Archive for April, 2005

The Thinker

So What’s the Problem with Bringing a Gun to School?

Welcome to the schizophrenic state of Virginia. Last week a teacher at the high school my daughter attends, Westfield High School, brought a loaded gun to school. No he didn’t actually bring it in the school. He brought it on school property and kept it in his locked car. The teacher, Timothy D. Fudd, now faces up to five years in prison for his offense.

Please understand I am not actually in favor of bringing any kind of gun on school property. But this is Virginia, after all. We’re a gun crazy state. Here in Virginia it is perfectly legal to carry a concealed weapon (except, apparently, on school property) or even wear side arms openly in public in places like restaurants. Want to play Wild West and strap some loaded pistols to your waist and bring them into your friendly neighborhood Hooters? Not a problem in the Old Dominion. It’s completely legal. You may get more than a few odd stares and people may gravitate toward tables on the other side of the restaurant. Because, fortunately, this is not an every day occurrence. But it’s quite legal.

As I noted in a previous entry, it’s also perfectly legal to bring your gun to teenage recreation centers in Virginia too. And that’s why I have a problem with Mr. Fudd’s prosecution. Timothy D. Fudd could have packed a couple pistols and brought them into his local teen center and it would have been completely legal. Indeed, the NRA would have cheered him on for exercising the important second amendment rights that they spent so much time battling Fairfax County to win. At this point I figured guns were allowed everywhere in this state. I figured you could put them in your nightstand next to your hospital bed and the nurse was not allowed to complain. But apparently you cannot bring them on school property. Go figure.

I’m trying to figure out what passes for logic here. Is the worry that a loaded gun in a school parking lot might encourage a student to break into the car? Might the student then use the weapon to cause some mayhem? Certainly it is a risk but why worry about it? I mean guns don’t kill people, people kill people. If we were to worry that this might encourage kids might do this on school property then we might as well also start worrying that adults might do the same thing. In fact adults do do the same thing in neighborhoods across the country, resulting in about thirty thousand gun related homicides a year.

Virginia bends over backwards to accommodate the gun lobby. This spring alone we passed fifteen new gun laws, more than any other state in the country and all of them pleased the NRA. Some examples: people who already have a concealed weapons permit are no longer subject to the one gun a month purchase limitation. Woo hoo! Ditto for gun collectors: take them home by the truckload from your “private sale”. Our legislature says go for it! Also, people who live in other states that allow concealed weapons are welcome to bring them in and conceal them in Virginia too. The more the merrier.

So now poor Timothy D. Fudd may spend five years in a Virginia prison for bringing a loaded weapon on school property. He went the extra mile by locking the darn thing in his car. Surely he can be forgiven if he pleads ignorance. In this state gun ownership, possession and display is encouraged. Maybe he just got confused. Perhaps he was at his local teen recreation wearing his perfectly legal and loaded pistols strapped to his waist. Perhaps while he was there he was encouraging teens to join him at a nearby rifle range to learn about exercising their second amendment rights. Since guns can be worn openly or concealed in teen recreation centers, why should there be a problem leaving a loaded gun in a locked car in a school parking lot?

I honestly don’t understand why the NRA is not helping with this man’s legal defense. Mr. Fudd is African American after all, and this is an important community that needs to be encouraged to exercise their second amendment rights.

But most shocking off all: this occurred only ten miles from the NRA National Headquarters. Where is the outrage?

The Thinker

The Virtues of Small Cars

I’m wondering how much longer it will be before small cars became chic again. They were popular in the 1970s but only because gas cost so much. The current high cost of gasoline is now making many reconsider their love affair with their SUVs and consider the merits of smaller cars and hybrids. Perhaps in the process Americans will discover that small can be beautiful.

Why do I love small cars? I should first qualify what I mean by a small car. To me any compact or subcompact qualifies as a small car. I currently own a Honda Civic Hybrid, which would be considered a compact car. It’s a lovely car, and not just because it is friendlier to the environment than most cars. It is also a pleasure to drive. I buy new cars so rarely that every time I purchase one I realize what quantum leaps car technologies are being realized in just five to ten years. My Honda Civic may be a compact car but it is a pleasure to drive. It is amazingly quiet. When the engine is idling you have to listen carefully to hear it. Even at full throttle it is a hum, not a roar. This quietness comes despite an engine placed very close to the driver. It accelerates very briskly even though it has only four cylinders. (I assume this is because of the assist it gets from the battery.) It handles very well. I have yet to feel unconfident or not in control when I drive it, even when I need to come to a sudden stop. It lacks the hatchback feature of its non-hybrid cousin but otherwise it is as roomy as any compact car I’ve driven and roomier than most. In short it feels about as close to perfected engineering as a small car is likely to get.

Of course being a compact car it is not meant to haul much of anything. It’s really a commuter car. And that’s fine. That’s exactly what I need. I don’t know what your driving is like but I suspect you spend more time in traffic doing stop and go than cruising at high speeds on the freeway. Compact cars make excellent commuter cars and mine excels at it. There are times when I feel like I need a big car to haul something. But then I think again about it. Do I really need some huge honking SUV for the couple times a year I might want to move something large like a sofa? Is it really worth $15,000 more in price and hundreds of dollars a year more in gasoline for something that I need a couple times a year? To me it isn’t. That’s why I pay $30 or so to get the item delivered. And I’ve noticed stores like Loews and Home Depot offer trucks for rent by the hour. When I need a truck I can rent one very conveniently and inexpensively.

It is true that an SUV can probably get through snow better than my small car. I don’t have four-wheel drive, but I do have front wheel drive. It is pretty unusual to have any snowstorm in Northern Virginia that requires a four-wheel drive car. So I just don’t think this feature is something worth paying for. And if I did perhaps I would consider a compact Suburu wagon.

I personally like the way a small car hugs the pavement. Unlike the SUV owner, I don’t spend much time worrying about whether my car will rollover in an accident. For some people it might be a bit awkward to get into the car that is low to the ground. But I don’t find it an issue. I slide in smoothly.

Unlike many of my bigger car brethren, my car slips through the atmosphere. I don’t create much drag because there is not much surface area for it to be much of a problem. I don’t usually hear or feel the wind.

Parking is never a problem with a small car. I watch SUV drivers creep into parking spaces, always careful not to be scraping the car next to them. Even if the SUV next to me in the parking lot is encroaching on my space, it’s still not a problem. I can get in and out with relative ease.

A smaller car is easier to access and maintain. I don’t require a stepladder to get the snow off my roof. Pity the fool with a Ford Expedition after a snowstorm. Since my compact car has less surface area it is easier and faster to wash and wax. Vacuuming it is quick. With four cylinders instead of eight, maintenance is markedly less expensive. A complete tune up can be done for a few hundred bucks. That everything is smaller usually means parts are less costly to replace. I bet the muffler on my car is at least $40 less than the muffler on an SUV.

I clearly don’t get the allure of an SUV. To me big is not better. Big is more hassle. They cost more money to buy and more money to maintain. You can buy two of my tires for the price of one of their behemoth’s. Me: I like quick. I like stealthy. I like being ubiquitous on the road. You can have none of these in an SUV.

And call me a militant environmental, but I like leaving a small footprint on this planet. My life is finite. I don’t feel I own anything. Instead, I feel like I need to be a steward of the planet so that those who come after me will be able to enjoy its natural wonders too. I suspect that despite my best efforts, and due to the many others who don’t seem to care about the consequences of their lifestyle choices that we will leave a pretty toxic environment for our children. But I’d like to be able to at least hold my head up high and said I did my part. I would hope that others would notice. Perhaps with gas prices so high large car owners will finally see the virtues in driving small again. Most will do so grudgingly for purely economic reasons. But perhaps in time they will discover the joys of small cars too.

The Thinker

Better Living through Unemployment

My wife has been out of a job since the end of October 2004. When she was fully employed she worked on a help desk, solved mysterious Windows problems and made around $50K a year. Then her employer decided to outsource her department. She got a very nice severance check and was let go.

Fortunately there was my income to fall back on. Since I made about twice what she was making there was no looming financial catastrophe. The last six months have proven that our lifestyle has not changed much. We’ve avoided a regular trip to New York City and we also eat out a bit less. But otherwise our lifestyle seems largely unchanged. Still, it seems counterintuitive to me that our income could be cut by a third and we’d not notice it that much.

It helps to be fairly liquid. We have never been people to live beyond our means. Our house is modest. We have two cars, one paid for, the other half paid for. Our only other real debt is our mortgage. Since our house was purchased twelve years ago for less than half what it is now worth, and the principle is about $130,000 or so, our mortgage payment is easily doable. It’s about what most people pay for decent two bedroom apartments in our zip code today.

And technically my wife is not unemployed. She is now “self employed”. She is very self employed. This is to say she picks up a few greenbacks here and there fixing and building computers for friends and for clients. She does not market herself. She will also teach a class at a local community college starting next month. Adjunct teaching pays slave wages. From the 12-week course she will likely bring home about $1300. I expect that by the end of the year she will have earned at most one tenth of what she made in 2004.

Whatever time she has left over is hers to use as she wishes. She is having no problem keeping busy. She loves writing and now has the time to immerse herself into it. She has submitted one story and will be submitting others. She also critiques others stories in an online writer’s workshop. She occasionally meets friends for lunch. She has projects around the house she can pick up or leave as whim dictates. And she can sleep in late most mornings. She is not a morning person, so she now usually crawls into bed sometime after midnight when I have been asleep for a few hours. Her unemployment seems ideally timed. For example she was able to transport my father for some outpatient surgery while I worked a full day. She can also transport our daughter to her various activities without me leaving early from work to do it, which was often the case in the past.

While I am still a bit skittish about how this loss of income will work out in the long run, I am a lot less skittish than I was. One reason is that I’ve discovered that living on one income can pay a dividend. Last year with our dual incomes, even after healthy deductions and credits, we paid close to $19,000 in federal income taxes. This year I project we’ll pay about $8300 in federal income taxes. The change in our job situations caused me to look at my withholding. At my old withholding rate (Married – 0 dependents) I was withholding about $13,800 annually from my wages. Now I need to withhold $5500 less. Since I am paid biweekly this effectively means I can take home $211 more every two weeks. This can pay a few bills. But we’re already paying all the bills, still going out to dinner regularly and not going in the hole. So in a way this money feels like a windfall.

I realize that most families in this situation would not be as fortunate. My job also comes with good benefits, like health insurance. I also realize that there are some other costs to my wife’s unemployment. She is not racking up social security credits, and must pay the employer’s portion of her Social Security and Medicare taxes for her meager self-employment earnings. She is not putting money into a 401-K, so those potential earnings will not be accruing in the future. Since we are doing fine perhaps the best use of the extra $211 a pay period be to put the money into an IRA.

Still, our situation seems counterintuitive to me. Until recently living on one income was out of the question. It seems odd that we can reduce our income by a third and feel so little pain. This was simply not an option before. Unemployment for any sustained period of time would have meant major changes in our lifestyle. We would have been looking for the next job the day we knew our job was ending. My steadily advancing career explains part of our good fortune. Part of it is also explained by not living beyond our means. But part of it is also due to our progressive income tax system.

Our tax system is often maligned but now it is a blessing. The flat rate tax favored by some people would have worked to our disadvantage. Instead we paid proportionately more as we made more income. The flip side is we pay proportionately less when we earn less. If you ask me this is a very sweet system. Each according to his means may strike some as socialism, but to me it seems eminently fair. I didn’t begrudge the $19,000 we paid in income tax last year. I felt fortunate that we were in a position where we could contribute so bountifully to the commonwealth and still live so expansively. Of course since we were doing so well we should be asked to contribute more toward the cost of society’s upkeep.

At 45 my wife is probably too young to retire permanently. But it seems like if she wanted to take the rest of her life off from the grind of a 9-5 job she could. I just hope that I don’t find myself on the receiving end of a pink slip before I retire.

The Thinker

An Overplayed Hand

When you are in power one of the hardest lessons is learning to say, “Enough!” As Bush said shortly after his election last year, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.” He, like the four new Republican senators and the handful of new Republican congressmen, read way more into their electoral victory than was evidenced by the facts.

Bush, for example, claimed, “I’ve got the will of the people” when in fact he scraped by with a bare majority: 51 percent to 48 percent. 51 percent is not a mandate. In electoral votes, it was 286-252, the closest electoral college result in modern American history, despite running against the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. 60 percent, maybe, is a mandate. 51 percent is not.

What about those new Republican senators? Democratic incumbent and former minority leader Daschle lost to Thune in South Dakota, a very red state, by two points. In Florida, Martinez wins by two points too. North Carolina: Burr wins by five. Republicans did better in the Deep South, winning decisively in Georgia, Oklahoma, Louisiana (after a runoff election), Oklahoma and South Carolina. But there were also some Democratic surprises. While Obama’s victory in Illinois was not in doubt, gathering 70% of the vote is stunning. And the red state of Colorado appears to be trending blue, picking mainstream Ken Salazar over Peter Coors by four points.

So the 2004 election was essentially about getting the power without really having the mandate. A more astute party would use the opportunity to cement their power through moderate choices. But instead the President in specific and the party in general have dramatically overplayed their hands.

Seizing the reins of power must be addictive. It must be hard to think clearly when you can get pretty much what you want. Not much else can explain the stunningly bad choices made by the Republicans lately, and their inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation. By about a three to one margin Americans are appalled by the attempts by the President and Congress to intervene in Terri Schiavo’s case. Today’s Washington Post-ABC News Poll is one of many that should tell Republicans they are in serious trouble. Bush’s approval rating is at 47%. Only with the war on terrorism does he gets more approval than disapproval. (This still surprises me, based on how badly it was bungled.) On his handling of social security he has 64% disapproval. When asked which party better represents voters’ personal values Democrats lead Republicans by nine points.

When asked whether the Senate should “go nuclear” (changing Senate filibuster rules to make it easier to confirm Bush’s judges) 66 percent oppose the change and only 26% approve. Clearly majority leader Bill Frist isn’t paying much attention to polls. Instead he is courting Christian conservative voters, wackos like this guy:

Putting more evangelicals on the court will mean rulings more in tune with the religious convictions of churchgoers, said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

“We are not asking for persons merely to be moral,” Mohler said. “We want them to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Meanwhile, over in the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Tom Delay puts in a new Ethics committee chairman who is his personal friend and tries to change the rules to make it harder to kick him out of power. He finds nothing wrong with his numerous ethical problems, despite being thrice admonished by his own Ethics Committee and despite this Washington Post article, which demonstrated that his 2000 trip to London was paid for by lobbyists. What an irony that “The Hammer” Delay was one of the boatload of Republican congressmen elected in 1994 in the Gingrich revolution. It was Gingrich’s Contract with America that promised term limits. That clearly failed to materialize. The Contract also promised lots of other things including reining in a government: “too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” And here we are with a government far more grandiose than any Republican could conceive in 1994. But most ironic of all, the Contract called for “restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government.”

Instead we get tyrannical politicians nominated for the United Nations, extremists judges renominated for the federal courts, and anti-citizen legislation like the new bankruptcy law that screws the average American yet does nothing to require that creditors stop handing out credit cards like they were candy.

My sense is that Republicans have dramatically overplayed their hand. Rather than representing mainstream values they have shown they demonstrate extreme values. It is clear that they pander to corporate interests, not the people’s interests.

And the irony is I find myself cheering them on. Keep up the good work. Keep denying your ethical violations, Tom Delay. Keep chatting with Christian Conservatives like the weird Tony Perkins at the so-called Family Research Council, Bill Frist. And yes by all means try your “nuclear option”. This time the Democrats won’t be seen as obstructionists. Instead it will be clear which party is really outside of the mainstream and which party really stands for the average American. And thank you George W. Bush for nominating some of the most controversial people in the Republican Party for your top posts. By all means keep pressing for “personal” social security accounts. With every out of the mainstream move the opposition grows and ordinary Americans rethink their choices. They can see the Republican reality at last and it is not pretty.

Republican cannot see it, but the handwriting is already on the wall.

The Thinker

My Eating and Exercise Strategies

In my last entry I decried how our culture seems to conspire to keep us fat. I suspect I won’t get too much sympathy. Our current culture poo poos victimization and emphasizes personal responsibility. Of course we control what we put into our mouths and how much we exercise. We make choices, for better or for worse, which determine our health. I chose to live in suburbia. As a consequence shopping is not convenient and generally I need to take a car. But I had other alternatives. I could have chosen to live in the city. Had I done this I would be doing a lot more walking. Perhaps as a consequence I would not even worry about gaining weight.

But if you are overweight or obese, or just want to not gain any more weight, what can you do that might actually work for you? I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do have weight control strategies. You are welcome to take them for a test drive.

The formula for weight loss is pretty well known: eat less and exercise more. But how do you do this if you are a harried adult like myself stuck in the sandwich generation with lots of demands? How do you eat less when your body often craves more? How do you summon the willpower? My experience probably mirrors yours: willpower can be hard to come by. When it arrives it is not likely to hang around. I do not trust the Atkins Diet so have never tried it. I know people who have had great success with it but to me it seems dangerous. I’ve had better success with the South Beach Diet. I still use some of the strategies I learned when I was on the diet and they help. When starting out the diet emphasizes avoiding giving your body an insulin rush in the morning. It recommends eggs for breakfast. During the week that’s what I still do: scramble some eggs, add bacon bits or Canadian bacon. Just this carries me without hunger until lunch. Eggs have a fair amount of fat, but it’s a good kind of fat: and fat satiates the feeling of hunger very effectively. I do not add toast unless it is the weekend, when I often skip lunch. Usually the weekday morning finds me rushing to get my daughter to school and myself to work, so the lack of morning carbohydrates is not a hardship.

I also avoid juice. Juice may be healthy in many respects but it is full of sugar. The insulin rush will likely make me hungry. I see juice as empty calories. Instead, I drink light. Crystal Light, to be specific and lots of it. I prefer their lemonade. It has a tangy taste but has only five calories per serving. I drink it with every meal at home.

Lunch is tougher. I know I should bring a lunch to work with me but I make it my treat of the day, so I generally eat in the cafeteria at work. Usually I eat a bit heartier one day and less hearty the next. For light eating I choose a small Caesar salad (usually with honey mustard dressing, to avoid acid reflux) and the soup of the day. For a heavier lunch I go to the sandwich bar. I can choose lean meats but tuna salad is a low fat taste favorite, providing it is not mixed with much mayonnaise. However, eating too much tuna is risky so I limit it to once a week. I often substitute chicken salad but disclaim the extra mayonnaise the sandwich lady wants to add. Overall it is a decent blend of carbohydrates (assuming I ask for a hearty whole grain bread, which I always do), protein and not too much fat. Add the lettuce and tomatoes and vegetables become part of the meal too. No, it is clearly not an ideal lunch. Chicken salad is usually mixed with mayonnaise, but at least where I eat the mayonnaise is minimal. Of course I forgo the drinks and stick with plain water. I am not always successful in avoiding the snacks by the register however. Usually by lunch I am feeling hungry and want some glucose in my system. Particularly if I have afternoon meetings I find I need sufficient glucose in my system to keep me awake. I’ve been known to sleep with my eyes open in conference rooms.

Dinner is the challenge. If I made my own dinners it would be one thing, but we eat family dinners most nights. I usually insist on a large salad (even if I had one with lunch). Fortunately we don’t usually have a dessert. If I feel a sweet attack though I have a few strategies. One is sugarless candy. While they are certainly not calorie free, they avoid the insulin high that normally accompanies easily processed carbohydrates and consequently makes me want to eat more. Malt is used instead of sugar to give it a sweet taste. Special-K bars also work as an occasional treat.

With exercise more is almost always better. When weather permits I bike to work at a brisk pace: 6-7 miles a day. When it does not permit we have an elliptical machine in the basement and I spend at least half an hour on it when I get home from work. The ideal place for exercising is at a health club. In my last job I worked in Washington, D.C. and had a health club right across the street that I could join at a discount price. My boss at the time was liberal enough to allow long lunch hours so I could get sufficient exercise. The routine was pretty much the same: half an hour of aerobics and about half an hour of weight training. For the couple years it lasted it was great. I was buff. Exercising around lunch is great too because exercise usually leaves you less hungry than if you are sedentary.

But I don’t have the convenience of a gym at my new job. I do enjoy biking and can easily bike 20 miles or more on the weekend, when the weather permits. I know what I need to do up my exercise level: join a local Gold’s Gym and make the time 3-4 times a week to hang out there before and after work. But for the moment I haven’t resumed that habit. I have to figure out first what I will give up. As we all know there are only 24 hours in a day. Something has to give. I don’t know yet whether it will be my part time teaching, blogging, or one of my many other hobbies.

All this keeps my weight reasonably stable. There’s no question I put on a few pounds over the winter. (Biking was largely out and my running was destroying my joints.) With better weather now is the time to up the exercise level. But figuring what will work for my 48-year-old body is getting challenging.

You may want to try any of my strategies and see if they work for you.

The Thinker

Obesity: A Modern American Value

Obesity is becoming as American as apple pie. This should not surprise us. Have you looked at how many calories are consumed in a slice of apple pie? To use one of the more egregious but ready examples: McDonald’s Baked Apple Pie has 250 calories, including 34 grams of carbohydrates, and 11 grams of fat. And remember, the apple pie is dessert. It comes after the meal. The Big Mac has 560 calories and 30 grams of fat. Their large French fries: 520 calories and 25 grams of fat. That medium chocolate shake: 580 calories and 14 grams of fat. So there you have it: a typical fast food lunch at our most patronized fast food restaurant has 1910 calories and 80 grams of fat. If you are a woman who is 5’5″ tall, weighs 130 pounds, is 25 years old and who exercises lightly you have just consumed all but 13 of the calories you need for the day. If you are a guy, same age, six feet tall, 175 pounds you can consume 703 more calories later in the day and not gain weight. And let’s not even get into the percent of calories from fat.

To help us out the USDA has come out with a revised pyramid that is supposed to guide the average American on their dietary choices. New for 2005 is the notion that you should incorporate exercise into your daily life. In fact the new improved pyramid calls for at least thirty minutes a day of moderate or vigorous physical activity. So, if you follow their guidelines will this keep you from getting fat? Not necessarily. Buried in the fine print is this interesting statement:

About 60 minutes a day of moderate physical activity may be needed to prevent weight gain. For those who have lost weight, at least 60 to 90 minutes a day may be needed to maintain the weight loss. At the same time, calorie needs should not be exceeded. Children and teenagers should be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day, or most days.

What wonderful advice. But difficult to follow. Because the reality is that our society conspires to keep us physically inactive and obese. To me it’s a wonder we are not all Fat Alberts. Reading between the lines in this culture unless you have developed and sustained habits by eating healthy and exercising all your life, you are basically screwed. You are going to be overweight. If you succeed in taking off the pounds from your sedentary lifestyle you will still have to exercise moderately for 60-90 minutes a day to keep it off. Forever.

It’s certainly not impossible to get this amount of exercise a day, but it is impractical for most of us. It’s kind of like saying that you could spend 60-90 minutes a day fishing. Consider the typical dual income parents with two children. They are likely up before dawn getting the children ready and out the door. Then they are off in their car to work to spend another exciting day sitting at a desk, vigorously challenging their keyboard with aggressive calorie intensive finger strokes while cursing energetically at their monitors. Most likely they don’t have a health club at work so they can’t go for a mid afternoon jog. And even if they had the time, which they don’t, they have to rush home to pick up the kids before the day care center closes. Once home they then have to make a family dinner, help the children with their homework and take care of the numerous other odd chores that consume their day.

So working parent, what’s it going to be? Your family or your health? Choose one of the two because unless you can survive on a few hours sleep or have an iron will you must choose. Naturally we choose family values. And so we gain weight. And if we’re lucky we steal a couple hours on the odd day off or on the weekend for some exercise. This is family values in action in modern America. Survival of the fittest means you must survive by being unfit.

Of course we want to eat right but since we’re not exercising and our life often feels scripted we find it easier to succumb to temptation. We need something positive to happen during our days. Food is cheap, readily available and extremely convenient. We’re running late and the Wendy’s is right on the corner. So just this once (although it is the third time this week) we’ll do the drive through for dinner. A couple days a week some well meaning but evil employee will bring donuts into the office. We can’t resist. All that fat and sugar sure tastes good and it is more interesting than our boring, sedentary work. Email is easier to read with the taste of sugar in our mouths.

Why are we gaining weight? It’s because unless we are childless, work outdoors, or have a beneficent employer who doesn’t mind two hour lunches so we can get to the health club it is virtually impossible for the average willed human being to consistently make the time to get the exercise needed.

I look at my own habits and realize I still don’t get enough exercise. I bike to and from work, about three miles each way, when weather permits. I frequently climb four flights of stairs to my office in the morning. But this is only forty minutes of vigorous exercise a day. It’s not enough. I need more. I should be doing this and another half hour or so working out on the elliptical machine when I get home from work. And I should be doing vigorous exercise on the weekends too. When time and weather permit I take off on long bike rides or long walks but time doesn’t often permit. To truly get the exercise I need I should give up one of my other activities, like adjunct teaching or blogging.

If we want Americans to be fit and healthy we need is a culture that supports these choices. Instead we have just the opposite. We have employers who want us to work lots of unpaid overtime because it’s good for their bottom line. We have families that require two incomes in order to maintain the standard of living we knew growing up. We have advertising everywhere and much of it encourages us to eat exactly what we don’t need. And if the advertising were not enough it’s virtually impossible to travel down any major thoroughfare without encountering multiple fast food restaurants on both sides of the block. We can’t get affordable housing near our jobs so we end up letting our cars push us where we need to go. As compensation for the 90-minute hellish commute we sip our Caramel Chocolate Frappuccino Blended Crème coffee from the Starbucks drive through on our way to work (460 calories, 60 grams of fat).

Because only supermen have the willpower to consistently endure the new recommended USDA lifestyle we get fat. The rest of us are just human. But we feel the guilt anyway. The guilt makes us feel bad. Since we’re already doomed, why not eat something else? There seems nothing else to do but surrender to the reality and stifle our anxieties with inactivity and more food. With our bellies full of the Papa John’s pizza that we picked up because we had to work late again, all the energy we can muster in the evening is to sink into the La-Z-Boy and tune out our feelings of shame. Let’s watch Survivor and see who will get thrown off the island today.

The Thinker

A Modest Proposal: Bye Bye Vatican

Warning: people of sound mind who can separate fantasy from reality may read the following entry. The rest of you: out of here now!

I am not an evil person but I do have occasional evil thoughts. As I noted the pictures of black smoke rising from the Vatican today, indicating that it may take a while for the College of Cardinals to elect a new pope, the evil thought struck me: They’re all together in one place. If there is an ideal time to kill the Catholic Church once and for all, now is the time.

Yes it’s an evil thought. Just thinking it probably means I am doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But for some of us, particularly estranged ex-Catholics with axes to grind, the idea has a certain appeal. Those who suffered from the pedophilia problem in the church probably have no love for the institution and would just as soon have it banished from the planet. And then there are people like me who after years of psychotherapy should have forgiven the Church, but really haven’t. We should be able to forgive the heaping doses of guilt, the corporal punishment we witnessed in its parochial schools, the shame we felt when we wacked off reading Playboy magazines, the humiliation seemingly sanctioned by the Holy Father himself, or just the incredible over the top mysticism of the institution. For some reason life threw us into the toxic Catholic zone. If not exactly Hell on earth, it was a particularly miserable part of purgatory that we inhabited.

What if we could just do away with it? What if in one act of retribution we could finally get even? Clearly now we have a unique opportunity. Papal conclaves don’t happen every day. But they’re all there! All 115 voting cardinals in one place: Vatican City. There they are pondering which one of them, all pretty much handpicked by John Paul II for their conservative and bizarre otherworldly tendencies, gets to be the next one to wear the white uniform, the funky white hat and the cool ring. It’s not like they are likely to come to their senses; they long ago surrendered their minds to mysticism. Smelling salts won’t knock any common sense into them either. The cardinals will doubtless elect someone a lot like John Paul II: completely out of touch with the real world but with a passion to move the Catholic Universe back into the primordial ooze. First up on the next pope’s agenda: repealing that little concession that the world was round after all.

Perhaps rabid secularists surrounding the Vatican hundreds deep and refusing to let the Cardinals out until they elect a Pope with some lick of common sense could do it. But that’s really that’s wistful thinking. As Bill Frist considers using the nuclear option in the U.S. Senate, perhaps it’s time for the legions of disgruntled ex-Catholics to consider our own nuclear option. We need one neutron bomb in a hurry. Why a neutron bomb? Because we want to kill the Cardinals, not damage Michelangelo’s glorious paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and all the other precious art work. We appreciate good religious art. We’re not freaking Taliban.

Okay, a neutron bomb might be a bit much. A couple frescos might get damaged. So perhaps we need to hire the Russian Government. Their clever strategy in dealing with a Chechnyan terrorist attack was to gas the terrorists hoping to immobilize them. They caused lots of innocent hostages to die, but they were able to kill all the terrorists. But still this seems a bit inhumane. While we’d like to send all the Cardinals to live on an island somewhere, someone might discover them inadvertently. So perhaps the best solution is just to use gas to knock them out. Then of course would come the lethal injections. Yes, there would be a 115 or so dead men in red robes when we were done. But they would be with Jesus.

The upside would be that the Catholic Church could be gone for good. Or am I being optimistic? Perhaps the cardinals who were not allowed to participate because they were too old would select one of themselves to be pope. I don’t think there is anything in the latest Vatican coda that would make it legal, but it is a possibility. So perhaps the institution would survive anyhow. But maybe, just maybe, whatever church emerged would be a grounded in reality.

Okay, enough fantasizing. Very likely the Catholic Church will continue to hang around. Like an unwanted guest at a party, it just won’t leave. But it appears that it’s been a pretty rude guest and lots of others are leaving the party. We can see it in statistics that, here in America at least, only 25% of Catholics bother to go to weekly Mass. Or in places like Mexico and Brazil, long bastions of Catholicism, which are losing parishioners every day to up and coming evangelical churches. While electing another out of touch pope won’t kill the Church, the church is slowly killing itself. Not much blood is being let with all those self-inflicted cuts to its body (probably being done in memory of Jesus’ passion: cue Mel Gibson) but collectively it’s got one major psychosis. And just as most of these teenagers don’t usually die from their behavior, the Catholic Church is unlikely to either. But we can expect it will continue to move toward deeper dysfunction in the decades ahead.

I’m no longer a Catholic and I don’t pray, but if I were a praying Catholic I’d be praying that God would knock some common sense into those 115 cardinals. I’d pray for a miracle.

The Thinker

Webdrive: Integrated FTP for Windows

As a webmaster naturally much of my work is implemented on web servers. Clearly web servers are not desktop computers. And since most of my web sites are virtually hosted I have no direct access to the web servers themselves. Heck, in most cases I don’t even know where the web servers are located. Presumably they are somewhere in the United States but for all I know they could be sitting in server rooms in India. But somehow I have to place the content I create on my web servers.

So for years I’ve been doing it the same way everyone else has been doing it who have to do these things remotely. I’ve been using File Transfer Protocol. When I do it at work and the servers are actually located somewhere on my campus I have better alternatives for connecting to these machines. If they are Windows servers then it’s no problem: I just map them like another drive letter using My Computer or Windows Explorer. If they are Unix or Linux machines there is usually no problem either, providing SAMBA is installed on the server, as is typically the case. With SAMBA these machines transparently appear as Windows machines even though they are not: Windows is faked out.

But when working from home the choice has been pretty simple: File Transfer Protocol or some secure version of it. File Transfer Protocol is all about, well, transfer. Basically you copy the file you want to edit down from the server to your PC. Then you edit it. Then you copy it back up. It’s not difficult, just tedious and manual. Normally you have to authenticate yourself to the web server to get access, which adds time. Often you must manually traverse directories to get to the file you want. In short, while it is not difficult, it is time consuming if you are editing more than a couple files, or you need to upload files frequently. Using FTP connections can time out fairly quickly. In this case you often have to go through the hassle of connecting manually again.

It would make life a lot easier if these remote servers could be mapped transparently as if they were another Windows drive letter. Then I could simply open up these files in my favorite text editor and it would seem like the files existed on my PC. Fortunately, I have found at least one product that makes accessing remote servers via FTP or Secure FTP appear as just another drive letter.

The product is called Webdrive and it is a product of South River Technologies. Alas it is not free but it is also not prohibitively expensive. It costs $49.95. I have a license for it for those times when I need to work from home. I find myself more and more also using it for my remote webmastering duties, not all of which are directly related to my work. What a convenience it is! Now that I know about the product and use it regularly I know that I would pay for it out of my own pocket if my employer hadn’t picked up the tab.

I suspect there are other similar products out there, but I doubt very many of them also work with Secure FTP. That can be important since more and more web hosts are requiring the use of Secure FTP. As you might suspect FTP itself is not secure. IDs and passwords are transferred as plain text across the Internet.

So Webdrive is still using FTP, it just makes it transparent to you. Consequently there is no fast saving of files on remote machines. Files still have to traverse the Internet in order for them to be saved. It can often take 5-15 seconds for the file to transfer. Sometimes with a really bad connection or a really big file it can take even longer. But ooh the convenience to access it by simply doing a File/Open in my Windows application of the moment.

Webdrive can be configured to automatically remap the drive when you log on to your PC. It also does a pretty good job of keeping your FTP connection from timing out. If it does time out it will do its best to transparently reconnect you. My experience is that it does not always do it perfectly. It is only as good as the network on which it is running. So if your ISP is having access problems, or the server itself is slow you will notice performance degradation.

Webdrive is an example of one of these obvious solutions to ordinary problems that for some reason got largely missed. It’s such a common problem that you wonder why Microsoft didn’t build it into the operating system. (Of course the real issue is why Windows uses the drive letter metaphor in the first place. This is really a solution to address a fundamental Windows architecture problem.) But at least there is a solution that works. It only took an hour or two of my time before Webdrive paid for itself. It’s already paid for itself many dozens of times.

So if you do a lot of editing of files on remote servers over the Internet accessed by FTP then this is a product to definitely consider. Of course you can download a 20-day trial version that will give you plenty of time to decide whether it is worth shelling out $50 for a purchase. For myself, this is a no-brainer.

The Thinker

View from the last bus ride

This final bus ride toward oblivion is turning out a bit different than I anticipated.

It’s a mixture of the ordinary, the extraordinary and the weird.

My aging parents (Mother is 85, Father is 78) have downsized their life from single-family house to an apartment in a retirement community. Until shortly before they moved my mother was the one who used to do all the cooking. Now thanks to a case of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy she cannot even fry an egg. So it is my father, who has been catered to all his life, that now makes them breakfast and lunch. Their retirement community, Riderwood, provides a gratis dinner in their dining room. Arguably Riderwood provides better dinners than they would have if my mother could still cook. My mother was no slouch in the cooking department. But Riderwood has professional chefs. As I discovered last night they even come out among the patrons and ask about the quality of the food. Their meals are more nutritious, often tastier and lower in fat, salt and cholesterol than anything my mother would have made a few years ago. I am pretty amazed that my mother, who is very much a picky eater, is so enthusiastic about their dinners. At this stage of life I had visions of them getting Meals on Wheels, not dining extraordinarily well every night in a serving room with menus, waiters and linens.

Gone are my mother’s fixations with gardens, kitchens, crossword puzzles and game shows. Gone is her ability to use a keyboard or even to comprehend a paragraph. One habit still remains: Jeopardy. The highlight of her day is the complementary evening dinner. Otherwise her day is a lot like her nights: spending a lot of time in bed not sleeping, ingesting large quantities of pills and vitamins, frequently shuffling to and from the bathroom in her walker and getting to and from doctors appointments. She can use a telephone but only with the speaker feature turned on. It is difficult to sign her name or dial a telephone number. Yet she fights her disabilities with perhaps a naïve optimism. Certainly going to the fitness center every day helps her extend her life but if her diagnosis is correct her condition is progressive and irreversible. She both fights for life and wishes it were over.

She is also increasingly confused and worried. She is simply not thinking like she used to. She is most like herself in the morning when she is reasonably rested. As the day progresses her behavior gets weirder and occasionally seems bizarre. Yesterday her hearing aids failed but she never told us, just said she wasn’t hearing very well. We take her on occasional rides to the real world. But trips in a car can be logistically challenging. It is much like traveling with a baby. Two hours is her maximum limit before she needs to return home. A trip to Michaels yesterday was likely her big adventure of the week. On Sundays she and my Dad will often get into the car and get coffee from McDonalds. She’d love to do things like travel again. A trip to an audiologist in Baltimore is as adventurous as she is likely to get in her travels from now on.

As for my father, being six years younger than his wife he still seems relatively vigorous. But appearances are deceiving. This week their fragile deck of cards collapsed. My Dad woke up on Tuesday to discover he had an incarcerated inguinal hernia. That meant quick surgery to fix it, which happened the following day. It was outpatient surgery and he is in good spirits, but he is not allowed to support any weight with his abdomen. It was my wife Terri who actually took him to and from the hospital. My sister Mary stayed and cared for my mother in their apartment. Since then in order to care for my mother it has meant someone has had to be there day and night. My sister Mary is performing most of the heroics by basically staying there every night and during the days during the weekend. My unemployed wife helps out during the weekdays when she can. I spent some hours over there yesterday too, since I had the day off.

It’s a weird world. Caring for my father is not the issue. It’s caring for my mother. She is unsteady enough so that every trip in her walker must be carefully monitored. Most of the time she cannot even get into her walker unassisted. So even trips to the bathroom are fraught with potential peril. But being in decline has some unexpected advantages. For example she is now enjoying being fussed over. For all her whining about what she cannot do, she seems to like all the personal attention. But she cannot simply lay down in bed. The blankets and pillow have to arranged just so. It requires a level of attention and care that I found exhausting for just the six hours I provided it yesterday. That my father can do this day in and day out with few respites strikes me as an act deserving of sainthood.

My mother may be pretty much an invalid, but that doesn’t mean her personality is that different. She resents being taken care of by my father but at the same time expects prompt attention. She can get very upset when it doesn’t happen on her short timeframe. In fact she wants everything ordered so she cannot get upset. She wants zero uncertainty in her chaotic life. Yesterday my father took a short walk while she was lying down. He didn’t tell her but he did let me know. She arose when he was gone and quickly panicked. I tried to explain that he was okay with walking, he just wasn’t allowed to pick up anything. It didn’t penetrate. “I cannot sleep until he gets safely back! It’s so unlike him!” she said. Right Mom. Well, even if he were safely back you probably wouldn’t sleep anyhow. Poor dear!

Their precarious situation is largely left unspoken. Until my father can resume his caretaker duties we are jury-rigging an ad-hoc process to keep their system going. My sister Mary performs heroic 24/7 care while neglecting her own work and family. My wife and I get over there when our schedule allows. My father, generally the type to have everything planned to perfection, can’t seem to investigate nursing homes or start getting in-home care.

So it is the best of times under the circumstances yet with my mother’s progressive condition it often feels like the worst of times too. Their retirement community provides the benefits of a daily meal, neighbors, stimulation and many conveniences. And yet my mother’s body and mind continue to slip, sometimes slowly, sometimes in large steps, toward total dysfunction. Yet it seems like this wheel will never stop.

The Thinker

Bosses I have known

I should know what a great boss is like. After all I’ve had a lot of bad ones. Now that I am a boss myself I am trying to figure out how I can be the best boss I can to my employees. In one sense it is easy to be a well-liked boss. But that doesn’t mean I can be both a well liked and an effective boss. That’s when it gets trickier. To do both is sort of like riding a unicycle while juggling balls in the air. I’m not there yet.

But first a survey of bosses I’ve had. I wonder how many of these will seem familiar to you. I will arbitrarily start with my first “professional” job in 1981 when I was working at what was then known as the Defense Mapping Agency. It started with boss who was a lush. If the red, bulbish nose wasn’t a give away, his breath betrayed his secret. Except for being divorced he was a real Andy Capp. I don’t ever recall him holding a meeting with us. But I do recall his going off most lunch hours with one of his employees to spend some time in the back of his van where the curtains were always closed. It was pretty obvious they were not out there to meditate. The good part was that he was so inebriated he never hassled me about my work. His evenings were spent bar hopping. In spite of being an alcoholic he generally seemed happy, if somewhat sedate. I left that job in 1986 and wasn’t surprised when he died a year later from cirrhosis of the liver. He was probably in his late 40s when he died.

The next boss was a tall African American gentleman who ran a shop full of COBOL programmers. He lived in his office and we didn’t see much of him. But at least he held occasional meetings. In one such meeting he gave us the bad news that we were not entitled to a fifteen minute break in the morning and afternoon. But he seemed competent and jovial, if somewhat distant. When I had questions he earnestly answered them. But I was one of a dozen employees he supervised. I was a measly GS-7 at the time, so he hardly noticed me and left it to my mentor to direct my day-to-day work.

I left that job to spend a year outside the government working for an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party. I was 30 at the time but this boss was 26. We should have gotten along great because after all we were both liberal Democrats. He was brilliant, soft spoken, wore starched white shirts and a tie, and smoked like a chimney. He was very aloof. Fortunately his supervisory work was not too demanding. Basically he ran the computers and the budding network at the time. I was one of two programmers, and neither of us had computer science degrees. We were however inexpensive, a key attribute in that financially challenged organization. I was there a year when I was summarily laid off. At least that’s what they said. The boss once removed gave me the bad news. I never got the feeling that my boss liked me. Our relationship was superficial. I most likely wasn’t quite what he had in mind and he probably wasn’t too sad to see me go. But then I was something of an odd man out at the place. I was a type B in a place full of type A’s. They liked to work late and didn’t understand why I didn’t. Their social life was defined by their work life.

I spent three months in a contract job before I returned to the bosom of the federal employment, now wiser about the ways of the world. My new boss was five years or so older than me, skinny as a rail, bookish and carried dog-eared science fiction novels with him. I suspected he was gay since he lived alone and never showed any interest in women. But he was a geek through and through. Why he accepted a supervisory position I’ll never understand. He was not management material. Maybe he just wanted the extra money, or saw the grade as a status symbol. At first he didn’t seem to like me at all. I had to become a nerd like him before he warmed up to me. He held sporadic meetings but largely left us alone. Like many programmers I have met he didn’t come alive until about 4 PM and could often be found hanging around until after midnight. He survived on Clark bars from the vending machines in the Pentagon. I think after a while he resented me because in a couple years I picked up the same level of domain knowledge about the system we ran that he had. Perhaps that’s why soon afterward he took a job elsewhere. He could no longer perform the role of system hero and he liked the hero role.

Eventually we were reorganized. I was thrown into a different division and got a boss who suffered from severe diabetes and seemed to be a few years from retirement. He was nice and easy to talk to but he only seemed to vaguely understand the complex work I was doing. He was very impressed by my hard work and professionalism so he gave me choicer assignments. I certainly appreciated him for that. But eventually one of his project managers whom I worked for decided she didn’t like me. She threw me off her team. He was too intimated by her to back me up. Appeals to his boss didn’t work. So I left that agency and joined the non-defense side of Club Fed.

The next boss never saw the human me, but did see me as a key strategic asset. I was a valiant knight on his complex chessboard. I was a key asset because I could competently manage complex projects and didn’t need much direction. But working for him was very strange. We had offices across the hall from each other but he hardly ever spoke to me. He put out these “I’m an executive and you’re not” vibes. He dressed in fancy three-piece suits. He had clients constantly streaming in and out of his office. He rarely raised his voice. Everything he said he said in a soft, confidential tone of voice. But he was very insistent on competence, something I found rather unusual in the federal government. He hired very selectively. He was not beyond intimidating those who worked for him until they jumped ship and became someone else’s problem. He struck me as competent but very pompous. Eventually though he got his comeuppance: a new executive arrived who disliked him and made his life a living hell. Since he was of retirement age when it was suggested that he retire he was arm-twisted into leaving. But you knew he hated it. He loved the role of director. My boss had dreams of being an executive too, and this executive cruelly dashed them. I felt sorry for him. He was aloof and pompous all right, but he was still competent. He deserved better for thirty years of service. Literally one day he was there and the next day he was gone. We never had a chance to even give him a goodbye luncheon.

His heir apparent and my next boss was his lunch buddy, actually a contractor and former federal employee who spent years in the office doing work far less interesting than mine. He took the contracting job to get away from stress, since he used to be a hotshot executive who worked at the Justice Department. To say the least we were surprised by his appointment. We had GS-14s who had been waiting years in the wings for their big chance to be boss only to find their hopes summarily dashed. They should have joined his lunch club. This new boss was a low-key boss who was at least very approachable. But he was very overworked. His bosses were throwing assignments at him until he was hip deep in them. Nonetheless he projected an aura of confidence and competence and never gave a hint that he was overwhelmed by all the work. But he was a good boss in the sense that he listened sincerely to you. He was also a devout born again Christian. If he could have done it he would have invited me to a prayer meeting. He wore his religion on his sleeve and peppered his conversations with “Praise Jesus”. I confess I was impressed to learn he and his wife spent their vacations feeding the homeless. I admired the sincerity of his faith. He was one of the few Christians I have met who actually seemed Christ-like. But he had too many responsibilities to be very effective supervising any of us. He did however wring a promotion in the process.

Again the obvious GS-14 candidates were overlooked. So a GS-15 who had no supervisory experience suddenly got the job. He ended up being put on special projects and spent at least 75% of his time not being our supervisor. I rarely traded more than a couple sentences a month with him. He was a boss in name only, but he seemed sincerely happy for me when I told him I found a job in another agency. The subtext: I had escaped from the zoo. Congratulations.

For the first time in my career in my current job I have a female boss. I finally hit the boss jackpot. I can think of nothing about her to dislike and lots to admire. She is extremely competent. She traverses the fine line between empowerment and micromanagement very effectively. She does not feel at all like a boss. She feels like a peer. She loves gossip and she thrives on office politics. She is not the least bit stuffy and has a very snarky attitude, but never about individuals. All this by itself would not make her a stellar boss. What makes her great is that she trusts and empowers me. She can’t always make money appear out of a hat but she will almost always work with me to help my visions and strategies come true. She opens doors for me. She smoothes the path when she knows it must be smoothed. If all this weren’t enough she is technically competent. She reads all the same professional journals I do. She is truly a delight to work for in spite of the fact that both our jobs can be pretty demanding. I often get to work and pinch myself wondering how long my good fortune will last. I hope, but don’t expect, that she will continue to be my boss until the day I retire.

Today I spent most of my day giving performance feedback to my employees. I am blessed with terrific employees, none of whom I would ever consider firing or even trading. But most of them are up to their necks in family or personal issues that are very challenging. So I spend a lot of my time accommodating their unique situations and finding ways to get the work done in spite of these obstacles. I try very hard not to be critical. I try instead to empower them, just like my boss empowers me. So mostly I watch them fly and marvel at how well they do their job without my guidance. I try to be a nurturing presence in their professional lives. I try to get to know them as human beings. I give constructive feedback and suggest ways to improve things rather than criticize them for minor mistakes. I don’t think any of them are planning an exit. I count my blessings. I understand that I can only succeed with their help, respect and cooperation. I find that the most important thing I can do is to earn their respect and to trust in their judgment. While not all employees can thrive in such an environment, mine can. So I think I’ve got the juggling balls part figured out. Now I need to figure out how to ride a unicycle at the same time.


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