Archive for January, 2006

The Thinker

The Last of the Square Deals

I am in retirement class this week. No, at age 49 (effective tomorrow) I am not quite ready for retirement. However, I am ready to start actively planning for successful retirement. Thus far my strategy has been to throw as much money into my 401-K as I can afford. I need to do better for myself, so I am in two days of learning the ins and outs of federal retirement. It is quite a revelation to me.

I am a federal employee with nearly 24 years of federal employment. I understood when I joined the government in 1981 that the retirement benefits in the government were good, but today they are excellent. My retirement benefits are excellent not because they have improved over the years. They seem better today because many companies have reduced or outright eliminated their retirement benefits. Pensions seem to be going the way of the dinosaur. Even IBM is going to require new hires to consider a 401-K their retirement system. United Airline employees are fighting to retain their pension plans, but it is unclear whether in the airline will even still be in business in a couple years. You can bet Southwest Airlines does not have no stinking pension plans beyond a 401-K. Similarly, GM and Ford are groaning under the weight of their own pension plans and would get rid of them if the UAW would let them.

When I joined the government at age 24, reaching retirement was as otherworldly to me as my setting foot on Mars. I started my career with the Defense Mapping Agency (now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency). After some months doing boring clerk typist duties I found a job as a production controller. It involved monitoring the production of the agency’s many maps through its printing plant. I was a young buck in an office chock full of Korean War veterans. The veterans in the plant had one big career goal: retirement. There was a ten-year calendar in one of the offices I frequented. Each employee had marked on the calendar his or her name and the month in the year when he was eligible for retirement. I remember looking at it and not being able to grasp even the notion of holding on to the same job for ten years.

Now, turning age 49, those grizzled Korean War veterans from the early 1980s are looking very wise. Yes Virginia, there is more to life than working 9-5 for the rest of your life. Having some time in life to enjoy financial security without the press of work is indeed a noble goal for a human being. We are truly privileged to live in an age where this is now possible for many of us. Rather than the end of something, retirement is looking more and more to me like the beginning of something that quite wonderful.

Staring in 1987 new federal employees had to enroll in a newer and less generous retirement system called FERS, the Federal Employees Retirement System. While most of the retirement benefit depend on building wealth in a 401-K like system called the Thrift Savings Plan, there is still a true pension component to FERS. A federal employee wise enough to save systematically can enjoy quite a comfortable retirement. He also will enjoy partially indexed cost of living raises in his pension and social security benefits. In 2006, this is a good deal.

Because I started federal employment in 1981, I belong to the original Civil Service Retirement System. This system is even more generous than FERS, with fully indexed cost of living raises on its pension. Both plans allow you to maintain your membership in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) in retirement, providing you retire having been insured for a number of years by one of its plans. Even in retirement, the government will keep paying about three quarters of your health insurance costs. As a retiree, you are still free to switch between one of the many myriad health plans during the annual Open Season.

These are just the highlights of a suite of benefits and services that federal employees take for granted, but should not. Frankly, the benefits are so superior to what you can get in private industry these days that you would be a fool not to consider government employment as a career. Certainly as I can attest, being a government employee has its downsides. However, unemployment is usually not one of them. Moreover, the plethora of real and meaningful benefits, many of which continue until the day you die, now seem almost surreal.

Today I find myself grateful that I am a federal employee. At the time, it did not seem like a great career choice but I stumbled on something truly wonderful. Now I feel protected from many of the sad but harsh realities of modern living. I can understand why many in the private sector would feel resentful. However, I wonder if their anger is misplaced. Maybe instead of feeling resentment they should be ask why they are permitting so many of the benefits we used to take for granted to slip away. Maybe they should be demanding that their leaders invest as much energy in the health and welfare of the people as they do catering to the needs of business. It sure seems to me that business has an increasingly unenlightened attitude toward is employees.

I take health insurance for granted. I pay an excellent rate because my employer values me enough to pay most of these costs. The government also buys health insurance for millions of employees at a time, likely garnering significant discounts. The FEHBP is a model for how a health plan should work for all Americans. I do not understand why we cannot open it to all Americans. I think Americans would embrace it, even if they had to pay the full price of the premiums. I also think employers, sick of double-digit health insurance price increases every year, would welcome the relief.

When it comes to my retirement, I can retire on a full pension when I have thirty years of service, which should be in 2012. I am not sure I will actually retire then, since I will be only 55. Yet it is nice to know that I have that option. I have many options. I can buy term life insurance and long-term care insurance. If I want, I can set aside money into dependent care and health care savings accounts and have this money subtracted from my taxable income. Of course, there are survivor benefits should I die, become disabled, or get injured on the job.

It may be that the federal government is the last place where a worker can get a square deal in this country. Perhaps you deserve better too. If you are a private sector employee who feels like you are getting the shaft from your employer, perhaps you should consider Uncle Sam, or your state and local governments as an employer of first resort.

You can view and apply for thousands of federal jobs at the Office of Personnel Management’s USA Jobs web site.

 
The Thinker

The Two Sides of Google

Google is one of these amazing companies that demonstrates how uninspiring and mediocre most businesses in the Information Technology (IT) field actually are. Unlike Microsoft, which claims to be innovative but largely is not, Google can truly claim the mantle. Google is a company with the power to inspire awe. Its search engine continues to be the cream of the crop. Yahoo and MSN will keep trying to best Google, but they will likely continue to play follow the leader. Yahoo Maps, for example, just recently released its Beta mapping application, which roughly compares with Google Maps. Google Maps, of course, has been using the magic of AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) for over a year to take map usability to a completely new level.

For software engineers like me, the speed with which Google churns out amazing new technologies takes my breath away. Its billions of dollars in ready capital certainly explains part of its success. With its passion for excellence and fearlessness taking big chances, Google simply soars high above the rest of the IT crowd. Mostly it hits the bullseye. Google Earth is just the most recent example of a technology that blew my socks off. It is a killer application, as every bit as revolutionary as the first web browser. We were still being wowed with Google Maps ease of use when Google threw us the Google Earth bombshell.

One of the more recent services introduced by Google is Google Video. It provides a new way to find and share video files. Google acts as the Internet’s ubiquitous high speed and fault tolerant video server. Given its enormous infrastructure, hosting and serving these large bandwidth intensive videos must not be much of a problem. The service even lets you know its most popular videos. Yet this is just one of a number of flashy services that Google provides, most at no cost. Let Google host your blog on Blogger. Centralize your email on the network with GMail. Find the lowest price online with Froogle. Search your computer as you would the Internet with Google Desktop Search. (It just happens to be a feature of the Google Desktop, a clever new application, which looks like a first attempt to break up Microsoft’s desktop monopoly.) Google even has pretensions in the Instant Messaging arena with its Talk client. Clearly, their ambition knows few bounds. While it occasionally bites off more than it is ready to chew (GMail being an obvious example) Google’s numbers of home runs outside the ballpark would make even Babe Ruth jealous.

Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems was I believe the first to promote the idea in the 1990s that “the network is the computer”. While he was ridiculed at the time, Google has shown us that the network can be the computer. With an infrastructure like Google’s, what seemed impossible can unexpectedly become reality. While Microsoft spins its wheels trying to make its Windows product ever niftier, Google shows us that it is what you can do with a computer that makes it meaningful. Indeed, Google makes a compelling case that its services and infrastructure is the ubiquitous application layer of the future, if not the here and now. I am creating this entry using Microsoft Word, but I have already checked a half dozen facts online using Google’s search engine. I can use any word processor to create this entry. I cannot go just anywhere online to find out the information I need this rapidly. Google demonstrates it is not how pretty your screwdriver is that matters, but how well it helps you turn the screw. Therefore, we get its low-tech web pages, always with the pure white background, the simple text and its generous use of white space. It appears low tech but it is simple enough for a student in grade school to use effectively.

So I have plenty of cheers for Google today. I am especially glad it gave the U.S. Justice Department a Bronx cheer when the department recently requested a week’s worth of its web searches. The Justice Department wants the information to discover how the web is being used by pedophiles and those interested in child pornography. Unlike Yahoo and MSN, Google wisely said no. It valued the trust it has earned with its customers too much to let the Justice Department mine its information. Let us hope it continues to do so. Apparently, Google records the Internet Protocol (IP) address of every search query. Let us hope that if push comes to shove Google simply stops recording the IP addresses of all our search queries. For an administration already deeply in Big Brother land with its warrantless electronic eavesdropping, this is simply an opening salvo by the government to get its hands on our private business. If Yahoo and MSN care that little about my privacy, I will not be giving them my business.

In making a stand in America though, Google apparently is quite willing to compromise its principles to win business overseas. For also in the news this week were stories that Google will allow the Chinese government to censor its search engine content. Maybe I was naïve, but I really thought Google got it. However, apparently they will compromise their principles if it improves their shareholders’ bottom line. Perhaps as a result, Google shares went up 3.4 percent with the announcement.

Google must not understand its own unique power at this point in history. Many of us talk about the importance of human freedom, but few are in a position to do much to expand it. Google can. It is the 900-pound gorilla in the information search business. Rather than kowtow to China’s paranoid rulers it should have said no thanks. Yes, perhaps that might have kept Google out of the important Chinese market. Yet a powerful and uncensored internet search engine is a great beacon for those who believe in the power of ideas. The Google business plan surely was premised on its importance. Google is a trusted broker for finding uncensored information. It expands personal freedom and spreads enlightenment. Its reputation is at stake. Which is why Google should rethink doing business with China. Right now, its search engine is the largest force for the liberation of the human mind in the 21st century. Google can be both profitable and spread human enlightenment at the same time. It should tell China it does not need its business unless it guarantees that its citizens have the unfettered access to its search engine.

 
The Thinker

Virginia to gays: share our values or get the hell out

Today’s Washington Post brings more sad news that I am living in the wrong state. If it were not for this wonderful job three miles from my house and twenty years vested as a civil servant I would probably be living across the Potomac River, or heading to any place where the good citizens have some sense of justice and proportion. I will likely get there soon after I retire.

Because it looks like Virginia voters (courtesy of our legislature) will have an opportunity to enshrine in the state constitution once and for all that, you guessed it, marriage is between one man and one woman only. Knowing my fellow citizens as I unfortunately do, I am afraid this is a slam-dunk. For I live in the great homophobic state of Virginia.

I have written about gay marriage before. I have no illusions that, barring a U.S. Supreme Court decision, it will happen in Virginia during my lifetime. Naturally, I feel that laws discriminating against homosexuals like this are deeply wrong, hurtful and anti-American. But what really pains me today is I know that, just like the Jim Crow laws so plentiful throughout the South at one time, this constitutional amendment will someday either be stricken down by the U.S. Supreme Court or simply excised altogether by some future generation of ashamed Virginia voters. If Virginians are unwise enough to vote in this proposed constitutional amendment, they or their children will rue the day it passed. It is simply mean spirited. It is sadly just another big f— you to those citizens of the Commonwealth who happen to be attracted to their own gender.

As reprehensible as this amendment is, I already know that Virginia has a sad history of showing contempt for homosexuals. Entries like this one will refresh your memory. The Washington Post Magazine also reported sad stories like this. Make no mistake: in Virginia, homosexuals have under the law essentially become second-class citizens. Unable to legally discriminate against the people we used to hate, like Jews and African Americans, my fellow citizens deeply repressed feelings of rage must be channeled somewhere. So now it is chic to make life increasingly miserable for those who don’t happen to share our heterosexual values. The message is simply: emulate our values or get the hell out.

Therefore, as The Washington Post Magazine article sadly points out, gay couples increasingly simply get out. They know they are not wanted. For Virginia law will not allow gay couples to pass to each other even a nickel of their inheritance to each other. Should they want to be there for their spouse when they are in the hospital, they can be refused. For gays and lesbians, their partners are not legal relatives, and consequently not next of kin. It is the equivalent of spitting in their faces. It is simply mean.

Who are the people who are passing these laws? Mostly they claim to be Christians. It is a good thing Jesus does not live here. If he is the man depicted in the New Testament, it is clear he would be choking on his matzah right now. Jesus was after all someone who spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Negroes of Palestine at the time. He hung out with the lepers and the prostitutes. He avoided the moneychangers in the temple. Jesus was not about exclusivity. He was about inclusiveness. He told us to do to others, as we want them to do to us. If the homosexuals were running the world, would good heterosexual couples want them to void all their marriage contracts? Would they want to be stripped of their simple human right to pass on their inheritance to the person they love, or to be prohibited from giving their beloved comfort in a time of great stress?

It is not likely that they would. Nevertheless, modern Christianity, at least as practiced here in Virginia, has become so twisted and perverted that it has become 100% righteousness and 0% compassion, unless, of course, you model a life very, very close to their lives. Then they can identify with you. Then you become a member of the club. As for the rest of you: go to the back of the bus or better yet, just get the hell out of the commonwealth. If this cannot be done legally because of those darned liberal judges, well, find any legal way you can to turn the screws on those whose values and morals you personally do not agree with.

In addition to causing needless hurt and distress in the lives of good American people, such attitudes only serve to divide us more as a nation. Therefore, at least for a while, the citizens of Virginia are likely to get their wish. The bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender community will increasingly cross the Potomac River to live in Washington D.C. or Maryland or any place where the people have some compassion in their hearts for those with different values. The sad result: red states will get redder and blue states will get bluer. The culture wars will grow. Rather than trying to become a more inclusive nation, these misguided laws will simply drive us into increasingly hateful and xenophobic behavior.

I wish that the citizens of my state could find some compassion in their hearts for those unlike them. Instead we have this constant stream of mean spirited laws and now this reprehensible constitutional amendment. Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

 
The Thinker

Communication Taxes are Obscene

It is not often that I agree with a Republican. This article in today’s Washington Post though had me agreeing with Virginia Republican Delegate Samuel Nixon. His bill before the Virginia Legislature, which is now in session, would replace a number of ad hoc communication taxes with a flat 5% state tax on phone bills, cable bills and various other forms of electronic communication services.

As long time readers know, I do not object to paying taxes. I believe taxes are the cost of civilization. I believe that in many cases we need to pay more taxes. We clearly have been stinting necessary services like road maintenance. I do though think that tax rates should be fair. I am completely supportive of graduated income tax rates. Lord knows I have paid plenty of income taxes, given my comfortable financial situation. I am less enamored with sales taxes, which hit both rich and poor equally, but I think they have their place. What I really object to though are over the top, usury taxes. My telephone bill is Exhibit Number One. It seems like every year the bills expand with newer and higher taxes, while the value I get from the service remains constant.

My telephone bill last month was $35.77. That is clearly not a whole lot of money. It would be a lot less though if it were not for the extra taxes and surcharges. My actual bill is $24.81. It includes a $1.88 for a non-listed number. The rest ($10.96) include a variety of taxes, almost all of which are state and local.

As a percent of the total phone bill, I am paying a tax rate of 31%. As a percent of the total of services billed, the tax rate is 44%. I cannot think of any other form of tax that is so usury. Interest rates this high are rightfully outlawed. Why do we tolerate tax rates this high that also sock it to even our most income challenged citizens?

Where does this $10.96 in taxes go? $3.00 of it helps pay for a 911 center. $5.77 goes to my county’s general coffers. 77 cents goes for federal taxes.

Of course, I pay other communications taxes. The taxes on my cable and internet bill are more modest. Cox Communications is our ISP and cable provider. Our bill is $85.65 a month, of which $3.47 are local taxes. This is about a 4% tax rate. We also have cell phones. Since we are cheap and tend to use email instead of cell phones, my wife and I carry Virgin Atlantic prepaid mobile phones. Even when prepaying for minutes though there are taxes. We pay $1 in taxes for every $20 in minutes, or a tax rate 5%. We also have a long distance provider. Again, we hardly ever call anyone long distance. I was sick of plans that required a minimal monthly payment. Therefore, I found Pioneer Telephone, which has a plan where I pay only 2.7 cents a minute with no minimum monthly payment required. For many months, my minutes were tax-free. Although my bill last month was only 93 cents last month (29 minutes), 15 cents were tacked on for various taxes. The effective tax rate is 16%.

How did this sad state of taxation evolve? Apparently, over the years it was easier to nickel and time telephone customers than to make other choices, like raise general sales or income taxes, or cut spending elsewhere. Most of this money goes to local governments, which are often constrained by the state on charging other forms of taxes.

I certainly do not want to stop funding 911 centers or the salaries of operators that help the hearing impaired. That too is part of the cost of civilization. I just think these taxes should come from general revenues. While these taxes might amount to a couple hundred dollars a year for me, that may be a lot of money to someone on a fixed income. An impoverished woman who is living month to month on social security may be splitting pills in order to pay these taxes.

Therefore, this bill is a sensible step in the right direction. If all my communication services were taxed at a flat rate of 5% then clearly my telephone bill would take a nose dive. On the other hand, taxes for my cable and internet services would go up. At least the taxes would be reasonable. I would happier if these services were just considered part of the cost of state and local government. I believe is better to marginally change income and sales tax rates than to slap such exorbitant fees on services that cost relatively little, but which we all need.

 
The Thinker

The Delight of Joss Whedon’s Firefly

Last October I posted a review of Joss Whedon’s movie Serenity. I found the movie to be wonderful. It was exactly what I wanted to see in the voluminous space operas out there, but never quite found. It was not long after the movie that my wife and I decided we had to go back and see the original thirteen episodes of the Firefly TV series, upon which the movie was based. We ordered the Firefly DVD set as a Christmas present for ourselves. We have now watched all but the last episode. We know we will have to watch the last episode eventually, but right now, it pains us to know there is only one left to discover. Like being in denial over a lover’s death, right now we cannot go there. It hurts too much.

Firefly had a sporadic but brief life on the Fox Television network. I was amazed it developed a cult following at all, since many episodes were shown out of sequence and were frequently preempted by Fox. After the show was unwisely canceled, episodes were rebroadcast on the SciFi cable TV channel. Having given up television, I was blissfully ignorant about the Firefly series.

With only thirteen episodes (including a two-hour pilot), you would wonder why I would even bother to invest myself in this universe. Barring a miracle, new episodes of TV show will not be filmed. (Brownshirts, i.e. Firefly fans, though have not given up hope.) Even another Firefly movie looks dicey. While the movie attracted most of the Firefly fans out there, it did not get much box office attention. Reviews like this one were generally very enthusiastic. The timing of the movie’s release might partially explain its lackluster box office numbers. September is not prime time at the box office, and movie receipts in general have been declining. The reason that many like us went through the trouble of buying the Firefly DVDs is that though the episodes were few, each one was a sparkling diamond. If TV could be this innovative and interesting, the networks would never worry about their bottom line. For in Newton Minow’s vast wasteland of television and cable TV, Firefly demonstrated the full potential of the medium when the right ingredients are present.

The Firefly universe postulates a Wild West solar system. Most of the solar system is controlled by The Alliance, a totalitarian-lite form of government not unlike what George W. Bush seems to want the United States to become. The outer planets and moons are full of largely untamed but terraformed worlds suitable for human habitation. Each of these worlds look uniformly look like the Old West and are often populated by associated ruffians and misfits. The technology is a mixture of high and low tech. On these outer planets and moons, 20th Century pistols and rifles integrate well with various second and third-rate space transport vessels like the Firefly class ship named Serenity that is captained by Mal Reyolds (Nathan Fillion).

Mal is no heroic starship captain bringing a utopian vision to the uninformed masses. Mal is more like an officer in the Confederate Army five years after the Civil War. He is a conflicted soul, still licking many painful wounds from helping lead a valiant but doomed war against domination by The Alliance. He is trying to remake his life by earning a marginal living carrying dubious cargo from the various planets and moons that make up this solar system using a spaceship that is the equivalent of a ten-year-old Chevy Suburban with 200,000 miles on it. In short, Mal has issues. It would be easy to typecast him as another Hans Solo, but Mal has many more dimensions than Hans.

The same is true with the entire cast. Creator Joss Whedon has placed inside one spaceship a small collection of complex and often troubled characters. He lets them develop and play off against each other in his rough and tumble solar system where humankind is technically more advanced but is still mired in our modern hatreds and prejudices. Also on board is Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), a no nonsense woman who fought with Mal against The Alliance, and who acts as the ship’s second in command. In addition, there is Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a gunslinger of his day who can barely operate in the civilized world. Keeping the ship running is Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship’s engineer. Kaylee is a sweet and wholly inoffensive young woman who never attended engineering school but nonetheless has amazing skills keeping the aging ship from moving toward total dysfunction. At the con is “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk) who is married to Zoe and quite jealous of her long-term relationship with Mal. So much for the ship’s official crew.

Also on board are a number of paying and non-paying passengers picked up along the way. These include Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a “licensed companion”. She is the equivalent of a very high-class interstellar call girl. She keeps her shuttle docked in one of Firefly’s bays and takes opportunities at various ports of call to attend to the intimate needs of selected high-class clientele. The ship even has its own preacher, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), and a brother and sister team: the brilliant physician Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his crazy but even more talented sister River (Summer Glau). As in the movie, he helped her sister escape from the clutches of The Alliance and they live their lives as fugitives aboard Serenity.

All these characters appear in the movie, but in the TV show, we get to watch their characters develop and morph over time as this Wild West solar system throws everything it can at them. There is not a bad episode in the whole series. As the series progresses the relationships between characters and the characters themselves morph. What we viewers get is a fascinating set of characters and dynamics made more interesting by the complex situations they get into. The choice of actors is inspired, and it is clear that the cast had developed real synergy.

The lovely result is a series that in just thirteen episodes is so packed with character development and plot that it still feel like several seasons worth. Joss must have had some inkling that, like a real firefly, his dream show’s life on network TV would be brief. Consequently, every episode is a rich smorgasbord for the viewer.

Just as the Old West was raw, the show can be very raw too. Between the graphic violence, adult themes and sex it borders on being R-rated TV. This is at least PG-13 TV. It is not suitable for young children at all, and I would have hesitated to let my daughter see it age 13. This realism though just adds to its plausibility.

Fans like myself who discovered the series years after it was shown may have to resign ourselves that there will simply be no more morsels of this universe to savor. Nevertheless, I do know that this DVD set will get many viewing from me in the years ahead. Just like there are only ten novels in the Hornblower series, yet I feel I have to reread them all every few years, so I will periodically go back and marvel at the unabashed excellence in thirteen episodes of Firefly now permanently in my DVD collection.

 
The Thinker

Are people more courteous in blue states?

Over the last year and a half or so, I have taken up biking as a hobby again. Thanks to Bush’s Global Warming TM though we often get days during the winter that feel more like spring. Today was such a day: blue skies, temperatures in the 60s and low humidity. And since I had the day off, it was a good day for my first bike ride of the year.

I kept my bike ride modest: to Vienna, Virginia and back along my favorite bike trail: the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. The ride was about twenty miles altogether and took about two hours. It felt good to reconnect with my bike again. I mentally berated myself for not doing more of it lately. Our winter has been relatively mild so far and a bike ride is such an improvement over doing a workout at the local Gold’s Gym. In many ways when the weather cooperates, winter is the ideal time to bike. In the summer, I can return from a bike ride covered in sweat and with gnats and assorted tiny bugs all over my exposed arms, legs and face. Bugs are not a problem during the winter. The result is that when the weather is tepid in the winter like today, it is the optimal time for a bike ride.

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It is an increasingly cosmopolitan county just outside the Washington beltway. It is also turning from a county that tended to vote Republican to a reliably Democratic county. In general the further you live from the Beltway, the more Republican that Fairfax County becomes.

Consequently, by heading east on the W&OD trail toward Vienna, Virginia you move toward “blue” (solidly Democratic) territory. Head west on the W&OD trail and you move into “red” Loudoun County, (which is now showing signs of turning purple).

I have noticed real behavioral differences from the motorists I encounter depending on the direction I bike on the trail. The trail winds through a lot of suburbia in both directions. Therefore, bicyclists on the trail encounter many at grade crossings. (Fortunately, there are often bridges that take the trail over the largest roads.) Consequently, my fellow bicyclists and I have many opportunities to interact with motorists. The behavior I have experience has become so predictable that it is now beyond dispute in my mind: the further east I go into “blue” areas on the trail, the more courteous the drivers I encounter become.

On the other hand, head west on the trail and drivers can become ruthless. If there is a traffic light, you can usually cross safely but somewhat warily. If you have to cross a road by first yielding to the traffic, be prepared to pedal across the road quickly. The drivers are likely to try to accelerate if they see you trying to cross. I have also had drivers curse at me, even though my behavior was entirely lawful. The vast majority of them seem to drive their cars as if bicyclists do not exist. When they see us, they seem almost startled. “My goodness,” is what I imagine they are thinking, “It’s a bicyclist!” You would think we are Martians or something.

The W&OD trail crosses Hunter Mill Road between Reston and Vienna. While there are signs on the road asking motorists to yield to bicyclists, what really surprises me is that drivers routinely follow the law. Moreover, they do so quite happily. I nod or wave to them and they smile, nod or wave back. It is a nice feeling. The same thing often happens where the trail crosses Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills Road in Reston. Once inside the Town of Vienna it gets even more courteous. It only gets a bit chancy crossing the major thoroughfare of Maple Avenue. Fortunately, there is a crosswalk there. Crossing Park Street or Cedar Lane in Vienna is not a problem. It is highly unusual for drivers not to stop for a bicyclist. Drivers in Vienna, as well as Falls Church, are very courteous and respectful of bicyclists.

Bike in “red” Loudoun County though and things can get dicey. Right now crossing Church Street is especially chancy, since the road is under reconstruction and you have to bike down to a traffic light. Further, out in Loudoun County, such as where the trail crosses Ashburn Road or Belmont Ridge Road it becomes just plain dangerous to be a bicyclist. This is SUV and pick up truck land and you are in something resembling country. The cars are going fifty miles an hour or more on a two-lane road. They really do not want to decelerate for some annoying bicyclist, particularly when they are coming swiftly over the top of a hill. I have learned the hard way to give drivers a lot of leeway out on the trail’s western side.

If you make it on the bike trail to Leesburg a bicyclist must be very careful. When you get your walk light, you had better hoof it quickly. The drivers are unlikely to be looking for you. From the looks of things, Leesburg does not get many pedestrians or bicyclists. I suspect the automotive culture is much more engrained in that city.

I have observed this phenomenon so many times now. I am starting to wonder if people are just naturally more courteous in blue parts of my state than in red parts. When I am in red territory, as a bicyclist I often feel that drivers do simply not see me. When they see me and especially if they have to modify their behavior by tapping their brake or something, watch out. That is when you are likely to get frowns, curses or their middle finger. Apparently, I am interfering with their high-speed automotive experience.

We all know that bicycles (with some exceptions) have equal rights to roads. The sad reality though is that bicyclists are wise to avoid riding on thoroughfares. It is just plain dangerous to do so. The shoulders are full of gravel, garbage and the occasional pothole, if we are lucky enough to have a shoulder at all. (They tend to appear and disappear depending on whether a housing development is nearby.) We bicyclists must exercise extreme caution when crossing any thoroughfare that is not in a residential neighborhood. It is nice to know though that my odds of survival seem to be much higher as I bike into “blue” territory. If safety were my primary concern, I would be better off limiting my biking to blue territory all the time.

 
The Thinker

A Governor with a Clue

Tim Kaine has only been governor of Virginia for a couple days, but he is already showing unusual common sense. Governor Kaine has proposed what has hitherto been unthinkable here in the Old Dominion: allowing counties to restrict housing growth until the transportation infrastructure exists to sustain it.

“Over the long term, the most important single change we can make is to reform the way we plan at both the state and local levels,” he said. “We cannot allow uncoordinated development to overwhelm our roads and infrastructure.”

Grasping this idea is not like trying to understand calculus. I am hoping that our new governor will prove adept at the power of persuasion. If history is any guide, this proposal will probably not get too far. With zero limits on campaign contributions for those running for state offices here in Virginia, candidates supported by business interests tend to have unfair advantages. Not surprisingly then, developers have enjoyed undue influence in our state government, and are often the largest contributors to state campaigns.

Predictably, developers and real estate agents are aghast by Kaine’s proposal. Two hundred of them are planning to come to Richmond to lobby against the governor’s initiative. The times though may be a changing at last. I live near the edge of Loudoun County, hitherto a reliable, solidly Republican county. Yet the citizens of Loudoun County picked Tim Kaine over his Republican opponent Jerry Kilgore by five percentage points.

Was it that the small but active Muslim community in the county that came out en masse for Kaine that made the difference? Or did Kaine’s message resonate with them? Most moved to the county in order to find affordable housing only to soon find traffic jams and crowded schools. Additional new housing keeps going up, but the infrastructure is not keeping pace.

Virginia is perhaps like most of the country. The philosophy of local governments has been to accommodate developers and worry about dealing with the overcrowded roads and schools later. Not that the counties had much of a choice. Virginia law left them with few options.

Tim Kaine though gets it and is the first politician of his stature to actually to promote sensible growth in the state. As you build houses, also build an infrastructure sized to fit all the people, cars and houses that will be placed there. That means creating four and six lane roads when the houses are put in, not decades later when the existing roads have morphed into giant parking lots. Developers, naturally, would prefer that local governments absorb these costs. They want to shift the true costs of creating new civilization to all taxpayers. This lets them keep their house prices artificially low. By the time these bills come due, they have moved on to literally greener pastures.

What would the premium be on a new house if it included the costs for the wider roads and bigger schools that are needed? My guess is that it would raise the cost of a new house by $50,000 or more. That suits me fine. I think this would provide powerful incentive to redevelop land near or in cities, where the infrastructure already exists. As many developers are learning, there is good money in building closer in. It would also discourage destroying our fast disappearing natural world.

Clearly, our nation’s population will continue to grow. Our residents have to live somewhere. Nevertheless, that does not mean those who choose to live in new developments should get a subsidy from taxpayers. If the true costs of these developments had to be paid up front, our choices might be much different.

Our current rate of population growth is not sustainable forever. Governor Kaine’s proposal is a sensible first step toward ensuring a better quality of life for the citizens of the Commonwealth. If proposals like his become more widely adopted, what we are likely to witness is a form of reverse cost shifting. Residents seeking cheap new houses are going to move to communities where house prices are artificially subsidized by local governments. This will just increase the cost pressures on these local governments. Eventually these governments will figure out that their communities are the ones getting screwed, and states with planned communities are benefiting by their lack of common sense. I hope that this will drive desperately needed controlled growth. In addition, I also expect that the quality of life of our citizens will improve.

 
The Thinker

Destiny’s Unseen Hands

Cosmic forces are pushing me. Yeah, I know it sounds nuts, but it is true. All I know is that something is out there. It is messing with me, hopefully for the good. I do not know how I know, but somehow I know that I was sent on this journey called life, and I know that I have a mission. While I do not know what my mission is, I can infer much of it. If I stray too far from my apparently programmed path, unseen forces will quickly align me back toward the same path.

And it is not just me. I think that it is all of us. I am starting to question just how much free will I really have. I believe that I was meant to come into this life and tackle certain issues. I do not know if I was meant to actually solve them in this life, but I think I am expected to keep earnestly plugging away at them. The means by which to solve them seem largely elusive, which makes the whole process feel very frustrating. Nor can I fully articulate what the issues are. What I perceive my “issues” to be are I think symptoms of some higher issues whose names I cannot identify. The meaning of my life is like a partially constructed jigsaw puzzle. If I can snap a piece or two into the puzzle then I have a better understanding of what the puzzle in time may reveal.

Here is what I have learned in my own situation. You can run, but you cannot hide from your mission. Whatever “it” is, you must work on it. For example, let us suppose that you are unhappy in your marriage. You subsequently divorce, thinking that your spouse’s behavior was the problem. As a divorcee, you are likely to find that there is some underlying issue related to the marriage that still gnaws at you, and it was not your ex-wife. Rather your ex-wife merely brought to the surface some issues inside yourself so you could grapple with them. Perhaps you will ache in loneliness in a degree commensurate with the misery you experienced in the marriage. Perhaps you will seek out someone who you think has different characteristics, only to find that when you remarry that you are facing the same issues all over again. You may even find yourself ping ponging from one relationship to the next looking for the perfect relationship minus the detritus of the last one. Ultimately, you are likely to find that you have issues, your partner has issues, and sanctuary simply does not exist.

Taking overt actions to address specific symptoms do not necessarily solve these hidden issues and agendas that lie within ourselves. At best, actions that address symptoms act like an aspirin and dull the pain. Sometimes they make things much worse. However, the underlying issue remains. The wound remains open.

The baffling parts are figuring out what the real issues are. If you can articulate the underlying issues then you have the challenge of creating a way to address them. Perhaps with a very good therapist you can in time figure out what your problems truly are. However, that does not necessarily mean that you can solve them. No therapist can inhabit your body. At best, they can view your internal life through a translucent pane of glass. They depend on you to faithfully articulate your feelings. If you are equally baffled then it is unlikely that they will be of much lasting help.

So you may feel like I do: that I am grasping at straws. While the status quo may at times feel very painful, it seems like outside forces want you to inhabit this zone. For it seems that we can only learn our most valuable lessons through pain. Progress, when it is made at all, seems to come from embracing the pain rather than avoiding it. This is difficult for most of us to do because it feels so counterintuitive.

One of my issues is control. I like things ordered and predictable. I do not like surprises. I do not like ambiguity. I like to think my life is in reasonable control. I take satisfaction at the end of the month paying all my bills and seeing my net worth slowly creeping up. I want to extend this control into all aspects of my life. Yet it is ultimately futile. For control is really an illusion. Moreover, I cannot really control anything other than myself. I cannot control my wife, daughter or cat. While I like the illusion of having control over myself, in reality even control over myself is an illusion. For I am not just me. I am many beings and aspects at once. Most of the time the logical side is dominant, but sometimes the emotional side takes control. My brain, like yours, is like a massive parallel processor where multiple threads compete for control over my mind and body. Therefore, I think one of my meta-issue is not control, but learning how to give up control. For me death is so disturbing not necessarily because it means the loss of my self. It is disturbing because it exists in a domain beyond my control yet through which I must pass. Perhaps it is this knowledge that is at the root of religion’s popularity.

On rare occasion a puzzle piece does fall into place. For much of my life I felt intellectually intimidated. While I was above average intellectually, I was no mental giant. I perceived myself as less smart than those around me, particularly many of my siblings. I wanted to have a job that was more intellectually challenging and where I got to work on larger issues that had a broader impact. I had a few brushes with failure that suggested this was my natural state. For example, I lost my job in 1988. A few years earlier, I had tried to take a computer course in college and failed. Working in the information systems field without a related degree made me feel vulnerable. Eventually I determined that I had to work up my courage and succeed by earning a graduate degree. I knew it would have to be done while keeping a full time job, caring for my elementary school daughter and keeping my marriage together. Yet I had to do it to achieve balance within myself.

I eventually achieved my goal, much to my relief. The degree did help me achieve a more rewarding career. However, what it really did was give me some confidence in my own abilities to solve a very difficult personal issue. This particular feeling of angst that had permeated about twenty years of my life wholly disappeared. Nevertheless, clearly many other underlying issues remain to be tackled.

I need to figure out what these remaining issues really are. One thing I do know from much experience: I cannot walk away from them for they will continue to shadow me throughout life unless I somehow resolve them. So although I usually don’t know how to tackle them, I must keep making rather fumbling attempts to do so. If I choose to do nothing, I know that destiny will intervene.

 
The Thinker

Sampling the Retired Life

I returned to work on Monday after a glorious and refreshing sixteen days off. Since Monday, it has been back to the zoo that is working in the Washington metropolitan area. As Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes) put it, “The days are just packed.” From 6:10 a.m. when the alarm rouses me out of bed until 7 p.m. or so it is go, go, go. On the days I hit the gym after work (generally every other day) it can be 8:30 p.m. or so before I have something resembling leisure.

Once at work it feels like a nonstop circus. It may be sedentary work, but mentally my mind is on adrenaline. Even during my lunch hour, the odds are that important email will be streaming in. While I scarf down soup and a salad and leaf through the day’s Washington Post, I usually keep one eye on my email box and instant messaging program. My work may not be calorie intensive, but juggling the constant influx of email, all of which has to be sorted out for its political implications, while trying to marshal resources to effect meaningful change is actually quite draining. Yet I also find it strangely exhilarating. The days quickly slip by.

For sixteen days, at least I was away from it all. Moreover, it was glorious. My work may often feel exhilarating. As jobs go it is can be a lot of fun. However, it is still work. If I did not have to survive for a living, I would not choose to spend ten hours or so a day in my office reading emails, arranging meetings, counseling employees, listening to customers, monitoring contracts and orchestrating a team’s work. I now have some inkling of the things I would be doing if I did not have to eke out a living.

Most days would be a la carte. Now I do things because I must make other people happy to survive. Over sixteen days I discovered that in my future retired life I could choose to do most of my activities when it pleases me to do so. There will still be chores that need to be done, but the few hours a day they may take can be placed at times that most suit me. If an hour of paying bills is enough, I can do something else. Read my personal email. Surf naughty web sites. Write in my blog. See a movie. Go to the gym. The possibilities are endless.

I was surprised by how much work I ended up actually doing. As readers know, added up I probably spent three days altogether of my vacation playing house. With nothing else on my horizon, two hours a day chasing dust bunnies did not feel like a chore. My largest activity though was not cleaning, but programming. Unable to do it at work, programming computers for no money turned out to be a treat. When I did it for a living, I eventually grew bored with it. In smaller doses and on projects that actually interest me I found it is a great hobby.

While I got to the gym regularly, I did little other exercise. I could have run a couple miles every morning, but I did not want to. Extra exercise felt too much like work. Instead, I often found myself at my computer. I also found myself in front of the TV. I was not watching commercial TV (God forbid), but my wife and I found plenty of entertainment watching the complete set of shows from the Firefly TV DVD collection we gave ourselves for Christmas.

My cat was very happy to have me around. My wife reports that when I am not here he often wanders the house looking for me in vain. For two weeks though, he could have as much of me as he wanted. He could often be found on my lap being cuddled or stroked. At nineteen, though he is definitely slowing down. He ended up at the veterinarians twice during vacation. Fortunately, my schedule was free, so taking him to and from the vet was not a problem.

I found myself actually spending less time engaged in my regular leisure time activities. It was much more difficult to care about politics during my break. I hit sites like DailyKos.com, but only once a day, and I mostly just scanned the headlines.

Long breaks make it easier to meet friends for lunch. For weeks my friend Sokhama and I had been trying to do lunch, but the holiday rush had made it impossible. Finally, we found an hour to meet and catch up with each other at a Chipotle’s restaurant. Afterwards, since I was in my father’s neighborhood, my Dad and I drove to the Patuxent Research Refuge for a hike. I was able to do both activities in the middle of a workweek, and still miss the rush hour.

What was best was that my sixteen days off felt nearly twice as long. Like most busy adults, it seems to me that every year goes quicker than the year before it. The last time I had sixteen days off in a row I was a young adult between semesters at college. During this vacation I found that time actually slowed down. Taking each day at a leisurely pace had a boomerang effect that seemed to lengthen the perceived length of every day. Perhaps when I finally retire my 20-30 years of retirement living will feel like 60 or 90. I certainly hope so.

I see the value of a slower pace of living now. I can see that while work can be rewarding and engaging, it is not an end. A happy retirement itself can be a reason for living.

In a few weeks, I will spend two days in Washington attending my first retirement seminar. While I am there, I will turn 49. I am clearly too young to retire, but I am not too young to start steering my course toward a terrific retirement. For most of my life, retirement has been an abstraction. Now it is looking to be something that will actually happen to me, and that it will be the best time of my life. It might be as little as seven years away. With this taste of retirement in my extended vacation, I can now appreciate its value.

 
The Thinker

My Father the Boy Scout

I have written many words chronicling my mother’s sad decline, death, funeral and burial. Such a seismic event in my personal life could hardly go unnoted in my blog. Even though I have accepted my mother’s death, I am sure I will never be wholly over it.

I have spent less time talking about my father. Thankfully, my father is still among the living and in decent health for a man of 79. I am optimistic that his grandchildren and we his children will have him for many more good years. My father is always a delight to be with. He exudes healthiness and the joy of living. Now that my mother his gone, he is reveling in the pleasure of his retirement community, which keeps him happy and fully engaged. A naturally affable man, he is very much at home in his relatively new digs. He makes friends easily and rarely lacks for dinner companions. His social life has become so busy that I cannot always be worked into his schedule.

Having read a number of books on relationships and marriage dynamics, it becomes a bit easy to typecast my parents. My mother was the emotionally expressive side of the marriage. My father was its logical side. While my mother was emotionally expressive, she was also introverted. My father, logical as you would expect of someone who made engineering his profession, was the more extroverted. It made the dynamics of their marriage interesting.

Certainly, I was blessed with a wonderful mother. I am equally blessed with an outstanding father. Even with our jaundiced childish eyes, it was not too difficult to see that my mother had issues. However, it is almost impossible to find anything imperfect about our father. He is a tough act to follow. Each of my brothers and sisters (as well as myself) tries to emulate him in our own ways. I think we all understand that while we are all good people he has definitely won the Gold Medal. Maybe we can hope for a Bronze Medal out of life.

To enumerate his many good points is to in some way understate them. And though he seems surreal to describe, he is entirely real and fully human. My father is the perfect boy scout all grown up. Do you ex scouts remember your Boy Scout Oath? My father emulates it.

Trustworthy. With my father, you could give him a million dollars in cold, hard cash and be completely confident that he would not abscond with even a nickel of it. With how many people could you truly say that? Would you even trust your spouse with that kind of money? If my father had not been an engineer, he would have been natural fit as a banker. Customers would be lined up around the block.

Loyal. No one could doubt my father’s loyalty, and certainly not to my mother. He reeks of loyalty. While she doubtless drove him to distraction many times, he was endlessly and doggedly loyal to her. He cared for her until he was physically unable to lift her anymore. During her decline, he tended to her numerous and complex needs day and night for months on end. Total fidelity is a natural fit for him.

Helpful. He is wholly incapable of not helping a stranger in need. During my mother’s sad decline in the nursing home, he chatted up and lifted the spirits of everyone at her table. He tutored one of the nurse’s aides working there in math in his spare time. Heck, I still do not understand how he tutored each one of us children in so many life skills. He had eight children and he taught all eight of us to drive. Moreover, he is an excellent teacher. I cannot shift lanes without signaling. By instinct I leave at least ten feet between me and the car ahead of me for every ten miles an hour that I am driving. Yet driving is just one of numerous and time consuming skills he helped us master from tying our shoes to learning how to tie a necktie.

Friendly. The best way to imagine my father is to think Mr. Rogers. No, really. That’s him, except for the cardigan sweater. He prefers flannel checkered shirts. My Dad is uniformly friendly with everyone he meets. His friendliness is utterly sincere and totally innocuous. Wherever he lived, he was the block’s Mr. Wilson. Unlike Mr. Wilson, he welcomed attention from children. They were drawn to him like moths to a flame. You expected him to fix the bikes of neighborhood kids. Like us, they came to watch him at his workbench, but what they really came for was to talk to a man who would listen to them sincerely and with an open heart.

Courteous. Complements are second nature to my father, yet every complement is completely sincere. No meal is too ordinary not to be mentioned for praise. He looks for the best in everyone. Any old lady trying to cross the street had a ready and unsolicited volunteer.

Kind. My father goes out of his way to help people. He is uniformly sympathetic, humane, tolerant, generous and liberal with his time and energy. When he lived in Midland, he usually spent a day a week driving older people to and from their various medical appointments.

Obedient. My Dad is one of an achingly small number of people who scrupulously obeys the speed limit and all the traffic laws. A deeply religious man, he follows the Catholic Church’s commandments to the letter.

Cheerful. There are people who have learned to fake cheerfulness. With my father, no faking is necessary. He is the original Good Humor Man. That is not to say that he is always happy. Dealing with my mother’s decline was very stressful. Occasional stress fissures could be seen in his personality. Nevertheless, he is never deliberately mean. It takes huge painful events to strip away his cheerfulness, but they rarely lasted for long. Cheerfulness bubbles out of him irrepressibly.

Thrifty. My Dad always lived within his means. He was not a tightwad, but he lived prudently, almost frugally, taking only what he needed. He is the type to save old screws or wires in case he might need them later. He never carried a credit card debt. He had one auto loan in his life and so disliked the feeling of being in debt that he saved up and paid cash for all his other cars. He is not a man impressed with status nor felt the desire for lavish things. Suits off the rack at Sears were plenty fancy for him.

Brave. At the start of his marriage, he helped manage his new mother in law, who was suffering from a debilitating mental illness. He did this while managing an infant and holding down a full time job as the sole breadwinner. At the end of his marriage, he dealt adroitly with my mother’s many difficult issues, while consistently attending to her varied needs around the clock. In the nursing home, he visited her twice a day like clockwork.

Clean. Dad is always gentlemanly and never lascivious. The engineer in him would no more tolerate a smelly body than he would a poorly designed circuit.

Reverent. My father’s faith in God is simple and almost feels naïve. Attending mass weekly is a given, and he will gladly attend more often if the opportunity presents itself. He is utterly sincere in his religion. We were all raised to be good and devout Catholics. It is a mystery why with him for an example so few of us did not follow his chosen faith.

With my mother’s death, I now realize the time we have left together is limited. Each remaining visit feels both special and blessed. I am grateful beyond words to have this man for my father. I feel privileged to have him in my life, still puttering around, smiling so sincerely, generous with the complements and utterly in love with life.

 

Switch to our mobile site