Archive for July, 2005

The Thinker

Robots and Spiders and User Agents – Oh my!

Six weeks or so ago I complained about SiteMeter. I noticed big discrepancies between the number of visits and page views that it was reporting versus what my Apache server web log was showing. These discrepancies remain true. However, as I dig into the details of my web server logs I am beginning to realize that it is impossible to know how many people are looking at my site. Moreover, the same is true if you own a web site.

Apache does an excellent job of recording every hit to my site, as you would expect. The problem is separating the wheat from the chaff. Ironically, my investigation suggests that getting an accurate measure of a blog’s audience is due to news syndication technology that I have praised.

For example, this site is hit twice an hour by bloglines.com. Bloglines.com is a news aggregator. It sniffs through blogs and apparently caches content (i.e. stores a copy of my pages) on its servers. If a bloglines.com reader has subscribed to my blog, bloglines.com will present their local copy of my latest blog entries. I have no way of knowing how often a bloglines.com subscriber is reading their cached copy. However, I have some idea of how many bloglines.com subscribers are looking at my blog. That is because bloglines.com is nice enough to tell me the total number of subscribers in the user agent field. For my index.rdf newsfeed, for example, it reports 11 subscribers. I have one subscriber to my atom.xml newsfeed. Nevertheless, how often each bloglines.com subscriber looks at my newsfeed is unknown. Perhaps bloglines.com will someday share its statistics with us content providers. I did not see any information on their website suggesting they will be doing anything like this.

Bloglines.com is just one example of a news aggregator service. There are dozens of others. It is difficult to determine which are genuine aggregators and which are vanilla robots trolling my site. Arguably, they are the same thing. A robot is simply a program sniffing through my site for content and perhaps storing some of it in a search engine. A news aggregator agent does the same thing, but presents the content to people specifically interested in viewing my content remotely.

When a robot hits my site, clearly no human is reading the content. At some future time, a human may select a link through the robot’s web site that may take them to my site. Alternatively, like Google, they may be reading a local cache of my web page instead of hitting my site for the real thing. There is no way to know for sure but most likely, I am missing statistics for many page views.

There is also a lot of “noise” in my web server logs. I did a number of Google searches on some of these user agents. I discovered that many of these agents have malicious intent. They are looking for various vulnerabilities on my site, presumably to inject some viruses or Trojan horses. My own hits to my site are in the log, along with the program I wrote to examine the log. From my perspective those hits are noise to be filtered out. There are also many requests for pages that do not exist. All these need to be filtered out too.

In addition, new robot programs are unleashed all the time. Yahoo, for example, has two going. The normal one is Yahoo Slurp, but there is also Yahoo commerce robot called Yahoo Seeker. Yahoo also offers a news aggregator service. Unlike bloglines.com, its user agent string does not identify the number of subscribers. So once again, a webmaster like me can only shrug his shoulders.

There are many robots out there apparently. At some point, I am going to have to fine-tune a robots.txt file. This file is supposed to tell search engines the content that may be indexed on your site. Reputable robots obey the robots.txt file. Shady robots — and there are apparently plenty — do not bother and will index your content anyhow. To keep out the shady robots you have to fine-tune an .htaccess file to block them. This is generally a manual process, and thus avoided by many webmasters.

Overall, I think it is fair to draw a couple conclusions. “Metadata” is growing. Metadata is information about a website, and robot programs on remote computers stream across the Internet to your web site to collect it. Any kid in his basement can write his own robot program and start trolling your site for content (and suck up your bandwidth for no compensation). Robots are equal opportunity programs. As metadata grows, it becomes more important for a webmaster to be able to manage metadata collection. At some point, I expect there will need to be mechanisms more sophisticated than Apache .htaccess files. Perhaps web hosts will offer sophisticated application level filtering, allowing in a known list of reputable robots. Alternatively, perhaps they will let in only those robots that share their metadata. For a webmaster like me, this seems eminently fair. How many subscribers are trolling my site via your site? Who are they and how often do they come? If you are going to sift through my content the least you can do is accurately identify yourself and tell me how many people are reading my site and how often. I can see the Internet Engineering Task Force or the World-Wide-Web Consortium creating some standards for exchanging metadata statistics in the near future.

Second conclusion: the browser if not dying, is not exactly well. Looking through my web server logs I see all sorts of applications are reading my site. Not all are apparently robots. For example, there is the Microsoft URL Control. I Googled it and discovered that virtually any Microsoft program that uses the Internet uses this control. Therefore, someone clicking on a link embedded in a Word document is probably using this control. There are also Java programs talking to my web site. I see Java/1.5.0 and Java 1.3.1 as user agents. Whether they are more robot programs or application programs serving my content is impossible for me to figure out.

The bottom line is that it is becoming impossible to know how many human beings are reading your site. This is not good. For larger sites, this makes it difficult to provide meaningful metrics to advertisers who might want to pay to place ads on your site. It also leaves the webmaster scratching his head: is my site popular or not?

Perhaps it is close enough to take a SiteMeter reading and multiply it by some number to estimate the total readership. On the other hand, perhaps a webmaster should take his page views in his Apache web log and multiply it by some fraction. Whatever. It is a gross estimate at best. Perhaps the better metrics are simply a site’s Google or Bloglines.com ranking. Investigating page views and calculating visits is increasingly irrelevant.

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The Thinker

Slip Sliding into the Past

For nine years, I worked in the bowels of the Pentagon. Okay, maybe “bowels” is not the right word. I rarely went into the basement, that deep, dark and mysterious place. In the Pentagon basement, rats were not too difficult to find and all sense of direction was lost. It was a dark and horrid place. I worked on the third floor near the A (innermost) ring, which was a challenging enough place to work. Among other things, it was very noisy and constantly about eighty-five degrees. The Pentagon was designed before air conditioning and personal computers. With hundred of PCs on all the time it felt like an oven.

I still find it hard to believe that I spent nine years there. If there is one building in the world where I wanted to work least it was the Pentagon. I had been there before. It was a confusing maze of dilapidated halls chock full of military guys wearing lots of stripes, stars and medals. They had short tempers, short hair and seemed to specialize in rushing frantically from meeting to meeting. While defending the nation was important work, at its core their mission was finding very lethal ways to kill other people. It was not an easy place for this liberal to work.

I ended up in the Pentagon because I wanted the security of the civil service again. I started my career with six years working for the Defense Mapping Agency. Eventually I got restless and decided to try the private sector. I worked for the Democrats but in 1988 during one of their periodic budget woes, I ended rather abruptly laid off. To make ends meet I scrambled and took a contract job. For three months, I worked as a subcontractor at the Department of Labor. However, with a new house I could not afford unemployment or even underemployment for very long. The civil service at least had the virtue of having a steady paycheck. I found the Air Force at a job fair in Tysons Corner. The Air Force in the Pentagon was hiring. It took them less than three months to reinstate me as a civil servant.

Perhaps I should have suspected something. No doubt, my still active security clearance weighed on their decision to hire me. Still, it felt too fast and too easy. By government standards, they filled my position at something approaching breakneck speed. Thus, January 1989 found me everyday boarding the 5N bus from Reston to the Pentagon.

For nine years, I worked in the Pentagon. I shall not name the organization. We directly supported the Air Force staff in the Pentagon with software systems. Our work was mostly classified. My particular niche was to support a decision support system written in a programming language called PL/I. It helped the Air Force figure out where they were going to place all their aircraft over the next five years.

For all the difficulty and hassle of working there, it was quite a learning experience. I sharpened my programming teeth in the Pentagon, working up from journeyman programmer to lead programmer to technical leader. For a civil service job, it could be very stressful at times. Taxpayers have this image of civil servants sitting at their desks tossing paper airplanes around. In this job, at times I was running a system that kept me on call in the middle of the night. I reported to Colonels who did not take any excuses and had very short fuses. I learned a lot about my ability to deal with stress (not very well). I came to both admire the officers running around the place and loathe them. I admired their confidence and ability to get things done. I did not like the way they moved from job to job every couple of years. They rarely understood the culture of our organization. To get good performance appraisals they had to look like they were changing things big time. Therefore, it seemed we were always in constant reorganization mode. Some years it amazed me that we got anything done at all.

Nevertheless, the Air Force in the 1990s was well funded. I got lots of training. Whether I wanted to or not I learned all about software engineering. Moreover, because I was talented, I was eventually assigned to do some cool stuff. In the mid 90s, client/server architectures were all the rage. I was running a hip project written in a tool that now seems as antiquated as COBOL called Powerbuilder.

The military came and went every couple of years but the civilians hung around, like lamprey to the hull of a ship. The civilian workforce there ran the gamut from every taxpayer’s worst nightmare of a civil servant to mediocre to talented to incredibly brilliant. In general, there were those who did and those who did not. Moreover, there were those with talent and those who could only write spaghetti code. Mostly we maintained legacy classified systems that ran on Multics (and eventually) IBM mainframes.

I left seven and a half years ago. Since that time, I have not given the old organization much thought. I’m been busy moving on, working next for the Department of Health and Human Services and for the last seventeen months or so with the U.S. Geological Survey. However, I did find from time to time that I missed certain people with whom I had worked intimately. In particular, I missed my boss John, Steve, Ray and Diane. In the early 90s, we formed a very effective team. We also worked very well together. Moreover, we knew how to kick back together. For example, on Fridays we would escape to a Shakey’s Pizza place in Annandale for lunch. There you could get all the pizza you could eat for less than $5. What a deal.

The golden years were few. We move on and largely lost touch with each other. Ray retired. Diane took another job. Steve and John took jobs elsewhere in the Pentagon. Except for one retirement luncheon six years ago, I had not seen any of them until today.

I was one of the last people to get training in the obscure art of programming Multics computers. Through Multics.org, I found a guy who I used to work with. He kept in touch with others from the Pentagon (he had moved on to the private sector). He passed my email address on. When a former boss of mine announced his retirement, I got an invitation to attend the luncheon.

For about a week, I pondered whether I wanted to open up that part of my life again. I worked with a great team for a few years. I also spent the last few years of my time there working in a different branch. There I was the squeaky wheel. In that new branch, I was not well liked. Eventually the project manager I worked for threw a temper tantrum. I was thrown off her team and sent back to do mainframe programming, which I loathed.

To say the least I was upset and hurt. Not surprisingly, soon thereafter I shopped my résumé around. By 1998, I was out of the Pentagon and working for the Department of Health and Human Services. I knew if I went to this luncheon that I might encounter some of this bad karma again. Did I want to blow them off and lock out that part of my past? Or did I want to venture back after seven and a half years and maybe say hello again to some people I had grown to like?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I attended my old boss’s retirement luncheon today. I was a bit nervous. Seven and a half years is a long time. I would remember faces. However, could I remember their names? My worry was specious. I was hardly the only person returning after many years. One man attended who had retired in 1988. For the most part, I also remembered the names of the people who were there too.

My old boss John was there, two grades higher than when I last knew him. That alone justified coming. He now manages hundreds of people in a very demanding job. (Since he ran on adrenaline, I figured he was right where he belonged.) I was amazed for in sixteen years he had not aged a day. Ray was also there. He had retired more than five years earlier. It was as if not a day had passed. We greeted each other warmly. Alas, neither Steve nor Diane was there. Diane had hoped to come but apparently did not make it. I do not know if anyone had even bothered to track down Steve. Yet conversation resumed naturally, as if I had not spent more than seven years of my life elsewhere. It seemed a bit odd.

And my nemesis L. was there too, as I expected. If my stomach was tightening, it was because of her. My most enduring memory of her was her screaming at me when she threw me off her team. Today we greeted each other cordially. In seven years, she had moved from project manager to the director of the whole office. This is an amazing accomplishment. (When I left she had only a high school education.) Her screaming fit at me aside, L. filled the mother hen role in the organization. Her specialty was people. While she obviously failed in establishing a healthy working relationship with me, she had worked her social charms (and hopefully competence) into the director’s job. I complemented her on her promotions and she politely inquired about my current employment.

As for the retiring guest of honor, I was glad to see my old boss Bill again too. Bill is a plainspoken man, and he took the time to take me aside. “Mark,” he said. “You were screwed by this organization.” He told me the story of how the nascent system I had led floundered after I left. To this day, it remains an expensive mess that does not meet the customer’s requirements. He said because I was not available a contractor had to be hired to write a functional description of the system. “You could have written it in a week.” Yes indeed. It was good to hear these words from Bill. I felt validated at last.

I did not hear similar words from my former nemesis L. However, I found her behavior a lot different. Maybe it came from having much more responsibility. She seemed more deferential toward me than I remembered. She talked about the vacancies in the office and encouraged me to stop by the office sometime and chat. With no malice in my voice, I told her I did not think that was likely to happen. Yet I could see her wheels turning. Perhaps she was thinking, “If I could get Mark to come back, he could fill a key role.”

On the drive home, I contemplated the idea of returning to that organization. I must confess after so many years that it felt comfortable jumping back into that culture. The nine years I spent there remains the longest time I spent at any one job in my career. It felt a little like going home to Mom and Dad’s and sleeping in your old bedroom again. Knowing L., I suspect I will hear from her in the coming weeks. If she does I suspect she will be sounding my out on whether I might want to return to working for the Air Force.

I cannot see myself trading in my current job for the hassle of a security clearance and commuting into Arlington every day. Although I am a fairly new employee at USGS, I already realize that I am at last where I should be. Every job has its stresses including my latest one. Nevertheless, USGS feels like the place where I should have begun my federal career. It is at USGS that I want to pour out my talent until I retire. I do hope that I hear from L. anyhow. I think she has regrets for past behavior and wants to tell me directly. Perhaps then, this old wound will fully heal.

 
The Thinker

Stop Selling Our Highways

The State of Virginia recently received an unsolicited offer from a group of businesses. This consortium wants to take over the operation and maintenance of the Dulles Toll Road, a major thoroughfare here in Northern Virginia. The details are sketchy but the group appears to want the right to run and improve the road for the next fifty years. In return they will give the Commonwealth about a billion dollars in ready cash and commit to making modest improvements to the road.

The Dulles Toll Road connects Northern Virginia inside the beltway and the Capital Beltway with the key business and residential areas in Northern Virginia. These include Tysons Corner, Reston, Herndon and Washington Dulles International Airport. (Airport traffic rides free on the Dulles Access Road. The Dulles Toll Road runs parallel to and outside the Dulles Access Road.) The Dulles Toll Road also connects with the Dulles Greenway, a private and obscenely expensive interstate quality road that for those who live in northern Loudoun County.

The Dulles Toll Road is one of these roads that most residents can neither live with nor without. With four lanes of traffic in each direction, it moves a crushing number of commuters every day. During our extended rush hours, and particularly where it merges with the Capital Beltway, it acts as a giant parking lot. Cars spew tons of hydrocarbons tediously wait to merge onto the beltway. On the other hand, there are not a whole lot of alternatives during rush hours. The back roads, such as they are, are just as congested. The typical commuter now pays $1.25 each way for the privilege of waiting in traffic. The tolls were recently increased fifty cents in each direction, ostensibly to help pay for a future extension to the Washington Metrorail system to Dulles Airport.

The current group-think is that corporations must be able to do everything better than government. So naturally there are plenty of people (most of them Republicans) who would be glad to turn over essential services like maintaining our roads to the private sector. Virginia has been doing a lot of this “innovative thinking” lately. For example, the state plans to let two companies create HOT (High-Occupancy Toll) lanes on 14 miles of the Capitol Beltway. Apparently, the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act legalizes such dubious deals. Naturally, Congress wants to smooth the way for more of these private sector road projects. Yes, Congress wants to give corporations the right to raise money for private toll roads with bonds that are exempt from federal income taxes. (And guess who will be left holding the tax burden.)

Why is the Dulles Toll Road is under the radar of private developers? It is no mystery to me. First, it is a beautiful and well-maintained road. Second, it is a huge and profitable cash cow, generating profits in the tens of millions of dollars every year. It has a captive set of customers with few alternatives except to move out of the area. Third, while the consortium can make claims about making improvements to the road, there is not much they can really do to speed up the traffic. That is because the traffic simply bottlenecks at the exit points. These are principally Tysons Corner and the Capitol Beltway. Oh sure they promise to widen exit and entrance ramps from the beltways onto the toll road. Fat chance that will do much good. Until the dubious day that the beltway gets eight lanes in each direction, the traffic during rush hours on the toll road will not speed up.

Perhaps they will turn the one lane in each direction that is currently reserved for carpools into a HOT lane. This should allow anyone with sufficient dough to cruise at highway speeds, even during rush hour. In addition, perhaps those HOT lanes could feed into the HOT lanes planned for construction on the Capital Beltway.

Do we see a pattern here? Consumers can expect higher tolls from these deals but little relief from congestion. For those with the money you will have your HOT lanes but you will pay premium prices. For most HOT lanes are designed for flexible pricing. The idea is HOT lanes should never be congested, so authorities keep raising the tolls until they run smoothly. It is another “wonderful” example of the market economy at work. Yes, it is wonderful all right. If you are rich you will get where you want to go quickly. As for the rest of us — you know the “little people” who live on normal incomes and do not get special tax breaks — we will be stuck in worse traffic and paying more for it.

Ugh. Let us just say no to more of this nonsense. Here is a crazy notion, but one that has worked well for much of our nation’s history: let us keep the roads public and free. If we have to have toll roads, let us make them equal access. Our public roads are not the airlines. There should not be a first class section for the privileged and coach class for the rest of us. Maybe in Animal Farm some pigs are more equal than others are. However, if I have any influence, it will not happen in my country.

I have written Virginia Governor Mark Warner expressing my displeasure at this brazen attempt by the private sector to pick my pocket. I hope if you live in Virginia that you will write too. Nevertheless, wherever you live, you need to be watchful and make your transportation views known. We complain about gas taxes. We raise hell if our legislatures want to up the tax by even a nickel a gallon. However, we will allow private companies to skim hefty profits off our public roads. You know what this really is? It is a tax increase. Only this time instead of any profit from these roads going into more transportation projects or, God forbid, even our public schools, they go straight to stockholders of these corporations.

No more. Sadly, this is more evidence that we now live in a country of, by and for the corporation. What is next? Is a private company going to buy the roads in my subdivision? Will I have to pay a toll to get out of my own driveway? Is this the kind of enlightened private sector innovation we want to foster? Or are we being played for fools? I suspect the latter.

 
The Thinker

Pondering 2008 Election Possibilities

Because I cannot resist (and because I cannot think of anything else to blog about tonight), I am going to look ahead three years to the 2008 presidential election. For the first time in eight years, there will be no incumbent to reelect or throw out. I expect a spirited election. Moreover, it is not too difficult to assume that it will be a vitally important election. Most likely we will still be in Iraq or dealing with its detritus. The specter of international terrorism is unlikely to recede either. Citizens will have had plenty of time to judge the efficacy of our current war on terrorism. In addition, there will be many other issues to weigh in on including mounting health insurance costs, rising oil prices, environmental degradation and a skyrocketing national debt. In short, it should be an important and interesting election.

On the Republican side, it is not hard to figure out the likely candidates. Many have already made their intentions known. The Republican side is perhaps the most difficult to pick this far out. John McCain is the candidate with broadest appeal to undecided voters. Unfortunately, as a contrarian within the Republican ranks, his odds of winning his party’s nomination are not great. In 2000, he showed that Republicans had little appetite for straight talk. Nevertheless, things may change. By 2007 the Republican Party may become much more pragmatic, particularly if their party’s approval ratings keep going down. The evangelical wing may lose their advantage. Discredited neoconservatives may be lying low. If Republicans can understand that their normal message has lost national appeal then John McCain could win his party’s nomination.

More likely though their candidate will be someone who neither looks nor behaves too differently than our current president. Bill Frist, the majority leader of the Senate, is making little secret of his desire to run for the presidency. He is deluding himself. He does not have a base and he is unlikely to develop one. This suggests that younger, up and coming Republicans are more viable. My senator George Allen of Virginia often ranks well in hypothetical polls. I frankly do not understand his appeal. Like Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, he is male, rich, tall and handsome. Sadly, these seem to be important attributes for anyone running for the presidency. Yet his actual record in Congress is nothing about which to brag. Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has set her sites modestly by trying to succeed Rick Perry as Texas governor. Rick Santorum could be popular with Republicans. Yet his far out family values and over the top corporation loving behavior would not endear him nationally. It is not even clear if Pennsylvania voters will reelect him.

When it comes to presidential nominees, we tend to prefer governors to senators anyhow. Most governors are not people who are well known outside their state. Since he was born outside the United States, Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot run. Nevertheless, with approval ratings in California in the thirties he would be no prize even if he were available. Arguably, Jeb Bush could run on his brother’s coattails. However, I suspect that Americans will be so Bushed out by 2008 that Jeb will smartly bide his time. Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich runs a very blue state but he has not wowed Marylanders. Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is popular in a very blue state too. He could potentially attract votes from both sides of the aisle. Yet I cannot see Republicans picking anyone from the northeast, and that includes New York’s retiring governor George Pataki. He might have presidential ambitions but has an unremarkable record and disenchanted constituents. Governor Rick Perry of Texas will be available and it is hard to imagine that he plans to play golf for the rest of his life. He is probably the most likely to win the nomination, should he choose to run. Overall the Republican governors for 2008 look to be a lackluster crowd.

One name heard frequently is former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. He was a very popular mayor during most of the time he governed New York City. His spirit and concern during the aftermath of September 11th was widely praised. In his last year in office his constituents turned almost hostile against him. His open affair with Judith Nathan hardly promoted the sort of family values that will endear him to the evangelical and family values wing. Moreover, he is still battling cancer. Therefore, if I had to pick a likely nominee this far out I would expect George Allen or Rick Perry, although neither have been forthcoming about their plans for 2008.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton polls better than any Democrat does, but she seems coy at best about running for president. Mostly she seems uninterested so I bet that she will give 2008 a pass and stay in the Senate. This is just as well. She has too many negatives to win in 2008. She has been busy repairing her image but she portrayed as a New York liberal. She needs time to make people more forgetful and more nostalgic.

John Kerry might well decide to give the presidency another shot. I would hope he would not. Most of the enthusiasm around him in 2004 was halfhearted. John Edwards may be back too, but I do not expect that he will be able to charm any more people than he did in 2004. Unless he resigns as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean is unfortunately not on the playing field. Joe Biden may be very centrist, but he does not excite many Democrats. The same is true with Joe Liebermann, Al Gore’s running mate. Speaking of Al, he may be weighing another run also. Like Kerry, we Democrats were never that enthusiastic about Gore either. Generally, if you win the nomination but lose the election you are damaged goods. Gore is probably smart enough to know this.

Looking at Democratic governors, Virginia Governor Mark Warner looks very viable. He is a centrist Democrat in a red leaning state. He enjoys high approval ratings in spite of doing unpopular things like raising taxes. It certainly would be ironic if he won the nomination and ran against George Allen in the election. Warner is probably one of only a couple of Democrats who could balkanize the southern vote. However, rank and file Democrats don’t really know him yet. He may be too centrist to win the nomination. Among other Democratic governors with some positive name recognition, there are Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Napolitano is not well known enough to be viable, but Richardson has distinguished national and state credentials and could be a strong candidate. Whether he could surmount the fundraising hurdles and get sufficient name recognition remains to be seen. Those Democrats who know of Richardson view him very positively.

As I said, I strongly suspect that 2008 will be another election where national security will be the most important issue. That is why I suspect that General Wesley Clark will run again. He started too late in 2003 to gain sufficient traction, but he will be worth many new looks in 2008. People will be looking for someone who will be stellar as commander in chief. Clark brings the necessary hubris to that aspect of the presidency. While he has also won many detractors during his career, he has demonstrated an ability to get things done and correctly call tough decisions. That should seem very appealing in 2008. We will want someone sober and focused on solving the terrorist threat. Whether Clark can be as convincing on domestic matters remains to be seen.

One Democrat I would love to see run for president, but who will not, is New York State Attorney General Eliott Spitzer. Of course, he is busy running to replace Pataki as governor and seems a shoe in for the office. Therefore, it is hard to imagine why he would change tracks and run for president. However, if he ever chooses to run for president he will be an excellent nominee. I suspect sometime in the next decade he will run.

Looking so far into the future my bet is that Wesley Clark will likely get the Democratic nod in 2008. Naturally, I am not willing to wager too much money on it as this election is still very far out. A Clark vs. McCain contest would be almost ideal: a contest between two sober, experienced and competent candidates. We have not seen that in decades. I will root for it, even though I think it is unlikely to happen. Nevertheless, a political junkie like me can at least hope that in 2008 we will not have to pick between two more boring, well moneyed but lackluster nominees.

 
The Thinker

My Daughter the Vampire

It is 4 a.m. Do you know where your teenager is? Thankfully I do. My fifteen-year-old daughter is at home where she should be. However, that does not necessarily mean that she is asleep. During summer vacation, she can become a vampire. Therefore, at 4 a.m. she could still very well be awake, quietly in her room doing stuff. I do not know exactly what stuff she is doing. I have a feeling I probably do not want to know. She is likely on line, along with many of her friends, with a half dozen chat windows going. This seems to be her main use of her computer when she is awake, so most likely she is doing the same thing after hours.

Maybe this is a modern form of peer pressure. There must be some new requirement that during summer vacation and on weekends trendy teenagers must stay up past midnight, preferably until at least three a.m. I am betting that they are on line sending instant messages to each other specifically to encourage each other to stay awake. After all, dawn is only a few hours away.

I know I should not let it bother me. Since we are on the third summer of this peculiar behavior for the most part it does not bother me. Yet I still find it weird. It seems unnatural. When it is dark outside my melatonin levels naturally rise. It is unusual for me to stay awake past midnight. Generally, I am in bed by ten o’clock on weeknights, and eleven o’clock on weekends. Similarly, when it is light outside I tend to be awake. I find that sleeping in past eight a.m. is difficult. Because I sometimes need more sleep than I get, I compensate by wearing blinders in the morning. While it helps, I still sense the daylight. Invariably I am the first one to bed and the first one awake.

My wife has night owl tendencies. Since she is no longer tethered to a 9 to 5 job she is often to bed between midnight and 1 a.m. By this time, I have been asleep for hours. I usually do not even register her coming to bed. For my daughter, midnight can be more like the dinner hour. In fact, she will sometimes tip toe downstairs for a midnight snack. I find her evidence in the morning.

Last summer I was the parent on call to get my daughter to the doctor for a 3 p.m. appointment. I, the good dutiful father, left her a note on our kitchen table reminding her that I would be home around 2:30 p.m. so please be ready. I arrived at home to find the house deathly quiet. Where was my daughter? I called for her several times and got no answer. I figured she had gone to a friend’s house and did not bother to tell us, a serious offense. I started to look up the phone numbers of her favorite friends in the neighborhood. Then I noticed that her door was closed. I knocked on her door. The blinds were drawn. She was still deeply asleep.

I understand that this kind of behavior with teens is not unusual. My wife does not give it a second’s thought. “She’s a teenager,” she says, as if that is the answer to all questions about my daughter. Teenagers are supposed to do things that weird their parents out, and this was a minor thing. She could be smoking dope or having premarital sex. Conclusion: I should count my blessings.

Yeah, yeah, maybe so. I realize that she is fifteen. I realize at her age micromanagement is counterproductive. I realize we need to set flexible boundaries. However, isn’t there a reasonable limit? Can we not insist that even during summer vacations there is a bedtime? Isn’t midnight a reasonable bedtime during the summer? Can I not demand that ten a.m. is late enough for anyone her to sleep in? To me her behavior not only seems unnatural, it seems bizarre.

I also realize that it is dangerous to project my habits on other people. Some people are naturally night owls. My daughter may be one of these creatures. However, it was not always this way. For much of her childhood she happily went to bed on time. Things changed subtly during her middle school years. By the time high school arrived, her body had morphed. When opportunity arose, she became a vampire.

In June, it reached the absurd stage. She said she had insomnia; she had tried to go to sleep but could not. I tried to shuffle her off to school anyhow. “But I didn’t get any sleep,” she whined. “If I go to school I will just sleep at my desk.” She informed me that she could not function at school. Since there was less than two weeks of school left, I cut her some slack. Nevertheless, I suspected that if she had not been up until 2 or 3 a.m. the night before she would not have had insomnia in the first place.

In a way, I am happy that she has elected to go to summer school. As a consequence she must be up around 6 a.m. For a while, it is impossible for her to maintain her weird summer sleep schedule. Now during the week she is more likely to be asleep between 11 p.m. and midnight. Alas, summer school does not last forever. It is only four weeks long. So I can anticipate more weeks of vampire mode ahead.

 
The Thinker

Why I Blog

Writing was my one passion during my restless youth. There was only one problem: I was not very good at it. I was not a bad writer. English teachers often flattered me. It is probably accurate to say that I was better at writing than most my age. The truth was that I had more enthusiasm than talent. If I had any extra time during my hectic youth (for I was also working part time), I was at the keys of my Smith Corona constantly writing and rewriting the same science fiction novel.

For more than twenty years, I gave writing short shrift. Now many years later, I am blogging. I stopped writing because real life left me few alternatives. I had a career to ascend and a family to support. Still, I would find my creativity bubbling over in unexpected places. No one else but me wrote florid IEEE Concept of Operations documents. I could make the most dreadful engineering documents interesting. Invariably every performance review would come back with some words praising me for my writing.

I do not know the wellspring of my creativity. However, since I started blogging in late 2002 I have been unable to stop. My inner writer has been trying to escape for decades and it finally succeeded. Blogging gave me a publishing medium that I could not imagine in the 70s.

On an average day I get about three hundred of you to stop by and sniff my blog. I do not know if you enjoy the time here, are annoyed, or just glance at it and move on. According to my site statistics program Awstats, about 80% of you are the surf and move on type, hanging around for thirty seconds or less. This does not surprise me. The web is ideal for those with short attention spans. More surprisingly, Awstats tells me that about 12% of you this month have spent thirty minutes or more at a time at my site. Nearly 5% have spent more than an hour at a time reading my blog.

This surprises me and makes me smile. While I write for my enjoyment (and whatever stimulation it gives my visitors), I write also for those few of you who will read an entry from start to finish. Why? Certainly, vanity and ego are part of my calculus. No one wants to feel unvalued.

For the most part, I write because I must. Now that my writing side has reemerged, it will not go back into the cage. Many evenings, even when I would rather be doing something else, I am dutifully at the keyboard creating a blog entry. Some days the writing flows naturally. On other days, the writing is like wrestling with an alligator. Thinking up topics is not always easy. Sometimes I am reduced to writing about topics that are really quite trivial. I wonder if anyone but me really wants to read about my travails with my mother. Apparently, some people actually do, and I am both surprised and flattered when these types of entries bring comments.

Blogging has made the cost of publishing and distribution trivial. The one thing it has not done for me is make writing profitable. That will likely elude me. Since I write primarily for my own enjoyment and my full time job keeps me flush, this does not bother me. To make money at blogging I would have to pick a genre and plumb it endlessly. Blogads suggests as much and says that you need at least a thousand unique visitors a day in order to attract advertisers. Even if I did have advertisers, any money I collected would be pocket change. Those who make a living from blogging are rare. The only one I know who does it successfully is Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the man who created DailyKos.com. (Moreover, he does not have a blog. He has a megablog.) However, like most successful blogs, his is successful because he focuses on a single topic: progressive politics. If he wrote entries like mine, he would be just another faceless blogger. His blog would not generate enough lift to fly.

No, Occam’s Razor does not want to be not your ordinary blog. I am multifaceted and complex so my blog is a potpourri of topics and ideas. I flit from subject to subject. Nevertheless, I try hard to provide insights or perspectives that you cannot find anywhere else.

I put a lot of work into every blog entry. Generally, an entry is two pages and sometimes three pages in length. Research may take additional time. A short blog entry will take two hours. A long blog entry will take three hours or more. For my blog entries are never dashed out. They are crafted.

Like an sculptor carving a statue from a large block of wood, I start out not quite sure how my entry will end. During my first pass, I try to write quickly. The second pass is the hardest. This is where the artisanship comes in. Now I need to turn what is often a stream of consciousness into something that feels a bit poetic. This means meticulously parsing words, rearranging sentences, and often rewriting paragraphs of text. During the third edit, I carefully look at my text again. Is a word too general? Can another word be more descriptive? Is the tone consistent? Am I restating myself? I find that I restate myself a lot. I often have to fight the urge leave in uninteresting details. Just because they interest me does not mean they will necessarily interest you. I also find myself frequently writing with a passive voice. I try to rephrase my words when this happens, but writing in the passive voice seems to be my style. I also try to keep my sentences short so they are more readily digested.

Since I construct my essays, I use the right tools. The right tool at the moment is Microsoft Word. Of course, I leave on both the spell checker and the grammar checker. Word often suggests words and phrases. I will consider every suggestion that its grammar checker makes. If I have a peeve with bloggers, it is how few of them can be bothered to spell check their writing. Have they so little consideration for their readers?

The fourth pass through is the most tedious. By this time, I am growing bored with my own entry. I just want to be done. Nevertheless, as I change and rework words I keep finding minor mistakes. They must be patched before publishing. It is impossible to write a perfect blog entry of any depth in a couple hours. However, my standards require a high degree of workmanship. I will not put out what I consider crap. I will not put out a B or a C entry. My hope is that if a blog critic were sniffing through my entries then any entry would get a B+ or better. I shoot for the A. Of course, I do not really know for sure how well my entries are received unless someone leave a comment. All I know is I have to be proud of them.

After four passes, I copy and paste the text from Word into a text editor. It fixes most of the text that should not show up in HTML, like smart quotes. I then copy the plain text into my MovableType blog entry screen. URLs and italicized text are all added manually. (I bold links in Word to remind myself to link to them.) Finally, I publish the entry. Even after all this editing, I will read the entry online too. Seeing it in a different context invariably helps me find that one missing typo I could not otherwise see.

I suspect that my blogging is not an end unto itself but a means toward some nebulous writing future. Perhaps someday I will write that great American novel. Until then I have blogging. Rather than have my ideas crash around inside my head, at least they now have a way to escape. In articulating my thoughts, they gain clarity and order. For me blogging is also a form of therapy.

I hope you enjoy your time here. In addition, I hope it is apparent that Occam’s Razor is a work of devotion and passion. Perhaps it is as immortal as I am ever going to be. While I am unlikely to succeed as an author, it is also likely that with computers my words will outlive me. They will be archived and indexed, read, parsed and maybe even enjoyed (albeit less frequently) by future generations. With so much noise out there in the blogging world, perhaps Occam’s Razor will be perceived as a small but flawed diamond in the rough amongst in a sea of sand. I hope so.

 
The Thinker

Imagining My Life in 2015

Yesterday evening was covenant group again. Once a month I meet with the same small group of members of the Unitarian Universalist Church that I attend. Six to eight of us commit to meet once a month, share stories, do readings, eat snacks and digress on a topic of some depth. After an hour of us doing a brain dump of the significant things that happened to us during the last month, we discuss a topic that we had agreed to discuss the last time we met. This time it was where we wanted to be five and ten years in the future.

I hated to admit it, but the topic was a stumper. For most of my life, I had a good idea about where I wanted to be ten years out. Now at age 48 I felt clueless.

We all agreed we did not want to be dead. That was easy. We also agreed we wanted to be in good health. I am the youngest member of my covenant group. As I noshed on strawberries, I wondered if I would break out into a cold sweat when it was my turn to speak. What was I to say? At 58 would I still be working? Would I be retired? Would I start playing golf? Would I start a hobby like building train sets in my basement? Would I find my evil side and take delight at exposing myself to unwilling victims on street corners? Would I write that novel I figured I would write eventually someday? Or would I just kick back and lead a wholly unplanned life, flitting from day to day like a bee flits from flower to flower?

I realized that part of the reason I did not want to think too much about it is that I would be a lot older. I hope that I would retain some semblance of my youthfulness but if it did not work for Robert Redford, it probably will not work for me either. At 48, I feel I look a lot better than most my age. I doubt that will be the case at 58. Generally, we Caucasians do not age well. Therefore, I hope I will graceful about my age. If I attract any young babes, it will be because I won the lottery, not because of my charming personality or youthful demeanor.

Sadly, the chances are good that when I am 58 both my parents will be deceased. My daughter will be 25 and presumably out of the house. (There are no guarantees these days. She seems very comfortable in her room and not anxious to start independent living. I suspect that I will need to bring in marshals to evict her.) If the federal government does not change its retirement policies I could be several years into retirement by the time I am 58.

Part of me expects there to be some calamity between now and then. Perhaps a few suitcase nuclear bombs will go off in Northern Virginia. If I survive that then I expect our assets will be gone with the nuclear fallout and I will be eking a living in drainage pipes and pushing a shopping cart. Perhaps my wife’s various medical problems will become persistent and acute. As a result, perhaps I will end up much like my father and spend my days catering to her. However, the odds are good that age 58 will find us comfortable. I hope that the economy will be good enough and my pension will be secure enough that I will not have to work anymore.

What I do not know yet is whether I would start a second career. In this country being age 58 would mean another decade in the workforce. Fifty-eight is now arguably the middle of middle age. Ideally, any second career would be on my time schedule. Most likely, a full time job would seem too burdensome. Economic necessity might require it. Since I currently teach part time (no more than one three-credit course a semester) and usually enjoy it, I can see myself doing that, probably teaching computer courses full time. Teaching has never been a profession to get into because you want big bucks. With a decent pension, forty thousand dollars a year would seem like a lot of money. On the other hand, since I am clearly a political creature perhaps I would run for public office. (Perhaps not. I cannot see myself spending days dialing for dollars.)

Yet I may still be in my present job. Perhaps I would enjoy it too much to retire. Looking five years ahead, it is likely that I will still be in my current position. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am in a job that is rewarding enough where I might want to keep doing it for ten more years. The pay is excellent. The responsibility is challenging but not overwhelming. I like making actual important strategic decisions. In addition, I am blessed with a terrific team. I am doing about the most interesting professional work that I can imagine. It is all right up my alley.

Nevertheless, I have always been one of these people who continually expect the other shoe to drop. Although there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, I figure that I cannot keep a good job like this going indefinitely. Real life has to crash in eventually and make this latest job unrewarding.

Therefore, I am hoping that things will work out well: with my family, my career and financially. If so then I will have a genuine opportunity at 58: the ability to live life without much worry that I will become insolvent. In other words, I will have a real and extended retirement. Just the idea rather boggles my mind. What would I do with all that time? Having spent my life so far scrambling, what would I do with 20 or so years of decent health and no financial worries feel like?

I suspect I will not know the answer unless I experience it. One small nugget of wisdom that I have acquired in 48 years is that life’s journey rarely takes you where you expect. I expect that wherever life takes me in 10 years I will be surprised. Watching my older relatives go through these years, I do expect that much of it will be mundane. I doubt my wife and I will do quite the amount of traveling that we have envisioned. I expect there will still be gardens to weed and trash to take out. The last third of my life may not have many surprises but may feel like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. In ten years, blogging will no longer be sexy. I hope though that I will continue to make a habit of recording my thoughts, rambling and incoherent as they doubtless sometimes are, for my enjoyment, and perhaps yours too.

 
The Thinker

Education: Walk the Walk

Some years back I opined that there are few places where we are more hypocritical than in our public schools. Therefore, I was not surprised when I heard this story today on NPR Weekend Edition Sunday. Texas, like many red states, is getting high from continually sniffing that Republican glue. Common sense is taking leave of its governor Rick Perry and its legislature. Apparently, it is more important to stand on a dubious principle than to do what is right for the children of Texas.

For those of you who do not want to listen to the seven-minute story here is a brief summary: Texas has no income tax. Its main forms of revenue are the state sales tax, already one of the highest in the country (which disproportionately affects the poor) and the property tax. The Republican legislature in its infinite wisdom requires that the portion of property taxes devoted to education must be capped at 1.5% of a house’s assessed value. Most school districts have hit the cap, but the student population in Texas is growing at around 80,000 students a year. Of course, this means that many more schools that need to be built and more buses have to be purchased. In general, the costs just to maintain the status quo have gone up. However, with property values leveling off, even wealthier districts are getting the squeeze. Large numbers of teachers are being laid off. Some school system superintendents are convinced that if the crisis continues the Texas public schools will be reduced to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

So why would this be a problem? From our current president and former Texas governor, these things matter. (Actually, in Texas, high school football trumps everything else.) If necessary, science, music, the arts, even gym are expendable. It is important to know how to read, write and do math. It is apparently not important to teach our children about the humanities and certainly not important at all to learn how to think critically. How do we know it is not important? When push comes to shove, we will not pay for them.

The school funding issue is a hot button one in Texas. The Texas legislature is back in session yet again to try to cough up more money to fund the schools. There is some discussion that the sales tax rate might need to be raised. However, it sounds like with the “no tax increases ever” mantra from the Republican controlled legislature that even this proposal is unlikely to go anywhere. School districts are getting so desperate that they are petitioning the Texas courts, hoping the courts will step in where the legislature fears to tread. So far the courts have been hands off, expecting (probably naively) that the legislature and the governor will do their duty and find the money somewhere.

You do not need an HP calculator to figure out the Republican’s strategy for dealing with the problem. Yes, you guessed it: they are going to expect school districts to make unspecified efficiencies and cut out the waste to solve the problem! Argh! I do not even live in Texas, but it is enough to make me want to repeatedly hit my head against a brick wall. How can our leaders grow up to be so stupid? The reality of the funding caps is already playing out in Texas schools. Teachers are being let go. Class sizes are increasing. Trailers are taking over school parking lots. The list of elective subjects is growing leaner. Still this does not seem to be enough. The obvious result if Texans are foolhardy enough to keep charging forward can be found near where I live. In Prince George’s County, Maryland back in the 1980s voters put in place a property tax cap called TRIM. The result? Twenty years of substandard education in Prince George’s County. By limiting funds for the schools, students predictably dealt with larger classes, mediocre teachers and inferior facilities. The county has consistently placed in the bottom two Maryland counties for educational test scores. It is currently on a state watch list because it is having difficulty meeting the requirements of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

Perhaps the Texas legislature is apathetic because poor test scores are really not the big deal that they claim. While Texas certainly has its prosperous parts, it has many school districts that have always provided poor educations because they have never been adequately funded. Texas ranks 38th in teacher salaries ($32,426 per year) and 34th in expenditures per pupil ($5,267 per year). Despite the dubious “Texas Miracle”, Texas places in the middle of national educational rankings.

Nevertheless, Texas is hardly in unique in underfunding its schools. Nor is it unique in not doing much to actually prepare students for real life. I am willing to bet that you can graduate from high school in the vast majority of our states without ever learning how to balance a checkbook. I bet there is no requirement for students to spend time surveying the costs of independent living. As a result, I bet no student is required to put together a realistic financial and logistical plan mapping out their first five to ten years of adulthood.

Oy, this is but one of many egregious areas where students need some genuine education that they are unlikely to get from the public schools. Most school districts skimp on sex education. Students might absorb the practically compulsory lessons on abstinence but they will not know how use a condom should the need arise. (Why should it? When the times comes, the abstinence fairy will restrain their natural urges!) Moreover, there will likely be no classes on the psychological differences between men and women or relationship theory. There will probably be no course on personal finance, the dangers of credit cards and the wisdom of saving parts of your salary. Likewise, there will probably be no learning on early childhood education, parenting, insurance and financing an automobile. In short, a high school degree will continue to mean what it has always meant: a subset of skills that might make someone marginally marketable but will do little to prepare him or her for real life.

But by golly our students will be darn good at taking dumbed-down standardized tests. In my last entry I noted my wife’s experience teaching community college students. They want everything handed to them. And why shouldn’t they? Like Pavlov’s dogs, they know the drill. Have they not been heavily and repeatedly coached ad nauseum by their teachers so they could pass these standardized tests? When have they had the opportunity to apply any critical thinking or independent thought in the classroom? How many teachers have time for open discussions about the pros and cons of various lifestyle choices? How many of these students have learned from their parents and their churches that life is not squishy, only to find out in adulthood that real life is invariably complex and multifaceted?

We are doing serious injustices to our children who will someday run our country. Yes, it is good that they are at least getting some education. In many countries, there is no such thing as public education. However, we are not properly preparing our children for the real world. Reading, writing and arithmetic are foundations for learning, but they are not the result of education. They are tools used to allow us to engage and make sense of the rest of our complex world.

Like it or not we are sending some bad messages to our public school students. Do not think our students are not savvy enough to figure out the subtext. Here are some. Only the basics really matter because that is all we will give you. Low taxes for me are more important than giving you a quality education. We will expect you to be solid citizens and to manage your way in a complex world but we will not necessarily give you the straight facts or help you think through the complexities of the real world. Maybe your parents will help you and maybe they will not. Lastly, we will not give you many tools to deal effectively with the chaos into which you are about to be thrown. You are on your own. So do not be surprised if in adulthood that you bounce from one bad relationship to the next. Do not be surprised if you run up huge debts. Maybe if you are lucky in twenty years you will learn these for yourself. But we sure don’t care enough about you to warn you about these mega hurdles.

Sadly, our public schools have become a noxious experiment into which we inject our dubious values, philosophies and biases. Meanwhile graduate, here are ten dollars and a suit. Good luck, kid.

 
The Thinker

Pass the soma

Childhood obesity is now a major American problem. When they reach their twenties, many of today’s overweight youth will discover adult diabetes, something virtually unheard of before.

If only the new problems facing today’s youth were limited to obesity. In addition to the normal traumas of adolescence, there are a whole potpourri of new problems and issues for them to confront. Attention deficit disorder is rampant. Many of our youth do not have the organizational skills to manage their homework. Many cannot even study. (They know how to do it, but cannot seem to successfully follow the steps, or even summon the motivation.) It is no wonder that we parents are spending so much money getting them counseling, therapy and life coaches. Only it does not seem to be doing much to solve their problems.

The Future Shock predicted by Alvin Toffler is here and now and it is not pretty. The complexity of our world has increased exponentially in my lifetime, and it only continues to accelerate. We adults have a hard enough time getting through the minefield of living. It is far more confusing to our children. Not surprisingly, they are having a hard time adapting. Why? We need people that who behave like machines. Instead, we humans stubbornly insist on being human beings. In addition, the more complex life gets the bigger the disconnect. Like it or not we cannot retrofit bodies that for millennium were optimized for chores like farming and hunting mastodons into a species of cubicle dwellers.

Imagine what would happen to a thoroughbred that spent most of his life in the stall. Imagine if the supply of oats and water were plentiful and always readily available. Imagine if he only rarely got outside the barn, and once outside did not have the opportunity or inclination to run around. Most likely the thoroughbred would be obese and unhealthy.

Therefore, we really should not be surprised that our youth seem to be having a hard time coping with modern life. Our children are not living a natural life. They are living an unnatural life. For a human child a natural life would involve a lot of time spent outdoors, running around and exploring. I knew that sort of youth. The woods were less than a mile away and we were frequently in them. After school, we were outside playing ball, running around or having harmless “wars” with the other kids on the block. There was no Nintendo to distract us. We had no personal computers and could not even imagine the Internet. With so much time to fill, we created our own realities. We engaged the world because there was no other choice.

Today we are thrown together in increasingly dense communities. The streams are now underground in drainage pipes. Most of us modern parents cannot allow our children to play unsupervised. There are too many wackos and perverts out there. We imagine them lurking around every corner targeting our children. Our youth live highly managed and busy lives. As parents, our mission seems to be to never given them a moment’s rest. How could we? This modern world is so complex. There is so much they must learn and not enough time to learn it. We know the anxiety first hand because we live in it. Therefore, we push our children hard.

Just the idea of our children growing up technologically impaired gives us the heebie jeebies. Therefore, in addition to the compulsory game machines they have their own computers, PDAs, cell phones and fat pipes to the Internet. So naturally, when they have something resembling downtime, they are sending text messages and IMing friends instead of playing ball in the street. When my daughter is on the Internet she often has a half dozen chat windows open at the same time. She has the message: in this modern world, you must be able to multitask.

If we were a more enlightened society then perhaps we would demand no more complexity to our lives. We might even insist on regression. Perhaps we would be petitioning Congress to unplug us from the Internet and take away our computers. Perhaps we would go back to slide rules, logarithm tables, black and white televisions, typewriters and carbon paper. Perhaps we would be limiting our children to one per family so future generations could enjoy something resembling nature again.

In truth, Future Shock has been around since the early 19th century. It began with the start of the Industrial Revolution. The problem is that it is only getting worse. With each generation, it gets harder to push us square peg humans into the round holes of modern living. We must all live by our wits now. If we do not then we will not survive.

Our children will be emulating us: spending their work life in cubicles in leased office buildings. They will be constantly on call. They will have little time for hobbies. Leisure time will need to be productive. If they made it through college, they will be going to graduate school. Lifelong education will be a necessity so they will be constantly earning new degrees. However, it is questionable whether so many of our ADD-addled youth of today will be able to master modern life at all.

It is a good bet they will not be hitting the health club after work. The forty-hour workweek will look increasing nostalgic. They will be lucky if they are working only fifty-hour workweeks. Most likely, they and their spouse will be juggling multiple jobs each to maintain some semblance of a decent standard of living. In addition, on top of their frantic lives they will be expected to raise another generation who will likely turn out even more dysfunctional. The road kill rates are likely to climb.

My wife is now teaching in a community college. I have been teaching in a community college for about five years. She runs across the same type of students that I do. She is surprised but what she sees but I am not. It is amazing and incredible, but most of her students arrive in college with no study skills at all. They whine for extra tutoring and study sessions. They do not know how to take effective notes. (Most do not even bother to take notes.) They pretty much refuse to read the textbook. They think homework is optional. If the lectures are not made available as printed Powerpoint slides they probably cannot absorb it. They need short bullets. These college pretenders cannot cope with college, just like they cannot cope with many other aspects of modern life. That is why so many of them are still living at home. That is why Mom and Dad are still paying for their room and board.

They seem comfortable in their cocoons. Modern life is too scary. They would rather stay in the nest. They would rather live with Mom and Dad forever. Despite all the preparation they allegedly received for real life, they arrive baffled and largely clueless. Life seems surreal. Money is abstract. It is hard to associate effort with value. It is hard to think. It is hard to understand cause and effect. They live in what they perceive to be a virtual and abstract world, not a real world.

I expect that our drug companies will try to come to the rescue. There will be a plethora of new drugs to help us cope. They will not solve their problems, but hopefully as a result they will feel better. Rest assured that they will enrich drug company profits. For if they survive then they will be needed in their stalls/cubicles. Lots of email will be constantly streaming in and out of their inbox that will need their attention. Perhaps their ability to multitask so successfully will make them a better cubicle dweller. For eight or ten hours a day, they will sit at their workstations hardly moving. However, the vending machine will be around the corner if they feel the need to graze. Because not only has Future Shock arrived, but Brave New World is also here. Pass the soma.

 
The Thinker

In the Nursing Home

When my time comes to depart this earth, I want it to be unexpected and swift. I want to be doing something innocuous like reading the paper one moment then be instantly dead. Is that too much to ask? Perhaps in the afterlife I would regret my decision. Perhaps I would have wanted closure. Perhaps I would have wanted one more opportunity to tell my family how much I love them. Perhaps, just to be on the safe side, I would have wanted time to call a priest over and make a final confession, just in case all that Catholic mortal sin stuff is true. (“Bless me father, I have sinned. It has been 32 years since my last confession or even went to church.”)

However, if I reach the point where I cannot care for myself I will most likely be like my mother and end up in a nursing home. Her nursing home is probably better than most. Renaissance Gardens at Riderwood is, if nothing else, a clean and attractive place. It helps to be in a new building. The lobby is broad. The windows are plentiful. The receptionist smiles. The floors shine. They had better. Because nursing home living here is not cheap. It runs about three hundred dollars a day, plus expenses.

I blanched when my father told me the price. I remember being shocked to pay $700 a month for day care. Nevertheless, three hundred dollars a day? That is over a hundred thousand dollars a year! I had best take out a long-term care policy right now. College is but a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of slowly fading from this world.

For that kind of money, I would expect more amenities. But the reality is that when you are in a nursing home you cannot appreciate amenities. You want the basics. My mother gets a hospital bed, a small closet, a nightstand, a sink and her own bathroom. She gets a call button that summons an aide. With luck, he or she will arrive in a couple minutes. Of course, it often takes much longer since you are likely in a queue. One resident next to my mother’s room still has the power of the human voice and he is not afraid to use it. “Nurse!” he bellows on and off during the day, very loudly until he gets attention. It makes my teeth rattle. Fortunately, my mother does not seem to notice the noise.

She is however sensitive to light. Even in a room with a northern exposure and with the blinds drawn, the light is still a trial. Therefore, the lights in the room are usually off. However, her door is typically open, so lights from the hospital-like corridors usually bleed through.

There is no such thing as privacy in a nursing home. Generally, she needs help for everything. Help into bed. Help out of bed. Help to the toilet. Help getting off the toilet. Help into her wheelchair. Help getting out of her wheelchair. Help putting on her shoes or slippers. Help brushing her teeth. Now she often needs help eating.

I have been visiting her around noon so I am often there for lunch. When you have a group of people and about half cannot feed themselves, you end up with one aide for every two or three residents in the dining room. This nursing home has a nice dining room. It has tables with linens, cloth napkins and real silverware. Each resident gets a printed menu with the choices offered. There is a cafeteria line on one side of the room but the residents do not wait in it. Instead the aides do, fetching food for the residents. About a third of the residents cannot feed themselves. My mother has reached the stage where she cannot eat everything on her plate by herself. I had to tear apart her chicken so she could eat it. Salad is increasingly challenging for her. She cannot easily get a full fork full of salad, so I find it is easier for me to feed her a forkful at a time.

Despite the table linens, despite a pleasant staff, despite decent but unexceptional food I find the dining room a dispiriting place. The woman sitting next to my mother is a recent stroke victim. She cannot speak but she can sometimes grunt. It is hard for her to tell people what she wants. In addition, the last time I was there it was hard for her to get attention. A plate of food was put in front of her but due to her stroke she could only reach the left side of her plate. She gave me a nod when I asked her if I could cut up her food. She looked grateful and sad at the same time. She must have had plenty she would like to say, but no way to articulate it. I kept up one side of a conversation, and held her wrist a few times to let her know I cared.

Others sit in front of their meals with vacant stares. The meals arrive in stages. It may be ten minutes or more before the next item appears. Only a few talk or even want to talk. With a few exceptions, they do not appear to know each other’s names.

It is summer but the day is neither too hot nor too humid. I take my Mom outside into the garden. It is a nice garden with a flowerbed and an artificial waterfall. Even with her sunglasses on it is too bright for her. We find a shady spot and admire the flowers. For a while, I can take her mind onto other thoughts. She identifies a few types of flowers that I cannot name. I am glad to see that she retains a good memory.

We pass by a room (it is Sabbath) where a Jewish worship service is in progress. Only a few of the worshipers appear to be residents. Family and members of local congregations fill out the service. In another room, we pass by a dozen residents arranged in front of the television. Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara are talking but no one is watching. Two thirds of the residents are asleep in their wheelchairs. The rest are looking blankly at nothing.

Such mild activities as a ten-minute trip outside are still taxing for Mom. After lunch, she wants to rest. With the help of an aide, we get her into bed. As she naps, I sit in a chair and try to read a magazine in the poor light. I cannot concentrate on it. Instead, I concentrate on her breathing. Every breath seems an effort. I wonder, does she need oxygen? About the time I am figuring that out she awakens. Moreover, she is anxious. She is suddenly upset about her bowels not moving. And she is convinced the nurse’s aides hate her because she so often requests to use the bathroom and nothing happens. I talk to the nurse on duty. He assures me that no one minds how often she calls. Nevertheless, later when I talk to my Dad he says that some of the aides have given her a hard time in the past. It is hard to discern what is true and not true. My mother does not always seem to be totally there.

My mother’s PSP condition has progressed to the point where she can no long read. Nor can she watch TV. She can take short naps of thirty minutes or an hour at a time. Otherwise she is awake and in bed. Unless there is company (my father pays twice daily visits), there are only her thoughts for entertainment. Otherwise, her days consists of three meals (usually in the dining room), physical therapy, dressing and undressing, and often-unsuccessful visits to the bathroom – all with assistance.

I do not know what passes for her thoughts during these long and lonely hours. I would hope she would be remembering pleasant parts of a challenging but often rewarding life. However, it seems she is more focused on her present than the past. And the grinding reality of nursing home living is her present. Days become increasingly difficult, frustrating and laborious to get through. If her life were a movie, you would expect the scene to fade to black. Instead, every day life slowly diminishes. This is her reality of dying.

When she dies, I do not think it will happen in a moment. Rather she will gradually slide into oblivion. Some part of me hopes this happens sooner for her rather than later. And I suspect that she agrees.

 

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