Archive for December, 2002

The Thinker

How to make the perfect human

I just got back from Hawaii and I am still decompressing. Or rather I am compressing since in Hawaii the whole point is to decompress. Certainly losing five hours from my day yesterday from jet lag is compressing my day in a very real sense. So it’s welcome back to cold and snow. It was nice to leave our hotel and never have to worry about having to wear a sweater.

There is a lot about my vacation that I will document elsewhere. But having returned from Hawaii (my first visit) I have been wondering about how environment effects behavior. I am sure Hawaii has its share of narrow minded and obnoxious people, but I didn’t encounter any of them. Perhaps there is something about living in a beautiful spot that makes for nicer people naturally.

Now it could be something about spending most of my time in tourist areas. Maybe in order to get a job in Waikiki, for example, you must past a rigorous test where you must prove can smile all the time as if you mean it and you don’t know an unpleasant word. But I don’t think so. I think it really is environmental. There are the five big islands and that’s about it. To get back into the madness of the rest of the world requires a 2500-mile flight. Looking out your window every day is a treat: blue skies, seas full of the deepest blue, aquamarines and green, temperatures that rarely get below 70 or above 90, rainbows … what is there not to like?

Clearly Honolulu and its vicinities have its share of urban woes. Housing is costly, and locals often work 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. Traffic on H-1 can be a bear during rush hour. There are lots of dead end jobs. I thought about the lady at the parking garage working the midnight shift on Christmas. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Mood is infectious. We spoke with hundreds of service workers and locals over the course of those nine days and they were all not just pleasant but happy and genuinely glad to talk to us.

It’s the way it should be perhaps. It’s perhaps as close as we are going to get to a true Garden of Eden here on Earth, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. How did things go wrong for the rest of us? Or what happened on Hawaii to make things right? And how do we replicate it to make the rest of our world a more peaceful, loving and friendly place?

Hawaii: mahalo and aloha. I will be back!

 
The Thinker

Intimations of Immortality

A few entries back I mentioned my pal Lisa’s recent experience with a psychic. I’m still waiting for the full report, which I am sure I will get in time. While ruminating on the subject though I’d thought I’d throw out a few of my own observations in the course of life that have made me curious about things metaphysical.

My friend Frank Pierce some years ago told me “No one ever worries about what they were before they were conceived. We only dwell on what comes after death, if anything.” This is really an excellent observation because it captures the nature of the problem. Life is really about living. Our challenge is to live it.

Many of you have no doubt seen “The Matrix”. I was struck by the scene where the protagonist wakes, as if from a dream, to find he actually exists in some soupy pod a century hence and is being used by machines that control the planet and enslave people. His perceived reality is, in fact, a simulation. As a child I often wondered if every time I moved the world was completely redrawn. While I no longer hold that as a viable notion I think there is perhaps something to this idea that our existence is in fact a complex form of virtual reality. We are in a game, or experience, that concludes with death.

It is interesting how all the major religions pretty much echo this same notion. Most religions would not call life a game, but they would say something that how one lives it and how one interacts with others determines one’s soul growth.

I have ruminated on what makes things genuine for me and I have determined that the only thing genuine is what I feel (or experience). What and how I experience may not be real in fact. But this notion is an axiom of my life: an article of faith. The alternative is that feelings are not genuine.

Most of us have had experiences of deja-vu in our lives. I get them about twice a year. Sometimes they are mild, but sometimes they are very powerful. My most powerful experience occurred in 1987 when I went to work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I arrived at work on my first day to be shown the room I would work in and I had deja vu. I had never seen the room before I had been there. But it was all in my memory already, right down to the railroad tracks outside my window and the smoke belching from the nearby tunnel. The desk, the computer, the stuff on the wall … it snapped into place like a puzzle piece.

Scientists and those of a rational bent like to tell us our minds play tricks on us at these times: it’s all some weird neuron firing thing. But I don’t believe it anymore. It felt real so for me it was real. So watching The Matrix in a way gave me the same sort of feeling … not that I remember seeing the Matrix before I saw it, but the feeling that life maybe wasn’t as linear as I thought.

I think life may well be more like a disk drive than a tape drive. Occasionally you can move the read/write head and “move outside the time stream”. I’m speculating but perhaps this happens in deep sleep. Anyhow either I am deluding myself or I’m onto something here.

If time is an illusion then perhaps death doesn’t mean anything either. Maybe our existence is defined by the time stream that is our life and we wander endlessly back and forth between conception and death. Or perhaps the time stream goes before conception and after death and we are either immortal or live many, many lives.

My mother is 82 and feeling her mortality. She doesn’t like being her oldest surviving sibling. Who can blame her? I’m likely to feel the same way in time, if I live so long. But I remember her often remarking that she looks in the mirror and her body is so old, but her mind still feels so youthful. Maybe that too is a clue. The body is an illusion of sorts, and neither lasting nor wholly genuine. And if one can feel that truth perhaps aging can be less traumatic.

Based purely on how I feel on a gut level I am much more inclined now to believe in reincarnation. I’m not quite sure why I am here. If I am here on a mission it’s not obvious to me what it is supposed to be. Maybe life truly is a gift and it is ours to enjoy as we see fit.

I leave with my family tomorrow for Hawaii. So this web log will likely be blank until we get back, hopefully on December 30th. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

 
The Thinker

Let’s keep doing more with less and less!

This is going to win me no friends on Capitol Hill, or in the White House for that matter. But isn’t it time we civil servants said “Enough with the downsizing crap!”?

I’m sick of it. Our agency is going through another one of its politically required processes to bring the number of federal employees down, down. Fortunately no one has been laid off (to my knowledge), perhaps because there are so few of us still around to actually do the government’s business. Anyhow there were “early outs” recently and it doesn’t take an abacus to figure out that this trend is going to continue until I find it worth my while to take an early out too. Since I am 45 though I would hope it wouldn’t be too soon.

But the real problem is that it’s all a numbers game. Guess what … the work load keeps increasing! Yes, fewer and fewer of us “federal staff” are expected to do more and more managing of tasks, and yet it’s not always true that we have the skill to manage the diverse stuff thrown at us. Working as a fed in my agency is like juggling balls without having any training. Okay you are doing two, now do three without even stopping. Now four! Five!

Guess what happens: less and less actually gets done. When you juggle lots of balls you have less opportunity to actually complete anything because you fight fires instead of trying to manage the big picture. So things keep getting delayed and delayed and guess what: that’s not really serving the public interest.

True we have contractors. In my office the contractors outnumber the federal staff about 5:1. It’s gotten to the point (actually it’s been this way for several years) that contractors are effectively doing things that should never be delegated to them, like making decisions on how to conduct the government’s business! There is simply no other way to do it other than to say “we can’t do it” and no one in the chain of command is capable of having spine like this.

Meanwhile middle management, who shall remain nameless but know who they are, are imploring us NOT TO QUIT. Their worst fear is that some other federal agency will hire us away. They know our slots won’t be renewed if we leave and that means even fewer people to do more and more.

It’s a vicious cycle to the bottom. Who’s at fault here? Why your leaders, of course. It’s a numbers game and has no basis in reality. What is the effect? Government is costing you more. It takes longer to do stuff and because contractors are doing the work instead of feds it costs more.

But I know you bought that soap Rush Limbaugh puts out about how “efficient” the private sector is. Yeah, right. Admittedly a federal employee comes with some long term costs: like pensions and stuff. But a GS-13 might cost, max, $50 an hour to the federal government with benefits. I can’t get into specifics here but I can tell you that contractors bill more than that per hour for the most junior level computer programmers. I know this for a fact. The same stuff I did as a GS-9 costs the government more than a fully loaded GS-13!

But you are afraid once a federal employee is hired they are hired for life? Well change the civil service law, dammit. I’m okay with making it easier to fire those of us who truly aren’t earning their salary, but the number is far smaller than people think. Otherwise a federal employee is a bargain compared to a contractor, unless perhaps we are talking about someone hired to clean restroom stalls.

Your tax money is being wasted by this politically correct nonsense. You should be up in arms.

 
The Thinker

Psychics

My pal Lisa’s recent experiences with a psychic (which hopefully she will elaborate some time on her blog Snarkypants) was rather interesting. I am by nature a skeptic (that’s why I call this place Occam’s Razor) but on the other hand if what she told me is accurate, and I’m sure it is, the simplest explanation is to believe that there are people with genuine psychic ability and that some part of our personality does manifest itself as energy after death.

This is not a comfortable thought to most of us Hamills, at least my siblings and I. Schooled in the fine scientific method we are skeptical of anything metaphysical. We are a fine bunch of classic skeptics, but this gives me pause.

A medium who can touch a card where you wrote down some names and never see the names and start naming names and telling you things about them from the afterlife is either truly psychic or a mind reader. Personally I am very disturbed that someone could read my mind and my own private thoughts. When I imagine the complexity of doing something like that I have to think that it is simpler just to accept that this psychic truly is one.

Now I’ve watched TV psychics. John Edward really seems convincing, until I read stuff online that says his tapings take six hours and is edited down to take out the false readings and show only those things that click. And of course people in general are pretty suggestable going into these things. So I’m skeptical about John Edward even though I like watching his show when I see it … I don’t go out of my way though.

Someday I’ll have to try out a psychic for myself I guess and make my own conclusions. But Lisa is neither a flake nor suggestable. I can’t discount her experience.

I have been doing a fair amount of metaphysical reading though. I’ll describe this in more detail sometime later in this blog. Sifting through it is tough and finding kernels of truth is even tougher. One can certainly understand that as people age and death becomes less of an abstraction that they would become more interested in the stuff, and that is probably as true for me as it was for Harry Houdini. My mind does seem to rebel at the notion that someday I will no longer exist in some form whatsoever. Perhaps I exist, therefore I am, is not an unreasonable hypothesis and if by believing you do you in fact always do exist in some form.

In any event while I can’t claim to be a biophysicist I have learned that energy is never destroyed, it merely changes state over time. Is it that unreasonable to think that if water can be in many forms (gas, liquid and solid) that my energy (or soul if you will) can exist in many forms too? For now perhaps it is in a human form and perhaps at death I will move into yet another form, much like ice changing to water.

And that would raise the question of why are we here, which I will ruminate on in a future blog entry.

 
The Thinker

Ruminations on community colleges

Schools out! I teach a class in Web Page Design at Northern Virginia Community College and I gave the final exam today. Just as well because we are off to Hawaii on the 20th.

This is the fifth time I’ve taught a course and the fourth time I’ve teached this particular course. My students are a mixture of folk from all walks of life and all ages. I’ve taught people pushing 60, and one 16 year old kid. There are a fair number of immigrant types, housewives, working people and a number of people who have all the degrees they need and just audit the course.

But the pattern is about the same every semester. Things always start off well but invariably over the course of a semester about a third of the class will withdraw or drop out. There are students who show up for maybe one class and then stop coming and don’t care if they get an F in the class. There are a lot of students who it would seem don’t understand that this is a college course. Some seem to think it is still high school, or even grade school, because they consider reading and homework optional. If they can’t gleem the information from the slides I present and labs in class then too bad … even if they pay a grade penalty.

When I first started teaching I thought community colleges had a reputation of being a place where you get an easy grade. My mentor assured me that was not the case and I had to stick to my standards. I do. But it is discouraging to see how many students just done seem to care, or don’t understand that a course requires time and commitment. Has it always been this way and I never noticed? I am discouraged about the future of our work force.

Not that teaching doesn’t have its good times, but there are a lot of discouraging times. Nonetheless I keep at it because, frankly, it’s fun and it’s much more interesting than the sort of stuff I do for my primary paycheck. And it forces me to keep up with technology I would probably not apply in practice at work where I do project management.

I don’t think my course is all that hard. It’s by no means easy but compared to the courses I took in college it’s about average. Nonetheless I have a reputation of being a “hard” instructor. A’s are not a given. I feel grades should mean something and usually an A in my class does mean something … students have a real good grasp of the content I was teaching.

I mean my class is not half as hard as the least difficult course I took in grad school. And I realize I know the material and it’s largely new to my class.

Many are called to try college, but fewer seemed to be willing to invest the time it takes to earn a grade that demonstrates you understand the topic. That’s discouraging.

 
The Thinker

My very own blog

I guess it’s time to share my opinions with the world. Not that I haven’t been doing that already. I share lots of opinions, mostly to captive audiences like family and members of my email lists, or people on my forum. But until now I had no way to reach the larger public out there … the sort of sit around in their underpants eating oatmeal while watching reruns of Barney … but now I have! And hopefully this is a good thing.

So it’s time I give this medium a try. If it works for my pal Lisa and she gets such joy out of it, maybe I will too.

Your guess as to what will appear here is as good as mine. I’m just a 45 year old guy living in suburbia, doing software engineering and project management for Club Fed (the federal government). But there should be enough to keep me stimulated and continue writing here because in many ways I live an out of place existence. I’m a liberal in a community up to its eyeballs in Republicans and people driving to get groceries in monster SUVs while living in huge McMansions with tiny little lawns. Yes, the dictotomy of my observations compared to the way things really work gives me plenty of things to post here to the world. I doubt you will be bored.

 

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