insurance is, of course, that it works out in the insured's favor only if the insured meets an untimely end. Of course, insurance agents don't want us to think of it that way.
"People often say, 'When I buy life insurance I'm betting against myself.' That's the worst expression I've ever heard," Evans says. "When you purchase insurance, you're betting you'll live but providing an assurance in case you're wrong."
From Basics of Life Insurance.