Archive for April, 2006

The Thinker

Pocket Money

It used to be that adjunct teaching was my source of pocket money. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to teach for about a year. I travel on business a fair amount. I do not feel that it was fair to my students to commit to teaching a weeknight course if I were likely to miss a class or two during a semester. Therefore, I have been looking for Saturday courses to teach instead. However, usually there are not enough students to fill a Saturday class, so the class gets canceled.

Fortunately, I do not need the money. Still there was something nice about the extra money coming in. While I certainly spend money on items for my own amusement, it seems like there are more important things I should do with my money. Or perhaps I should I say our money. I am a married man, after all, the primary breadwinner and there are many bills to pay.

With my adjunct teaching money (which as any adjunct teacher knows does not amount to very much) I felt like this extra money was all mine. I could spend it on whatever whim I wanted. Most of the time I would use the monies to buy expensive trifles for myself I was otherwise too cheap to purchase. My digital camera was one of these trifles.

Sometimes genuine financial opportunities knock on your door. You just have to be mindful of them. I get a couple of unsolicited requests per month from distant strangers on the internet who want me to do computer work for them. Unlike my wife, who can take apart, rebuild and build computers for people, they do not want me for my hardware expertise. This is good because I have none. I am a software guy. I do however have modest skills doing things on web servers. This is good because I manage a large, complex, dynamic web site for a living. It pays the bills. Since these requests keep coming in, I am thinking in lieu of teaching that maybe this could be a new source of pocket money.

phpBB is forum software that is widely used on the web. Although you may not know the name, you see it everywhere. You see it because it is open source (i.e. free to own and modify) and of very high quality. I started running a phpBB forum of my own in 2002. It was very useful out of the box. However, since I can program, I could not leave well enough alone. I began to tinker with it. Actually, I have done a lot of tinkering. Moreover, I have written some significant modifications to phpBB. Yes, of course there is a whole community of phpBB developers out there. They extend phpBB to meet uses never envisioned by its creators. Of course, this is also true of thousands of other open source software projects as well.

My innovation back in 2003 was to create the first usable digest software for phpBB. Most phpBB modifications are pretty small and straightforward. The digest modification though was a big modification. While there are certainly bigger modifications out there, (the Attachment mod comes immediately to mind) and even some wholesale rewrites, the Digest mod filled an important niche. It allowed people to get emails containing posts in the forums they wanted. To make it work I had to learn a lot about the way phpBB is written.

I have also made my own custom modifications for my forum. For example, I have integrated news from other sources into my forum. I have done other neat things like putting up real time graphics showing the total posts per day. More recently, I completed a modification I call Smartfeed (not to be confused with this Smartfeed effort). It allows phpBB forums to be accessed using RSS or Atom newsfeed protocols.

Still, demand for enhancements to phpBB keep coming in. phpBB may be free, but it is like buying a stripped down car. Those with the requisite skills add their favorite modifications from the phpBB modifications database, or the phpBB Hacks site. Many others though simply do not have the skills, or do not want to bother. In addition, they are having a hard time finding someone to install these modifications and maintain the site for them. Moreover, some of them are willing to part with money to keep their “free” board patched and feature rich.

Just last night I got such a request. A forum for PhDs wanted me to install my digest modification. So far, I had said, “no way”. I do not run a charity ward. Then I started thinking about it. Maybe there was a way to make some money from these requests. I said I would install it for free, but warned them that if they wanted more modifications or needed maintenance applied, it was going to cost money. I warned them there was a long-term cost to having a forum. Still, it is often irresistible to get something for free up front (my labor) and still discount the long-term costs.

This work is not too hard for someone with my skills. Actually, it is somewhat boring and tedious. Nevertheless, someone has to do it. In addition, there seems to be a persistent demand out there for phpBB modifications. As long as I do a bit of it on the side, and do not turn it into a second career it may be a great way to pick up some pocket money.

And truth be told, since a friend showed me her video iPod, I have been sort of wanting one of my own. Perhaps I have found a guilt free way to buy one.

 
The Thinker

It’s time to prepare for the end of the oil era

I have written before about America’s dependence on oil. In July 2004, I wrote about the end of cheap oil. At the time, the $40 price for a barrel of oil seemed outrageous. Two years later, we look back at those prices with nostalgia. A year later, I wrote that America was a country in decline, in part due to the many emerging economies driving up demand for oil. A month later, I wrote about how surreal and scary it was to drive through the rapidly growing exurbs, knowing that their existence was predicated on the automobile and consequently the ready availability of gasoline.

Like most Americans, I too cannot help but be fixated on the price of gas. I reached an unfortunate milestone this week when I filled up my fuel efficient Honda Civic Hybrid. It is just a compact car, but it still cost $36.50 to fill its tank. I do not recall ever spending more than $30 to fill it up. My wife drives a larger car (a 1997 Honda Odyssey). I filled it up for her on Monday and it cost $41, another record high. I am sure others with larger cars and gas tanks are paying much more. I heard on the news this week of a woman who paid over $100 to fill the tank of her Ford Explorer SUV. That has to hurt.

Naturally, with these kinds of prices it is hard to keep hybrid cars in the showrooms. SUV sales are way down. Many Americans are making big changes in their driving choices. Even our Republican congress is thinking the previously unthinkable: raising automobile fuel efficiency standards, even for SUVs and light trucks.

These are steps in the right direction. Yet I also think most Americans understand intuitively now that an era has passed. We can no longer take for granted that we can get from point A to point B at an affordable price and at a time of our choosing. Prudent Americans should be preparing for what comes next.

Of course, it is hard to know what will come next or how soon it will arrive. I do think we can take as a given that our transportation costs are going to keep going up, largely due to increases in the price of oil. I think we can also count on our oil supply system becoming more vulnerable to supply fluctuations. We are like a hypochondriac. We watch our oil supply system with the greatest concern. The smallest problems are greatly magnified and cause oil dependent economies to keep bidding up the price of oil. While there are still likely undiscovered oil fields out there, they are fewer. Extracting oil from them will be increasingly more expensive.

Those of us who lived through the 1970s remember the two oil shocks. We remember gas lines. We remember only being allowed to buy gas only on odd or even days. I remember waiting for more than an hour to have the opportunity to fill up my car’s tank. We are likely to see those days again.

It is possible that Saudi Arabia will fully open its spigots, thereby increasing supply and lowering prices. However, they are already pumping at close to their capacity. Moreover, it is not necessarily in their interests to increase the supply. Even if they do so, there is more demand. China, India and Indonesia are but some of the emerging new economies whose continued growth is predicated on oil.

What does the average American do? Is it enough to buy a hybrid? As with all things it depends on what actually happens and how much risk that you are comfortable assuming. It may also depend on your financial situation. Oil price increases are easier to endure if you make $100,000 a year instead of $40,000 a year. However, if there are large disruptions in the supply of oil all of us automobile owners will have to wait in gas lines.

I am more of the paranoid type. I do not necessarily prepare for the worst case, but I am prepared for the next to worse case. I think gas prices will keep going up. I think we will see occasional gas lines. I think our lifestyles will get a lot more expensive and risky, and I want to minimize both of these likelihoods. So yes, while SUVs were still flying out of dealers’ lots I bought a hybrid. Today, as I listen to my wife’s car idling at traffic lights, I also wonder if it is time to trade in her car for a hybrid. These are sound strategies, providing there is an adequate oil supply.

Long ago I realized my family also needed to be in a position where we could live without a car if necessary. I am fortunate because I can bike to work when the weather allows. Work is three miles each way and biking is an easy and fun way to get the exercise my body needs anyhow. If biking is out of the question, walking is not. I also have a bus I can jump on a quarter mile down the road if necessary. My wife is in a more difficult spot. Her job is 15 miles away. It is theoretically possible for her to get there by public transportation, but unless the bus routes changed, it would likely be at least a 90-minute trip each way to work and she would still have to do considerable walking. We also have two grocery stores about a mile away from us. Life would not be pleasant but assuming that public transportation was available, we could get by.

If your income depends on having an automobile, I suggest that it is time to rethink your lifestyle. I am not saying it would be easy, but I do think that this is the time to do it. It is better to be on the leading rather than the trailing edge of this change. For example, if you have a house in the exurbs, it is time to think about selling it and moving in closer. I would recommend settling somewhere no more than a mile from public transportation. Ideally, the public transportation should take you expeditiously to convenient major centers of employment.

Clearly, this is not an easy thing to do. One of the reasons people moved to the exurbs in the first place was that it was expensive living near the city. However, if it is expensive now, it is only going to get more expensive. What might your life look like in ten years if gas costs $20 a gallon and you still had to commute by car? Now suppose you could not even get to your job because you could not buy gas for your car. Could you telecommute indefinitely? Could you buy your groceries from a nearby farmer’s market?

I fear that there will be many hard and unpopular choices like these in the years ahead. The good news is that in many communities the housing market is soft. Here in Northern Virginia there is an abundance of unsold condominiums. Even houses are languishing in the market and prices are coming down. This may be the time to make that difficult lifestyle transition, even though in the short term it may cost you considerably more to move in closer to the city.

I feel fortunate. While there are no guarantees in life, I have a reasonable buffer should a sustained oil shock occur. The good news is that the sooner we come to grips with our new reality, the better prepared and less vulnerable our society will be when it arrives. If more of us realize, for example, that we need to live closer to places where there are plentiful job opportunities, it will encourage denser housing developments closer to urban areas. With the return of far-flung suburbanites, these communities will probably be transformed in a positive way. While we may not like having more neighbors closer to us, we will still carry our values with us. We will insist on safe neighborhoods and quality schools.

As part of this transformation, we will also be consuming less oil, simplifying our lives, improving the environment and helping the planet. In addition, if you begin this transition now it will cost you a lot less and be a lot less painful than it will be for the procrastinators.

As the late Ann Landers so often put it, it is time for Americans to “wake up and smell the coffee”.

 
The Thinker

West Winged

Okay, so the TV show The West Wing has been on for seven years and I never watched a single episode. That was my loss, apparently. On the other hand, I did not have the patience to make a commitment for a one-hour slice of my time at the same time every week. My life was too asymmetrical. While I own a VCR, it is a pain to program. The Tivo did not even exist in 1999, when this series first went on the air. In addition, I totally loathe commercials. These are just some of the many reasons that I missed not just The West Wing, but virtually all television series in the last ten years. After all, who need television?

However, I have no objection to watching DVDs of recommended TV shows in my spare time, I just do not normally bother. Even so, I probably would have given The West Wing a pass had not I been out in Boulder a couple weeks ago and sat down to watch an episode with my brother Tom. Before I could protest, the set of DVDs for the first season was in my suitcase.

I was unsure if I was ready for The West Wing. I am, after all, a Washingtonian. Consequently, politics is in my face 24/7. I did not need more politics, particularly politics that were entirely fictional. As you know, I often talk about politics in my blog. That, plus reading political blogs, The Washington Post and the incessant political discussions at the office water coolers usually makes me want to escape politics in whatever free time I have left. Nevertheless, since I had the DVDs and my wife was too busy watching episodes of Stargate Atlantis online to give me much quality time, I succumbed. I slipped that first disc into my DVD player.

Here is what I expected of The West Wing: a wonkish, unrealistic and glorified depiction of life inside the White House. It would be full of the types of people I unfortunately know too well from over twenty years in the civil service. There would be lots of guys in suits having important meetings about things most Americans could care less about, like a national energy policy. In short, I assumed it would be of interest to those who lived within fifty miles of Washington D.C. or who were political junkies and nobody else. I did not think these limited demographics could work for television.

Well yeah, it is full of wonkish and very senior staff members to the president in nice suits who work very long hours and get very concerned about things like a national energy policy. What I did not expect was that the series would be so exquisitely well done, so excellently cast, so well written and full of such high production values. I do not know how much the producers spent on average per episode, but it must be a ton of money. Just the cost of keeping a cast of thirty or so (when you include all the ancillary characters that had to show up every week) fully employed must have made NBC cringe.

Since at this point, I have only made it through the first troubled year of the Bartlet Administration, the vast majority of the show remains to be explored. I do not know if the series will have the same kind of magnetic pull that other series have had on me, like Josh Whedon’s Firefly series. I do though have to grudgingly admit based on the first year that it is a darn good series. If I can resist its allure, it will only be with some sustained effort.

I do have a few observations on the show (based on watching the first season only), that may be of interest to the few of you out there who have not seen the show. While I have never been in the White House, I suspect it does fairly accurately depict its environment. The show had former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers (1992-1994) as a consultant. Clearly, the producers got their money’s worth from her. What I did not expect was how well the show would be cast. It is hard to find anyone in the cast who is not wholly convincing. I know that most of the show was shot on a set in Los Angeles, but the White House is so intricately realized that I simply cannot tell. I fully suspended disbelief.

The producers, perhaps to spice up the show, create relationships that are at times annoying and implausible. For example, the relationship between Josh Lymon (Deputy Chief of Staff) and his secretary Donna Moss is a bit too cute and at times grating. Moreover, some of the relationships that develop serve to give the plots some spice, but are unlikely to happen in real life. These include Press Secretary C. J. Cregg’s developing fling with Washington Post White House reporter Danny Concannon, and the relationship between Charlie Young (the president’s personal aide, who also happens to be African American) and the president’s daughter Zoe.

However, I am not a Hollywood producer. It was probably a good call to add these many multilayered relationships because without them discussions on energy policy probably would get a little too dry. Anyhow, the show has real synergy and plausibility. Each character seems very comfortable in their complex and multifaceted roles. Perhaps this is why the show excels. Those of us who work for government know just how multifaceted government truly is.

The show actually makes me feel a bit wistful. It was not that long ago that you respected the person who held the office of president. You knew presidents were not empty suits, but people of substance who could fully handle the complexities of the job. In my mind no one was better at it that Bill Clinton. Josh Bartlet appears to model the best aspects of Bill Clinton without many of his worst aspects. It is a credit to the show’s producers though that Martin Sheen as the president does not overwhelm the show. It is in exposing the lives of those behind the throne where the show shines brightest.

The producers, writers and directors of The West Wing pull it all together. This is television where the production qualities are so high that the shows seem too good for television. If the first season is any guide, you can expect every episode to rate 9 out of 10. However, a couple episodes per season will just knock you for a loop. The episodes “In Excelsis Deo” and “Take this Sabbath Day” qualify as some of the best television I have ever seen. This makes me wonder how long I can avoid succumbing to watching subsequent seasons.

I am not surprised that the show has won so many Tony Awards. I am sure they were well deserved. I abandoned television because my life got too busy, but also because TV had again become a vast wasteland again. Perhaps it is time to turn on my TV again. Shows like The West Wing and the brief but greatly lamented series Firefly give me hope.

 
The Thinker

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

It’s smoke and mirrors times at The White House.

First, it was Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff. In March for reasons not made public (although I am betting it was prompted by a long lecture to President Bush from President Bush, the Senior), Andy decided maybe he didn’t want to be Chief of Staff anymore. (The yowl you heard was from his arm being so painfully twisted.) Taking his place was Josh Bolten, previously the head of the Office of Management and Budget. Josh was promoted because, well, it is hard to say why. Perhaps he was promoted because he was doing such a (cough, cough) terrific job balancing the federal budget. On the other hand, maybe it was because President Bush looked into his soul. We all know now what a fine judge of character our president is. I mean, look how well it worked with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (not to mention Vladimir Putin).

Karl Rove, Bush’s Senior Political Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff, whom most credit for Republican gains in the last two elections, was told that he was working too hard. Rove was told to stop with the policy oversight stuff, and spend his time focusing on the upcoming Congressional elections. Republicans have plenty about which to worry. With a Fox News poll showing Bush’s approval rating at 33%, and a Congressional approval rating at 25%, some Republicans have finally discerned the obvious: their power trip may be over. It is time for more of the voodoo that Karl does so well and quickly before Republicans lose both houses of Congress in November. If they do not retain control then Bush will accomplish nothing in the last two years of his term. Even worse, the rich might have to pay higher taxes again. Oh Lordy, what nightmares! With his approval ratings in the toilet, Bush is already dead politically. Apparently, the political capital he thought he won in 2004 was an IOU. While Bush says, “I am the decider,” the American public has already decided: they want him and the Republicans out of power post haste. Bush never understood that real political capital is earned from the consent of the governed. Anyhow, Karl has to run to the rescue again to save their fannies. What will it be this time? Fear? Fear and rabid demagoguery? It will doubtless be some variation of the above. It’s their one trick pony, but it is unlikely to work this year. Americans have finally wised up. They are practically chomping at the bit to deliver their comeuppance. Even Pavlov’s dog figured out eventually that there was no need to keep salivating if the food no longer arrived on cue.

Scotty (Scott McClellan, White House Press Secretary) was also sent out to pasture. I actually feel a tiny bit of sympathy for Scott. He had to stand in front of the cameras day in and day out and convey the unchanging White House message. He excelled at obfuscation, denial and outright lying. However, he had his marching orders. He was the loyal, dutiful but ultimately stupid good soldier, even falling on his sword in the end for the foolish bosses he served. Those making the policy did not have to talk to either the press or the public. They were much more comfortable in their ivory towers. Scotty could not evade the press. Josh figured out that maybe the White House needs something other than an angry pit pull as press secretary. Reputedly, Tony Snow of Fox News is being considered for the job. Well, at least that would establish indisputably that Fox News was just an extension of the White House.

As for the new Deputy Chief of Staff, Bolten is emulating our president, who can judge character by how many (nonalcoholic) mint juleps he has had with a guy. Therefore, Joel Kaplan, Josh’s deputy at OMB, became the logical choice for Deputy Chief of Staff. Meanwhile, Josh has told the White House staff that if they were even thinking of resigning, this would be a great opportunity. It looks better than being fired.

Doubtless, there will be more staff shakeups in the weeks ahead. Bush is hoping that with some new staff that his administration will have a shiny and new look to it. Do not be fooled. This is the same soap in a different box. It is not like, God forbid, Bush is actually firing the incompetent fools who helped make such a colossal mess of his administration. Cheney, of course, is still at Bush’s right hand. Bush said on Wednesday that Donald Rumsfeld is doing a “fine job” and “I have strong confidence in Donald Rumsfeld.”

It may be that Bush will have no choice other than to get rid of some of his closest advisors. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who last fall convinced a grand jury to issue an indictment against Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, appears to be closing in on an indictment of Karl Rove. It may be that Karl will be too busy hiring $400 an hour lawyers and trying to keep his posterior out of prison to spend too much time worrying about congressional elections.

As for Josh Bolten, what he has is Mission Impossible. You know the metaphors too. The one that comes to mind to me: his job is to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Go ahead Josh. Believe that all these personnel shuffles actually mean something. Go ahead and hope that they will make a difference. They will not. Not even an October surprise is going to save this president and his Republican congress this time. Your only hope this time is massive vote fraud. Sadly, it appears your party has acquired some significant skills in this area. However, you know things are bad when even in Texas, more people disapprove of Bush than approve of him. He now stands naked not just in front of the world, but in front of his countrymen, and worst of all, his fellow Texans.

There is no way out of this Pandora’s box. Government exists to serve the interests of the people, not special interests. Why are the Nepalese rioting against their king? They riot because their government is not meeting their needs. Generally, Americans overlook quite a bit but they too have a breaking point. It is not that the breaking point is going to occur, it already has occurred. Republicans, being clueless about these things, just do not grasp this yet. Denial is much more comforting. Nevertheless, the truth is that it is late in the fourth act of Hamlet and Fortinbras has entered the castle. The bodies are starting to drop like flies. The denouement has already begun.

 
The Thinker

A daughter grows up

I am always a bit leery to write about my family members. I am afraid that I will say something in my blog that will inadvertently hurt them. Therefore, when I do write about my family I am circumspect. Still, they are my family so they cannot help but loom large in my thoughts. So occasionally, I will invite the reader to get some insight into my family. Today, I give you a picture of my daughter on the cusp of adulthood.

In fact, on occasion, I have said things in my blog about my daughter Rosie, but little of it was meaningful. I described her as a polysexual (a word I think that I coined) a couple years back. She was just fourteen when she announced to my wife and I in a matter of fact tone that she was attracted to both genders. I also once pondered mistakes I made parenting her. Other than these instances, I have written little in my blog that gives you a sense of the wonderful young woman that is my daughter.

Now Rosie is sixteen and a junior in high school. She is taller than her mother. Prior to adolescence, she struck her two introverted parents as inexplicably popular. Her many girlfriends were a constant presence in our lives. It seemed like almost every other weekend she was at a sleepover at some girl’s house. She rarely needed or bothered to call up her friends. They sought her out. She was not popular in the traditional sense of the word. There are no yearbooks in grade school, but if there were, I doubt her class would have been voted her most popular. Rosie is the antithesis of perky. For whatever reason though, she effortlessly attracted a devoted group of followers. Without intending to be the leader, she became one to her friends. She carried with her both imagination and an intangible energy. Girls who wanted more of these traits in themselves were drawn to her like moths to a flame.

Adolescence found Rosie getting in touch with her introvert. She still has good friends, but they are a smaller and more eclectic set. They meet mostly online now. Her friends include a few really unusual, somewhat bizarre, quite skewed (but not dysfunctional) harmless young men. You might say they are the out crowd at school. She still claims to be a bisexual, but seems to be in no hurry to try sex, drugs, cigarettes or, for that matter, heavy romantic relationships. She is comfortable with whom she is, and who she is does not resemble many of her peers.

I still think she attracts a certain kind of person who is also turned off by peer pressure, but not as comfortable in openly expressing it. When they see her, they see something of a model on how they would like to be: a genuine and unapologetic non-conformanist. She has her own tastes in clothes and music and they rarely intersect with those of her peers. She likes some popular music, but her favorite music tends to be rather obscure stuff she found on the Internet. She is comfortable with less trendy forms of music, including musicals, folk, jazz and classical music.

There are times I think she might be a Goth, since she is usually dressed in black. However, she is not the type to dye her hair jet black. She wears no makeup. She makes sporadic efforts to clear up her acne, but usually she is indifferent to it. Adolescence is usually a time of pulling a way. Yet at this stage in her life, she seems comfortable emulating her geeky parents. For both my wife and I are comfortable in our own non-conformanist skins. For her a pleasant day is spent in the sanctuary of her bedroom. Half of the time, she is chatting online with friends. The other half of the time, she is writing. For like her mother and I, she seems to have the gift of words. For now, she writes mostly fan fiction. She even has her own web site full of fan fiction that she has written. Her friends are some of her more enthusiastic readers. They participate by providing artwork for her web site, and hang on her latest chapters.

For most of her life, academics have been her biggest challenge. It was not that she was stupid. At every conference we had with her teachers she was singled out as one of the smartest and most interesting children in the class. Rather, her challenges were organization and being able to focus. We tried every approach we could think of and nothing worked. For a while there I had regular nightmares of her spending her adult years placing smiley face stickers on customers entering the local Wal-Mart.

Now, at long last, she is cruising academically. We are not entirely sure what did the trick. It could be that she finally realized that independent living was right around the corner. We do know that things started improving shortly after we found Peggy, her life coach. Perhaps parental guidance can be counterproductive at a certain age. Her coach works as a partner, rather than as an authority. Just last week we reached a welcome milestone. Her latest report card arrived with all A’s and B’s on it. I used to dread the arrival of her report card. Now it is almost a happy experience.

At sixteen, it is too much to expect her to figure out what she wants to do with her adult life. She is definitely thinking about it though. For now, her goal is to study overseas. Since she is one of the top French students in her school, she would prefer to study in France. To help her discover if this is something she really wants to do, we are planning to take a trip to Paris this summer. One thing is for sure: she is not terribly enamored with her own country. She talks about giving up her American citizenship for French citizenship. I have to remind her that things are not that wonderful in France. Young adults have been rioting in the streets. Youth unemployment hovers around 20%. Then there are the sectarian problems with Muslims and other immigrants who live what amounts to permanent second-class citizenship. Nor, if truth were told, would I be that happy to have her across the pond permanently. She is after all our only child. We know she has to leave home sometime. We are hoping if she must go to college in a foreign country that she will pick Canada. Quebec might be a more pragmatic (and less expensive) place for her to get a degree.

She has a hazy idea of a career in translation. She wants to see the world, and being multilingual might provide the opportunities she wants. Her choice strikes me as reasonable. Moreover, it is likely to pay much better than being a Wal-Mart greeter. Still, I wonder. I suspect that her real calling will be in the arts. Someone who can write so beautifully at age sixteen is likely to want to continue it as a passion into adulthood too. She has done her share of Community Theater, and has sung in a few chorales. For much of her life, I heard more singing from her than I heard from most birds. It is hard to imagine that side of her will disappear in adulthood.

I expect that she will experience some significant potholes as she transitions to adulthood. Her remaining time with us is now rather short. There is still so much to teach her. She needs many more driving lessons. I need to teach her money management skills, so she does not spend her adulthood in debt like so many these days. She needs a job beyond babysitting to see how the world of employment actually works. In addition, she needs to have some understanding of how expensive it is to live in our modern world. Perhaps this will encourage her to pick a profession that pays more than a bare living wage.

She enters her adulthood in a vastly more complex world than the one I knew at her age. There are so many more choices and as a consequence, many more potential pitfalls. If she has floundered in some ways until recently, it was probably simply because it is so tough to master all the necessary skills to succeed. She is now making sound choices. Now she carries a pervasive sense of inner confidence. Moreover, she seems to be a genuinely happy young woman. Rather than being rebellious, she is sweet and affectionate. She may be happy holed up in her room, but when she is out of it, she talks to us freely about her life. She remains as affectionate as a young woman as she was as a child. We can still hug each other freely. She radiates honesty and projects a sense of inner harmony.

She will still need some guidance, and she still is a bit nervous holding the tiller of her own life. She is nearing the edge of the harbor where she has spent her life. She has navigated in the shoals long enough. She is almost ready to handle the breakers.

 
The Thinker

Just another secular Sunday

I have lost that Easter feeling.

When you grow up Christian, Easter is one of the two high holy days of the year, the other one being Christmas, of course. Our culture makes it impossible to escape Christmas. Ironically, I have forgotten all about Easter again this year. Had I not read about it in the paper today, I would have forgotten about it today too. Of the two Christian holidays, arguably Easter is the more important. After all, had Jesus been born and had not risen from the dead, as most Christians believe, well, he would have been just another anonymous brat born in a manger. (Of course, I have a different take on the meaning of Jesus’ life.)

If you grow up Catholic and attend Mass regularly, as I did, it is impossible not to anticipate Easter. As with Christmas, the many events that preceded it acted as a crescendo to the actual event itself. Just as Christmas is preceded by the season of Advent, Easter is preceded by Lent. When I was a wee lad, Lent meant forty-four days of denial. Now Lent usually means devout Catholics have to abstain from meat on Fridays. The Catholics who studied their Baltimore Catechisms might also spend more time during Lent devoted prayer and almsgiving. I suspect most American Catholics could not even tell you what almsgiving actually is.

Holy Week (the week before Easter) was of course a big deal when I was growing up. Mass on Palm Sunday included a procession into the church with palm fronds, reputedly reenacting Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Good Friday meant heading to the church to devoutly perform the Stations of the Cross. At each station, we had to ponder the horror and the sorrow that poor Jesus underwent because our nasty and pervasive sinning. Easter itself meant large crowds of lapsed Catholics at church (who would reappear on Christmas), kielbasa and eggs for breakfast (for we were a Polish Catholic family), and of course Easter eggs. In our family though, we were not talking the Cadbury kind, but actual hardboiled eggs that we painted in watercolors and placed in Easter baskets. All those eggs were very pretty to look at, except few of us liked hardboiled eggs, so they were largely left uneaten. The eggs were either gone or thrown away long before Ascension Day.

Since then of course I have spent thirty years away from Catholicism and have gone largely secular. When our daughter was a child and her grandmother was still obsessed about sending us Easter baskets, we would hold an Easter egg hunt or two. Then we simply forgot about Easter. This year was typical. As usual last week I had no idea that Easter was arriving.

Supposedly we live in a more religious and Christian country than we used to. I doubt this for we are too busy breaking Sabbath laws in the name of our real God, capitalism, to care too much anymore about holidays like Easter. I remember a time when Easter was as pervasive as Christmas. You can still find the Easter candy and Easter baskets at stores this time of year. Like Christmas presents, they tend to arrive months before the actual event.

Perhaps Easter would mean more if the date did not change every year. According to Wikipedia, Easter is calculated as follow. “The canonical rule is that Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the 14th day of the lunar month (the nominal full moon) that falls on or after 21 March (nominally the day of the vernal equinox).” Establishing Easter as, say, the first Sunday in April might help cement the date in our minds. Since it can arrive as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th, chances are whatever Sunday you think it is during a given year is likely to be wrong.

Given its confusing arrival date, my spiritual but not religious state, and my rather harried life, Easter tends to slip by me most years. Often it is not until I see the Easter candy discounted at the local CVS do I have a clue that I missed it again.

Perhaps I have lost something precious as a result of my secular adulthood. Some part of me does miss the hoopla surrounding Easter. The smell of burning incense in the sanctuary, the solemnity with which I did the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and the High Masses celebrated on Easter Sunday are certainly childhood memories to treasure.

Also gone is of course my naiveté. It is strange that although Jesus reputedly was raised from the dead, only his disciples saw him. It is also curious how the legend of his resurrection grew in the telling. The Gospel according to Mark, the first gospel written, has little of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, yet we get much longer and florid accounts in later gospels like Luke’s. It seems Jesus wanted to test our faith a bit. He was not the type after resurrection to go back to the temple in Jerusalem and allow himself to be inspected by the rabbis so there would be no doubt whatsoever about his resurrection. I guess he did not want to frighten little children or anything. Jesus was so thoughtful that way.

For me today is just another Sunday. Since the weather is nice though, I intend to celebrate Easter in my own way. While I shall not celebrate a resurrection that I do not believe actually happened, I shall get on my bike and peddle twenty miles or so on the W&OD trail. I shall enjoy the fresh air, the sunshine, the glorious flowering trees in Washington this time of year, and the intoxicating feeling of rebirth during spring here in the northern hemisphere. For me this is the real resurrection.

 
The Thinker

Adventures in Weight Loss and Healthy Living

Yesterday found me back in the office of my dietician Heather. As readers may recall, Heather is helping me change my diet so I can keep losing weight and lead a healthy second half of my life. Changing eating habits is not an easy task. Yesterday’s appointment was a chance to tell her how her suggestions were working. The truth was that I was having mixed success. I had managed to take off three or four pounds, but that was over two months. Habits are hard to change, and eating habits are some of the toughest ones.

I used to have three eggs for breakfast. They would easily carry me over to noon, but likely contributed to my cholesterol problem. Now I eat a cup of Kashi cereal with a cup of 1% milk for breakfast. Along with the breakfast, I consume the protein Heather wants me to eat at every meal, so I added two ounces of pressed ham. This carried me through lunch and is only 360 calories.

Drink more water, Heather told me. The only thing is I do not feel particularly thirsty. It is hard to remember to do things like this routinely while the email is streaming in and out and while I am editing web pages. So once again, I made it to noon forgetting to hydrate myself.

Today I was only mildly hungry for lunch, until I actually started eating. I skipped the salad topped with nuts that she recommended, since I knew there was plenty of salad at home that I could have with dinner. Therefore, I bought just a cup of chicken vegetable soup from the cafeteria. It was about 100 calories. I added a zero fat but very tasty Granny Smith apple. 80 calories. 180 calories for lunch so far, but I was still hungry. I reached above my desk for my handy supply of crackers. The six Cheddar Cheese crackers were 200 calories. 740 calories so far.

During the afternoon, I felt snackish. Heather had recommended a box of raisins. They are very sweet and very tasty, and have only 130 calories. Raisins are now my favorite snack, so down the hatch they went. Later, as I waded my way through another conference call the snack monster hit again. I reached for the low fat granola bar. 180 calories. Total calories so far today: 1040.

With work over, I headed to the Gold’s Gym. I exercised for thirty minutes on the elliptical machine which listening to NPR on my headset. Then it was off to use the weight machines. I pressed 90 pounds on the vertical press, 3 sets, and 15 repetitions with each set. On the Leg Extension, I pressed 115 pounds, same counts and repetition. 165 pounds on the Dip Machine. 130 pounds on the Ab Machine. 200 pounds on the Adductor. 80 pounds and 12 repetitions on the rowing machine. I can only guess how many calories I burned. Supposedly, I burned close to 500 calories on the elliptical machine, but I suspect the real amount is a lot lower than that. There is no way to measure calories on all those weight machines, but I can definitely say they were all challenging. I am guessing I burned about 500 calories at the health club today.

I went home and after a shower, I contemplated dinner. I was in a Boston Market mood tonight so I fetched one of their turkey dinners from our freezer. This is the tastiest 360 calories I can find in a prepared dinner, which is probably a sign they have too much fat per serving. I added a small salad, which cannot be more than 75 calories. Afterwards, a banana looks inviting: 105 calories. Time for dessert: three Special K bars (90 calories each) and a cup of 1% milk to wash them down. I am up to 1960 calories.

It was time to head upstairs and blog. At least I knew what to blog about today. I bring three sugar free (but alas, not calorie free) candies for a total of 50 calories. Total calorie intake for one day: 2010 calories.

Heather tells me a big man like me (six foot, two inches) needs about 2400 calories a day to maintain my weight. In addition I need 30 minutes a day of exercise to maintain my weight and more to actually lose weight. Between the exercise and the calories consumed. I think I lost weight today. The hardest part of weight loss is simply keeping it up, day after relentless day. Food ranks right up there with sex in life’s greatest pleasures. To diminish this pleasure is surprisingly hard.

Counting calories with every serving, (her latest suggestion) definitely helps. Trying to figure out if I am eating sensible portions is tougher. I started out well back in February. I wondered if I could have spaghetti with dinner and still not exceed the portions of protein and carbohydrates she wanted me to have with dinner. I had to weigh the whole grain pasta on a scale, and four servings was not a lot of pasta. Three ounces of protein (but no more) at every meal is very easy to get. It amounts to four frozen turkey balls that I threw into the spaghetti sauce. The result was tasty but underwhelming in quantity and I had already hit my carbohydrate quota for the meal.

The body, or at least my body, wants more. It likes my weight just fine. It does not understand my obsession with Body Mass Index. “Don’t you know I’m trying to store extra fat, just in case there is a famine?” it is yelling at me. I know all the strategies, but integrating them altogether is, frankly, just another damned chore in a day full of damnable chores. Knowing how many calories are in my “standard” breakfast and lunch help. I can then plan dinner accordingly. However, with dinner I also need to balance calories with standard portions. It all amounts to the same classic dieting advice: eat less and exercise more.

Ah, exercise. That has been a challenge of late. A couple weeks ago, I broke a toe in my left foot, which put the kibosh on exercise. It was not that I did not try to exercise. At the time, I did not know my toe was broken. I figured it was just “sprained”. In fact, I did the stupid male thing and exercised anyhow. It resulted in bruising which spread to my other toes. I tried carefully biking to work: same effect. Next, I spent a week in Denver on business. There I was up before 7 a.m. and rarely retired to my hotel room before 8 p.m. There was little opportunity to exercise but at this point, I had figured it out: do not even bother until the bruises disappeared.

I was certainly mindful of the food temptations while in Denver. The Club Lite sandwich at the local deli near the Denver Federal Center tasted great. I am sure it was low fat, but it was hard to guess how many calories I was consuming. In the morning, the hotel put out a huge complementary breakfast bar billed with eggs, greasy sausages, hash browns, juices, waffles, donuts and muffins. If you looked for it, you could also find bran cereal, skim milk and fruits. I started out well but by the end of the week, I had succumbed to a muffin or two with breakfast. My dinners did not appear to be highly caloric, but their calorie content was impossible to ascertain. Because I was getting virtually no exercise because of my injury, I felt I would be lucky if I did not gain any weight during the trip.

I am home and back on my normal schedule. It is easier to follow a diet. In our modern world though it is not easy to constantly monitor a sensible diet, get the exercise your body requires, work a productive day in a sedentary job and pay attention to your significant others. Those four activities along with sleep can consume a whole day. No wonder losing weight is so hard in our culture. However, further weight loss will simply require both rigorous vigilance to my diet and upping my exercise. Now that spring is finally here and I can bike to work most days I can easily add additional exercise. After seeing the podiatrist about my toe today, I also know that I can exercise with my feet again. Exercises that hurt like running though are still out.

I wish I could be like Wendy. Wendy is a woman I traveled with last year. She is forty something, blonde, trim, in shape and consequently quite attractive. She is also a vegetarian. She has the sensible eating thing down to a science. At the hotel breakfast, she happily consumed just cup of oatmeal. She grabbed an apple and consumed it later in the morning. She staggers her eating during the day with snacks. She makes it all looks so effortless, which I suspect it actually is to her. In addition, she makes time for exercise every day no matter what. On that trip, it meant getting up at 6 a.m. and hitting the hotel’s exercise room. I figure if she can do it, so could I. The real question is can I do this relentlessly and for pretty much every day for the rest of my life? Why do I have to do it but the French do not? How do they stay so fit and trim, eat fatty foods, have so little heart disease, smoke, philander and yet live into their nineties?

I do not know these answers but I can see the appeal of living in France now. I have been getting regular exercise for a quarter of a century, but apparently it is not enough. My body is going to require a lot of persuasion. 49 years of eating habits are excruciatingly hard to change permanently.

The brownies my daughter unwisely baked were still on the kitchen counter this evening. I looked at that last brownie in the pan lustfully, then calculated that if I ate it, it would add close to 500 calories to my diet.

Reluctantly, I put it back in back the pan and reached for the Special K bars instead.

 
The Thinker

America’s real enemy is from within

While in Boulder, Colorado last week, my brother and I stopped by Boulder Books. There I found on the rack a new collection of Tom Tomorrow cartoons. His latest book is Hell in a Handbasket. On the cover, it depicts our president, Dick Cheney and political adviser Karl Rove. Each has devil horns coming out of their foreheads. It is subtitled, “Dispatches from the country formerly known as America”.

I am a big fan of Tom Tomorrow and his weekly strip This Modern World. Looking back on this collection of strips though, which begin in late 2002 as the Iraq War was being sold to the American public, it is as easy to cry as it is to laugh. In fact, it is hard not to laugh and cry and the same time. Not all of us were deceived by the lies coming from the Bush White House at the time. For me, the Iraq War was nothing more than a simpleton’s paranoid fantasies fully realized by 150,000 American troops. I raised holy hell at the time. I attended peace marches. I wrote letters. I called senators. This preemptive war to remove a despotic dictator with delusions of grandeur (but zero influence outside his own country) to me symbolized everything that was wrong with my country. Tom Tomorrow got it right. The day we invaded Iraq, my country lost its soul. I no long live in the United States of America.

As Sparky the liberal penguin put it in this cartoon from 2002, “Um – here’s a scenario for you: what if the invasion of Iraq turns out to be a complete catastrophe – costing thousands of lives, setting off other wars in the region, and ultimately doing far more harm than good?” To which the two Republican clones start worrying if Saddam Hussein is training an army of giant mutant lizards who can shoot deadly laser beams out of their eyeballs.

As a country, we lost our minds and our souls on March 18th, 2003, the day that we invaded Iraq. Just about all of us were hornswoggled. You would expect neoconservatives, with their Neanderthal and schizophrenic vision of the world, to lose a sense of perspective. But Colin Powell? The same man who warned Bush that when it came to invading Iraq, if we broke it, we owned it? The same man who cautioned us never to go into a war without a sound exit strategy? I remember at the time debating his presentation to the U.N. Security Council with friends online. Most were wholly convinced. Fuzzy satellite shots of railroad cars and dubious intelligence reports from second hand sources were sufficient to them for us to start a war. Gosh, we knew where those WMDs were: smack dab in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Rumsfeld knew it for a fact.

It was all so clear to me back then, but I was mostly alone among my peers. They treated me with either disdain or condescension. Bush and his fellow yahoos could try, but they could not yank my chain. Yet it was clear that as Bush was yanking most of our chains, his chain was also being yanked. The neoconservatives played our simpleton and puffed up fool of a president like the puppet that he is. In turn, it is tempting to think that Saddam was pulling the neoconservatives’ chains. However, I do not think that was the case. Saddam simply could not conceive of someone even more deeply paranoid than he was.

See, here is the thing. Why were the neoconservatives so convinced that Saddam was acquiring weapons of mass destruction? It is clear to me: because subconsciously they identified with Saddam. I know he would do it because I would do the same thing, was what was coming from their id. Something must have gone very wrong with them while growing up. Perhaps Dad had been too handy with the belt. Perhaps they had been picked on too much during recess at school. They were full of repressed anger and anxious for a suitable form of revenge. Unfortunately, those who hurt them had disappeared. So they found others on whom to turn the tables. They convinced themselves that they really were smarter and better than everyone else. Moreover, they would prove it by slowly, over many years, gaining power. They would suck up to simpletons like Bush and use them as their means to an end. For one-dimensional people like Bush had an uncanny ability to latch onto the millions of other simpletons out there. It required leveraging the same faith that these voters had in their religion into candidates who emulated their values, but who could be manipulated. Bush was a convenient toady, but there are still plenty of them around. Bill Frist is the next George W. Bush.

For all the neoconservatives’ protestations about wanting to spread freedom, their real aims were duplicitous. What they really wanted was to control us so they could remake us into a stronger sort of mongrel super-race of uber-Americans. While many of Bush’s supporters are creationists, the neoconservatives are pragmatic social evolutionists. Social Darwinism is their most basic core value: Americans must become meaner and nastier than every other country, because in their paranoid minds the world was an incredibly nasty place. Only by becoming as ruthless and single minded as the enemy could we triumph. To save our way of life, it must first be destroyed, then remade into a new, more militant and less tolerant image.

A trumped up war with Iraq gave them the means to their end. Their vision of America had us citizens goose-stepping to their beat. Just like Adolph Hitler, they cravenly hit us at our most vulnerable spots: fear, paranoia and rabid patriotism. Fear: if you vote for the Democrats then you are helping terrorists, because they secretly want the enemy to win. Moreover, we need color-coded alert levels so we are always aware of just how precarious our happy suburban lives are. Paranoia: be suspicious of everyone who does not act patriotic. Pass something called The Patriot Act, which makes everyone markedly less free. Patriotism: you are either for us or against us. They knew we would fall for it, because it worked wonders for the Nazis too. Human nature is constant and the masses are malleable with the right leverage. For Bush, the rule of law became inconvenient to a nation’s new challenges. Therefore, he invented the most dubious of rationales: a “unitary executive theory” that he interprets as no law can touch him if he does not want it to. He can do anything he wants as long as he thinks his actions protect the country from its enemies. Just to make sure it lasts for the foreseeable future, he made sure that fellow conservatives who subscribe to the unitary executive theory filled two Supreme Court vacancies.

Now finally, the country is sobering up. It would have been much better had the country been fully sober last November. Nevertheless, as I pointed out back then, karmic forces cannot be held in check forever. Bush’s poll numbers hover in the mid thirties and Congress’s numbers are even lower. Dick Cheney’s approval rating is 19%. Cheney was booed today throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ season opener.

In reality though we still live in dangerous times. The biggest threat though is not from al Qaeda. For Osama bin Laden is the real puppet master. He was shrewd enough to realize exactly who our president was: one big dumb ass easily manipulated domino. His goal was not to convert America into devout Muslims, although that may be a long-range fantasy. No, his real goal is to convert the Islamic world into one conservative Islamic caliphate. To accomplish it, he needed a force bigger than he could muster. The United States military was the first domino, and he just needed the President of the United States to tip it. His goal could be done on the cheap. Just hijack a few planes using some misguided religious martyrs with box cutters. Have them fly a few airplanes into our most prominent buildings. Do it and we would respond more predictably than Pavlov’s dog. We have been masterfully played for the fool, but bin Laden was also fortunate to have his evil stars so perfectly aligned. Such a grandiose mistake like the one we made in Iraq was only possible with the neoconservatives in positions of power and a complete fool in the Oval Office.

Therefore, the dominoes fell one by one. Many gave the illusion of progress on the war on terror, while actually exacerbating it. It remains to be seen whether those Americans who still remember the blessings of freedom and liberty can stop this chain of dominoes before the world slowly devolves into an eternal set of religious mini-wars lasting generations.

However, forces are lining up to limit further damage. It is already beginning. To work, it simply must be manifested by a return to power by the Democrats in both houses of Congress this autumn. With a change in Congressional power, our new leaders will then have to summon the courage to impeach and convict Bush for his clearly illegal high crimes. It is unclear though that even if Bush is impeached and convicted, that he would actually vacate his office. It is also unclear whether the 2006 elections can be conducted fairly. There was enough voting fraud in 2000 and 2004 for even the mildly paranoid to be disturbed. Diebold controls many voting machines and they sure enough delivered Ohio for the Republicans as promised with a last minute Republican vote surge. Republicans also control most supervisor of election positions. I do not think they will go peacefully; having power is just so intoxicating.

The November elections may turn out to be a time to manifest real patriotism. It will require our supervisors of elections simply to do their duty and let the voting be free and fair. For our biggest enemy is no longer hiding in caves in northwestern Pakistan. He and his cronies occupy the White House and all positions of power in the government. They have shown an unwillingness to listen to reason and an affinity for using whatever means are necessary to affect their desired ends, legal or illegal. We will need every tool at our disposal.

Until now, losing an election was enough to remove someone from power. It may take massive demonstrations that will dwarf recent immigration protests to remove the neoconservatives. It may take massive civil protests with demonstrators lying down blocking access to public buildings, like during the Vietnam War. It may take ordinary citizens standing in front of tanks like in Tiananmen Square. Let us hope a sane head or two in the neoconservative power circle can persuade the rest that their time is over.

Let us also hope that Tom Tomorrow’s next book of cartoons comes from the United States of America that we grew up in, not the grotesque and sick parody that is currently foisted on us. We must stare down these paranoid schizophrenics and firmly show them the door. We may have to push them out. We may have to haul them out one by one and throw them onto the streets. However, they must go if we want to live in the United States of America again.

 
The Thinker

My harried week out west

Occam’s Razor fans will have to forgive my inability to post much lately. I have just finished a weeklong business trip in Denver. Between work and visiting family, I have been kept fully engaged. It is only now on a 777 moving across the country that I have something resembling sufficient personal time in which to order my thoughts.

My work took me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, Colorado. This is my third trip out there for the agency I joined two years ago. The trips now have a certain familiarity to them, which will only increase when I return again the first week of June. So far, we have stayed in the same hotels: a pair of Marriott hotels in Golden, Colorado a couple miles away from the Federal Center. They are clean and comfortable and provide an excellent view of the Rocky Mountains. Like most hotels these days, they offer a decent complementary breakfast consisting mostly of foods most sedentary adults should avoid.

On Monday evening, I went to sleep in my room at the Residence Inn at Golden, only to awaken unexpectedly at 1 AM. A fire alarm was putting out a deafening ring. 1 AM must be the worst time for me to have to awaken unexpectedly. I knew where I was but mentally I was on some other planet. For the longest time I could simply not figure out what was happening. Once my foggy mind put the facts together, I was unable to figure out how to do the simplest thing like turn on the light. When after a minute or so I had finally mastered that act, I could not figure out what to do next. Should I dash outside in my underwear? Eventually I decided to throw on my bathrobe, slip my shoes into my sneakers, and grab my room key. I staggered out of my room into the hallway in a dazed state. Fortunately, I was only a dozen feet or so from an exit.

It may have been 1 AM, but one of my employees, Dave, was still awake and in his business attire. Apparently, he is a night owl. Some birdbrain a few floors above apparently hung something on a sprinkler head, causing it to rupture, so there was no actual fire. After a few minutes outside, we were allowed back into our rooms. I went back to sleep, wary of another fire alarm. I could hear the sound of water coming down between the walls and a wet/dry vacuum above me. Needless to say, the rest of my sleep that night was restless. The next day we were all a bit groggy.

Linda, a coworker from my office in Reston, had a rental car. I became both one of her passengers and one of her dinner mates. Fortunately, Linda is an adventurous person. Despite having been to Denver at least twice a year for a decade, she felt there was much more to see. On Tuesday night for example, she took us on I-70 over the continental divide. This was my first time crossing the continental divide by car. The drive fifty miles or so into the Rocky Mountains was quite awe inspiring. For this east coast person, the mountains on either side of us struck me as incredibly steep and high. We made it through the Eisenhower tunnel before turning around. We dined at Beau Jo’s in the small town of Idaho Springs. The restaurant offered something called “Colorado Pizza”. I later asked my brother Tom, a resident of Boulder, if there was such a thing. He had never heard of it. Colorado pizza apparently consists of very thick crusts around the rim of the pizza pan and thin crusts in the middle. Since there is plenty of crust remaining after consuming the pizza, you are supposed to spread honey on the remaining crusts and eat them for dessert. While the pizza itself was okay, by getting dessert “free” it made for an inexpensive meal. It was also the first pizza parlor that I have ever been in where you order pizza by the pound. A two-pound pizza can feed three normal people more than adequately.

There is hardly room for the town of Idaho Springs between the Rocky Mountains. Except for the restaurants, there was little in the “downtown” that remained open after 6 p.m. For someone looking for an authentic small town experience, it seems a great and inexpensive place to live. We passed a realtor’s office and learned we could rent a mobile home for only $250 a month. The town is not big enough to justify a Wal-Mart.

Thursday night Linda took us to Mataam Fez, a Moroccan restaurant in Denver. I had never eaten Moroccan food before. The entertainment was as much a part of the experience as the meal. If you have never eaten in a Moroccan restaurant, be prepared to remove your shoes and sit on cushions on the floor. Expect the table to be about two feet off the ground. We had a five-course meal and shared our food. The food was overall quite tasty (though expensive), but rather elemental too. My Shrimp Pel Pel, for example, came in the shells with the feet still attached. A partner’s salmon was quite good but still had the scales on it. Moroccans apparently dispense with silverware. We ate everything with our hands. Before eating we had to wash our hands at the table. The waiter had us place our hands above a pot while he poured lemon water on them from a pitcher. After trying to eat dishes like creamed spinach with our fingers, I realized why silverware was invented.

The entertainment came in two forms. First, there was the belly dancer, an achingly beautiful and buxom woman half my age who I suspect was a local American co-ed, rather than a Moroccan. No matter, she was excellent at being both alluring and doing impressive things with her abdominal muscles. For example, she was able to balance the edge of a sword on her tummy and work it down her abdomen. Many patrons stuffed dollar bills into her skirt. In addition, the waiters had a unique talent of pouring tea into cups from behind their backs. They also demonstrated they could pour it from a high height into three cups stacked on top of each other. As best I could tell, not a drop landed on the floor. The spiced tea was excellent.

The business part of my trip was intense and exhausting. There were about fifty of us. Most participants were users who were rigorously testing changes to a system we manage. A typical day consisted of three or four formal meetings where they gave reports on the problems they were uncovering. Since these meetings have a critical mass of important users from across the country, it is hard not to have many other ad-hoc meetings too. I was sucked into many of these, and some of these meetings were intense.

While the testing part went quite well for my team (no underpowered web servers crashed this year), discussions with customers about delays in projects closing up and underway were less successful. I am under a lot of pressure to complete a current project, which, by some measures, is a year late. There are good reasons why it is a year late. Inadequate planning was certainly part of it, but it was also late because we spent much of the latter half of last year scrambling to install new web servers to keep up with demand from the public. (Demand is increasing by about a third a year.) However, our customers are wholly inured to operational issues. (They would have cared had the system come to a screeching halt last year, which it did not. Naturally, my team gets no credit for preventing this from happening.) Missing deadlines are perceived as bad management on my part. I am confident that over the next couple of years that most of these problems will be ironed out. Putting in place predictable processes and teaching excellent scientists the discipline of software engineering takes time.

As I told my boss, things will and in fact are already improving. However, given flat funding and a staff that is constant, changes occur in an evolutionary manner only. There is no magic wand to wave that can make long-term problems disappear overnight. Instead, solutions require much up front thought, planning, careful execution, rigorous monitoring, and integrating the many concerns. Bill Gates said managing programmers is like herding cats, and the same is true with my developers. Change is effected by getting their buy in and earning their respect. Over time, new and better practices will become institutionalized, and then plans will more accurately reflect reality.

While struggling with this I had to drop a bombshell on another set of customers. A key contract employee may have to leave us. The new contractor may not pick him up. In the federal government, contracting works in mysterious and often counterproductive ways. Against my wishes, the contracting officer selected another contractor because it bid lower. That makes a certain amount of financial sense if you assume two contractors can provide precisely the same service. Real life, of course, does not work that way, no matter how carefully you write the statement of work. That something like this would result in a six month or more delay in this project was irrelevant to the contracting officer. She had to follow the contracting laws. Apparently, I did not sufficiently plan for this specific contingency, and for that, I came up lacking. At the time, I was busy doing other things that seemed a whole lot more important, like instituting better ways of doing requirements management and system design. I occasionally get miffed by the pointless and counterproductive pressure, but I usually succeed in not taking it personally. I know that my strategy is sound and will prove itself in time.

Therefore, Friday found me glad to put the week behind me. My brother Tom lives in Boulder. The transit strike in Denver made it hard for me to get to Boulder from Lakewood via established means. Fortunately, Kip, a coworker who lives near Denver, drove me up to Boulder. We went along U.S. 93, a lovely road through the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Tom and some of his friends from NOAA do a regular Friday night dinner in a restaurant on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. I was glad to enjoy their company. The Indian food at the Himalayan Restaurant was quite good too.

Saturday, Tom took me biking. My feet are a bit challenged at the moment, due to a recent toe injury, but I was able to enjoy a bike ride of about twenty miles with him by peddling with care. Boulder is a very bike-friendly city, with numerous wide and well-maintained biking trails. Most roads have extra space for bike lanes. I am impressed by how its residents take exercise and proper eating so seriously. A car is not an absolute necessity in Boulder if you are adventurous and an outdoor type. The prevalent obesity I see in the East is largely missing in Boulder. The cultural values are to be trim, eat organic foods and stay in shape. Boulder is really a model of how a city should be laid out and managed. It also demonstrates a pragmatic way for modern Americans to live healthy and engaged lives. It should be proud of its sensible land use planning and a pedestrian friendly infrastructure. As the age of oil ends, cities like Boulder will prosper while others that depend on hydrocarbons for transportation are likely to whither.

Tom’s girlfriend Beth invited me to spend last night at her house with Tom. Her townhouse was more home-like than Tom’s rather small condominium. It was good to meet Beth again, who I met for the first time in January. She is a skinny, intelligent, attractive, athletic and caring woman, which means she is a good match for my brother. Beth has a 9-year-old daughter named Erica who was fun to get to know. She reminded me of my daughter at that age. Beth must be a better parent than I am though, because Erica seems to be about as well adjusted as a nine year old can be. Beth also has two cats, one of whom is a lap kitty and deigned to sit on my lap for a while and be worshipped. While certainly not as affectionate as my recently departed feline Sprite, it was nonetheless comforting to be in a house with felines again.

In my absence, my wife has had about a dozen friends over for a party. She has also purchased a fish to replace Fred the Ferocious Fish. The fish is another betta and I understand she has named him Sid Vicious.

Tomorrow it is back to the salt mines. Those pressing problems I put on hold Friday afternoon will be back to challenge me again.

 
The Thinker

Yes on a guest worker program

The world may be ending. I agree with President Bush on an issue.

Specifically, I agree with him that America needs a workable guest worker program. It is either this, continue our current “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” policy on illegal immigration, or kiss goodbye to a large part of our domestic agricultural business. Of the three choices, a guest worker program is the least odious.

Now it would be an interesting experiment to discover just how high agricultural wages would need to be to entice ordinary Americans to spend long days engaged in backbreaking labor in the hot sun pulling crops out of the ground. What would the wage rate be? $20 an hour? $30 an hour? Considering that when the field is picked, it is “see you next year”, I am not sure even these wages would be sufficient. Nevertheless, I am confident that supply could meet demand at some point. Wal-Mart greeters would probably find that living the transient life in tarpaper shacks beats sticking happy faces on customers for $6 an hour at the local Wal-Mart. It might even have an inflationary effect on wages overall, which is not necessarily bad. Real wages have been flat or slipping for the past few years, depending on which statistics you want to believe.

So those farm fresh tomatoes, instead of being $1.29 a pound might sell for twice or three times what they cost now. Perhaps we would continue to eat the same amount of tomatoes, but more likely, we would search for less expensive alternatives. Specifically, we would start importing tomatoes, and they grow fine just south of the border. Thanks to NAFTA, they would be expeditiously trucked over the international border. As a result, American farmers would not be able to compete for long selling tomatoes. Perhaps they could try to grow more exotic crops with higher profit margins, but it is unlikely that our plentiful truck farms and orchards would remain in business for long. No, they would likely shrink, or go out of business together. More profitable uses for the land could probably be found, and it probably would not be for agriculture. The effect would be to gradually reduce our agricultural business to those crops that can be processed by machines only. While free trade seems to be considered the ideal these days, those of us interested in national security need to think hard about whether it makes sense for this nation to outsource its ability to feed itself.

Consequently, to stay in the agricultural market at all we have find workers willing to work for what Americans consider miserly wages. However, if you are living in poverty south of the border and your current home has an open sewer in the backyard and the walls of your house are made of tarpaper, you’re your kitchen floor consists of dirt, and your drinking water is unhealthy, well, $5.15 an hour or even less are pretty good wages. After all your needs are more modest than the average American’s. You may need but certainly do not expect health insurance. Owning a car is likely as fantastic an idea as scaling Mount Everest. In addition, you may have a dozen mouths to feed south of the border. Even at $5.15 an hour, these wages buy a lot of tortilla flour.

$5.15 an hour, or even less, clearly is not enough to live on if you expect a house that follows sound building codes. However, if your expectations are third world it is more than a living wage. In fact, it may be the difference between whether your children back home can even afford to go to school. Just because childhood education is compulsory in our country, does not mean this is true in much of the rest of the world. This became clear to me when I visited the Philippines in the 1980s.

Our current immigration system is a joke. Anyone who really thinks that we can beef up border security enough to even modestly reduce the flood of this traffic is living in fantasyland. These same sorts of people probably also believe we can win the drug war through interdiction. Arguably, if we got very tough with employers who hire illegal immigrants, we could change the dynamics significantly. However, if this were possible we would soon see a huge inflationary effect across our economy. If you are wondering how gas prices can be $2.50 a gallon yet inflation remains so tame, thank that illegal dishwasher in the restaurants you frequent, the poultry worker at Tysons processing plant in Arkansas, or the day laborer hired by the contractor who cuts your lawn. If you think inflation is tame solely due to the sound policies of the Federal Reserve, please send me your name and address. I have some swampland that should interest you.

Therefore, a guest worker program is not a bad idea. It is a pragmatic approach to a problem that will not go away. It gives these illegal immigrants some status and protection and does away with the duplicity of our current system. It is not the perfect solution. I cannot imagine having to leave my family for years to toil in America for long hours and paltry wages. At least this laborer’s family is likely to have a higher standard of living then they would otherwise have in their native countries. Similar reasoning brought most of our distant relatives to this country. At least an illegal immigrant’s children are more likely to acquire an education. This is not the ideal way to end the world’s incessant poverty problem, but it is one pragmatic means to an end.

We Americans need to acknowledge the truth: we depend on low cost labor to maintain our standard of living. There is no way this genie is going back in the bottle. We can deal pragmatically and realistically with the problem, or we can continue to close our eyes and let the situation worsen. We should insist though that those companies that hire guest workers fully comply with the law. We should also insist that while they are with us, guest workers have access to affordable housing, healthy food, and education for their dependent children.

 

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