Yandex Probki

Keith Gessen has an interesting article about Moscow’s horrible traffic, Letter from Moscow, “Stuck,” in The New Yorker (August 2, 2010, p. 24).

Among other things, he describes Yandex Probki (Яндекс.Карты), an excellent example of a user-created map, which shows Moscow traffic patterns in real time. The site’s content comes, not from webcams or pavement sensors, neither of which would both practical there, but from GPS-enabled smartphones. Users send in descriptions from their own situations.

You can get a sense of the site from this video below, but you can also explore the map itself and get a sense of the enormity of the traffic jams, even if you don’t read Russian.

The Irony of Fate

When Stephen lived in St. Petersburg, he learned about the Russian classic movie, Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! (Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom!; The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy your Bath!) and bought us a dvd of it.

I watched that and also the sequel, Ирония судьбы: Продолжение (Ironiya sudby 2; The Irony of Fate 2). In the sequel, the original actors continue the story, now 30 years later. Can you think of any other movies in which the story line continues that long, with the actors aging naturally?

The movie is a sad love story, but also a farce, with slapstick, rampant misunderstandings, demonstrations of the limits of logic, and still, strikingly honest and insightful comments on the human condition. It shows some of the best and worst of Russia.

It’s easy to understand why watching Ironiya sudby has become a New Year’s Eve tradition in Russia. We followed that tradition here in two parts, the first on New Year’s Day and the second last night. In between, Emily and Stephen prepared a special Russian dinner, including borscht, salade Olivier, and blinis with herring, salmon, onions, and creamed butter.

Zhenya and Nadya were the same as always. He’s 36, a talented surgeon, but nerdy and shy. It’s not clear where his life is going next or what he wants to commit to doing. Nadya is a literature teacher, beautiful, but also somewhat shy and unsure of herself. Together with Galya and Ippolit they stumble through a bizarre, yet oddly-believable, sequence of events in which they learn what matters most.

If you were to hear the plot ahead of time, you’d not only lose some of the fun, but you might wrongly conclude that it’s contrived and silly. Instead, that plot becomes a muted background, which the viewer quickly catches onto. It then serves like the click-clack of a train (here, the faceless architecture of the Brezhnev era), with the real action going on inside the railroad cars.

I especially like the guitar-accompanied songs, which are based on poems by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, and others. They fit with the story, and they’re sung in full.

See additional posts of mine on movies.

Single-payer health care: Why not?

180px-Roma_-_FatebenefratelliI’ve been fortunate to have traveled many places, and to have lived for extended periods in China, Australia, France, and Ireland. During those travels, my family has received health care on many occasions, including for our small children in China and Asutralia, my wife in Scotland, and my 87-year-old mother in Ireland.

This health care has come in a variety of forms, including treatment for my ten-year-old daughter’s eyes at the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God or Fatebenefratelli (see left), located on San Bartolomeo, the only island in the Tiber River in Rome. That hospital was built in 1584 on the site of the Aesculapius temple.

clontarfWe also faced emergency surgery for my mother’s hip at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, Ireland and subsequent rehab at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Ireland in Clontarf (right). In China, we were served in medical facilities with separate queues for Western medicine (our choice) and traditional Chinese medicine (below left). I donated blood many times at the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, founded in 651 on the Ile de la Cité (below right). I’ve also observed, though not had to depend upon, health care in Russia and even in economically oppressed places such as Haiti.

beida_hospitalOn the whole, I’ve received excellent care in a variety of conditions. Individual health providers have been courteous, knowledgeable, and dedicated to their professions. For myself and my family, the experience of care did not depend on the setting or language, but rather on the ailment or the specific people providing care.

And yet, one thing stands out: Among the industrialized nations, the United States is the only one without universal health care. All of the others provide health care for all. They also do it primarily through single-payer systems.

The United States operates instead through a complex bureaucracy of insurance policies, doughnut hole prescription drug coverage, forms and regulations galore, massive administration, unnecessary and excessive procedures, complex and confusing tax codes, leading to escalating costs and unfair coverage. The inequity of care actually costs all of us more in the end, because of lack of preventative care, inefficient delivery (e.g., emergency rooms), and lost productivity. Our system costs much more, even double that found in other countries.

hotel_dieuIf we were to find that spending a few dollars more gave us better care, there might be little room for argument. But in comparable economies, people spend much less, yet have longer, healthier lives (American Health Care: A System to Die For: Health Care for All). Why then, is the system that works in Canada, Japan, Europe, Australia, etc., not even under consideration here?

The answer is unfortunately all too obvious: Americans, unlike citizens in other countries, have ceded control of their own health care to profit-making insurance companies, hospitals, clinics, laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, and other entities. The best we can do is an occasional feeble cheer when someone asks why our government can’t even consider a single-payer system. Then we listen to an answer that mostly obfuscates and lays the blame for it back on our own timidity:

Yale Russian Chorus tours Quebec

My son, Stephen, writes this about the Yale Russian Chorus tour in Quebec:

In March 2009 the Yale Russian Chorus went on tour to Quebec. We sang at a variety of venues, including Laval University in Quebec City and both Francophone and Anglophone retirement homes in Montreal. The contacts we had made with the Russian Orthodox community in Montreal allowed us to end our tour with an exciting concert at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. We stayed for most of the tour at the house of Paul and Sandy Gauthier, whom my family had met on our sabbatical to China.

To publicize these events, we had the privilege of appearing on Radio-Canada twice. The first was an interview I did over the phone to advertise our first concert, at St. Elizabeth Catholic church in North Hatley.

Halfway through our stay in Montreal, we drove to the CBC/Radio-Canada building in Montreal to appear on the morning show “C’est bien meilleur le matin”. After discussing the history of the Russian Chorus with the host, Franco Nuovo (and surmising possible connections to the CIA), I rejoined the group to sing our version of the Russian folk song “Po moriam, po volnam” (Across the seas, across the waves)

“The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun”

I walk by a wonderful video rental store, called That’s Rentertainment, on my way to and from work. It has an amazing collection of foreign and independent films, anime, TV, and documentaries, as well as knowledgeable staff. The prices are good, too, so it often makes sense to take a chance on a movie I’ve never heard about before. One of these was director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s, The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun (Slottet, or The Castle in Danish).

The description won’t appeal to everyone, and at times it may seem slow or disjointed. But it’s an unexpectedly good movie.

The true story is about Jørgen Laursen Vig, who lives alone in the derelict Hesbjerg Castle near Odense. His lifelong dream has been to create a monastery. Nearing the end of his life he turns to Russia and invites the Russian Patriarchate to use his castle as the site. They send Nun Amvrosija and a few others to assess the situation and begin the process of creating the monastery. As anyone might suspect, there are good intentions in the beginning, but problems arise as it becomes more a reality.

Through these events the film explores friendship, and what Allan Berg Nielsen describes in an excellent essay as The Manifold Nature of Love. It’s about life dreams, loss, and the challenge of opening up to others. Grønkjær (see photo), the director, is the interviewer, and becomes entwined at times in these questions.

At one point, Vig becomes frustrated with Nun Amvrosija. They argue about trivial things, while not addressing the larger issues. Perhaps he feels he’s losing control of the project. Referring to her, he says:

Vig: It’s hard to argue with people who are always right. Who don’t …
Grønkjær (interviewing): What if she came here just as much for you as for the monastery?
Vig: For me? I don’t know how to react to that. It’s the project we’re talking about, not me. Because that’s not what is needed.

A little later he grows discouraged, and puzzled:

Vig: I can’t solve all the problems.
Grønkjær: It’s not a problem, Vig.
Vig: Perhaps they’re problems you women have.
Grønkjær: We haven’t any problems.
Vig: You have feelings, or whatever. Things like that are not my business. I stay out of it.

That excerpt suggests the movies is about gender. It is, but one could also say that it’s about age, religion, nationality, language, and more than anything, about people trying to come together about things they both want, but struggle to achieve.

Nun Amvrosija writes to Mr. Vig:

Dear Mr. Vig, We were together for almost five years. We were very different, yet we were doing the same thing. We often disagreed with each other. But the Lord directs everything in His wisdom. Our Lord laid this gift in your hands. A gift which I believe opened the gates of paradise to you. I wish for the kingdom of heaven and eternal peace. Dear Mr. Vig, servant of Our Lord.

Vig is not only a fascinating character in the movie, but must have been throughout his life as well. See his East-West Seminar at Hesbjerg, 1995.

Today the monastery is run by Nun Amvrosija. A Russian Orthodox priest comes from Copenhagen to carry out the services. The Russian Patriarchate and the Hesbjerg Foundation now set the future plans for the monastery.