Archive for September, 2006

The Thinker

Adventures in Financial Planning

If you have been wondering why I have not been blogging this week it is because real life has been keeping me busy. Some weeks there simply is not time to blog. This was one of those weeks.

Many things have distracted me. There is my job, of course, which more than fills the daylight hours. There was my wonderful daughter’s seventeenth birthday, part one of which we celebrated last night. In addition, a sister was in town this week. We got together for dinner in Tyson’s Corner, discussed family news and politics. You cannot put two of my siblings in the same room without politics coming up.

We both shared the same shameful and sick feelings. We were grasping how to articulate them. What comes out are not so much words as an inchoate primal scream. We cannot believe that our Congress has given President Bush permission to torture people and limit the rights of enemy combatants. Congress approved a law so broad that it appears that the president could declare me an enemy combatant and indefinitely detain me. We can only hope these unconstitutional laws are quickly overturned by the courts. It boggles my mind that our Congress could discard the tradition of Habeas Corpus that goes back to the Magna Carta. As if these outrages were not enough, the House of Representatives approved a bill that lets President Bush conduct widespread government eavesdropping. The Senate will likely follow along, after the recess. The congress believes that these actions will show they are tough on terrorists and consequently will help them retain control of Congress. What is does to those of us who are politically awake is make us wet our pants. One diarist on DailyKos put it accurately when he wrote an obituary for our country. I hope after all the wreckage from the last five years that America has finally woken up. We will know in about a month after the midterm elections. In any event, I cannot fully articulate my feelings about these events right now; just express my abject horror, and my disgust at our president and our Congress. I cannot even absolve my own party, which should have filibustered this bill in the Senate, but did not.

While the bizarre and surreal actions in Washington have occupied my forebrain, ordinary life still goes on. I have also been planning for my father’s 80th birthday, which we celebrate next week. My family is still getting to know our cat Arthur Dent better. We spent part of each day is spent coaxing him out of hiding, petting him and giving him tummy rubs. Then there have been the illnesses. Our daughter brought home some nasty cold from school, promptly gave it to me, and I passed it on to my wife. My wife is the only one who still has cold symptoms. Her voice sounds like gravel and she spends much of her waking hours coughing and chugging expectorant. In addition, my side business of installing modifications to phpBB has gotten more active. I have been working with a very assertive client who has been uncovering many hitherto undiscovered bugs in my Digest and Smartfeed modifications and naturally wants me to fix them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the slow Chinese water torture of implementing our financial plan. I am discovering why I have procrastinated on our family’s financial planning all these years. To put it mildly, it is a pain in the tuckus to implement our financial plan. I can see why many choose to outsource the whole business to a trusted broker. Jerry, my financial planner, says I am in the worst of it right now. He has made things as simple as possible, by doing things like providing many of the forms I need and having one of his employees fill them out. Once this load of work is behind us, he assures us that we are in for a long period of smooth sailing. The hard part is changing course. We may trim our sails once a year during our annual review. I cannot wait to get to that stage because right now I am up to my armpits in forms and phone calls. I am discovering that it will take months to make this course correction.

My wife has two 401-Ks that have sat dormant for the last few years. It should be routine to roll them over into someone else’s plan. Alas, it is anything but. Instead, there is a plethora of confusing and poorly documented hoops to jump through. Each company that manages 401-K or IRAs has its own bizarre procedures for rolling money in and out. Prudential Retirement, for example, holds one of my wife’s 401Ks. They require a spousal notification form. That is fine if only a signature were needed but no, it has to be notarized, which means I have to find a notary and arrange a time when we are both available to have the form notarized. One plan simply requires that I give authorization on the receiving institution’s forms. Another insists on sending us their special forms. They must be returned before they will accept a transfer request from the receiving institution. Setting up receiving accounts is not necessarily straightforward either. Vanguard, for example, requires a minimum investment in each kind of fund (usually $3000). One fund, their Energy Fund, requires a minimum of $25,000. In addition, you must set up a money market account with at least $2500 in it in order to move funds around.

Working through just one of these rollover issues is enough to trigger a migraine. I have discovered that financial institutions are not necessarily anxious to part with your money. They seem to put up lots of hoops just to see if you have the patience to jump through them. The details on how to do these things are not necessarily on their web sites. Therefore, you have to call them on the phone, decipher their financial speak, then call back the receiving institutions, and ask more questions. The whole process feels medieval and is both frustrating and aggravating.

My wife used to work for USAA Insurance. The only way to get a rollover of her 401K going is to access their employee only web site. That requires an ID and PIN. Maybe she knew once upon a time but long ago forgot. So now, we are waiting for snail mail to arrive with a new PIN to get that process going.

Then there are the non-retirement assets to shuffle. Closing two funds with USAA was actually straightforward. I just logged on and pressed a few buttons. Money instantly shuffled into my money market account. Great. I opened my money market checkbook to write a check to the new institution only to discover I had just used the last check. I now have to wait 4-6 business days to get new checks.

Altogether, I have to move five funds in four institutions and place them into eight funds maintained by five institutions. Three of them are retirement accounts, which have to go through a rollover process to avoid withdrawal penalties. Other existing funds, which I was told to keep, required some minor tweaking. Changing contribution and reallocations for my Thrift Savings Plan took only a few minutes and were done conveniently online.

My wife made all this more challenging. She hates anything to do with money management. It required coaxing her to do things she really, really hates, like speak to retirement fund specialists. This is just one of the reasons why I keep the books. She can be challenged just holding to her receipts. Fortunately, she has a process for that now: she stuffs them into her wallet. I typically sort through them once a week or so. So getting her on the phone with those holding her 401Ks and talking through issues like IRA rollovers was challenging. Often I had to initiate the call, conference her in, get her permission to let me talk to them, and then get the answers I needed.

Once our money is shuffled around, other issues loom. Life insurance is one of them. Next year when I turn 50, my term life insurance costs will nearly double to about $800 a year. Jerry says that I need to keep the life insurance through age 60. He has sources that offer much better deals but work only through financial planners. One gave him a quote for about $500 a year for ten years. That is great, because it means I will save at least $3000. Of course, to save the money I have to go through an obtrusive physical examination and then wait 60 days or so. That process needs to start now, because I turn 50 in February.

I am keeping a notebook of things I need to do. The list keeps expanding. It took about three weeks, but we finally returned the papers for our home equity loan to the credit union. Second trustee endorsement statements first had to be added to our homeowner’s insurance. Much, much notarizing was needed. We made one appointment with a notary, but missed one place where we needed a notary’s signature. This required finding another notary while working it around my wife’s illness.

The recommended umbrella insurance policy arrived, but the bill has not, at least not yet. I have not even begun to think about updating our will. Jerry has some lawyers he can recommend. Setting up a special IRA for my wife was straightforward, but required a $2000 initial investment. That money had to come from somewhere. Fortunately, last month was a three-paycheck month.

I figure it will be several more weeks of aggravating phone calls and filling out dense legal forms before we succeed in transferring all our assets. Dotting all the I’s and crossing the T’s with items like life insurance policies and wills will take longer. Once these assets are in place, then I need to set up regular contributions for many funds. I am hoping somewhere around the start of 2007 all this will be behind us and all we need to do is trim those sails once a year. For it will take many margaritas under some palm tree in the Caribbean to make up for this aggravation.

 
The Thinker

Let Iraq Dissemble

There is a new National Intelligence Estimate out. Somehow, I doubt it will change the White House strategy on the War on Terror.

The war in Iraq has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat, U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded.

A 30-page National Intelligence Estimate completed in April cites the “centrality” of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, as the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda. It concludes that, rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position, according to officials familiar with the classified document.

Perhaps we should take this latest NIE with some skepticism. After all, it is from the National Intelligence Council. These same folks concluded in 2002 that Iraq had continued its weapons of mass destruction program. In that report they also warned our senior leadership that Iraq was likely to have a nuclear program by the end of this decade.

The conclusion of this NIE though is not startling and is just common sense. It can be inferred from State Department reports that show dramatic increases in terrorist incidents worldwide over the last few years. Most of the terrorism is centered in Iraq, which we occupy. Our occupation is perceived (or at least marketed) as an occupation of a Christian force in a Muslim area of the world. We see it as bringing peace and democracy. Yet many Muslims see it as a modern manifestation of the crusades. It did not help that shortly after we liberated Iraq, Christian missionaries poured into Iraq. The toxic ingredients were in place to raise the ire of Muslims. Call them terrorists, call them insurgents, call them militias, or call them whatever you want. Most of them qualify as terrorist groups by any reasonable definition of the word.

The larger question, which presumably is not answered in this classified report, is what strategy might actually lower terrorist incidents against our allies and us. The answer through January 20, 2009 will almost certainly mean no meaningful change in our current counterproductive policy. We have a president that will stay the course no matter how unworkable, unreasonable or foolish it has proven and will continue to prove to be. Oh, we may tinker around the edges a bit. For example, our generals recently moved troops from the far western provinces of Iraq to Baghdad to deal with violence there. Nevertheless, it will not change the underlying dynamics. In fact, our mere need to move troops around from one lawless area to another underscores that we simply have insufficient forces to control Iraq. Our Iraq “strategy” has devolved into an increasing frustrating and very large-scale game of Whack-a-Mole. When we withdraw troops from one region of Iraq, it simply becomes easier for violence and terrorist elements to breed there. Moreover, as I noted not too long ago, the more we stay the course the more we exacerbate the problem.

In the unlikely event that we could put 450,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, we might succeed in bringing a rough peace to the place. It would be an unnatural peace though. Our presence would still be resented. Our troops would continue to be regularly assaulted. To secure that country in the long term would require a very high troop commitment for decades, something that we all know in our hearts would not happen.

If we just withdrew, civil war seems a sure thing. That there already is a civil war is beside the point I guess. Our withdrawal would doubtless give terrorists a “victory” to crow about. However, it is possible that our withdrawal would have the medium and long-term effects of lowering the animus at the United States, and might well reduce terrorism directed toward our country.

After we left, the civil war in Iraq would likely get worse, at least in the short term. Most of those who acknowledge the complexity of the situation, yet want to avoid “cut and run” label, suffer from the delusion that with sufficient cajoling neighboring Muslim states will step in with forces to control Iraq for us. Unfortunately, there are neither sufficient Muslim troops nor the willingness of neighboring countries to take on this task. Any choice, including maintaining the status quo, breeds more terrorism in the short term and further screws the Iraqi people. The only virtue of “stay the course” is it gives to a dwindling few the delusion that in time we can prevail against these forces. I say that at this point this thinking is insane.

The reality is that the Iraqi people are already getting screwed. Regardless of what we do or do not do, Iraqis will likely get screwed worse in the future. What we are doing now is like looking at the result of a terrible automobile accident that we helped cause. We are saying, “How can we fix the car and patch up its occupants like it never happened?” However, the car is totaled. Everyone in the front seat is dead. The kids in the back seat are hysterical. We cannot fix this mess.

Right now, we are still in denial. While denial is delusional, at least it offers us a modicum of comfort. We need to get out of denial. Iraq is a big toxic mess and will remain so for some time. Our occupation makes things worse. We had a big part is screwing up Iraq, but the fault is hardly just ours. Bad things are happening. Worse things are likely to happen to Iraq in the future. We cannot stop it.

We must face the music. We must get out of Iraq knowing a larger civil war will probably occur. However, whether we stay or leave, it was bound to happen anyhow. This is what happens when unnatural states held together by a dictator are overthrown.It is time to let the pseudo-state of Iraq die, but also time to let the people in what used to be the country of Iraq sort out their own future.

The best we can do in this crazy situation is to insist that the nascent Iraqi government decide the boundaries of future Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’ite states. We could give them a deadline, perhaps sixty days, to redraw the map of Iraq, and some financial incentives to create win-win scenarios. If they cannot redraw it then we must use our best judgment and draw the lines ourselves. Then we can give Iraqis a few months to move to the ethnic area where they want to live in. We can use our troops to try to ensure a safe migration of the population. Then we should get out.

Even if we do this, a civil war is still likely. However, it offers the possibility that the civil war will be shorter and less bloody than it would otherwise be. There is no way to know for sure.

Can we ever atone for this mistake? Perhaps in time we can make small amends. We have certainly given a large part of our national treasure and thousands of lives. We can always help fund non-governmental organizations that work in the region. Perhaps we could take in some refugees from the war. When Vietnamese boat people ended up in Thailand or Hong Kong after the collapse of South Vietnam, many of them through a special act of Congress made it to the United States. Many are now productive citizens of our country.

The sad reality is that this is about all that is within our power that might actually prove helpful.

 
The Thinker

Kashi: It’s what I am eating for breakfast

First, a disclaimer. This is an honest product endorsement. I was neither solicited nor compensated for this review. In addition, as you can see by browsing through my blog, I am not one of these paid corporate or candidate bloggers. I speak my mind free of any overt external influences. Except from some spare change from Google Adsense revenue, which, at best, just pays my hosting costs, I do not make a dime off this blog.

I am not one of those whole food types. I do not go out of my way to eat organic or “natural

 
The Thinker

Welcoming Arthur Dent

It took about a week, but Arthur Dent (our newly adopted cat) has emerged from hiding. He still likes to spend much of his day trying not to be seen by hiding under the sofa. Increasingly though, we find him in less hidden spots, such as on a dining room chair. He is waiting, waiting silently and patiently for something or someone. Maybe his is waiting for the other long dead cats that he smells to emerge. On the other hand, maybe he is just waiting to feel sufficiently safe to release a restless spirit that so far he has not chosen to manifest. Since he chooses to wait then we will wait too.

Our cat Arthur

When he wants attention, it helps to listen. Unlike our evil cat Squeaky, he is not a shouter of a cat. He lets out plaintive and short duration high-pitched squeaks. We understand that means, “Does anyone want to pet me?” Mostly though he prefers silence and stealthiness. Having spent a year with thirty or so cats in a room the size of our living room, perhaps he is just enjoying the luxury of being alone.

He remains something of a peculiar cat. We are used to cats that are in your face. It is likely that over time, as trust is established, he will become one of these cats too. Right now, he remains skittish. He wants to be approached gently and quietly. If I lumber down the steps, he will go hide. If I sit down on the floor, call him in a soft tone, look him in the eye and then gently offer him my hand, he will approach me tentatively. Once I give him a quick pet and he turns into my love slave.

He loves to be gently scratched under his chin. He also likes me to use both hands and gently scratch both sides of his face at once. Like most cats, he demonstrates pleasure by kneading the carpet with his paws, licking me with his sandpaper like tongue and, when he is feeling very comfortable, flopping on his back and exposing his belly. I can rub his belly up near his chest, but not much further. In that sense, at least so far, he is a different sort of cat for us. My last cat Sprite was totally fearless in my arms. I could touch him anywhere, carry him anywhere, and put him in any position. The more outrageous the move, the louder he purred.

Perhaps in time Arthur will become this way. Right now, he seems to be in no hurry to sit on our laps. This seems to be something he does not do. He has not established enough trust with us to allow us to pick him up either. Nevertheless, when stimulated he certainly can be very affectionate, purring strongly and rubbing his soft fur against our hands and legs.

He is not much of a vertical cat. We are also used to cats for whom ascending vertically is as natural and walking. Thus far, he has not gotten above chair height. I am thinking that perhaps a previous owner trained him not to get up on the furniture. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We never liked our cats to think they could jump onto tables and countertops, and would shoo them off. Otherwise, we gave them free reign to ascend as high vertically as they wanted.

Nor has Arthur yet expressed an interest in the outside. Darkness and quiet are mainly where he finds comfort right now. We have tried to entice him to play with a number of toys. No dice. His one game is the paw game. He will reach out and pat your hand or finger with his paw. He does it very nicely and does not scratch you at all.

We have learned a few things about Arthur from his medical record. He is about three years old. He spent the last year in the Friends of Homeless Animals cattery. He has been to the veterinarian twice while he was homeless, once for an upper respiratory infection. He is current on all his shots and is neutered. He also once had mild conjunctivitis. He has an appetite and generally eats all the food I lay out for him. He is fastidious for a cat. He keeps himself well groomed, which I take as a sign that he is reasonably happy. Mostly he is a gentle cat. This is fine with me. I just wish he would come out more often. Every time he does, he gets plenty of positive attention. The good news is that we can usually coax him out now.

For myself, I am satisfied at present. Now that he is out, I am content to let him become adjusted to his new home at his own pace. If I can pet him once or twice a day, that suffices. If I can eventually coax him to jump on my lap, I will be happier. If he turns into a cuddle cat, I will be ecstatic. I think in time all these things are possible as trust is slowly extended and replied to in kind.

One thing for sure: our house now feels like a home again. Thanks and welcome home at last, Arthur.

 
The Thinker

Sweating Bullets for Democracy

This video has been making the rounds on the Internet. If you have not seen it, you should. If you have seen it and you were not affected, you might want to check to see if your heart is still beating. You could be dead. You should feel appalled and very, very scared. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

The video shows that a particular model of Diebold voting machine can be hacked to ignore a machine’s actual vote count and substitute its own. If that alone were not shocking enough, it also shows that the machine’s lock can easily be picked. The flash card that slips into its reader slot is easily procured commercially, and can be programmed with desktop computers. If this is not outrageous enough, it also shows how easy it would be for someone who is malicious to turn the program on the flash card into a surreptitious virus, allowing all sorts of voting machines of the same type to be hacked. One unscrupulous person in the election trust chain could circumvent the will of the people.

We can thank the Center for Information Technology at Princeton University for exposing these voting machine flaws. If you want to dig into the details, you can read their white paper. It should be a wakeup call for anyone who cares about sound voting systems. It seems a bit curious then that the White House has been silent on this matter. I am sure it has nothing to do with Diebold’s contributions to the Republican Party.

It used to be that our biggest voter fraud problem was ballot box stuffing. Those frauds were fairly easy to detect. Today, thanks to flawed electronic voting systems like this one, there is no point in cutting down trees to mark fake ballots. Now, whoever controls the voting booths (at least those that run Diebold machines) can decide who is elected. Moreover, no one will ever find out.

In many jurisdictions, the supervisor of elections is a partisan position. This was true in Ohio during the 2004 elections, for example. You may have read the article Was the 2004 Election Stolen?, by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in Rolling Stone. It presents enough disturbing information about inconsistencies in that state’s vote to give any true democrat the willies. If partisan shenanigans occurred in Ohio in 2004, which looks indisputable (although it is disputable that it affected the outcome of the election), they sure went through a lot of hassle to do it. Now there is a simpler way: make sure all voters are using this model of Diebold machine and surreptitiously plant your vote rigging software in the machine.

The paper ballot has nearly gone the way of the milkman. Give me a punch card ballot over a Diebold voting machine any day of the week. At least there is some evidence with a punch card ballot of the voter’s intent. Thanks to Diebold’s vulnerable voting systems, there is no record at all. Even if there were a paper trail, unless the voter physically checks the duplicate paper ballot before leaving the voting booth, there is no way to know for sure that his vote was cast correctly. It is estimated that in this fall’s election, more than 80% of the votes cast will be cast on electronic voting machines.

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia we have a system with the dubious name of WinVote. I do not know about you, but its name is a marketing man’s nightmare. It implies either it works under Windows, which most of us know from experience has far more holes than a warehouse full of Swiss cheese, or that it will pick the winner of the vote, not you. I used it of course because I had no other choice. Even when I voted absentee last year, I still had to use the electronic voting machine.

Outsourcing the design of our voting machines to the private sector is a fundamentally and profoundly stupid idea. Neither politicians nor supervisors of elections are qualified to render a professional opinion on the soundness of any voting technology. If we must use electronic voting then we need not just standards, but standards that are non-partisan and represent state of the art best techniques and practices. Fortunately, such an institution already exists: the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It should be the ones writing the standards for electronic voting machines. Not one electronic voting machine should be allowed to be used which does not comply with their standards. Ideally, every voting machine would be individually tested and certified by NIST and come in a box with a NIST seal on it.

We also need a bulletproof and auditable process for voting. It should specify national procedures for voting, buying voting machines, setting up machines, and verifying accurate vote counts. It should ensure that no part of the process could be compromised. We can do it today for classified information. Why can we not give our voting process at least the same level of protection?

In my opinion, the most trustworthy form of mechanical voting was the one I used when I cast my first vote in 1976. When you pressed the lever, you could hear it click into place. When you pulled the master VOTE lever, you could hear the mechanical counters increment. The levers automatically reset to hide your vote. This kind of machine is low tech, but it has the virtue of being impossible to hack. All it takes is a simple hardware inspection to remove any ambiguity about the machine’s integrity.

Supervisors of elections need to be ruthlessly non-partisan. Ideally, a judge would oversee or appoint the supervisor of elections. This should be the last position filled because of political patronage. Only candidates with unimpeccable credentials and demonstrated organizational skills should be considered.

No voting process is foolproof, but only fools will allow voting systems to be used without the necessary integrity and process checks that ensure each voter cast exactly one vote, and that the vote was recorded accurately. This Diebold machine demonstration may be extreme. It may be more common than we think. Indisputably, it points to a larger problem that must be addressed if we are to truly call ourselves a democracy.

 
The Thinker

Small Steps

Allegedly, we are cat owners again. I say “allegedly” because we have not seen much of our cat since he arrived last Saturday. If Lord Voldemort is “he who shall not be named”, our new feline is “he who shall not be seen”. Well, at least not very much.

These are some of the hazards of adopting a cat who was likely abused earlier in life. If instead we had adopted kittens, it is unlikely they would be so reticent about showing themselves. So far, our new cat, which came to us by the name of Papa, has spent daylight hours studiously in hiding under our couch.

Picture of our new cat, named Papa in the cattery

After we unfortunately had to evict him from under our bed the first night, he spent the first couple of days and nights under the loveseat in our entertainment room. We slipped a litter box behind it, which he quickly found. We could hear him use it occasionally. Now he prefers to spend the day under our living room sofa. This is a bit of a problem since there is no way to put a litter box behind it. He eats, drinks, and defecates at night. In the morning, there are signs that a feline has been around. There are little clumps of grey dander on the floor and carpet. Generally, his food is gone too.

We know it is important to be patient. This new cat will eventually fully emerge from his shell. He is already making small steps. Sometime after eleven o’clock at night when my wife is the only one still awake, he quietly emerges. She may hear the litter box in use. After two nights, she looked down the stairwell to see the cat looking up at her, fear in his eyes. The next night, he made it up a couple more steps and waited there for a while before returning to under the couch. Three nights ago was a breakthrough. He came into the computer room where my wife spends most of her free hours and sat warily under the desk. My wife avoided any major movements, but slowly put her hand down by her side. It took about ten minutes, but he warily approached her. She gently scratched his head. He stood up on his rear legs, put his front paws on her legs, and purred outrageously. This went off and on for half an hour before he slowly ambled downstairs and returned to his spot under the couch.

Since that time, he has visited my wife every evening, when it is quiet, around eleven o’clock. I dutifully fill his food bowl and change his water dish in the morning, but otherwise I do not see him. It is not easy for me to give him space. I want to peek under the couch, as my daughter does when she comes home from school, and say hello. However, he does not seem to like this attention right now. Eventually he turns around so he is not facing her. He will fully emerge in time, but on his own terms, and only when he feels it is safe.

I have to respect that. Still, I find it hard. After six months without a cat on my lap, the absence of a feline has made their lure that much stronger. Now, I am practically aching for a feline on my lap. I am not sure this cat will even be a lap sitter. Nevertheless, it would be nice just to pet him. I would like to give him a scratch under his chin, as I did with my last cat Sprite. I must be patient.

I did see him briefly this morning when I stumbled out of bed around 6:15 a.m. I usually elect to wake up our daughter and send her to school. I am now careful to open our bedroom door slowly in case he is out there; I do not want to startle him. So far, that has not been a problem because he is elsewhere. This morning though when I did glance down into our living room, I saw him on the carpet, just next to the living room couch. He looked up at me warily. I doubt cats are schooled in reading human emotions, but I smiled and said nice things to him. “There you are,” I said. “There is no reason to hide. We love cats around here.” That was enough for him: fifteen seconds or so of cautious staring, then a quick dash back under the couch. That is where he had remained utterly silent all day. I sent a toy ball under the couch this evening in the hopes that he might play with it. However, it must make too much noise for him. Right now, he is still anxious not to be seen.

It is human nature to anthropomorphosize pets. It takes deliberate effort to remember that he is a cat, not a human being. Animal scientists assert that the emotional part of animal brains is much larger than their rational parts. They are believed to live mostly in the present, but to carry powerful emotional impressions of their past. Found outside a gas station in Lovettsville, Virginia and rescued by Friends of Homeless Animals, this three-year-old cat has likely been abused before. Trust will have to be earned slowly, on his terms, in small paw steps.

Meanwhile, I avoid upsetting his delicate balance. I want him to heal and to trust. It is probably not a good idea to run the vacuum cleaner today. Since his cat box is in the entertainment room and he may need to use it, I have avoided television. Fortunately, this is no sacrifice, since I have largely given up television anyhow.

Perhaps tonight will be the night we become a little better acquainted. Since I do not have to go to work tomorrow, I plan to stay up late. I am hoping that if I sit quietly here on the computer he will gently head up the stairs around eleven o’clock, as he has the last several nights. The question is whether he will keep coming up the stairs when he sees me, or will head back under the couch. Maybe, just maybe, I will get to pet him.

This is of course quite a change from the cat we met in the cattery. There you simply sat down and he was one of a half dozen cats all over you. There were cuter cats than him, but arguably, he was one of the most affectionate. The message to us seemed clear: he liked us and he wanted a new home. The reality of a new home though will take some getting used to. He may smell evidence of cats past, wonder where they are, and whether they are going to attack him. Therefore, he remains very wary and very cautious. Cats for the most part do not deal well with change. Relocation is one of their biggest traumatic events. Yet he must settle down eventually. In time this new world with us will becomes routine and the old memory of the cattery where he spent about a year will fade. He will understand he is in a place where he will be loved and doted on. It will be a special place that will be all his and we will be his special humans with whom he has chosen to spend the rest of his life. When the weather is temperate, he can sit out on the screened porch and enjoy nature. Otherwise, he can roam the house as he pleases, watch birds, humans and automobiles pass by on the street through the window, sleep in his new bed that he has not tried out yet, and generally be spoiled rotten with as much attention as he can hold.

For now, we just wait for him to emerge. It must be done on his terms though, not ours.

 
The Thinker

Empty Suit

There are few people that irk me more than hypocrites. Today President Bush’s hypocrisy is irritating me.

Perhaps you heard his speech to the nation Monday night, on the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. I did not, although I read excerpts later. By now, most Americans have developed Pavlovian responses to George W. Bush. They amount to this: when we hear him, we turn down the sound. When we see him, we change channels. There is no point in wasting precious minutes of our lives to hear him tell us precisely the same thing he has repeated ad infinitum. That is why despite being broadcast on four networks and three cable channels, his speech on Monday drew only 37 million people. That is four million viewers less than tuned into his last State of the Union speech and a whopping 45 million less than listened to his first State of the Union speech. The speech of course was all about staying the course in Iraq and elsewhere. Those who bothered to tune in were not disappointed:

Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad. Osama bin Laden calls this fight “the Third World War” — and he says that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America’s “defeat and disgrace forever.” If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened; they will gain a new safe haven; they will use Iraq’s resources to fuel their extremist movement. We will not allow this to happen. America will stay in the fight. Iraq will be a free nation, and a strong ally in the war on terror.

Yet why stay and fight when our tactics are self-defeating? Staying the course, as I mentioned recently, is insane. Would it have been better for Great Britain to have hung on at Dunkirk? Of course not. Thousands would have been needlessly killed. There are times when tactical withdrawals are logical. It makes no sense to continue a strategy that amounts to shooting yourself in the foot.

There is little doubt we are losing this war. For example, The Washington Post recently reported this about the western predominantly Sunni province of Iraq called Anbar Province.

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country’s western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.

The officials described Col. Pete Devlin’s classified assessment of the dire state of Anbar as the first time that a senior U.S. military officer has filed so negative a report from Iraq.

One Army officer summarized it as arguing that in Anbar province, “We haven’t been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically — and that’s where wars are won and lost.”

I have a simple question for the president. If Iraq is truly the central front on the War on Terror, why will you not put the forces on the ground so we can actually secure the country? Apparently, 140,000 troops are not nearly enough. The Iraqi Army that we helped create and train is apparently not up to the job. They are far more interested in fanning sectarian warfare than securing national peace. Its government, such as it is, is corrupt and ineffective.

What would it take to truly secure Iraq? You heard it from generals whom your Secretary of Defense dismissed before the war: 350,000 troops or so. (It might well be more than that now.) The force must be overwhelming or there is simply no hope of securing this ethnically divided country. That you cannot make the commitment required to actually do the job that you say is so vital to the country proves that you are simply another hypocrite. At least I hope it is that. The only other option is you are too stupid to be president. So it has come to this: your strategy amounts to letting the terrorists win.

Since our troops are already stretched thinly across the globe and since, at best, we are just meeting armed forces recruitment goals, it is clear that to put the sufficient troops in Iraq to would require reinstating the draft. This, of course, is something both your administration and the Republican congress promised during the 2004 election that you would never do. However, if it is that vital to our national security, then there is no other choice. You and your Republican congress must make this unpopular decision because it is required for our national security. You said it yourself: we must defeat them there so they will not defeat us here.

To do so though would require genuine leadership and hard choices. This is something that is clearly beyond you. If America loses the War on Terror, it will be because you and your Republican Congress made the disastrously wrong choices. You substituted ideology for a dispassionate assessment of the facts and a comprehensive analysis of the complexities of the Middle East. In addition, you did not bother to learn from history. We did not win two world wars because we made halfhearted commitments. We gave each war everything we had. We focused like a laser beam on winning them. We won because we were united. The nation understood the stakes and the consequences of losing. We have yet to win a major war where we did not make this tradeoff. It did not happen in Korea, where the war came down to a draw and we are still dealing with its detritus. It did not happen in Vietnam where we lost but our fears were ultimately proven to be phantoms. Since you are incapable of convincing the country to make the necessary sacrifices to win in Iraq, it will not happen there either.

That is partly why we have tuned you out. You had the opportunity to demonstrate genuine leadership shortly after September 11, 2001 and you squandered it. Only those who felt a calling to serve their country would have to fight the War on Terror. As a result, the War on Terror gradually faded into abstraction and surrealism. It was something bad going on over there. Moreover, we received mixed messages. Your voice said it was deadly serious, but your attitude was: keep partying America! That message sank in.

Actions always speak louder than words. Your actions told us: do not work up a sweat about this terrorism thing. We the grown ups in government (i.e. Republicans) got it under control. Spend your time in Leave it to Beaver land, except of course right before elections. Then it was necessary to be really fearful of terrorists again, to make sure Republicans stayed in power. (Sure enough, it is the same strategy this year.) Right after the election though, it is back to denial. Spend, spend, spend and attend church regularly too.

Of course, we understand that we are just deluding ourselves. The carnage in Iraq has woken most of us up at this point. Now that we are sobered up, we know you and your Republican Congress are incapable of actually solving the problem. However, there is not too much we can do to change the problem because we have an intransigent president who will not shift course no matter what. So mostly, we have tuned you out. We are resigned. You have become the crazy uncle in the attic and you have a legal paper that means we cannot evict you until January 20, 2009. Then hopefully someone with a clue, perhaps General Wesley Clark, can take charge and maybe do something that will work.

After September 11, 2001, we wanted another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Instead, we got a caricature of a president. Since you are stuck on your foolish course, we know that we can only expect terrorism to worsen. We cannot believe we were so gullible as to put an empty suit like you into power.

 
The Thinker

Threats from within on the Fifth Anniversary of September 11th

Has it been five years? The date seems too prominent in my memory for it to be half a decade away already. For most of us Americans, even if we did not live in New York or Washington, the events of September 11, 2001 left a permanent impression in our minds. Move over Kennedy Assassination and Challenger Disaster. The tragic events of this day eclipsed all of them.

I have been in both the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Until I ran out of web space, I hosted pictures of myself and my family on the observation deck of the World Trade Center during the spring of 2000. Far from being bustling, the twin towers seemed serene by Manhattan standards. You could stand in the courtyard, crane your head way, way up and try to see the top floors. Do it for too long and your neck was sure to hurt. They seemed as permanent as the pyramids of Egypt.

Not only have I visited the Pentagon, I worked there for nine years. Perhaps it was just as well that by 1998 I had grown frustrated and left for better opportunities with the Department of Health and Human Services. While the office I worked at there was not one of the ones destroyed (in fact that office relocated to another building a few miles away before September 11th) I could have easily found other work in the Pentagon. So I too could have been one of the 125 deaths in the Pentagon who died that day. Many times when I was enjoying a bit of the bucolic during my lunch hour in the Pentagon’s center courtyard (ironically referred to as “Ground Zero”) I would watch turboprops buzz a few hundred feet overhead on approach to Reagan National Airport. I wondered how air traffic controllers could direct airplanes to fly directly over the Pentagon. One bomb dropped from one of these airplanes could also have wreaked massive havoc to our national security.

On September 11th, 2001 itself I was busy at work in my office in Washington, D.C. At the time I worked on the National Mall at the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services. It was one of our contract employees who told me something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We went into one of the conference rooms that had a big screen TV and watched CNN in horror. We heard not only that the Pentagon had been hit, but that other planes were coming our way. Many of us ended up outside. We could see grayish white smoke from the Pentagon crash to our west, waffling up into a surreal crystal clear blue sky. Many people were frantically calling on their cell phones. Few succeeded in getting through. Eventually we just started bugging out of town, thinking that if we could just get home we would at least be safe. (One of the surprising aspects of the day was that Dan, the guy who drove our vanpool, managed to do it at all. It would be the last day he would drive the vanpool. The next day he was in the hospital for tests. Less than a month later has was dead, not from terrorism, but from pancreatic cancer.)

I steeled up my nerves and returned to the office the next day. The truth was that after that terrible day I never felt comfortable working in Washington, D.C. again. My feelings were exacerbated when we moved to another building in Southwest D.C. From my window I could look down on a steady stream of anonymous railroad cars entering and leaving the District. I frequently wondered if any of them would explode outside my window.

So I started looking in earnest for civil servant jobs in the suburbs. My current position with the U.S. Geological Survey here in Reston, Virginia is a direct effect of that day five years ago today. While I feel safe at work again, I do not feel safe like I did before September 11th. I am still occasionally unnerved. Last week, for example, the power went out in our building. My first though was to wonder if some terrorist incident was to blame.

With five years hindsight I can say that I overreacted. I was born during the Cold War. Until it ended some fifteen years ago, I lived with the abstract but very real threat that my life could end at any moment as a result of a nuclear missile strike. For most of us, September 11th made the fears that foreigners could actually kill us here on our home soil very concrete rather than abstract. I also believe that if you were one of the couple million people like me who experienced the attacks firsthand, however removed, the threat became particularly personified.

I have already put together my thoughts on what it would really take to win the War on Terror. Three thousand deaths as a result of three incidents on one day is a lot of people. Although every life lost that day (except for the perpetrators) was precious, five years later it may be helpful to put those deaths in perspective. 3000 deaths were 3000 more Americans than died on our home soil as a result of the Cold War. However, your odds of being one of the victims of September 11th were roughly 1 in 100,000. Those are pretty good odds, even if you work in New York City or Washington. That is why I am one of many advocating we concentrate resources to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. It is an obvious strategy for which this administration has given short shrift. We want to prevent the type of war that kills millions and rips apart a nation on all levels. Our own Civil War is a painful example of what not to do. Had you been alive then, your odds of dying in the war were 1 in 100. When it was over, our country and our economy were in ruins. Perhaps our greatest national security threat is not from outside, but from within.

And speaking of threats from within, what about deaths that we inflict on each other? While they cannot be classified as acts of terrorism, they are equally as lethal. There are 78 deaths from firearms in our country every day. Some are a result of suicide, but most are homicides. If we could cut our firearm death rates to those of Western Europe, we could prevent the equivalent of one September 11th every 43 days.

Arguably, preventable deaths should be equally as tragic as homicides. Nearly as many Americans die of mostly preventable cardiovascular diseases every day (2566) than were killed on September 11th. According to the CDC, tobacco smoking kills 1200 Americans daily. Some would argue these deaths amount to a peculiar form of suicide, since the risks are known and prevention strategies can be adopted. Is a wife’s suffering over the loss of a husband who died of obesity, alcohol or smoking any less than some wife who lost their husband as a result of terrorism? These judgments are hard to make, but I would say no.

On this fifth anniversary, I am still struck by the need to develop an effective strategy for dealings with the terrorist threat. It is clear that our strategy to date has been wasteful, largely ineffective and generally counterproductive. Yet I am also seeing potentially greater threats that we are giving short shrift. While we try to prevent external threats, let us also be mindful of the cancers like poverty, racism and polarization by income or values. They are harder to detect but are far more likely to kill our nation.

 
The Thinker

Lucky Animals

The Friends of Homeless Animals shelter is out somewhere in Loudoun County, Virginia. I will not say exactly where it is. Their web site does not tell you. Considering that many of the animals at their shelter were found abandoned or abused, there is no point inviting more trouble. However, if you gently inquire and you do not sound like a dog or cat abuser, they will provide directions to the shelter.

You will have to visit them on the weekends when they have adoption hours. However, if you fall in love with one of their homeless cats or dogs, plan to wait a week. The adoption committee will first check out you out. If you had animals before they will inquire with your veterinarian. Expect a home visit. No “cat stays in the garage” types need apply. In fact, you have to promise that your adopted cat will stay indoors, will never be declawed, or will be taken to the animal shelter. In other words, you have to not just say that you love your cat or dog; you should be able to demonstrate that you can follow through.

If an animal at FOHA has to wait for years to find the right owners, so be it. Any cat or dog that ends up at FOHA is a fortunate animal. First, in many cases they have been rescued from neglect. Second, if they have not been spayed, the veterinarian will take care of it. Third, they will be fed a healthy diet, be brushed and cleaned regularly, and, if they are a dog, exercised regularly too. Fourth, unlike many animal shelters, they will not be euthanized because there is no room at the inn. Fifth, most animals will be adopted in time. They will then have the quality love and attention they might not have received from their last owners.

It takes a constant stream of devoted volunteers and doubtless a heap of money to run this kind of animal shelter. Much of the work is not glamorous. Dogs need to go for regular walks. Cages must be cleaned. There are many cat boxes to be changed, and cat gorp to be removed from the floors. They need volunteers during adoption hours. Then there is the work involved in maintaining the substantial infrastructure: hauling food and supplies, managing the property, fixing kennels, and showing off pets periodically at local events.

As you wind your way through the one lane gravel road toward their property, you are likely to see volunteers walking dogs on a path in the woods. As you park your car, you are likely to hear the sometime deafening roar of dogs barking. Most cannot wait to be your friend. Our particular destination was the cattery. A cattery is a house for felines. This particular cattery held about thirty cats. As a rule cats prefer to have their own space. I suspect some of these cats were a bit stressed from having so little personal space. Still they made do, and could often be found going through a cat door to a protected outside space. One room in the cattery was devoted to kittens. It is currently kitten season, and there were plenty of kittens needing adoption.

We were looking to replace the irreplaceable. Sprite, my cat companion of more than 19 years, was put to sleep in March. Since that time, something has been deeply wrong in our house. To put it plainly: it lacked a cat. A trip to FOHA made us realize just how much we missed having a feline in our lives. It also made me sad to see so many wonderful animals without homes of their own. I wanted to bring them all home, but I knew it could be only one cat.

Only which one? This was a source of some consternation in our house. For we each had different requirements from a cat. My wife wanted one that minimally impacted her allergies. Domestic short hairs were preferred over longhaired cats. My daughter wanted one that was young, playful and affectionate. However, she was nearly 17 and would be out of the house soon. Since we would be responsible in the long term for the pet, my wife and I had to be mindful of our limits. I wanted Sprite back. Since that could never happen, I could settle for a generally quiet and affectionate adult cat, preferably the type who would rest happily on my lap while I worked on the computer. At least none of us wanted kittens. Having done it once we knew that while they were awfully cute, they could also be amazingly destructive.

Our daughter fell in love with a cat named Stephanie. She had tested positive to exposure to Feline Infectious Peritonitis, and had a number of teeth removed. She was sweet and snuggly, but after talking it over with our vet she looked like she might turn into more of a special needs cat than we could handle. I was directed to a cat called Spike, a lovely yellow tabby, who was very quiet and docile. I felt sorry for Spike. Mabel looked like a good compromise choice: small, short haired and affectionate like Stephanie, but without the potential FIP problem. She might have come home with us had she not scratched our daughter unexpectedly.

We settled on a cat called Papa, a very affectionate brown and black haired tabby who was also docile enough to let us pick him up and cuddle him. Papa had been found on the side of the road in Lovettsville, Virginia. A sister of a FOHA worker took him home, but he volunteered to hide in her basement. She thought for sure he was going to be a hostile cat, but she was surprised to find that in time he turned into one the most affectionate cats she had ever met. Thus he came to FOHA, where he stayed for a few months until we adopted him today. He was named Papa because in the shelter he was both affectionate and looked after all the younger cats.

Thus far, he has yet to come out from under our bed. While we hope he will not hide there too long, we can certainly understand how this kind of transition would be hard on any cat. Meanwhile, we are pondering new names for Papa. Papa may turn out to be like our cat Squeaky, who named herself. Originally, she was named Pixel. However, because she could not stop talking and made a sound like a door on a rusty hinge, Squeaky became her name. Papa’s meows are small and rather plaintive. I doubt, now that he is away from other cats, that he will turn into a loud cat.

Loud or quiet, we are glad to have a feline in the house again, even if he chooses to hide under our bed for now. Whether a good or evil cat, we will love him regardless and do our best as pet owners.

We have lived in our house thirteen years. Since Sprite died, it has felt more like a house than a home. When the couches are covered in cat dander again, when I automatically empty the litter box on Sunday and Wednesday nights, when I find myself lounging around and find that a cat has appeared on my lap, when I have to watch where I walk lest I trip over a cat, then it will likely feel like a home once again.

 
The Thinker

The Last of a Generation

My Uncle Dick died on Sunday. I cannot claim to have known him well. I visited his house at least once in recent years. He showed up at the occasional reunion that my mother’s side of the family put together. Uncle Dick lived to age 84, which is about average for my mother’s side of the family. For someone of his age, his body endured a lot of abuse. He smoked and drank freely. He was arrested at least once for driving intoxicated. As a result, he lost his driving license. According to my mother, he was a lot of fun to have as a younger brother. Like his older brothers, he was a big man on the high school football team. Like many Michiganders, he spent his time in the auto assembly line. He also drove the Tasty-Rite potato chip truck. To me the most amazing thing about the man was how much he looked like my grandfather. The last time I met him, I could not tell him apart from a photo of my dziadek circa 1960 or so. He spent almost his entire life in Bay City, Michigan and married a woman named Grace, who survived him. Together they raised four children and loved six grandchildren.

Perhaps you have read the book (or have seen the movie) Cheaper by the Dozen. My mother lived it: there were an even dozen in her family, including the parents. (This compares to the more modest ten in my family.) However, unlike the Gilbreths their financial situation was far dicier, and often dire. Starting with my grandparent’s first child Edith who was born in 1908 and ending with Betty in 1933, their ten children arrived over a remarkable 25-year period. Edith was born when her mother was 22. Betty arrived when my grandmother was 47.

My grandmother, who I never met, had the unfortunate experience of having three of her children die before her. The first was Don, who was shot down over occupied Europe in 1944 during the Second World War. A year later, it was Albert’s turn to meet an untimely end. Ironically, he also died in an aircraft. In his case, he was a private pilot and his plane malfunctioned. Albert was next in the queue, dying of severe stomach ulcers in 1951. The following year my grandmother died. Her husband survived her for 15 years.

The rest of the Zielinskis were blessed to live full lives and die of the complications of old age. Essie went at age 83 in 1996. Ernie followed her a few years later at age 84. Somewhere around the same time the eldest child, Edith, died. She (so far) proved to be the most long lived and died at age 93. My mother followed Edith last year. She died at age 85.

Now there are just two left. Gee is in assisted living in Jackson, Michigan. She appears to be dying of the same disease that killed my mother: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. If she can hold on until February she will see her 80th birthday, but the odds are against her making to her 81st. When Gee passes, that will leave only Betty.

I once wished I had been the last child in the family, rather than one of many in the middle. I figured I would get the special attention from Mom and Dad I likely did not get as a middle child. (I am the fifth of eight.) Now, I am glad to be a middle child. While the timing of our deaths is unknown, the odds are that the later children in a family will help bury those siblings who were born before them. With each progressive year, ever more of the times, people and the friends they knew disappear from their lives forever.

I am just starting the process with my mother’s death last year. Fortunately my father is still alive and in good health. Logically he should be the next of us to go. Since my siblings are all in good health, after our parents are gone I expect we will have many happy decades ahead of us to enjoy each other’s company. Yet time will eventually take its toll on us too. Invariably some of us will pass before others. We too are in a death queue. We are just ignorant of where we are in the queue. Right now, it is difficult for us to see, but we felt its cold presence when our mother died last year. It is better and it is easier right now for now to put this later phase of our lives out of mind.

Within a few years, Betty (whom we call Aunt Penny) will likely be the last of her dozen alive. She will have no sisters or brothers to visit or call on the phone. Fortunately, she has three terrific sons, one daughter and hopefully a devoted husband who, I am sure, will be there for her in her last years. In addition, I am hopeful that she will have the good fortune of her sister Edith, and live into her 90s. For Aunt Penny is a spunky woman, quirky and irreverent, but warm and down to earth nonetheless. For most of my siblings, she is our favorite aunt.

How strange and odd an experience it must be to be the last sibling alive in a large family. I imagine it must feel sobering and melancholy at the same time. Particularly if your spouse precedes you, your final years are likely to be ones where the past seems to be on the tip of your tongue and yet has receded from everyone else’s views. Meanwhile, a new and different world swirls around you. This world is both familiar yet alien. My mother felt this way in her last years. She did not understand computers and this Internet thing. In some respects for people of a certain advanced age, death may be a relief. For the Earth you see is not quite the one you knew: it becomes something like living on another planet.

Being a middle child, when my time comes to meet my maker, I will likely have siblings around to help me on my dark passage. For this, I feel fortunate. As death becomes less an abstraction and more of a near term reality, I will likely feel differently.

I do make this promise though to my younger siblings who may some day be sitting around my hospital bed as life utterly drains out of me. It is this: if there is a next life, then after I die I will be there at the gate to welcome them home.

 

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