Archive for February, 2004

The Thinker

Thrown into the deep end of the job pool

Monday I began my new job at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. It’s been a very fast first week for me. I moved from a lackluster GS-14 job with the Administration for Children and Families, which is headquartered near L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. ACF is an agency where even “casual Friday” meant dressing up like the rest of the week (but it was okay to leave off the tie). I always wore dress pants, dress shoes, a nice shirt and tie working at ACF. I kept a sport coat in my cube for those times when I needed it. One of our contractors required their women to wear dresses and hose. We called their men the “Men in Black” from their dreary utterly black business suits, white shirts and dark ties.

In retrospect ACF was a very dressy government place. At USGS though every day is business casual. My boss, a GS-15, shows up in cords, sandals and an earth mother shirt. Everyone knew I was new because for the first couple days I wore a shirt, tie, my best dress pants, patent leather shoes and my sport coat. In other words I was a fish out of water. It wasn’t until yesterday that my boss told me I could dress down. This will be a big change. I might need a whole new wardrobe –I don’t have enough business casual clothes to get through a workweek!

In this respect the USGS seems a much more relaxed sort of place. But the underlying tensions seem to be pretty much the same as I’ve encountered elsewhere in Club Fed. My new job is three miles from home but my pay is the same. However my responsibilities are much greater than those I had at ACF. I don’t know whether if at ACF we suffered from civil service grade inflation or whether USGS suffers from grade deflation. Being a GS-14 at ACF was no big thing. It’s a big thing at USGS. For one thing, I get an office. But not just an office: an office with a view. And a door that locks. My boss says I can have my office repainted if I want. The furniture in it is rather 70ish and was not meant for personal computers, so she is encouraging me to purchase some computer furniture. This is quite a contrast from ACF where we lived lives of cubicle gypsies. In my last two years I had relocated three times. Sometimes at ACF your cubicle was near a window, and while it was almost always larger than those given to contractors it was nothing special. I feel a bit spoiled at USGS.

Heck I feel catered to. I arrived in my new office to find my name already on the door and the help desk configuring my computer. My speakerphone arrived shortly thereafter. Next was the lady to help me configure my voice mail. Everyone is pleasant and low key. When I looked out my fifth floor window with a southwest exposure it seemed if I could extend my hands far enough out the windows they would touch the Shenandoah Mountains.

But make no mistake: this job demands a lot more responsibility. I am now officially a supervisor and what a strange team I lead. I have two employees who work locally, but also one in Montana, one in Alaska and a number of half time employees working for me in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Oregon. Since Alaska is 4 time zones away we have biweekly conference calls starting at 2 PM. This helps a lot, but a couple times a year the team must get together face-to-face, and that means agreeing on a city to meet. And as boss I guess I can pick the city. My boss said I could basically travel anywhere I need to pretty much anytime I wanted. I am sure our travel budget is not unlimited but it’s a weird and empowering feeling.

It’s also a strange feeling being a supervisor. There is a deference that comes from your employees by default when you hold power over them. It’s hard to tell sometimes when they are being sincere and when they are sucking up. And yet my boss doesn’t seem the least bit like my supervisor. She makes working there feel more like a social club and gossip hall. And if there is no time during work hours to gossip there is lunch hour club (in which I am already a charter member). I won’t be reading the paper much during lunch anymore; it has become that part of my job that seems to involve necessary social networking.

My commuting almost doesn’t exist. My 60-75 minutes commutes in each direction now are 10-15 minutes in rush hour. I haven’t parked at work in more than a dozen years. I’ve forgotten how cold it can be to walk into the office at 7 AM from a distant parking lot. But this is about the only part of my new job that is a detraction. The USGS campus is gorgeous, still looks modern (for being 30 years old) and is surrounded by woods. It is arguably the prettiest federal campus in the nation. Perhaps I am in federal worker paradise. The National Science Foundation has prettier workspace but their space is leased. At USGS in Reston we inhabit real federal office buildings.

Starting any job is at first a little like being thrown into the deep end of a very cold pool. You wonder if you will sink or swim. If you start swimming you wonder how long you can keep going. And it’s been that sort of week. It felt overwhelming at times because the data dump came fast and furious. It was difficult for me to associate names with faces and roles. At the same time I had to learn a new information system and come up on all the jargon and acronyms that were tossed around so freely. But by the end of the week I was not just swimming, I was doing a great backstroke. Thanks in part to my boss who gave me the things I needed to read in the order I needed to read them, and who made herself freely available to answer questions I feel, if not up to speed, at least a good part of the way there.

My job is to be the chief of the National Internet Data Systems Unit. Basically we are the folks that provide the real time water information for the USGS web site. If you have a hankering to know the number of thousands of cubic feet of water moving across a local stream per second we likely have the latest real time data and can serve it up to you in a variety of formats from the convenience of your web browser. (Surprisingly this is a lot of people; you should see our web site statistics!) I am blessed with a talented staff, half programmers, half hydrologists who can aggregate and format vast volumes of real time satellite fed data into something for public consumption. It’s an amazing feat of engineering that inspires something like awe in me. It’s an honor and a bit humbling to be selected as the person who has responsibility for this system.

It is a challenge but one I needed. This job also feels very much like a gift. It feels like the gods decided to smile on me and fulfill my heart’s desire. I hope I continue to feel this way. I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed and scared, but mostly I feel energized and excited by the job. I hope I can continue to feel this way when the inevitable plain of disillusionment sets in. I hope I have the wisdom to make sound choices. I hope I can demonstrate people skills I sometimes have lacked in the past. I hope I live up to the trust that others have placed in me. I believe I will.

The Thinker

Greenspan tries to sober up Congress

This just in: Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan says the government should consider cutting benefits for social security recipients.

Buh wah hah hah! Those of us living in or near Washington know exactly where this idea is going to go. Drag this sucker directly into your Congress’s virtual shredder. Snowballs will survive in hell before Congress reduces social security checks.

Oh they may get cut in less visible ways. Perhaps the retirement age will be allowed to gradually creep up again. This sort of a creative accounting technique is familiar to us federal employees. We’ve seen it before when it came time for our cost of living raises (“Let’s just move the date a bit and drop the costs into another fiscal year. We’ve just saved tens of billions of dollars!”) Put an older retirement age far enough in the future and most people likely won’t complain because they are too far from retirement to raise a fuss.

But even these tricks won’t seriously solve the problem of all of us baby boomers planning to retire soon. All Alan Greenspan is really doing is reinforcing that those fiscal chickens are coming home to roost for Congress as well as for the Bush Administration.

Remember in the 2000 campaign Al Gore proposed putting a lock box on the social security trust fund? It seemed an idea on which both sides could agree. Until, of course, we went into recession, 9/11 occurred and we started to give obscene tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Then it became important to show that our deficits were not as bad as they looked. So of course the government “borrowed” from the Social Security Trust fund. It did this by depositing its wonderful IOUs into the funds account with a promise to pay back the money with interest some time in the future.

What does this mean? Well, in actuality the social security fund is currently running a surplus. The surplus was $164B last year. Assuming the same surplus this year, and assuming Bush’s plans for a $521B deficit this year are correct (they are likely to be larger when the supplemental spending bill for the Iraq occupation and reconstruction is introduced) this means that the real government’s operating deficit for this year is going to be at least $685B.

But the surplus in the trust fund is projected to continue to shrink until the baby boomer retirements reach critical mass. At that point the fund begins to run a deficit. That’s when we borrow a lot more money, raise a lot more taxes, cut benefits to social security recipients or try some combination of all of them.

Unless we radically change our representation in Congress the federal government is going to be borrowing a hell of a lot of money in the future.

Yes, we will borrow in mega quantities, but only if we can get anyone to lend it to us. Have you looked at the value of the dollar against other currencies lately? Today one Euro is worth $1.25. A year or so back a Euro cost around eighty cents. There are short-term benefits from a low dollar. It makes our products cheaper to purchase and has a stimulative effect on our economy. But the long-term trend is not good because our financing is largely coming from overseas capital. In fact a lot of this money is coming from other governments anxious to make sure their currencies and their products don’t get too expensive. By buying dollars they are in effect taking their capital and putting it to work in the United States, instead of in their own country where it might otherwise be used. But at some point our deficits may become so bloated that foreign investors lose confidence that they will get a return on their investment.

If that happens our house of cards falls. Countries say “Well, no point throwing our good money after a bad return, we’ll use it ourselves.” If the United States cannot borrow enough money from overseas to finance its deficits then the government must drastically increase interest rates to attract domestic money. And when that happens money becomes more expensive for businesses and consumers to borrow. And that most likely has severe and negative consequences for our economy. The worst result would be a wave of inflation and economic stagnation, recession or depression familiar to many countries in South America, but not seen here since the Depression.

Greenspan is being a good fiduciary. We need someone to impartially tell us the truth. Our government must change its ways and stop foisting off costs of these magnitudes on future generations. It’s really sad though that instead of being responsible our government will tinker around the edges a little bit but do nothing to really solve the underlying problem. Congress can’t say no to anyone. Not to the businesses that finance their campaigns, not to us constituents who want more federal benefits, low taxes and increased services, and not to the president who wants to please his party base and reward his cronies.

The smart investor should be quietly moving more funds out of American companies and into solid overseas growth companies and funds. Unfortunately, even that is not a great hedge. And that is because if the American economy tanks, so will most of the world economy.

So the health of the world economy is in large measure dependent upon whether our Congress can stop pandering and start swallowing the castor oil.

I don’t wish to sound bleak but really: God help us. For those who believe in the power of prayer it’s time to go into prayer overdrive.

The Thinker

A Rant: Our Supersized Nation

When did we decide to become a supersized nation? Whom do I blame? I could perhaps begin with Ronald Reagan. Reagan made us believe that being an American was all about thinking and living large. He told us that it was okay to get obscenely wealthy; indeed it was a virtue. He was our Gordon Gekko: greed is good. And he said as much in such a convincing aw shucks Boy Scout sort of way that it was impossible not to believe him. In the 80s we began to think big again. Enough was okay but suggested you weren’t really trying. More was better. A lot more was fabulous!

But I can also blame Bill Clinton. Bill never met a millionaire or billionaire he didn’t like. During his tenure Americans reaped the rewards of being the world’s only superpower. Our 401Ks bulged with inflated stock values. Our home values went through the roof too. We leveraged our housing prices to trade up to larger houses. We used those low interest rates to buy bigger and better cars. It was during the Clinton years that the sports utility vehicle craze took hold in this country. It was during the Clinton years that a single-family house with a one-car garage on a modest lot became simply insufficient. For those with the resources an opulent estate surrounded by acres of ranch or forest became our dream house. For the rest of us we settled for boxy McMansions on postage stamp lots. Three or four bedroom houses were out. Why not six, or eight even? Why not have a deck that wraps around the house? Two-car garage? Why stop at two? Why not demand a three or even four car garage? Hey, you only live once baby! You and your wife and your 2.2 kids may not need all that space, but buy it anyhow! This was the time to live the American dream!

As for food: to heck with normal portions. Normal portions were for wusses. It’s not enough to buy a hamburger anymore. Go for the double cheeseburger instead, or the triple burger with the sesame seed bun. Forget the regular fries. For forty cents more you can supersize them! Let’s make the new fast food standard to get as many calories in one sitting as we used to consume in a whole day — all for five bucks or less. And let’s add a whole lot more salt, fat and cholesterol to the meal too! Supersize that Coke while you’re at it! Have two hot apples pies, not one.

Not surprisingly our waistlines expanded. Because all the lots were taken in town, our McMansions naturally were built out in the exurbia. So walking to work or even to the grocery store was out of the question. We’d better hop into our SUV and drag the 12-mpg behemoth a dozen miles to our local Costco. There we supersized our pantries with mega-sized cases of detergent and frozen hamburger patties by the gross.

Whatever happened to David Thoreau’s simple life? Are you a little bit mad to want the simple life in modern America?

I must be a little bit mad. But first I will confess that as a former townhouse brat I was glad to go single family when I finally had the option. I was tired of the teen next door sitting on my car hood to smoke his cigarettes. I did not enjoy his loud bass-centric music, particularly when I was trying to sleep. My mental health improved markedly when we moved into our house.

Our house, as houses go, is fairly modest. The garage fits only one car. It has three bedrooms, but only two of any consequence since the third is small enough that it was turned into a TV room. We have a guest bedroom in the basement that doesn’t really count since it is mostly below ground. There are only three of us though and it is big enough. Our lot is a third of an acre and way more than I really want to manage. We’ve been in the house ten years. Only now have we completed giving everything a first coat of paint. In short it’s too much already and I want to downsize my life.

I wonder about people who own McMansions. I wonder primarily why they do it. Maybe they are masochists. Or maybe they like spending every free moment keeping the house up. Maybe they don’t mind taking out a second mortgage to put furniture in all those empty rooms. I can spend a day just picking up and vacuuming in my modest house. I would think you would either need to be a full time housekeeper or hire a couple cleaning ladies to come by once a week to keep these houses presentable. When do they find the time to relax on that screen in deck with a mint julep?

And why is at least one SUV a compulsory item in the driveway? It’s not like there are any mountains with gravel roads that must be traversed on a daily basis around here. As best I can tell the primary purpose for an SUV in my neighborhood is to take the kid to Taekwando or to get through the drive-thru pharmacy lane. Most of these families are not large extended Mormon families. They are a mother, father and two kids. A Camry sedan would have been a much more sensible choice. Why did they supersize their car?

Are they mindful of the effects of their lifestyle choices on the rest of the world? Or do they simply not care if they drive something that spews twice the toxins into the environment as my modest sedan? I guess to them it’s not that big a deal. When the summer ozone levels become unhealthy they aren’t affected. They live their lives indoors anyhow. They can drive right into their three-car garage. No need to exercise outdoors either — get on the treadmill in the basement instead.

No point in thinking about the costs of our lifestyle choices on others or even on ourselves. Live for the moment baby! Those who die with the most toys win! Hey, if we tear down another forest to put up more McMansions and shopping centers, well, that’s just the price of progress! And we’re doing God’s will. Because the preacher tells us it’s right there in Genesis: God gave us the Earth to shape as we see fit. God is saying: it’s all right to supersize your life! Go for it!

Still, how quaint: those seven deadly sins proclaimed by Pope Gregory in the Sixth Century: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. These are all American virtues now baby! Let’s put the Bible back on the shelf. We paid lip service to it anyhow. We don’t need it anymore. We have a new American religion. It’s called Capitalism. Adam Smith is our new God and Ronald Reagan was his only begotten son.

We will live well and die well. We will fill up our lives with possessions. Our credit cards may be maxed out but our net worth will continue to soar. Let us stay focused on our lifestyle. If we get a twinge of remorse from time to time let us pay some therapists and pop antidepressants instead. Let us never, ever dwell on just how meaningless it all is.

The Thinker

No Time for Deaniacs to Sulk … Time to Get Busy

Many of us who supported Howard Dean should be having a mixture of feelings right now ranging from hurt, anger, rage and general sulkiness. But if we withdraw from political life at this time we are making a deep mistake. The country, and particularly the Democratic Party needs our talents and energy now more than ever.

Dean always said the campaign was not about him but about us. By “us” he means the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. If we fail to assert ourselves now within the party then we have failed in our true mission. Getting Dean elected was a great goal but the odds were always very long. There were lots of candidates out there and only one can be the nominee. We wanted a revolution but we got an evolution. This should come as no surprise. Now we must complete the mission: we must bring progressives back into prominence in the Democratic Party. We must make the Democratic Party the Democratic Party of old again.

We should not descend into an internecine war. We should not try to topple the Clinton Democrats, or those who follow the Democratic Leadership Council. In truth the DLC has not done well either. Its poster child Joe Liebermann never polled out of the single digits. The DLC wing of the Democratic Party is already a fading memory. We Deaniacs can be proud that we have rushed in and occupied their space.

To start with we need to continue occupying this space. Howard Dean told us it is important to keep voting for him even though he is no longer campaigning. This is because this gives us delegates at the national convention, and that gives us a say in the party platform. It is there that we can make our voices heard. It is in Boston that we can assert that our party should be passionately committed to equal rights for all (and particularly for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trangenders). There we will also stand up and fight for platforms that call for progressive energy policies that emphasize renewable energy sources and conservation. We can insist that our nation do something real to reduce global warming and respect the world ecosystem. We can also press our party to be fiscally responsible and to work for true universal health insurance for all Americans. We should insist on a fair tax code that does not penalize either the poor or the working poor and requires the rich to provide more of their income in taxes again. In doing we also show that Democrats are truly a party of the people again.

It is also crucial that our country become mainstream again. Our country must be eager to work with the United Nations and other countries to create pragmatic broadly supported international solutions to world problems. We must lead the party and our country toward a longer vision that is not so parochial and recognizes the complexity of the world we live in.

In the short term it is important to work to elect not only a Democratic president but to elect a Democratic congress. We should enthusiastically endorse and fund John Kerry’s campaign, if he turns out to be our nominee. We should work among ourselves, but also with progressive networks like to turn the election into a rout of Republicans in general. We should be inclusive and let bygones be bygones. We should work with the Kerry, Edwards, Kucinich and even the Sharpton camps to push common goals and values. We need to assert our progressive values, but we need to be nice and persuasive about it.

We need new goals. Our short-term goal must be to remove Bush from office and to elect a Democratic congress. We have the ability to seriously tackle both of these with our existing network. Our long-term goal should be to keep America moving in a progressive and mainstream direction.

Dean for America needs to evolve. It needs to become the Democratic Progressive Network. We need to promote the DPN as an alternative to the Democratic Leadership Council. Howard could be our spokesman, but he doesn’t have to be. There is plenty of new talent among us that is there and could be easily harnessed.

As for Howard Dean, John Kerry would be wise to work to have him on his team. Howard Dean has unique talent and energy that no other candidate has. He would be ideal as the new head of the Democratic National Committee. He should be stumping the country not necessarily for Kerry, but to stir up activists to vote for Democrats in state, congressional and senatorial campaigns. If Kerry were elected, as I fully expect, Dean would make an excellent cabinet secretary. He would be a natural as the head of Health and Human Services, but let’s not rule him out for other key posts. I could see him as Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State. From my perspective Howard Dean’s future continues to look very bright. His talent should not be allowed to atrophy.

The Thinker

Hold the presses! Virginia Republicans are raising taxes!

Things are tough in Richmond, Virginia. Our legislature is back for its annual attempt to have its cake and eat it too. Last year it papered over massive state budget problems. This year it has run out of creative ways to keep basic state services going and not raise taxes. Needless to say for our Republican legislature this has involved a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

True to form for the first few weeks our Republican legislature made brave promises that it would not raise taxes and parroted the usual silly assertions that the state government was just spending too much. Our governor Mark Warner, after campaigning on a platform of no new taxes, submitted his plan to address our state’s serious revenue deficiencies. It said that yep it looks like we really need to raise taxes folks but let’s call it rewriting the tax code instead of a tax increase. In the legislature it was, of course, declared immediately dead on arrival. On Monday Governor Warner conceded as much. But that still leaves that pesky little problem of how to balance our state budget (required by law) and not cut funding further for schools, transportation, the prisons and all those other essential services.

So how did the Commonwealth get into this mess? There is no denying the economic slowdown affected Virginia as well as virtually every other state out there. But it is more than that. During the 1990s Virginia, like many states, lived in flush times. Our technology industry in particular was going gangbusters. The area where I live in Northern Virginia (Fairfax County) attracted some of the very best and brightest of the software industry, including companies like AOL. We also had innumerable technology companies providing services to the federal government, like SAIC and AMS. While they were raking in the profits the state got its share. This meant citizens’ tax rates could be kept about where they were. All was right: we could keep spending more without changing the sales or income tax rates. Partially as a result the Republicans took over both houses of the state legislature.

We also elected James S. Gilmore as our governor back in 1998. The Reagan-like Republican Gilmore rode into office promising to get rid of the most despised tax in Virginia: the car tax. Counties are allowed to tax personal property in our state. However, the car tax money was critical to the counties. It was used for minor things like funding the schools. Gilmore succeeded in keeping the first $20,000 of the assessed value of the car from being taxed. The state reimbursed counties for the lost revenue. And all was right until the recession started. At that point it became politically untenable for the State to stop subsidizing the counties for this lost revenue. So it became a huge new liability for the State it couldn’t politically undo.

The State became caught between the rock and a hard place. One solution could have been to reinstate the car tax. However, the voters would not stand for it. So this new state liability became politically impossible to remove. Instead the legislature invoked the usual one time accounting tricks while making cuts to transportation, education and public safety.

This year there the choices become extremely painful. The legislature now has to figure out whether it will increase taxes or cut deeply into essential state services. Will it lay off public school teachers? Make civil servants go another year without a cost of living raise, or actually reduce their salaries? (It already laid off thousands of civil servants.) Will it in effect continue to raise taxes by shifting the burden to universities, who have to make up the difference in huge tuition increases?

Former Governor Gilmore is of course appalled that his fellow Republicans would even consider raising a tax. Yes, the same governor whose reckless overspending and tax cutting got us into this situation is castigating Mark Warner for his proposal to increase taxes!

Slowly, and with the greatest reluctance the legislature is considering (gasp) tax increases. The straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been various reports that the state’s excellent credit rating was about to take a tumble. That wouldn’t look good. It would prove our legislature was full of incompetent boobs who could not manage money. If Moody’s decides Virginia is being run by a bunch of flim flam artists, our costs of borrowing go up or maybe go away altogether. We might even end up looking like California, which is going through its own fiscal shenanigans and has already had its credit rating lowered.

I’ve been a resident of Virginia for 20 years. I was not drawn here because taxes were a bit lower than they were in Maryland. I just wanted to live in Reston. But one aspect of Virginia government I did admire somewhat was that the state had a reputation for living inside its means. It knows how to pinch a penny. But it’s clear that any waste and bloat that did exist in Virginia government is long gone. Even the silly Center for Innovative Technology, a state funded high tech consortium, has largely lost its state funding as revenues sank. But no more. Our credit rating is in jeopardy.

Virginia Republicans are raising taxes. Who would have thunk? Looking for those to absorb the tax increases, businesses have become the primary targets. I guess it’s because businesses don’t vote. The House plan calls for $520M in tax increases. The Senate plan, proposed by a much more sober State Senator John Chichister, calls for $1.8B in tax increases. Governor Warner seems to favor the Senate approach. It will be interesting to see what actually passes and even more interesting to see how the state Republicans spin their tax increases.

Meanwhile rest assured our legislature is working on things that really matter. Noting that gays are being married in truckloads in San Francisco, it is reaffirming that it will have none of that same sex gay marriage crap here in Virginia. It is also working hard to restrict abortion rights. One proposal would make it unlawful for university health clinics to provide over the counter morning-after birth control pills.

But at the same time two other curious bills are going through the legislature. HB1006 will allow companies to offer group insurance benefits to gay partners who live together. This is especially curious since we still have sodomy laws the legislature refused to repeal even though they were invalidated by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. In addition HB187 was passed that no longer restricts state mortgage loans only to those who are married or are blood relatives. It remains to be seen if our state senate will go along. It is also unclear why we are getting a couple progressive bills through the legislature while being obnoxiously conservative on other bills. But maybe, just maybe this is a small sign of progress. If Virginia Republicans can actually vote to raise taxes anything is now possible in my state again.

The Thinker

The chickens have come home to roost

I must confess I am enjoying Bush’s decline. Finally the American people are waking up from their lethargy. Now that we are awake we are realizing that this Bush presidency has been a disaster on pretty much every level. The press is starting to analyze critically what this president is saying. Finally even Bush’s conservative base is waking up and discovering they put into office a man who is not the least bit fiscally conservative. In fact, he’s increased discretionary spending more than any president in recent history. As a nation we seem to have finally sobered up. Now we can see that our house has been trashed, the neighbors are pissed, the air smells bad, the roof is leaking and our charge card has been maxed out.

It’s been a long time coming. Only now is the glow of the post 9/11 commander in chief truly fading. For the first time Bush is polling at or below 50% approval ratings. Most Americans would rather elect an unnamed Democrat this year than Bush. Bush’s likely opponent John Kerry is polling six percentage points above Bush in a hypothetical election match up.

We can now pinpoint the day when the deck of cards finally fell: January 28th, 2004. This was the day that our former chief arms inspector David Kay (having spent months in Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist) told the Senate Armed Services Committee that our emperor had no clothes. It was one thing for a politician to criticize the president; a politician could always be portrayed as partisan. It’s another thing when Bush’s right hand man on the issue candidly admitted that he and everyone in the Bush Administration had been spectacularly wrong. The American people reacted strongly. It was as if as a nation we were all saying, “But you said there were weapons of mass destruction there! We were lied to!” Within days Bush’s poll numbers sank six to eight percent. Bush’s strong leadership on national security was shown to be so much spin and hot air. The American public is pissed.

With the blinders off we can now see lots of truths that we swept under the rug. For example, during Bush’s tenure we’ve lost (mostly for good) two and a half million jobs. We realize now that Ross Perot was right on NAFTA. The great sucking sound we hear is now our high tech jobs being outsourced in India. We are realizing that we can look forward to a future of being a nation of Wal-Mart greeters, one of the few jobs that can’t be outsourced. We realize that instead of job growth, the unemployed are playing a very large game of musical chairs. We realize from callous remarks from Bush’s own chief economic advisor that this administration holds the American worker in contempt.

In addition we’ve looked at our general ledger and it looks really bad. We went from the biggest budget surpluses in history to the largest deficits. We realize one of the primary culprits was the obscene and repeated tax breaks we lavished on our richest citizens who didn’t need them. The economy rebounds but jobs do not. The oligarchy swells in wealth; and the gap between rich and poor accelerates. Health insurance for seniors gets passed only when Republicans insist on minimal competition for the drug companies.

Meanwhile the numbers of Americans without health insurance continues to grow. Those of us who still have health insurance pay increasingly astronomical costs. The Bush Administration’s response is to try to set up Medical Savings Accounts. If only the average American has the disposable cash to put in these accounts in the first place. This is particularly hard to do when you’ve been reduced from IT Worker to Wal-Mart greeter or 7-Eleven clerk.

As Rod Serling might say: “Portrait of an Administration out of touch with reality.”

Last year I suggested Bush was a one term president. I argued that the long term trends just didn’t favor him. I am glad the American public is beginning to agree with me. Bush cannot erase two and a half million jobs before the November elections. He can’t turn Iraq into a success story. He can’t win back by November all the friends we lost internationally in our reckless pursuit of a preemptive war. He can’t turn around $530B annual deficits. And he can’t provide more citizens with health insurance by giving those who can already afford it Medical Savings Accounts.

The chickens have come home to roost. The law of karma has not been repealed. Bush will lose this election. My fondest hope is that it causes the American public to do a wholesale reevaluation of Republicans in general. People who manage this badly do not deserve to represent us. Let us hope against the odds that we not only get a Democratic president again but a Democratic congress as well.

The Thinker

Cold Mountain

Since today is a holiday I used the day as an excuse to finally see this civil war movie, still playing two months after its release. The main plot involves a romance between a well-bred lady from Charleston, South Carolina (who is relocated to Cold Mountain) and a Confederate soldier who turns into a deserter. Cold Mountain is apparently somewhere deep in the frosty North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. Nichole Kidman plays Ada Monroe. Her love interest is a fellow named Inman, played by Jude Law. This is a romance that hardly gets off the ground before the Civil War starts.

Those looking for great battle scenes will get only one: at the start of the film. It reenacts in convincingly detail portions of the battle of Petersburg, Virginia. Otherwise the movie consists of vignettes detailing Inman’s desertion and trip home (and his run ins with numerous posses out to kill him) and Ada’s wait for Inman to return. As she waits her town becomes increasingly lawless, her father dies and she becomes impoverished. You grow to love characters who largely end up murdered in not so pleasant ways. I’m sure a lot of this happened during the civil war but so much of it happens in this movie that it strains your credulity after a while.

Overall it is very well acted and directed. And yet the love interest between Ada and Inman lacked the chemistry I assumed would be there. After a while it felt a bit formulaic. It has a “Gone with the Wind” feeling in many places. I expected people to die, Inman to return, Ada to have to grow up, bad things to happen and I wasn’t disappointed. There isn’t much plot here so you have to enjoy the characterization instead, which is generally well done. Nichole Kidman is a great actress but seems a bit miscast in this movie: a bit too pretty to be believable. It felt like she was hired to justify the huge production costs of the movie. While not giving away the ending, at least I can report Ada doesn’t end the movie with a perky, “Oh well, tomorrow is another day.”

It is Renee Zellweger as Ruby Thewes (who ends up helping Ada run her small farm) who makes the movie truly shine. She plays a spunky young lady with grits and determination to surmount bad times. I can see why she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and I would not be surprised if she wins based on this performance; it would be well deserved.

Aside from a lot of violence there are some brief episodes of nudity, which is probably the reason it got the R rating. Some of the bawdiness is a bit disturbing at times. Those hoping to see Nichole Kidman naked (me!) will have to settle for seeing her buttocks and one nipple.

I can see why it didn’t garner a Best Picture nomination, but it is still worth seeing or renting and much better than your typical Hollywood fare. My rating: three and a quarter stars out of four.

The Thinker

Geo-Targeting on the Web

One property of cyberspace is that location is pretty much irrelevant. You probably don’t care where I am located and I don’t care where you are located. If you found your way here by surfing to my site we are not likely to ever meet in person. But wouldn’t it be fun if you could look at web sites for people and places that are near you, just to see what’s up?

There are regional directories that attempt to do this, such as Yahoo or DMOZ (via their “Submit a URL” links). But most people with web sites either don’t know about directories or won’t bother to submit their site. (In the case of Yahoo, they probably won’t even list it unless you pay them over $200.) Similarly most web surfers don’t know about regional directories. They can be hard to find. I am certain that any sites listed this way represent only a tiny fraction of the web sites actually located in that region.

It would be much cooler to have a technology that identifies your location in a way that standard software (like your browser) could pick up and use automatically. Fortunately there is such a technology. GeoURL is a location-to-URL reverse directory. Like Yahoo or DMOZ, you have to take the initiative and list in their directory, but it is free. It’s pretty easy to fill out their web form. You tell them your city or zip code. It figures out your latitude and longitude and provides a snippet of HTML you can insert into your web pages that tells people surfing your site where you are located.

Local Feeds builds on top of this database and returns a list of recent news feeds that are within X miles of a zip code or a particular city. For example, this link shows recently updated news feeds near my zip code (20171) in a format suitable for the viewer. But Local Feeds can also return the same information in a RSS feed format that can be consumed by other systems. For example a news reader program installed on your computer could consume a news feed URL easily enough. Some web sites like Bloglines do the same thing and may even notify you when your favorite news feeds are updated.

Since Local Feeds is a fairly new service, my blog entries tend to show up a lot. I also see a lot of entries for my forum and for my friend Jim Goldbloom’s forum Access Denied. But there are other local newsfeeds that run the gamut from the ho-hum to the quite interesting. WizBang’s weblog is one interesting example. I likely would have never stumbled on it had not I learned about Local Feeds. It’s nice to know this guy is in my neighborhood somewhere.

Like with GeoURL, when you first use Local Feeds you can enter your zip code and it will return your latitude and longitude. But you also need to give Local Feeds the URL for your site’s news feed. With this web log this is not a problem. The Moveable Type software I use has a news feed URL that gets updated every time I add an entry.

I could have told Local Feeds that my zip code is close enough for geo targeting my site. But since I have a GPS I figured I’d get more localized. So I advertise coordinates that are accurate to within a hundred feet or so of where I live.

When all done I added these lines of HTML inside the <head> tags to my site’s web pages. It identifies my coordinates (second line), categorizes my web log as belonging to a regional listing (DC in this case, first line) and provides two means for other people or computers to syndicate my content (lines three and four):

<meta name=”DC.Title” content=”Occam’s Razor” />
<meta name=”ICBM” content=”38.922067,-77.400850″ />
<link rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” title=”RSS” href=”” />
<link rel=”EditURI” type=”application/rsd+xml” title=”RSD” href=”” />

Of course you would need to change the information in these tags to represent your own site, but hopefully you grasp the idea.

It would be neat if everyone with web sites used this technology. Imagine if all the restaurants in New York City had their menus on their web sites. Then imagine if they programmed their geographical coordinates into their web pages and listed with Local Feeds. Then imagine a time in the not too distant future when wireless internet access is cheap and readily available. It would be pretty easy with this technology to target restaurants within a couple blocks of me and read their menus. (Something close to this is available with the AvantGo service, but it represents only a fraction of New York’s available restaurants.)

Right now this process is still a bit daunting for the layman. But it would be straightforward for software like FrontPage, DreamWeaver or Moveable Type to simply ask if you want to geo-target your site, insert the code into your web pages for you and notify the proper directories. I hope business picks up on the idea. To me this is a no-brainer.

If you have a web site then why not be on the leading edge and geo-target it geographically? Encourage your friends who have web sites to do the same thing. It’s a simple idea whose time has come.

The Thinker

Going Incognito

I am going incognito.

I am no longer associating my full name with my blog. Now my entries will simply appear as “Mark”.

Until recently I didn’t care who came across my blog. But things are changing. In a little over a week I will have supervisory responsibilities. This changes my calculus about how much of myself I want to readily expose.

Here is my thinking: either I have to parse my words about my professional life here on my blog or I have to make myself less vulnerable by dumbing down my content. Do I really want my employees or supervisors knowing my foibles and private thoughts about them or my agency? Do I really want aspects of myself potentially used against me in an employer-employee relationship?

No I don’t. So rather than give up my blog or further restrict my content I’ll just remove my name from this site.

That is not to say someone who spends enough time looking for clues won’t be able to figure it out. I’ve left droppings in search engines that won’t soon disappear. I’ll still keep my public email address on this site. And doubtless someone who is clever enough could find my association with an internet WHOIS command.

I also maintain a public forum where I am out there for all to see. People may find me that way and may stumble onto my blog through it. Even so, those few things on my forum that I do consider personal are available to members only.

But these are all reasonable risks. Someone who wants to spend that much time learning about me on the web is welcome to do so.

When I send out personal email I’ll still include a link to my blog. I don’t mind people I know outside of work learning more about me.

But I see no point inviting trouble.

The Thinker

Senior Citizen Paradise

I apologize if this sounds like an advertisement. It was not intended to be this way. But I have seen paradise. And you don’t have to die first to get in. You simply have to be 62 or older and have a few hundred thousand dollars in assets available.

I discovered retirement living because my parents seem inclined to move from their house in Midland, Michigan to a retirement community. The community they are planning to move into is located across the Potomac River from me. It is called Riderwood. Last Friday I joined them and my sister Mary (who did all the research) as they checked out the place. I left amazed, impressed and more than a little jealous.

My mother’s health is clearly declining. She is unsteady on her legs, which is not too surprising for a lady almost 84. As long time readers know she has had some bad falls lately. Their willingness to relocate was prompted by concerns from us children, none of whom live closer than 300 miles from them. They have almost no support structure in place in Michigan should something happen to one of them.

American capitalism has responded. There are lots of retirement communities out there but I doubt none have done so well as this particular Erickson community. It is a gated community full of large residential apartments interconnected to each other and overlooking lovely courtyards and ponds. Each building is between four and a dozen stories tall. All were designed specifically for senior citizens in less than optimal health. The goals at Riderwood are choice, comfort, simplicity and safety.

The buildings are lovely and modern with lots of apartment styles from which to choose. Rents are pretty expensive. I’m not sure exactly what my parents will be paying but I think it is in the $2000 a month range. However, they get a lot for their money. They are not paying property taxes. They get one meal a day at one of the four restaurants on campus. These are good restaurants with fine food; they ate there to make sure. There is plenty of parking but most of the time there is no need to drive anywhere. You name it and they have it: mini-mart, bank, meeting rooms, theater, lounges, chapel, even a bar. For those too old to drive they can take one of the community buses to one of the nearby shopping centers. Riderwood has its own doctors and specialists. But it is not too far from modern hospitals, should they be needed.

The apartments can be fully customized. You can paint it or add to it pretty much as you like. The doors are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. It goes without saying that there are elevators in every building for residents who need them.

There are also a zillion clubs, a workshop, a TV studio, pool tables and all sorts of innovative security services. They have a gizmo on each door that the security people flip each night. It comes down when you leave your apartment. If they see it remains unflipped the next day they will check up on you, just in case you fell or are incapacitated. If you need some measure of safety beyond this, you can rent a device around your neck. Press a button and help is on its way. Or press the button in any bathroom.

And the place is beautiful, clean and the staff is just tremendously helpful. No one is kicked out of their apartments because they have run out of rent money. This is because to move in you essentially give them a lien on your assets. So I expect the entry fee is something in the neighborhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars. If you don’t keep up the rent your rent is deducted from your lien. If you end up dying there whatever is left over after expenses is given to your heirs.

So clearly this is not a place for a woman living on social security alone. But it is not beyond the reach of most people with good investments or who live in the middle to upper middle class. Since having assets is the key, if you envision something like this in your retirement then now is the time to start paying off those credit card bills.

My parents looked at another community, Charlestown, near Baltimore that they liked just as much. Unfortunately it has a waiting list of up to two years and its apartments are smaller. My parents can move into Riderwood much sooner, if they can sell their house. They have their work cut out for them in the next few months.

My Mom actually looked excited checking out the model apartments. I haven’t seen her genuinely happy in a long time, but I could see her figuring out how she would decorate her kitchen.

The community is not a dictatorship. It has its board of directors chosen by the residents. Certainly Erickson is in charge of developing the properties, but day to day control belongs to the residents.

Erickson is a company very much on the ball. I should probably buy some stock in it; retiring people is a big growth market and I bet no one is doing this business any better. Their business model is very sound too.

My only question is: Why should this model be limited only to senior citizens? I know I am ready to move in. I hate the whole house management business. Right now my wife and I are contemplating $10,000 or more to replace our siding. We also need to replace our stove, do some drainage work, replace carpeting … the expenses and hassle never end!

Something like this would work great for me. Both my wife and I hate cooking dinner. We’d love to traipse downstairs at our leisure for our “free” evening meal. I could use an ATM and a mini-mart in my lobby. Erickson, build it for ordinary people like me and we will come too.

Now I know what I want in retirement. I am ready. I think it’s not too early to get on an Erickson waiting list. After all I just turned 47!


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