Recording of the Week : The Soul of Tango

April 19, 2010

Astor Piazzolla was born in Argentina in 1921 to Italian parents.He grew up in New York City. As a child he heard both jazz and Bach. He also learned to play the bandoneon while in America. When he was 16 he returned to Argentina where he routinely played in the tango clubs of Buenos Aires. In 1954 he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.

Fluent in Spanish, Italian, English, and French he was equally versed in jazz, European classical music, and the tango. The result was a synthesis of all these styles that resulted in a unique idiom. Once you’ve heard Piazzolla’s music it stays in you head and you can readily identify anything he wrote.

His transformation of the tango into something new was initially met with resistance by his countrymen. His first success was in Europe and North America. But genius eventually wins out and he won over his compatriots. His music is typically written for five instruments – bandoneon, violin, piano, bass, and electric guitar. The tango is the foundation on which he builds his music, but jazz is often melded with it particularly in his piano writing. The influence of Bach is strongly felt by the intricate use of counterpoint in his writing.

The Soul of Tango is a two disc set that contains an excellent representation of Piazzolla’s music and development. The recordings were made in performance. They are outstanding as is the sound reproduction. Libertango was written when the composer was living in Rome in the 1970s. The influence of jazz is obvious in this piece. It is characteristic of his mature style.

This album is available on disc or by direct download. It’s well worth having for both those unfamiliar with Piazzolla’s music as well as those already aficionados of the Argentine composer and performer.  Piazzolla is clearly one of the 20th century’s finest composers. His voice is unique.

He died in 1992 following an incapacitating stroke in 1990.

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Massachusetts Health Insurance Fiasco

April 12, 2010

There hasn’t been a lot of news coverage about what’s going on in the Bay State – draw your own conclusion why – but the state’s universal health insurance program is collapsing. There are only a handful of health insurance companies in Massachusetts and they’re all not for profits – no evil malefactors of wealth here. They lost money in 2009. They want to raise their premiums. The governor says no. They say without an increase the won’t be able to offer new policies. The governor has ordered them to write new policies at last years rates. The companies have brought an emergency suit to be heard today. Briefly put Governor Patrick wants his state’s insurance companies to operate at a loss. His advisers may have gone to Harvard Business School.

Massachusetts is, of course, the canary in the medical mine. It’s a miniature of what’s headed to the other 49 states. The many mandates the state has placed on the insurance companies among which is the coverage of people with pre-existing conditions has driven up costs, delayed access to physicians, and in general created medical mayhem. Mitt Romney under whose administration the plan was enacted will doubtless have the serpent on the caduceus come to life and bite him as he campaigns for the republican party’s presidential nomination.

Everyone in the country should follow this dismal tale as it unfolds. In four scant years, universal health insurance in Massachusetts has caused lines at primary care doctors’ offices, inflated costs, resulted in price controls, and threatened insurance providers with insolvency. People are gaming the system by buying “insurance” when they sicken and then dropping it soon after. Oh, I almost forgot to mention this  –  health insurance premiums in Massachusetts are the highest in the country.

Addendum: “Suffolk Superior Court Judge Stephen E. Neel today denied a request by six health insurers to allow them to implement double-digit premium rate increases for tens of thousands of small businesses and individuals.” What happens next is easy to predict.

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Income of Men and Women in the Life Sciences

April 4, 2010

A paper published in this month’s issue of Academic Medicine is getting a lot of attention. Well, a lot for a paper published in a journal which rarely gets a glance from anyone not immersed in the minutia of medical education. Appearing under the section Gender Studies, Activities, Productivity, and Compensation of Men and Women in the Life Sciences examines  the pay of men and women who are faculty (PhD’s and MD’s) in medical schools; it also discusses other issues that I will not comment on here. The mere fact of its publication tells you its conclusion: “A substantial salary gap still exists between men and women that cannot be explained by productivity or other professional factors.” The word “sexist” which had been avoided throughout the paper finally sneaks into its last paragraph.

The study deserves scrutiny before accepting its conclusion. To begin with it’s a mail survey which of course is a big limitation. The response rate to this mailing was quite high – 74%. “In 2007, the authors conducted a mailed survey of 3,080 life sciences faculty at the 50 universities whose medical schools received the greatest amount of National Institutes of Health funding in 2004.” [Quotation from the paper’s abstract] The details of how the participants were selected as well as the other methods used in analyzing the data are described in the paper linked above which is available to anyone interested.

But let’s ignore the limitations of this kind of survey and see if the data it presents are adequate to justify the conclusion quoted above. To start with the study didn’t have that many women in it. Of the 2168 respondents only 593 were women. This disparity is by itself enough to cast some doubt on its finding. Furthermore, in order to preserve anonymity the survey did not ask information about department or specialty. This is a big problem because different specialties in medicine command very different incomes.

An interesting finding of the study was that young male medical faculty (assistant professors) worked longer hours than their female contemporaries. They also spent more time on research. Success in academic medicine is largely the result of success in research. If you’re spending more time on research as a young faculty member you’re more likely to be successful later on. The authors try to account for all the disparate variables and make this statement: “After control for all independent variables, female faculty members reported salaries that were, on average, $13,228 lower than those of comparable males (P< .001).” I don’t know how they were able to make all these adjustments because it’s astonishingly difficult to do. But even if they were able to accomplish this feat the study is most notable for what’s not in it.

There is no mention of marital status or of children in this study. It’s been known for about a century that single white women earn about the same as men. I’ve posted below Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2008 compiled by the Department of Labor. The data in this report show that never married women have an income 94% of that of men. If you were to look at white never married women there would be no disparity at all. What I’m trying to get at is the effect of gender on income independent of anything else that might be responsible for a difference.

What appears to be in force here is biology – not a biological difference between the sexes in capacity but a difference that both biology and habit impose on family life which in turn affects a wife’s income. It’s no surprise that the burden of family life falls disproportionally on women. Pregnancy, the care of young children, the care of a husband, the raising of children all negatively affect a woman’s income. This is not to say that women take a financial hit when they marry – family income may be much greater than if the woman had remained single, but the income she earns under her own name is typically less than had she remained single.

As I mentioned above there is no information about the marital status and family structure of the women faculty members who responded to this survey. If these factors had been considered it is possible, perhaps likely, that no disparity in income would have been found after correcting for these variables. Absent such an analysis I don’t think that this study can be used to argue that there is some hidden force which is lowering the salaries of women faculty in medical schools. Certainly until more information supporting a real difference in the income of women faculty members is presented I would not invoke some nefarious mechanism. No study of women’s salaries can be complete and really useful that ignores the most important variable that affects women’s income – marital status.

Largely because of family responsibilities, women physicians concentrate on those specialties that give regular hours and more easily allow them to both practice their professions while attending to the needs of their families. These are family practice, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics,and dermatology. Excepting dermatology, these specialties do not pay as much as those that are more demanding of time such as trauma surgery or invasive cardiology. Women physicians and PhD scientists also are much more likely to take a break of several years from their practices. Their choice doubtless give them more personal satisfaction, but inevitably reduces their incomes.

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Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2008 Start at page 9 or put “never” into the search field.