Archive for January, 2005

The Thinker

My Best Friend the Cat

Maybe this will sound a little pathetic but my best friend is a cat.

Okay, I’m not the most sociable critter in the world but I am not entirely friendless. Nonetheless I think I can say without hesitation that the best friend I will have in this life is 11 pounds or so and is currently curled up on my lap. His head is partially buried in one paw. He lies where he always lies on my lap, with his head on my left thigh and his paws nestled up toward my belly.

His name is Sprite and he’s been my best friend for at least 16 of the 18 years he’s been alive. We bonded shortly after he and his sister Squeaky came home from the Doktor’s Pet Center in Tysons Corner, Virginia in January 1987. In the beginning our relationship was a bit challenging. He had claws and he used them instinctively. This frequently meant his jumping onto my lap and embedding them in my thigh. For about a year I would not let him on my lap until I had first a blanket on my lap.

So Sprite required a little training but he was as good a pupil as a young cat could be. I wanted a lap kitty but at first he was a bit skittish around people in general. So I petted and praised him all the time, and made sure I gave him extra affection when he was on my lap and not sticking his pincers into me. He still gets it wrong sometimes. Fortunately I am now better at keeping his nails trimmed so it is less of a problem. As a kitten he could not sit still for nail clippings.

In fact Sprite and I are now perfectly bonded. We understand each other intuitively. I know exactly where to stroke him to make him happiest. He knows instinctively when to sit on my lap and when to leave me alone. When he wants to sit on my lap he only rarely demands to be on my lap. Rather he petitions very politely. He comes next to me and I hear the roar of his purr motor. I look down and see his wide glass-like eyes petitioning me. I can hear him in my brain: “Can I please sit on your lap, Daddy?”

When he was younger and more agile I would slap my hand on my thighs a few times and he would normally understand the signal, jump on my lap and move into the lap position. At 18 though he has cataracts. Only occasionally can work up the courage to jump on my lap. Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he doesn’t. When he misjudges he falls awkwardly back and I have to catch his fall. Fortunately he has me well trained. I look down and coo, “What’s the matter sweetheart?” and he gives me a silent meow. And I pick up his 11 pounds and awkwardly put him on my lap. He of course has to move into his special snuggle lap position. And there he settles in for a long couple hours of purring, sometimes sounding like a motorboat engine. At other times his purr is barely perceptible. His eyes open half wide most of the time. He gives me a look of complete and utter adoration. But after a while he seems content just to bask in my warmth and love and enters a dreamy sort of trance-like state, not quite asleep but not quite awake either. He seems hypnotized. The longer I stay on my chair (I am usually in front of the computer) the more he likes it. It breaks my heart (and his) sometimes to have to get up to attend to other things.

Sprite knows to trust me completely. I will never deliberately hurt him and when I stroke him I always stroke ever so gently. I stroke over his bat ears and they twitch with an autonomic response. He likes a scratch under his chin or along the side of his face. I can play with his paws and pull on his nails and he doesn’t mind. He just purrs louder.

On rare occasions he will let me give him a belly rub. He likes any form of affection but it is still difficult for him to be that vulnerable in that way. He doesn’t usually mind being picked up and dragged around. And he’s quite unusual in that he doesn’t mind being cuddled. I can pick him up like a baby and cradle him in my arms. It’s a bit uncomfortable for him but he does enjoy it, and his little purr motor cranks up to high volume.

We should let him sleep on the bed with us now that his sister is gone but we maintain the habit of having a cat free bedroom during our night hours. Nonetheless I often find him on the bed when I retire, waiting for some last minute petting and stroking. If I read in bed he will come right up in my face. Sometimes I have to push his rear down to tell him “That’s close enough, son”. And I do call him “son” all the time. I don’t have a son of my own. I have a daughter I love very much, but it’s too late to have a son. He will have to do.

And what a great son he is! He likes whatever I am into. But he also knows when I’ve OD’ed on his presence and will find a nice corner to go to sleep in.

Sprite has always been an indoor cat. He gets out on the screened in deck when the weather is nice, but is never let out to the wild. He was neutered young so he never lost his childhood voice. But he doesn’t speak much. He believes in the silent meow and the use of Bambi eyes to get his needs met.

He loves us all dearly but without a doubt I am his favorite. He misses me when I am gone. He waits for me to arise on the landing outside our bedroom in the morning, and lately has been greeting me with an almost anguished “Yeolp!” It’s a sort of “I missed you! You’ve been gone so long!” along with some confusion from being a senile 18-year-old cat.

And he may be 18 but he is doing wonderfully. You’d be hard pressed to find a cat his age in better health. His coat droops a bit but he is amazingly youthful. He is as soft as he was as a kitten. He has become a very mellow cat. He is not a complex creature. He does four things. He eats. (He doesn’t mind dry food, but likes wet food a couple times a week for variety.) He sleeps. He poops. And he sits on our laps. That’s it. Mostly these days he just sleeps. He’s an old but beloved kitty.

Still, he seems so completely bonded to me that he often feels like an extension of me, and I of him. It’s like we’re one unit, not two. I have read some books that suggest we don’t bring all of our soul energy with us into a life, and that some remains behind. I have heard that some souls actually spread their energy out into two or more lives at the same time. I don’t know if I take any of this seriously, but I am so completely bonded with Sprite that I have to wonder if there is something to this. Perhaps part of me came into this world as a cat simply to keep me company. Yes, it sounds nuts but at the moment this seems wholly plausible. It fits my Occam’s Razor test: it seems the simplest and most plausible explanation because, yes, we truly are that well integrated. It is sort of supernatural.

Sprite just got a checkup. I now worry at every checkup that they will find something dreadful that means his days as my soulmate and best friend are soon to be over. But the vet says he is doing fine. He can’t see too well but he sees better than most cats his age. I can’t think of anything, even the loss of a parent or sibling, that is likely to leave me more emotionally traumatized than when Sprite dies. Some part of myself will be gone.

But if there is an afterlife he will be waiting for me patiently and he will be back on my lap again. Something like death cannot keep us apart forever. I think on some level we have always been together and always will be together. All I know is I love him dearly and I am so grateful for the 18 years we’ve had together. Every day I have left with him is precious.

 
The Thinker

Social Insecurity

President Bush tells us that the Social Security System is in crisis. He says the way to “fix” the problem is to allow younger workers to create “personal” accounts (do not call them private accounts) where they get to invest their money in stocks and bonds and not in the social security system itself.

On the surface it doesn’t sounds like a bad idea. Social Security was designed to provide a floor that would keep the elderly out of abject poverty. Not all employers provide 401-K plans. Workers who want to put their own money into an IRA are generally limited to $4000 in contributions per year. While the limit will increase to $5000 in 2008, surviving on a social security check and an IRA hardly sounds like the way to finance a successful retirement.

But of course what Bush really wants to do is to allow younger workers to channel part of the money that would go into the social security trust fund and place it in “personal” accounts instead. The major problem: social security is a pay as you go system. With less money going into the social security trust fund, the fund would go dry much sooner than 2042, the date predicted by the trustees of the social security system itself.

So to make up the gap Bush would borrow the money: hundreds of billions of dollars. Of course our creditors won’t give it to use for free. We’ll have to pay interest on that money. This of course means the real cost will be some multiple of the amount actually borrowed. But what’s a few hundred billion dollars to an administration that has no problem with $430 billion annual deficits? Apparently it’s monopoly money, not real money.

The fact is the system is in no crisis whatsoever. Currently more money is going into the social security system than is coming out of it. The demographics suggest that this will change in coming years when the baby boomers retire. But the fund will be no means go broke. It is flush with U.S. Treasury Bills, which it will cash in to pay expenses. It’s not until 2042 when, if current trends continue, all those treasury bills will be cashed in.

Will the fund then be broke? No! There will still be money coming into the system. Payroll taxes will still be withheld and it will go to provide social security checks to people like me. (I anticipate being alive in 2042. I’ll only be 85.) It is estimated that the money coming in would still pay 70% of the benefits due. My check would either be 30% less or Congress would have to place general tax revenue in the fund. And while it sounds a very burdensome thing to throw money from general expenditures into the social security fund (we prefer to borrow from the social security fund to mask the true size of our deficits) even this scenario is not all that dire. For example, it would cost less to pay this burden every year than it currently costs us to finance the war in Iraq.

So all this hand wringing is over something about forty years in the future and assumes we spend forty years doing nothing to solve the problem. Fortunately the problem is easily solved without raising taxes, something Bush conveniently doesn’t want to talk about. It is solved without raising taxes or reducing benefits by adding two more years before workers, who are living longer anyhow, can retire. They would have to retire at age 70. Or if we want to keep the current retirement age at 68 we could increase the payroll tax by no more than 2%.

Trial balloons coming out of the White House suggest that Bush wants to cut benefits as part of the solution to the problem. The idea is to hold future benefits to an inflation index instead of the average increase in wages. Make no mistake: this would be a reduction in benefits for a worker compared to what they can expect today. The same money would go in but less money would come back. It’s like thinking you are going to get that 16 ounce box of corn flakes for $2 and you find that $2 only buys 13 ounces.

And let’s be clear about the risks involved with these “personal” accounts. It means that younger workers, rather than the government, are assuming risk for their retirement. There is no guarantee that stocks and bonds purchased today can be traded in at the appropriate time to finance a nice retirement.

Those of us who bought stocks when they were high at the end of the 1990s are sanguine about the risks in the stock market. We are still taking losses when we sell our stocks. My modest portfolio has lost money during the years Bush has been in office and looks like it will again this year. You can gauge the problem by looking at the S&P 500 Index. At its peak in 2000 it was around 1500. When Bush took office it was at 1343. Today it is at 1171. It’s unlikely I will make a dime in my investments until Bush is out of office. Unfortunately I expect my daughter to start college before then so I will probably sell some of my funds at a loss.

Over the course of the next 30 years hopefully stocks will return modest gains, but there is no guarantee of future performance at all. In short instead of a defined benefit, younger workers benefits would fluctuate and may be markedly higher or lower than your social security benefit. There is no way to tell. Rest assured though that it would be your problem, and not the government’s. And it’s possible the American economy could undergo another depression. In this case those “personal” accounts may be next to worthless when you need to cash them in. And like their great-grandparents younger workers may look forward to spending their final years in the 21st century version of the poor house.

I am in favor of personal accounts to supplement the social security system. But I see no reason to radically change a system that is not in crisis. Arguably the system was in much worse shape in the 1980s. But back then the Congress did the sensible thing and increased withholding rates. Even President Reagan saw the wisdom in it. It never occurred to him to undo this critical program that kept older Americans out of poverty.

So what is really going on is not an attempt to save social security but to slowly strange it. To the neoconservatives it’s a philosophical issue, not a fiscal issue. But rather than change things in a revolutionary manner the neoconservatives are trying to do it in a sly, evolutionary manner. Some day they hope social security will be gone for good. See, neoconservatives believe we should all be engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival. They see it as healthy and something that keeps America lean, mean and efficient.

But don’t you be fooled. The social security system has served this country very well. It has meant for the first time that most Americans can avoid poverty in their final years. It is there for a reason: because Darwinism was tried for millennium and didn’t work. We need a defined benefit in social security because we believe that those who spend their lives working deserve to stay out of poverty when they are older or are incapable of working. Stocks are no guarantee. And the government is the only institution large enough to be able to guarantee defined benefits. Consequently we need a social security system with a defined benefit. Anything else is social insecurity.

 
The Thinker

More Virginia Legislature Madness

It’s dangerous when our legislature is in session. It seems they can’t help themselves. Rather than concentrate on boring things like funding roads and education they have to find ways to infringe on our civil liberties instead. And lately they seem to have this thing for women who might actually want to choose when they get pregnant.

It started back in early January with the introduction of HB 1677. Delegate John A. Cosgrove (Republican, naturally) of Chesapeake decided it should be a crime if a woman did not report a miscarriage within twelve hours. She would be guilty of a Class 1 Misdemeanor. In other words after suffering the trauma of a miscarriage, any woman who didn’t have her wits sufficiently together to promptly report the experience would be a lawbreaker. For this “crime” she could spend up to 12 months in jail and pay a $2,500 fine.

I, along with many other Virginians, were outraged. Fortunately we had time to act on this bill before it was presented for an up or down vote. I did my part and contacted my state representative and senator. And thankfully this horrible bill was withdrawn.

But the wingnuts are back. Yesterday the Virginia Senate passed the Devolites Davis bill, SB 456. This is an amendment to a bill submitted by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple. Her bill simply defined contraception as the prevention of the union of sperm or egg or implantation of an egg in the uterine wall. No problem there: this seems like an obvious and straightforward definition.

But our legislature couldn’t leave well enough alone. As the Hampton Roads Daily Press put it:

[Whipple's] bill would legally define contraception as the prevention of the union of sperm and egg or implantation of an egg in the uterine wall.

Commonly prescribed birth-control pills prevent pregnancy through both means. Abortion opponents who contend life begins at conception insist that denying a fertilized egg the opportunity to attach itself to the womb and develop as a fetus is a form of abortion.

Whipple’s bill and a companion measure by Del. Kristin Amundson, D-Fairfax County, would head off anti-abortion groups’ efforts to classify birth control pills as a form of abortion. That could subject obtaining the pills, intrauterine devices and other forms of birth-control to Virginia’s growing list of abortion restrictions, including parental notification and consent for girls under 18…

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis’ floor amendment applied a less specific dictionary definition of pregnancy. It was adopted largely along party lines in a 21-17 vote with one abstention.

Rather than take the chance that this amended bill could classify birth control pills as abortion devices Whipple has withdrawn the legislation.

Meanwhile, Delegate Mark Cole introduced HB 1918, which wants to give any fertilized human egg protection. “That life begins at the moment of fertilization and the right to enjoyment of life guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia is vested in each born and preborn human being from the moment of fertilization.” Never mind the inconvenient scientific fact that life does not begin at conception. A fertilized egg is a zygote. It cannot grow nor does it divide at this stage. It is inert. It has not even divided once. Conception occurs when the zygote travels into the uterus and implants itself onto the wall of the uterus. It is when the zygote comes in contact with the blood of the uterine wall that energy allows cell division to begin. It is then that something resembling life has actually started.

I hate learning about these things after the fact. But if you are a concerned citizen of Virginia you cannot wait until these stories show up months later in The Washington Post. Their editors there seem to be asleep on these issues. But you can get on the Democracy for Virginia Legislative Sentry mailing list. And be prepared to act quickly before yet another needlessly intrusive bill is quietly voted into law and one more right you’ve always taken for granted vanishes from the Commonwealth.

 
The Thinker

Review: One Hour Photo

I am creeped out. One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams as Sy Parrish, the one hour photo clerk, is high on my personal revulsion meter. It didn’t creep me out because of gory or excessive violence but because of its honest portrayal of a middle aged guy with no friends and his obsession with the young boy of one of his customers. Is he a pedophile? Or is he just working through issues of his own childhood?

Sadly there are lots of dysfunctional adults like Sy Parrish out there. I know a few of them. They seem incapable of having any meaningful social contact. They have no friends. They eat dinners alone in diners. They go home to empty apartments. They are weird and we instinctively shy away from them. At the same time you wonder if they could turn them into normal people if only people cared, and people rarely do. Our radars detect these societal losers and we give them wide berth. The brilliant actor and comedian Robin Williams does a deft job of capturing the Sy Parrishes of the world. Perhaps it is because we instinctively shy away from them that it is so difficult to spend just ninety minutes in their peculiar and lonely universe.

By day Sy Parrish is a man obsessed with turning out instant high quality photos for his customers. But poor invisible Sy behind the photo counter is still a man, and he has needs. He has needs for connection, for love and he is dealing as a dysfunctional adult with his own miserable childhood. One of his best customers is Nina Yorkin, played by Connie Nielsen, a lady some twenty years younger with a boy approaching adolescence and an emotionally estranged husband. Over the years Sy and Nina develop a casual relationship that means much more to Sy than it does to Nina, who is barely aware of the man. Secretly Sy makes extra copies of all her photos and keeps them on one wall of his apartment. His sole hobby seems to be spending his off hours looking at every detail of the photos and projecting himself into their lives. He wants to be thought of as Uncle Sy and creates little opportunities to bring himself closer to this boy and his mother.

Whether his intent is good or bad, it certainly is not healthy. You wonder what is going on when he starts attending the boy’s soccer practices, or offers him toys, or happens to meet his mother in an eatery in a Mall. What is his intent?

Anyhow it is Sy’s obsession with this family through endless plumbing of their photos that allows him to discover that Nina’s husband is cheating on her, and it is his stealth of hand that raises the issue. The discovery coincides with the management of the SavMart where he works discovering that Sy is doing more than developing photographs, and he gets canned. The combination of events puts Sy over the edge and we get to find out whether he is just a dysfunctional adult or a creepy child molester.

This was one of those movies, while good, that was still painful to watch. I often wanted to put my hands in front of my eyes and pretend that things like this didn’t happen. It deserves its R rating, not so much for the tiny bits of nudity and violence but for the creepy and unusual adult themes. Robin Williams is as always wholly convincing in his part. It’s hard to recommend a movie this emotionally upsetting but if you have the stomach for it you will find it is deftly done. 3.0 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

The Cost of Indoctrination

I went to public school in Florida in the early 1970s. As part of a requirement for graduation all students were required by the state to take a course called “Americanism vs. Communism”. As I recall it lasted a quarter and was part of what would otherwise pass for a history credit.

The course purported to clearly distinguish between the American way of life and the totalitarian/fascist nature of communist governments. In it I learned more than I ever expected to about communist theories and leaders. Our class even had a guest speaker who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. She provided a first hand account of what it was like to live in a totalitarian state. I confess after completing the “course” I had no desire to become a communist. But I had none before the course either.

Yet the course has bothered me to this day. And this was because it was not really learning. It was indoctrination, courtesy of the Florida state legislature. While it certainly had its educational aspects, it was neither fair nor balanced. No communists were invited to counterpoint. No mention was made that Communism was a direct result of the brutal oppression of the Russian people. Nor was the very real exploitation of the workers at the time (both in Europe and here in the United States) and the fact that laborers lived lives in poverty with no hope of a better future given any mention as the conditions that bred communism. The course was really about the evils of communism as perceived through the lenses of a nation twenty years or so into The Cold War. It did not provide a genuine understanding of communism. It did not provide context. It was not really education.

At the time this was an isolated example. Today though students have to pass more and more “courses” that are really just indoctrination. In some cases the courses are worse than indoctrination. Why? Because they present themselves as unbiased when they clearly are not.

The best example that I can think of is the modern sex education course taught in our public schools. In many school districts abstinence is openly preferred. Indeed this is Bush Administration policy. Any suggestion that sexual curiosity between boys and girls of that age might be natural is rebuffed. Homosexuality is often not discussed, and when discussed is discussed in a tightly scripted way so that the size and scope of homosexuality is difficult for the student to understand. In many school districts masturbation is not discussed. Even discussing birth control is off limits for many students. Instead of discussing sexuality in context, sex education has become a discussion of the potential horrors of premarital sex. It does little to give a student any idea how to actually cope with their feelings. Sex education has become indoctrination. It usually fails to present the balanced set of information needed by students to make informed choices.

In Cobb County, Georgia school officials require a sticker on biology textbooks indicating that the Theory of Evolution is simply a theory, and not a fact. The educators in that school district are apparently not sufficiently advanced to understand there are multiple definitions for theory. The first definition is “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena” not “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture”, which is the least used definition. Nor apparently could they be bothered to find out from scientists which definition applies to the Theory of Evolution. Hint: it’s not the second. Another school district in Pennsylvania wants to require students to also learn about so-called “Intelligent Design Theory”. And you can be certain that if this theory is discussed no mention that it falls into the “assumption” category of theories will be made. It’s much easier to talk about theories in general and let every crackpot theory in than to limit discussion to theories with actual merit.

Let’s be clear what is going on here. Increasingly we are sending this message to our children: we don’t want you to have the best-known information. We will tell you what the truth is. But our version of the truth is based on our faith and prejudices, not on an impartial assessment of the facts. We think it is better to ignore certain facts, present facts selectively, and provide alternative viewpoints with no basis in reasoned analysis than to present the modern understanding of the current world put together by academics with no axe to grind. The message is pretty much this: it’s okay for us to lie to you. It’s for your own good.

So what is the purpose of education then? How does a student handle the real world without a clear understanding of it? Increasingly our children cannot. Perhaps this is why although global warming is as much a theory as is the Theory of Evolution we’d rather live in denial. Those pesky, abstract, non-biased scientists can be really annoying telling us things we don’t want to hear.

Imagine if driver’s education course included no mention of what to do if you see a stop sign. Most of us would be appalled to put our children in the driver’s seat without this basic understanding. But for many of us parents we would rather pamper our prejudices than do what is best for our kids: just give them the best-known facts. Life will be complicated enough for them in the 21st century. Why make it needlessly difficult?

Where is our sort of brave new world thinking also happening? I bet you can find it resurgent throughout the Muslim world. It’s been going on in the Vatican for millennium. Spanish bishops are still scared to admit that condoms prevent sexually transmitted diseases. I bet you won’t find this sort of wishy washy learning happening in most of today’s emerging high tech economies. I bet in India “Intelligent Design” is not taught along with the Theory of Evolution. Guess which society is going to be better prepared to move and adapt to the future?

There is a cost to ignorance. There is a cost to selectively presenting the facts. There is a cost to lying. For a country that claims to worship freedom, it’s odd that we won’t give our children the freedom to learn free from our own petty biases. Let’s give our students the freedom to see the clearest picture of the universe, as we know it. We do them no favor by placing them in a world where they must always engage with one arm tied behind their backs.

 
The Thinker

And I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Flu

Yet another reason to dislike the Bush Administration: I have a probably unnecessary influenza. My wife, who has adult diabetes, had no problem getting her flu shot this year. But of course I, being under 50 and in good health, didn’t qualify. So naturally for the first year since 1996 that I haven’t had my flu shot I have to come down with it.

I guess there is no way of knowing for sure if a flu shot would have protected me or not. I do know that my wife doesn’t seem to be picking it up, and I am going on day four. But anyhow it’s a good bet she won’t. All I know is that inattention by our federal health officials meant that more than half the influenza vaccine did not get to market, so shots had to be rationed. And for sure I’d rather have my elderly parents get their shots instead of me. Still, having gone nine years without the flu I realize anew why I had been studiously getting my flu shots all along. The flu sucks. Big time.

This is my hour to be “up” for the day, a time when I can write some coherent remarks. But if it follows the last three days I will likely be horizontal and in bed shortly.

Technically I’m not even sure this is the flu. I see my doctor this afternoon. Apparently I’m only allowed to get sick on weekends and three-day weekends are ideal. Some symptoms match the flu, some don’t. Persistent headaches: check. Fever: check, but mine have peaked out at around 101 degrees. But they have been coming and going. Loss of appetite: check. The flu is a great way to lose weight, if you are desperate. The thought of food makes me nauseous. On day one I was able to get down a little juice, a banana and an apple. Yesterday I completed a whole bowl of cream of wheat and picked at the meatloaf my wife made for dinner. This morning I made it through half a bowl of raisin bran before giving up.

And oh the fevers and chills! I end up in long running showers desperate to feel warm but it doesn’t quite work. Even a heating pad on my lap makes me feel cold. My day consists of staying awake for a couple hours before my leaden eyes take over and I am vertical on my bed. And yet most of the time I don’t sleep. That’s the maddening part. Too much weird stuff is going on inside my body to allow me to have anything resembling restful sleep. Sometime during the night the load of blankets finally becomes too much and I throw them off.

I’m doing everything right, I think. I take cold medicines out the wazoo. I ingest two extra strength Tylenols when headaches arrive (one just won’t do it). I expectorate whenever I move in bed.

All for naught. They don’t seem to do much to relieve the symptoms. Basically I am a big, painful lump of agony. I can’t focus on anything. I can’t take joy in anything. I can’t read more than a paragraph at a time. The body at least knows what is going on and has been sending unmistakable messages: lie down! Even when I lie down I still feel weak, just less weak.

Naturally I have important meetings this week but I seem helpless to do anything about them. Tomorrow I have to brief our Executive Steering Committee over a hot dispute. Perhaps I can delegate that to my team leader, if I can stay coherent long enough to send the email.

This soon shall pass. But just for the record this is a miserable experience. I hope you get through the flu season unscathed.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Review: White Noise

Dead people are speaking. But I guess they must be lazy. It used to be that dead people would come back as ghosts but everything has to be high tech these days. So now it appears that at least some of the dead communicate to the living through Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP).

EVP is another one of these phenomenas that can be argued about to death. Lots of people think the phenomenon is real. Others, myself included at least for the moment, suspect it is just electromagnetic radiation perhaps bleeding over into new frequencies from people on cell phones, web cams or ham radios. Whether it is real or not it doesn’t appear that anyone has made a movie on the topic, so producers created this new film White Noise instead.

The plot is not too hard to figure out. It would feel formulaic if this had been done before. Michael Keaton plays Jonathan Rivers, whose Barbie-doll wife (who just happens to be a best selling author) tragically loses her life under mysterious circumstances. It takes weeks for her body to show up. While he is grieving he notices a guy hanging outside his house and place of business. Eventually he confronts him and we learn he has been getting EVP messages from his wife.

Naturally it takes a bit before Jonathan will investigate further. Fortunately there are plenty of weird things going on around the house that will lead Jonathan down a path he otherwise would not have chosen. Lights go out, usually around 2:30 AM and mysterious fuzzy messages are left on his answering machines.

Soon Jonathan has become an EVP investigator himself and spends his off hours obsessively scanning frequencies for messages from his departed wife. Like clockwork the tension increases. It’s pretty easy to know when something scary is about to happen from the tone of the music by Claude Foisy. The good news is that White Noise is a pretty creepy move. It is solidly acted, directed and shot. Most of the supporting actors like Ian McNeice as Raymond and Deborah Kara Unger as Sara Tate give very good performances.

I didn’t particularly like its ending, which was too amorphous for my tastes. The editing, while overall well done, still struck me as annoying at times. The opening credits are very jarring and confusing. Overall the cinematography is well done and as you might expect much of the action happens at night.

There is nothing to really to distinguish this thriller from many others on the market these days other than its unique premise. For me its main virtue was that it was scary without being excessively gross. So if you are squeamish about movie violence this is a good creepy movie to see. It seemed like a variant on the 80′s film Poltergeist, which was a much better film. In short the film is worth your time but just barely. There are many other films out there at the moment probably more worthy of your money and time. Save seeing this one for when it comes out on DVD.

I give it a 2.8 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

NetMeeting: Cool Stuff

It’s a rare day when I praise Microsoft. I do so today for a technology they’ve had around for many years but I haven’t really gotten around to trying until recently. And that is its NetMeeting software.

Using NetMeeting I can have a meeting over the Internet in real time. (I hesitate to call them virtual meetings because they are real meetings, just not one done in person.) Such meetings are I suspect greatly facilitated by also having a separate voice conferencing system. We have one of those where I work. Since the teams I am on are geographically disbursed almost all our meetings are done over the voice conferencing system. Hitherto our notion of a “virtual” meeting was having someone take notes and post them to the web periodically. We’d refresh the page periodically to see if we agreed with what was said.

I don’t know why we’ve avoided virtual meeting software. But we’re not alone. Even Microsoft seems to downplay its own NetMeeting software. On Windows XP it’s no longer even a program you can select off the Start button. It’s still there but you have to hunt for it. Look for a program called conf.exe under your Program Files folder in a subfolder called NetMeeting.

The software is fairly easy to use but not foolproof. Even an experienced computer type like myself was a bit puzzled at first. It offers a wizard that lets you identify yourself and asks you what kind of equipment you have. It wants to attach you to a directory server so others can find you. And there’s the rub. The default Microsoft directory server doesn’t really want you so you’ll probably get a timeout after 30 seconds or so. You could find another directory server and put your contact information there, but most people have no idea what a directory server is in the first place or how to hook up to it. Using a directory server is too complicated for most people to learn or even bother with.

But here’s the thing: you don’t need a stinking directory server. What you do need to know to host a meeting is your Internet protocol (IP) address. Microsoft does not make this easy to find. There are a couple ways to do it but the easiest thing (since many of us hide behind routers) is simply to go to a web site that will tell you what your IP is. I use whatismyip.com. Assuming that your IP is static (and even from home as long as you have a cable modem or DSL your IP is probably static for at least a couple days) just send an email to the participants with the IP and the time of the meeting. Make sure you include your time zone– this is the Internet after all. If they are neophytes also provide some basic instructions on how to find and invoke NetMeeting. The first time through expect 15 minutes or so of futzing using a separate voice system before everyone understands the basics.

I suspect the reason NetMeeting is not used more is that most people don’t have microphones connected to their computer. NetMeeting comes with a shared chat window participants can use but using it is not nearly as productive as using voice. The good news: microphones for PCs are cheap. The bad news: if your participants are not particularly technology savvy it will probably take a lot of nagging to get them to buy a microphone. But while they are at the computer store they should think about buying a web cam too. Why? Because you can also show yourself to other meeting participants this way.

To start the meeting someone has to host it, so they simply select the Host Meeting option from the Call menu. Give the meeting a name and a password (which participants will need to know about before the meeting). Participants have to initiate a New Call and will likely type in the IP that you provided. The host will hear a ringing sound and will be asked if they want to accept their call. When you do they join the meeting. A chat window and whiteboard will come up by default sometime after your first participant joins the meeting. You can also do file transfers and share out programs with the software.

For four afternoons and four hours a day this week my geographically disbursed team did our planning for next year with NetMeeting. Before we would have flown across country to meet. A meeting like this could well have cost the government $10,000. With money tight my boss asked us to try to do it electronically. I had tried NetMeeting before with a coworker or two. But would it scale to a larger meeting?

And the answer was yes it did. We did not have web cams available. And as I said we had a separate voice conferencing system in place that we used. And we all had broadband connections. Participants included four of us at our desks in Reston, and men in Anchorage, Helena and Portland, Oregon. Others joined in the meeting on invitation to discuss particular topics from other points across the United States. My man in Anchorage works from home and just installed a DSL line. I was worried whether it would be fast enough. It wasn’t a problem.

For most of the meeting I shared out a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and we used that to keep our complex notes organized. I typed what I was hearing into my laptop computer. I wondered how long it would take for screens to refresh across the country. I was dancing all over the keyboard and dragging and dropping things right and left. Participants reported almost zero latency. Somehow all those pixels kept redrawing flawlessly and in real time to multiple machines across the country. Now that is amazing and why I thought this software is truly cool.

Occasionally I let someone else operate my shared application. That’s when it got weird because others seemed to be taking over my computer. When done they could transfer control back to me. I didn’t think we’d use the chat window but I was wrong. Participants quickly started posting relevant notes and URLs in the chat window on the topic of the moment. Even the whiteboard was used, but mostly as a place for people to doodle when their attention lagged.

There are other solutions out there that are fancier than NetMeeting. The obvious one is WebEx, which is really a hosted solution and a pretty expensive one. It’s a better choice for many Internet meetings because it is not wrapped around Windows. It also allows you to reserve ports and send out invitations. NetMeeting however is free, providing you have Windows installed. But even NetMeeting supports some other operating systems. For example, there is a NetMeeting client for Linux.

NetMeeting needs an easier and less geeky way for people to find each other. Its way better than mere chat and it really allows you to get real work done efficiently. It was not quite as efficient as if we had all been in person. But we didn’t have to travel thousands of miles to see each other either.

I don’t know how well it would have worked without our voice conferencing system. Doing everything in chat mode would probably be very inefficient. Using the Internet to carry voices would probably give reduced and choppy sound quality. But with Windows having won the desktop war it’s nice to know a powerful tool like this is nearly universally available. It’s a shame we don’t use tools like this more often.

 
The Thinker

Some Observations on Management

I’m coming up on my first year anniversary of being a manager. I’m figuratively still dipping my toes into the management waters. I’ve made more than a few stumbles, but I think I am at least beginning to understand a few things about what it really means to be a manager.

In many ways it is a very different sort of job. It is true that someone else manages every employee, even me. The president of the United States is still accountable to the people. Even the self-employed have to manage themselves (and their customers) or they starve. What’s really different being in the management role is that as a manager you set direction.

Maybe this is not all that surprising to you. I can just tell you that as a manager it feels surprising. Being a manager is in many ways like being a driver of a car. The car would just sit there inert if the driver did not start the ignition. While it may seem trivial that is the essence of management, but it is also its most crucial aspect: you get to turn the key. The system does not work at all if someone doesn’t turn the key.

But it’s not always a great thing to be someone who has to make decisions. If you are indecisive by nature then management is not for you. But if you are comfortable making decisions and (just as importantly) comfortable dealing with the consequences of your decisions then you may be management material.

I must confess the “turning the key” part of management is something I like. I’ve directed people in their work for many years. But they were always multitasked. They were not directly accountable to me. When push came to shove my projects often got short shrift. Someone else, usually a manager, had more clout than I did. Now at least some of the people who work for me are accountable to me and no one else. I provide direction on what needs to be done. But just as a driver does not tell the engine how to do its work I rarely tell my staff how things should be done. I assume they are competent in their field.

Just as it behooves a driver to check the oil and the tire pressure before taking off on a long drive, it behooves me as a manager to monitor my employees’ work. The key though is to monitor, not micromanage. If you notice your engine kicking up you don’t necessarily take it immediately to the mechanic. Maybe it will smooth itself out, or maybe you need to add a quart of oil. The same is true with management. You learn to respond cautiously to perceived problems. I have to figure out when the situation requires me to initiate some maintenance. And this becomes a judgment call. Often a can of oil solves the problem but if it doesn’t then it’s time to call the mechanic.

It would be pointless to suggest that no work would get done if management were not there. Prior to my hire work continued for a couple of years anyhow. My staff rotated through the management position as temporary details. The engine kept running because a lot of inertia was in place. What was missing though was vision. My team excelled on handling the tactical problems of the day. But they couldn’t implement a long-term strategy. Instead they operated like an airplane in a holding pattern.

I often wonder just what the heck I do all day. How do I add value? I do not modify a line of code. If the system goes down I can’t fix it. On the surface my days look pretty trivial. I read a lot of email, much of which is way too micro for me to read all the way through. I prepare briefings for management. I listen to employees and pass relevant information up the chain of command. I schmooze with customers and suppliers. I listen to employees who come in my door and want to rant. It doesn’t seem like these things should justify my inflated salary.

But I have come to understand that I am not there to punch a clock. My job is not to turn out so many widgets per day. My job is to make sure the team is oriented and moving in the direction that I largely set. So in some sense it really doesn’t matter whether I work four or twenty hours a day. There is not necessarily a correlation between effort and effectiveness. The driver does not always have his attention completely on driving either. Part of his mind is listening to the radio, or thinking about other problems, or wanting to boink the cute chick in the car next to him. It is important that he drives well and is mindful of other cars and obstacles around him. On a more complex level this is what a manager does. He tries to be very aware of the environment around him and move his team through the various obstacle courses called reality so that the work gets done.

And this, alas, is where I need more schooling. Being decisive and confident in my driving doesn’t necessarily mean that I have earned the trust of the drivers around me. In fact I bump into them regularly and they are not happy about it. But slowly I am leaving my trainee status behind and feeling like I have earned my operator’s license. I understand I can’t treat my customers quite the same way I treat other drivers. They are not peers. They are my customers. I spend more and more of my time listening to their concerns and figuring out ways to make them happy. I have to do this while keeping my team happy.

And that’s the biggest challenge of management. It often feels like being between a rock and a hard place. Customers always have more demands than can be fulfilled. They always want something bigger, better and faster and they want it yesterday. Employees want to do a good job and feel valued, but they also want to have a life. And work has to be done efficiently. Processes cannot always stop to satisfy the special request of the day. So a lot of management is learning to say no in ways that sound like you are actually saying yes, and smoothing out feelings among employees so that they system works with the maximum efficiency.

In some ways it sounds like a virtual job and not a real job. At its essence management is a people job. And it is a necessary job because whether we like to admit it or not we need management. (Or more precise, we need effective management.) A team runs for a while without leadership but eventually it peters out and stalls.

The effective driver is usually not just concerned with what is immediately in front of the car, but is also thinking about what is around the bend and miles down the road. To make that sharp curve he must have all the car’s components tuned just right. When he does the car slides around the curve smoothly. When he doesn’t the car runs off the road. It’s not so much the effort required to turn the steering wheel that makes an effective driver, but knowing how much to turn it, when to turn it and how carefully to apply the brakes.

For a manager though it’s like being driving with a hazy bandana in front of your eyes. So if you think about it making that curve is quite a feat. When done smoothly and professionally you have a very effective manager. I hope I will get there someday.

 
The Thinker

In Denial on Iraqi Elections

I got to give Bush an A for stubbornness. No matter what he seems to be determined that Iraqis will vote on January 30th. Almost all the Sunnis will stay home. There is little incentive for them to vote because they would almost certainly lose power they have traditionally held under Saddam. It is likely be that most of the Kurds will stay home too. Only the Shi’ites are likely to go to the polls in significant numbers. This is because they know their time has come. They are the majority in Iraq and have long been discriminated against and oppressed. But even many Shi’ites will stay away. Repeated targeting of election workers as well as broader threats that anyone who votes in Iraq risk their lives will be hard to ignore. The insurgents have frequently demonstrated that they mean what they say.

We have 150,000 troops in the country. Extra troops were sent to Iraq to help stabilize the country so elections could be held. Clearly the extra troops haven’t stabilized the country. The insurgency appears to be worse than ever. Even our victories come at a terrible price. Fallujah, for example, was largely destroyed in an effort to make its safe. Most of its residents are still refugees. And there are still insurgents sniping at our forces within Fallujah itself.

Across Iraq U.S. soldiers, election workers, police officers, mayors, low lying political officials and many innocent Iraqi citizens have paid the price for our inability to secure the country after our invasion. But this won’t stop Bush from holding elections anyhow. What we will see on January 30th is likely to be farcical. We are likely to see violence on a scale hitherto unseen in Iraq since we started this unnecessary war.

Safety and security are prerequisites not just for elections but to the emergence of any civil society. But even if these elements were in place as Bush has promised repeatedly there is still no guarantee that elections would have their desired effect. One problem is the way power is to be distributed in the new Iraqi assembly. It won’t work. A realistic plan would address the reality of Iraq. In a workable solution Iraq would become a federation of independent states. While there are many mixed areas of Iraq, the reality is that Iraq is divided between predominantly Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish areas. A federation with a weak central government and strong, largely autonomous states where the primary religious and ethnic authorities would dominate might actually bring peace and stability. But it is equally likely that Iran would like to annex Shi’ite portions of Iraq, in effect finally winning the Iran-Iraq war. It is likely that balkanization along ethnic lines that cross country boundaries would bring the highest likelihood of long term stability.

Here’s what will likely happen on January 30th. Large areas of Iraq will have no polling stations. Polling officials will not show up out of the logical fear that they will be killed. Most Iraqis who are eligible to vote won’t show up either, also largely out of fear. Shi’ites will likely show up but I would still be surprised if their overall turnout rate was more than 50%. There will be a lot of voters and election workers (probably a hundred or more) killed or wounded. Across Iraq I would be very surprised if turnout exceeded 25%.

It remains to be seen whether if after this farce we will acknowledge the obvious: elections were premature. The difference between lofty promises and reality will be hard to ignore. Despite the best efforts of our brave soldiers to help this troubled land we cannot through force change in Iraq. With 300,000 soldiers in Iraq we could perhaps have a true measure of security across the country. But we do not have those numbers of troops to commit to Iraq. So the anarchy will continue. You can expect over 2005 as the carnage continues that calls for us to leave Iraq will increase. The sad reality of Iraq is that order cannot be imposed on it from the outside.

 

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