Archive for July, 2007

The Thinker

Betting on our next president

No, I am not calling our next presidential election in July 2007. We still have six months to go before the first presidential primary vote is cast. Moreover, history is replete with front-runners going to the back of the pack, and visa versa. Back in January I sized up the presidential candidates and warned that only fools would pick them that early. So, no, I am not picking our next president.

Nonetheless, if I were a bookie setting the odds, I know on whom I would place my money. Ladies and gentlemen, I award four out of five odds to our 44th (and first female) president: Hillary Rodham Clinton!

Hillary Clinton

Please understand that I am not placing odds on Senator Clinton because I am particularly enthusiastic about her candidacy. I am not particularly enthusiastic about any of the current lot. Unlike Howard Dean’s candidacy four years ago, for whom I was feverishly attending meet ups and emailing my friends, while I think most of the Democratic candidates running are pretty good, none of them has connected with me the way Howard did. (I did give John Edwards $50 last month, not because I am enthusiastic about him, but because he needed the money more than Senators Clinton and Obama did. I wanted to see him achieve rough fundraising parity.)

However, particularly after reading this Washington Post-ABC News Poll it is hard to escape the conclusion that barring some rather stupid screw up (which seems unlikely from the stage-managed Senator Clinton) that Hillary Clinton will probably win the Democratic presidential nomination and thus the general election.

My gut tells me that given the current political dynamics there is no way that any nominated Republican candidate can win the 2008 presidential election. Chuck Hagel, should he run as an independent could possibly alter the dynamics of the race and win or tip the election, but his odds are very long too. He has expressed zero interest in running for president in 2008. Even if he did the odds would be markedly against him, since he would start out far behind in both recognition and money.

Republicans have a four-letter word problem this time around and you know who he is. Back in March, I said the obvious: Bush was killing the Republican Party. Since that time, President Bush has exacerbated the Republican Party’s election problems to a degree even I did not anticipate. Virtually every action he takes makes his anemic poll numbers drop even further. While Congress’s poll numbers are equally bad, they are bad because Republicans have enough votes to obstruct much the agenda of the Democratic Congress. This in turn is driving more animus toward Republicans in Congress. Voters took a swipe at Republicans in last fall’s elections. Now they are ready to go for the jugular. In a normal election, since Democrats picked up seats in 2006, they would lose seats in 2008. However, this will not be a normal election. I fully expect Democrats to pick up both House and Senate seats in 2008. Moreover, I suspect the margins will be similar to the 2006 midterms.

To me the likelihood that any Republican will win the presidential race in 2008 is about one in ten. One can get a sense of this by looking at hypothetical match up polls. Even in hypothetical races like Republican favorite Rudy Giuliani vs. back of the pack John Edwards, the Democratic candidate still comes out ahead. This could reflect the voters’ lack of enthusiasm for individual Republican candidates. Yet it is also likely indicative of a general bias to vote for change over voting for more of the same. Clearly, the Democrats are well positioned as the party of change.

Which leaves looking at the poll numbers among the Democratic candidates. Senator Obama continues to generate the most enthusiasm and money. However, at least so far, that does not seem to be enough to catapult him into the lead. Nor is it that he is not well known. At this point, he has excellent name recognition across the country. People have formed opinions about Senator Obama. Regardless, as the Washington Post poll measured, despite some narrowing of the race earlier in the year voters are not as enthusiastic about Obama as they were. Currently Senator Clinton leads Senator Obama by 15% among Democratic primary voters. John Edwards polls at a relatively anemic 12%.

In the money race, while Clinton is a bit behind Obama, they are close enough where the money factor should not matter too much. Both candidates will be able to tap and retap a reliable donor network. Given that most of those who are likely to vote have already formed their impressions, the number of minds that can be changed among primary voters is likely rather small. This leaves only major goof ups between now and the general election to substantially alter the dynamics. Senator Clinton, having studied at close range the way her husband ran his campaigns, is too smart and stage-managed to make any severe goofs. She knows how to stick to a message.

Senator Clinton herself if a formidable candidate. She is smart, articulate, attractive and well informed. She sounds convincing and plausible on the campaign trail. At one time men seemed less inclined to vote for her, but now men like women have a positive opinion of her overall. Senator Obama may not have the baggage of voting for the Iraq War Resolution but as the Washington Post poll demonstrates, Democrats do not seem to be holding that vote against her. While some in Republican circles see Senator Clinton as radical, in fact she is quite mainstream. For example, she is not calling for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq. She is not too public about it, but when pressed she thinks it will be necessary to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in and around Iraq to quickly react to events in the region. In short, when the general election rolls around, while she be in the center of the political arena. The closest Republican candidate who can run from the center is Rudy Giuliani. However, he is also very strongly in favor of continuing Bush’s disastrous foreign policies. He would need to change his positions rather strongly to overcome that perception. In doing so, he will likely be seen as insincere and pandering. Since elections are typically won from the center, Senator Clinton is the likely beneficiary.

So my money is on Hillary Clinton. I do think it is quite possible that John Edwards will win the Iowa Caucuses, simply because he has practically lived in Iowa the last few years. Yet I doubt unless there is a change in the political dynamics that he can sustain momentum much past Iowa. We will have a clearer picture in about six months.

If you disagree, please leave a comment telling me where my logic fails.

 
The Thinker

The Illusion of a FWB

So, do you have a FWB? If you are like me (i.e. married), you may not know what a FWB is. I had seen the acronym around though. A simple Wikipedia Search quickly satisfied my curiosity.

A FWB is a “Friend with Benefits”. He or she is a person of the gender you are attracted to whom, in addition to being a “friend” (a rather amorphous term) also puts out for you. I have to admit, at first blush having my own FWB sounded great to this old married dude. Providing my wife went along with it (“It’s just sex dear, it’s not like I am in love with her. We are just good friends.”), it could be very convenient. If my wife is having another one of her interminable migraines and I am feeling a bit randy, I could just call up Judy, or Ashley or Kim, and, good friends that they are, would say, “Sure come on over for a quick roll in the hay.” Afterwards (since I do not smoke) we could play cards or talk about Lindsay Lohan’s latest adventures in rehab. Oh, by the way, shall we pencil in going to the art show a week from Saturday?

I suspect the number of married people with FWBs is tiny. It seems to be the single folks out there, usually recovering from the complications of a failed relationship that are drawn to finding a FWB. After all, a FWB relationship has many of the positive sides of a relationship without any of its downsides, like the emotional wreckage. Just as having sex with a condom (hopefully) protects you from sexually transmitted diseases, having sex with a friend protects you from all those nasty relationship issues. At least that is how the FWB theory goes. It is not like having sex with a bunch of strangers at an orgy. You are having sex with your friend, and since he or she is your friend, well, they would not lie to you about anything like having herpes or AIDS would they? In addition, since they are your friend, and they care for you, well, they will be circumspect and avoid becoming intertwined into a deeper emotional relationship with you.

Meanwhile, while you recover from your latest failed relationship, you are not left high and dry. There is no need to resort to your vibrator, or your right hand or the love doll in the closet to respond to Mother Nature’s urgings. While your emotional wounds heal, you can get the sex you need with your FWB. Since you are just friends, when you do not need him or her anymore and find that next special someone then everything is cool. Their feelings will not be hurt when you drop them as your sexual partner. Moreover, in the event your next relationship implodes, your FWB will be there. Well, maybe.

That, as best I can decipher it, is the lure and logic of a FWB. A casual search of Washington Craiglist personals today shows that women in particularly are looking for FWBs. (Men often say they want a FWB, but from their postings it appears they just want a woman who will act like their whore.) Oddly enough though, they do not have one already, so they have to advertise for one. Just some guy or gal to “chill” with. This seems to involve have a few beers in a sports bar, maybe seeing a movie together and then going back to your pad for some harmless conjugal sex.

Even though I am married, one of the reasons a FWB appeals to me is because I think it would be great to have someone into casual sex who liked me as a person and who (here’s the amazing part) is not struggling with their own personal issues. I do not know about you but here I am, age 50, and I struggle with personal issues every day. So does my wife. So does every person I know beyond a surface level, i.e. my friends. We are all embroiled in a certain amount of toxic crap. But not my FWB. She would be special. She would have her head together. That is why, if I need a FWB, I expect that she will be a psychologist or social worker. In my mind, only psychologists and social workers truly have their stuff together. So I am thinking if I need a FWB I will go around town and leave my card at the office of each female social worker and psychologist in my area between, say, age 40 and 50. Do you want a FWB? Call Mark at 703-555-1212. Let’s meet for drinks at the local sports bar. According to my wife, I give great back scratches. Also, I like blogging, classical music and politics. We can have great sex when we both feel like it and no commitment! And we can keep meeting at a sports bar occasionally just to chat. That should intrigue them!

It is just that the more I think about it the more I suspect that psychologists and social workers are in some crucial aspect of their lives also messed up. In fact, the only human beings who (allegedly) were not messed up were messengers from God. Unfortunately, both Jesus and Mohammad are long dead. Moreover, I seem to be attracted to women. Finding my FWB is going to be tough.

I have not had much casual sex. It is probably just me, but I am not very successful divorcing sex from having human feelings for the person I am making love to. The couple of times I tried casual sex left me feeling empty and a bit dehumanized. For me it was like drinking soda that had gone flat. I was left to conclude that those people who tried casual sex had not gotten the real thing: sex within a caring relationship, which if you can get it is amazing. However, if you are having sex with your friend, isn’t that a caring relationship? Well, maybe. When I think of myself having sex with some of my female friends what I suspect would happen is: (a) even if I were single, there is no way I could convince them to have sex with me in the first place; (b) if we did have sex then our relationship would change fundamentally, and probably not for the better; (c) it would be significantly inferior compared with having sex with someone I love; and (d) both of us would likely end up more screwed up than we were before we became FWBs.

If you are in a FWB relationship feel free to leave me a comment telling me that I am all wet. I would particularly like to hear, not about the FWB you coupled with last week, but the one that you coupled with five years ago. Are you still friends? Or has your friendship been reduced to sending Christmas cards once a year? Do you still feel the same about your friend as you did before you made love with him or her? Overall, was your FWB relationship healthy or hurtful?

I will leap to a conclusion and suggest that for the vast majority of you the answers will be no, no and yes. And I will also bet that for about 10% of you, one of your “friends” left a calling card that, if it can be cured, required a trip to a doctor or health clinic. If they did not, I will bet that another 20% of you are or have worked through this issue with a therapist, or wish you had the money to do so.

I believe that sex and the relationship between two people cannot be divorced, as much as at times we might want to be. If they were, perhaps we could better deal with the wacky stuff life throws at us. We might be able to fool ourselves for a while, just as we can pretend that there are no dusty bunnies in our house even though we have not dusted in a year. I suspect if you have a FWB then you have merely sold yourself on its illusion, rather than acknowledge its less than perfect reality.

Perhaps rather than posting that ad on Craigslist for your FWB, maybe you should be finding a therapist instead and discover why you want a FWB in the first place.

 
The Thinker

A tale of two airlines

Mostly I fly United Airlines. Since I generally cannot escape United Airlines when I fly on business, I joined their Mileage Plus Club. After three years of flying United on six to eight trips a year, I finally earned a free business class upgrade on a recent trip to Denver. The seats were wider in business class and there was much more leg room, but otherwise I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Their breakfast was nice, but it was no better than I used to get back in the 1980s flying on Delta in coach. Times have changed in the airline business and clearly, standards have slipped too.

My family’s recent trip out west was on our own dime. It was an odd trip. We flew to Phoenix, stayed there for a few days, then flew to Las Vegas, spent a few more days, then flew back home. Trying to figure out how to do it at an affordable price was challenging. We ended up getting there and back on Airtran. We made the hop between Phoenix and Las Vegas on Southwest. I had never flown Airtran before, and was curious whether they were just another discount airline or not.

Airtran’s major hub is in Atlanta, so we had to fly through Atlanta going both east and west. Airtran is an airline that takes penny pinching perhaps a bit too far. Their airline fare consisted of the world’s tiniest bag of “gourmet” pretzels and a beverage service. On the reverse side of the bag of pretzels were suggestions that told you that you could enjoy your pretzels more by ruminating on all the money you saved flying Airtran. In saving money though, they skipped on a few more things than the pretzels. For example, they could not be bothered to clean the airplane between flights. The floors and seat pockets were littered with the residue of other flights. I guess to turn a profit they have to turn over their flights quickly, so that left little time for niceties like cleaning the plane. Saving money also meant no in-flight movies. It was more a three and a half hour haul between Atlanta and Phoenix, which was a lot of time to read books and magazines. Perhaps to make up for the lack of movies, Airtran offered XM satellite radio instead, and provided complementary headphones. This made my long flight endurable. It also gave me an appreciation for the world of satellite radio. This was my first flight where I could actually listen to news live during the flight. As a news junkie, I appreciated the satellite radio, particularly the public radio channel.

It had been years since we had flown Southwest, and my last experience had not been a good one. This short flight between Phoenix and Las Vegas though changed my opinion about Southwest. Unlike all our Airtran flights, this plane was clean for this flight. I was impressed by how efficiently Southwest got us in and out of the plane. The lack of reserved seating is actually something of a bonus, because it reduces the time it takes to get on the plane. The flight attendants were not particularly friendly, but neither were they surly. I rather liked their offbeat orange and blue uniforms. Female flight attendants should dress business casual more often; the hose and heels look standard on the major carriers is so 1950s. Your bag of peanuts was small, but at least they were honey roasted. At least on this flight the flight attendants were glad to hand out additional bags of peanuts. Moreover, unlike the other airlines I have flown recently, Southwest seems to have the airline business down to a predictable science. There were no last minute stragglers trying to claim that last empty seat on the plane. We pushed away from the gate a minute early. I was also surprised to find I had sufficient of legroom. This is hard for me to find, since I am a tall man. Moreover, their seats were upholstered with real leather. This was almost classy for an airline with a no-frills reputation.

Southwest was not quite the cattle car that I remembered. To fly Southwest I have to go to an airport an hour away from my house. If they start flying out of Washington Dulles Airport, near where I live, I will look forward to flying them more frequently. As for Airtran, their prices were definitely lower than other fares, but not dramatically lower. We had to endure two-hour waits between flights in Atlanta. While this made it difficult to miss a connecting flight, it also made us see much more of Hartsfield International Airport than I wanted to see. I killed time by getting exercise walking between terminals.

So thumbs up for Southwest, but thumbs sideways for Airtran. Moreover, thumbs down in general to all airlines (including United) that cannot build time in to their schedules to clean their planes between flights. No matter what airline you fly, you should at least have the expectation that you will not find trash by your seat or stuffed into the seat pockets. If it takes raising the fares a bit, I will gladly pay for it, and I bet you would too.

 
The Thinker

TrueCrypt puts the personal in PC

Your computer is somewhat like a post card. Although you may be able to restrict who gets onto your machine, in general the data stored on your computer is stored as plain text and is thus easily compromised.

If you are like me, one of the reasons you own a PC is because you want not just a computer, but a personal computer. “Personal” means more than the freedom to change your screensavers. A personal computer should make your sensitive data available only to you.

Unless you take the time to password protect your documents, your computer is a treasure trove of information about you that you may not want shared. Many applications allow your data to be password protected, but that does not necessarily mean that the data itself is encrypted. Even if it is, that does not mean the vendor’s encryption algorithm is good. Ideally, you would like your private data to be only accessible by you as well as stored and encrypted in a transparent manner. You might even want the NSA to throw up their hands if they were ordered to decrypt your files.

If you feel this way, you want the terrorists to win. No wait, I am parroting our president. Actually, if you feel this way: congratulations. Your personal computer should not be amenable to electronic snooping. The problem is not with your need for privacy, which is entirely natural, but with those elements in society that figure anything is fair game, including your hard disk.

I have been experimenting with a free open source software solution that is fighting back. It is called TrueCrypt. For those of you in the Microsoft Windows world, it can ensure that data on your hard disk or other devices (like your flash drive) is stored in an encrypted format. Once you create your virtual disk (which is some portion of your actual hard disk), it behaves just like any other drive. You can move files in and out of it using tools like Windows Explorer. However, everything stored on this virtual drive is encrypted.

There is not a whole lot of data I want to keep truly private, but there is some. My Quicken data files are an obvious example. While Quicken allows you to save your data in an encrypted format there is the annoying password I have to provide each time I start it and the latency from starting and using the program. Moreover, I suspect their encryption scheme is rudimentary. Of course if you have an encrypted virtual drive you can store anything you want inside of it that you consider private, from letters from old boyfriends, to your electronic diary to your favorite porn.

If you decide to buy Windows Vista Ultimate, you can pay money for this level of protection. Of course, most of us will not want to spend extra money. In addition, most of us Windows users are still in the Windows XP world where the Windows “experience” does not include this kind of transparent file encryption. Moreover, call me paranoid, but I have a hard time trusting my hard disk to Microsoft in the first place. I would much rather trust my privacy to an open source product like TrueCrypt than to Microsoft.

After installing Truecrypt, to store private files you must first create a virtual disk. It can be as small or big as you want. From the perspective of Microsoft Windows, it is just another file on your machine. (TrueCrypt can also format entire disk partitions or devices.) If you want to make a very big virtual disk, it may take some minutes to format it. Here is Truecrypt’s downside: you must start Truecrypt, enter your password, point it to the location of your encrypted volume and then assign it to a drive letter. This is called mounting and it can take 15-30 seconds. Once the volume is mounted, it is then accessible. So if you do not dismount it before walking away from your computer, data on it could be accessible to someone else. Since it is just another drive from the Windows perspective, if you are a sloppy person who cannot be bothered to install a firewall, virus protection software and anti-spyware software, it is still possible for others to get at your private data. If you use Google Desktop Search, you will want to make sure it does not search your encrypted drives.

While not a perfect solution, Truecrypt is the good enough 90% solution at a price that is impossible to beat. While you cannot hide the space it consumes on your hard disk, you can give each virtual drive a boring looking file name. One you have your virtual disk, you can even hide a volume inside it. This way even if you were forced to divulge your password, the person would not necessarily see your stored files, since the hidden volume would not be shown.

My next computer will likely be an iMac. I assume Apple is smart enough to include features like this by default. While I wait for a financial justification to replace my PC, solutions like Truecrypt help me believe that for the first time I really do have a personal computer.

 
The Thinker

Impeach Bush and Cheney

Update 7/23/2007. Here is a Microsoft Word document you can to write your own congressional representative or senator. Tailor to suit your needs, but make sure to fill in the areas between < and > as appropriate. You can get the addresses for your senators and representatives here.

If this article in yesterday’s Washington Post is correct then President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney must be impeached. This is necessary not just because I do not particularly like either of them, but because there is clear evidence that are breaking the law.

If you read this article, many of you wonder if I am making a mountain out of a molehill. You may think this might be of interest to lawyers and academics, but it is nothing that you should fret about. If you feel this way, let me try to provide an example that is more concrete.

As is true in many jurisdictions, suppose that your sheriff is elected. Suppose you were elected to the county board of supervisors. You and your fellow council members create and provide oversight to the laws (ordinances) to be followed within the county. Suppose that you and your fellow supervisors keep hearing from citizens that the cops are only pulling over blacks for speeding.

You and your fellow supervisors decide this needs investigation. Therefore, you go to the sheriff and ask him to provide records on all speeding tickets issued by your county. However, rather than cooperating the sheriff refuses to provide any information. Moreover, he dictates that no one within the police force may discuss the matter with any member of the county council. Although it is nowhere in the county’s charter, he claims that if people in the sheriff’s department were to give out this information then his ability to effectively run the police department would be hampered. He calls it the “sheriff’s inherent privilege”. Since he has a lawyer on his staff, he has the lawyer write an opinion that agrees with his assessment. Curiously, the sheriff is also his boss. He cites the opinion as his justification for not providing the information.

What would you do next if you were a member of the county council? Most likely, you would try to keep trying to discern the truth. If there was a violation of county ordinances you would want it remedied, and those responsible to be held to account to county law. After all, the current county code requires that the police department must uniformly enforce the law. Instead, you are stonewalled by the sheriff’s department. The only thing they will do is agree to short “off the record” meetings. The sheriff will limit those you can talk with. He will insist that no notes will be taken. No one is allowed to take an oath before providing testimony.

This, my friends, is exactly what the Bush Administration is doing with Congress. Congress is trying to find out whether the law of the land, which requires the Justice Department to impartially enforce the law, has been violated. If true, such actions would demonstrate serious contempt for the law. It is quite clear now that the Justice Department is apparently being used for partisan political reasons. Attorneys who investigated alleged voter fraud against Republicans are retained. Those who do not are fired. Congress is trying to find out the extent of this transgression. Is it just a few bad apples in the Justice Department? Or was this the official policy by the president?

The public would justly chastise Congress if they simply ignored the issue. Unfortunately, the Administration will not allow Congress to determine the truth. Not only do they claim that such information is covered by executive privilege, they have specifically instructed the Justice Department neither to file contempt charges nor to empower any grand juries to look into these potential violations of the law.

The effect of this policy is to make the Congress deaf, dumb and blind whenever the Executive Branch so chooses. Perhaps Congress is supposed to consult with psychics in order to determine the truth.

Our system of checks and balances is not just a good idea. It is fundamental to having an accountable government. No one should be beyond the reach of the law. It is so important that in 1868 we ratified the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, by issuing these instructions the White House is putting itself beyond the law and is also trampling on the constitution. It has become its own judge and jury. Not surprisingly, it is not finding much wrong.

For egregious violations of the rule of law that threaten the sanctity of our government and the rule of law, impeachment is the constitutionally prescribed remedy. The House of Representatives impeaches. An impeachment is a political indictment which amounts to saying “Something sure smells fishy around here.” I think that is already amply clear, but the House makes this judgment, not me. It takes a vote of two thirds of the Senate, which can only occur after an impeachment, to remove impeached office holders from office.

Given the White House’s unyielding positions, its outrageous assertions of executive privilege (which is mentioned nowhere in our constitution or in the law), as well as its many dubious “signing statements” that in some cases indicate the Executive Branch refuses to adhere to the law of the land, impeachment is the only remedy to restore the rule of law. The evidence to me is overwhelming: Bush and Cheney have egregiously, consistently and deliberately violated the separation of powers doctrine. More importantly from a legal standpoint, by not allowing the Justice Department to follow the law of the land, they have broken the law. If this policy came from Bush and Cheney then they are also lawbreakers. A grand jury indictment (impeachment) and trial (vote by the Senate) is our prescribed means to assess whether these actions are so egregious that executive leadership must change out of turn.

Yes, I know their terms have less than eighteen months to go. I also know that most Republicans in Congress are spineless at this point. During the Watergate Crisis, Republicans put the needs of the country ahead of partisanship. Sadly, I see few signs that will happen this time.

Nonetheless, their impeachment is now vital. If you are an American that believes that our constitutional form of government means something, you too much act. You must speak up. You must contact your representative and senators and let them know that Bush and Cheney should be subject to an impeachment process and, if the Senate decides, removed from office. If they refuse to follow your advice then you must take to the streets in peaceful protest until they show the respect for the rule of law.

If we fail to do this then our constitution has become a meaningless document. We will become a nation with forever two standards of justice. The United States of American will resemble Animal Farm. The pigs, in this case the Executive Branch, will forever be “more equal” than other branches. It will be accountable only when it chooses to be held accountable.

This entry is going to my representatives. If you cannot find the time to express yourself but you agree with my analysis, feel free to print this out, sign your name to it, and send it to your representatives and senators. You have my permission.

It is time to take back our country. This latest outrage is the final straw. It must not stand.

 
The Thinker

How the Midwest was won

Bay City, Michigan is known today primarily as the birthplace of the singer and artist Madonna. For me this fading industrial city between Michigan’s thumb and forefinger has a more important meaning. In 1920, it was the city where my mother was born.

For my mother, Bay City was not just a place; it was her home. While she lived most of her life far away from Bay City, she was a Bay City girl through and through. Being away from it for so long was doubtless one of the reasons she and my father retired nearby. Alas, my mother died two years ago. However, five years ago when she was still in reasonably good health I visited her and my father in nearby Midland, Michigan. We spent one day in Bay City and an hour or so at the Bay County Historical Society on Washington Avenue. There for about $15 or so I purchased a new but nearly fifty-year-old copy of the obscure book Bay County Past and Present, Centennial Edition. It had not been updated since the year I was born (1957) but there were still plenty of copies for sale.

The book is slow reading, which explains why I spent five years making my way through the 242-page book. It frequently lost the competition to more interesting books, in particular the many Aubrey – Maturin sea novels by the late writer Patrick O’Brian. I did finally finish the book this week. I am glad I made the effort. Its pages may make for occasionally dry reading but it provides the kind of history that you cannot get in standard history books. Lavishly illustrated with many historical photographs it gives a real sense of time and place to a small area of the country that I know only from occasional visits.

We know about the expansion of our country. However, unless you are a history professor you are unlikely to understand the mechanics of transforming a frontier into a modern city. Books like this one that are meticulously assembled by local historians nicely fill in the gaps we glossed over in our American history lessons. It provides a comprehensive study of Bay County, Michigan, from many perspectives. It includes a geographical understanding of that rather flat part of Michigan. Of course, it also provides a comprehensive history of its settlement, from its earliest years when Europeans showed up (the land swapped between the French, the English and the Americans) through the development of its business and industry.

For example, I learned that before civilization arrived, Michigan was a miserable place to live. There were Native American tribes of course, but life was not wonderful for them. It was difficult to sustain any human life due to the lack of one simple substance: salt. As Lewis and Clark found out, it is hard to survive without salt. Moreover, the fat that fills our modern foods was very hard to come by in primordial Michigan. Unless you were fortunate to kill and consume a bear, you would probably not get any fat in your diet. Today we think of fat as bad, but when you have no source of fat in your diet at all, you can become quite sick. It was the lack of fat and salt, not to mention the omnipresent mosquitoes, which deterred all but the heartiest Europeans from settling in this area. Bay County itself was largely landlocked from the rest of Michigan. Massive swamps covered the middle of the state. Goods had to be ferried by boat from places like Detroit, which, early in the 19th century was more of an outpost on the edge of Lake Erie than a city.

The fur traders that visited the region reported one huge natural asset: wood. Moreover, the wood was reasonably accessible for transport, because the Saginaw River flowed north into Saginaw Bay. Our growing nation had an almost insatiable desire for the high quality wood that Bay County provided. Treaties of a dubious nature were made with the local natives that pushed them further into the woods. They allowed this part of Michigan, which was then just a territory of the United States, to attract a few farmers and, increasingly, lumbermen. The wood literally floated through Bay City, then was carried by ship or barge out into Lake Huron and down the St. Lawrence Seaway. Bay City served as a convenient place to load and unload goods and for lumberman to have holidays. Mostly though they worked long days in lumber camps deep inside Bay County.

Its seemingly boundless lumber attracted sawmills and shipbuilders. In time, Bay City became one of the premier ship manufacturing centers in the country. It specialized in production of large wooden ships, many of which were supplied to our navy during the first two world wars. In time, of course its seemingly inexhaustible supply of lumber gave out. However, its growing wealth made other things possible. Swamps were drained. Once enough swamps were drained, the railroad was able to connect Bay County with the rest of Michigan. Michigan became a state and for a time Bay City was Michigan’s second largest city.

Where does government come from? We tend to take government for granted, and give little thought to how it is organized and institutionalized. This book provides plenty of insight into how a wild territory run by a federal administrator turned into a state. It shows how connections formed between state and local governments. It provides insight into the personalities that governed these communities. There was a time when cities like Bay City truly were communities. The people who lived in Bay City felt more loyalty to their city than to their state or even their country. I found their commitment to democracy truly inspiring. While they had their quarrels, there was no quarrel about using the democratic process. Governments on all levels, from major cities like Bay City to local townships, flourished. Each brought a unique sense of place and character. Moreover, even though they lived very busy lives, citizens stepped forward and grappled effectively with the mundane but vital business of governing.

The impact of inventions like electricity and the telephone are discussed for their local impact. Before electricity, house fires were very common. Fireplaces, wood stoves and kerosene lamps (a later invention) made it very easy to lose a house to fire. There was likely a firehouse within a couple blocks of your house. In the late 19th century, ending up homeless due to a house fire was a common experience.

Things we take for granted like sidewalks, cement and paved roads did not just happen. Instead, they evolved over many decades. With its abundance of wood, Bay City thought it was being very progressing putting in wooden sidewalks over the mud. Many of its streets were covered with wooden planks. It took time to discover that wooden planks required a lot of maintenance. All sorts of variants to make roads impermeable to the filth and mud were tried. Mud was ubiquitous with commerce in the 19th century. Paved roads were the eventual result of many experiments and provided the best tradeoff between durability and cost.

This book, like I imagine many books found at local historical societies, are full of little insights like this. Life was certainly harsher one hundred years ago, yet it was no less full of the things that made life meaningful. What emerges is a portrait of a growing city, filled with people living lives both complex and simple, often near the edge of poverty. They lived very engaged lives. In some ways, I envy them for their lives seem so much fuller than mine is likely to be. While I am fortunate to live well and have many opportunities for travel, I have never really experienced a sense of community that my mother found in Bay City. I wonder how much of this remains in our country, now that we are plugged into our virtual communities.

Of course, we all rest on the laurels of those who came before us. They were not always heroes. There were rapscallions among them just as they are among us today. Yet they did the best they could with their talents. Reading a book like this one though gives you perspective to understand just how Herculean a task it is to build a civilized community, and how valuable a true community is in our lives.

Today Bay City seems tired. Its industry is largely gone. It still has lovely neighborhoods, but many neighborhoods look tired, neglected and used up. You can go down streets and find every fourth or fifth house vacant or boarded up. I do hope this is a temporary phenomenon. Midwestern cities like Bay City deserve a rebirth.

 
The Thinker

Review: Spamalot

This is a hard review to write for a Monty Python fan. We saw here in Las Vegas Sunday night Spamalot, the musical sort of wrapped around Monty Python’s phenomenally successful 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet I was underwhelmed.

Here is the problem with Spamalot: you have seen most of it before. Moreover, what you have not seen is not always that humorous. Rather than feel like a Monty Python production, it feels like an Eric Idle production, which it is. Now there is nothing wrong with Eric Idle’s sense of humor, it is just that his humor is just one of the spectrums that made the Monty Python shows and movies funny. Lacking the other creative voices, Spamalot feels very strained.

If you enjoyed the movie, and who among us has not, you will probably enjoy the reenactments of many of the classic scenes from the movie. On the other hand, if you have seen the movie repeatedly, and can recite every line in the Knights Who Say Ne sketch by heart then seeing it on stage feels very anticlimactic. Except for the voice of God played by John Cleese, there is not a single member of Monty Python in the entire production. So what you get are comedic actors trying to act like the comedy troupe. They often come close. But just as Californian sparkling wine is not quite French champagne, while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it is still imitation, and it tends to fall somewhat flat.

In some ways, what is new in the show is faithful to Monty Python. The plot is pretty incoherent and rambling. Some of the new songs are cute including “The Song That Goes Like This” and “The Diva’s Lament”. There are a few surprises that should not be, including Sir Lancelot who is exposed as a gay queen. There are a few modest improvements. “He’s Not Dead Yet” number adds new life and humor to the bring out your dead scene.

Still, something about this experience felt fundamentally false. It was close imitation Monty Python, but not Monty Python itself. It just made me wistful for the real thing. Its short running length (just over ninety minutes, with no intermission) made it feel needlessly hurried.

Mel Brooks took his 1968 movie The Producers and turned it into a phenomenally successful musical that just recently closed on Broadway. Ironically, the musical of The Producers is also playing in Las Vegas. Having seen the musical version of The Producers, both on stage and the subsequent movie, I can say that Mel made an even better product than the original source material. That is not the case here. This production does not come even close to being as funny or inventive as its source material. Rather than adding value to the original package, it unfortunately subtracts value.

My assessment is that unless you are only a part time Monty Python fan or want to see famous scenes from the movie reenacted, just stay away. This musical will doubtless keep the remaining members of the Monty Python troupe from spending their last days impoverished. If you are feeling nostalgic, it might leave you with a pleasant buzz. I suspect it will leave you feeling more let down than entertained.

The comic energy that was Monty Python has long gone. It is best to accept it and move on. Enjoy the movies and classic shows on DVD. They were authentic. Spamalot feels like a dressed up imitation of the real thing. If in Vegas and you have a choice between Spamalot and The Producers, see The Producers instead. Even if it is only 70% as good as it was on Broadway, it would still be far fresher and more entertaining than Spamalot.

 
The Thinker

Sinless in Sin City

Most of the rest this country is non-smoking, but Las Vegas has not gotten the message. The cigarette remains king here. Smokers smoke puff away with impunity and do so openly, proudly and defiantly. It is a rare public space that does not reek of tobacco. Since you are gambling away your hard-earned dollars, you might as well gamble away your life too. So go ahead and take heaping lungfuls of second hand smoke. It is not as if you are likely to have a choice.

I am certain there is a correlation between smoking and a predisposition toward gambling. This would explain the virtual absence of any smoke free casinos in Las Vegas and the disproportionate number of smokers in the casinos. Smoke free areas of casinos apparently do exist here in some Las Vegas casinos, but your odds of finding one at random are much less than winning in roulette. Even if you are visiting Vegas and do not gamble (like me) you cannot escape the cigarette. It is everywhere along the strip, indoors and outdoors. Even so, I think there is profit to be made in smoke free gambling. If I were sufficiently wealthy like Donald Trump, I would build my own smoke free casino and hotel. I doubt I would have to round up customers.

This is my second trip to Las Vegas (the first was six years ago). Nothing has changed and everything has changed. Old casinos are being torn down. New casinos are going up. Every conceivable variation of marketing techniques is being tried, retried and refined in Vegas. Its use of energy remains obscenely reckless. It may be 110 degrees outside but to lure you inside they will have the casino doors flung open. It is a shameless city, which is okay. That is its appeal. If you want uptight morality, you go elsewhere. Vegas is all about escape. It is all about reveling in your sinful nature. While prostitution is technically illegal in the city, de-facto prostitution abounds. You are unlikely to see prostitutes on the street, but you can find their calling cards. In place of news racks, you have tart racks. Walk any block and open one of these machines to get little advertising brochures that essentially pimp women. Whoops, sorry. Not just women, but also men, transvestites, transsexuals, and pretty much any variation you can imagine. This includes, if you are age 50 like me, women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. (Hmm, I would think their rates would be deeply discounted.) I saw one today pimping young, buxom, blonde Asian women, with specials starting at $49. Granted I am not much of a world traveler but buxom certainly does not describe Asian women so I suspect they have been to a plastic surgeon. Moreover, if you want them blonde too then doubtless their color comes courtesy of a box of hair dye. And yes, they want you. They are passionate about you, even though they have never met you. They cannot wait to get into your pants, no matter how old, obese and disease ridden you may be. They may all be drop dead gorgeous, but basically they are total sluts.

Of course, they do not work for free. There is nothing free in Vegas, although there is the illusion that you can get a lot free. You can get prime rib dinners for $6.99 available 24 hours a day here in Vegas. Of course, since slot machines overrun Vegas, there is likely one sitting right next to your table. Perhaps the $6.99 prime rib applies only if it is delivered to your slot machine or roulette table. I do not have the inclination to find out.

If you are one of these rare people like me for whom gambling holds no allure, Vegas can be a cheap vacation. Room rates at many hotels are steeply discounted in the hopes that you will make up the rest in the casinos. There is shopping in Vegas too. Of course, off the strip, there are all the usual Best Buys and Targets, but you do not come to Vegas to go off the strip. You come to live on the strip. If you choose to leave the casino then you have to deal with inconveniences like the deadly sun (it was 111 degrees today). In Vegas, time ceases to exist. There is only the now: the ever-present stench of cigarette smoke, the inane tunes from the gazillion slot machines, neon-neon everywhere and the frequent trips to the cashier or the ATM where you are likely to zero out your accounts. Some part of you realizes that everything is rigged. If it were not profitable, there would be no reason to keep building new casinos. These casino resorts though keep going up, like desert cacti.

While my wife and daughter attend a convention, I am left to fend for myself. Yesterday I escaped Vegas by renting a car and checking out some of the places my wife’s indigent father haunted in his last days. I found the hospital in nearby Henderson where he died (as hospitals go, St. Rose Dominican Hospital was quite small) then drove south to check out Searchlight, where he may have spent his last years. I found a town that was half truck stop and one quarter mobile homes in perhaps the most desolate but most beautiful spots imaginable. Three thousand feet up in the mountains, it was noticeably cooler and windier than in Vegas. Searchlight came replete with a community center/library/museum (all in one building) and, naturally, a saloon with slot machines. I can imagine my wife’s father felt right at home in the saloon when he had the money.

Today, with my rental car returned there was little else to do than to check out the strip to see if anything had changed. Our hotel is about a mile off the strip. Slathered in sunscreen I hoofed west on Flamingo Road. Some things had changed in six years. There was now this monorail. It was not actually on the strip itself but a bit to its east; it sort of paralleled the strip. A new casino is emerging just south of the Bellagio, and it looks like the pirate show is still playing in the artificial lagoon in front of the Bellagio. Caesar’s Palace was as opulent as ever. Once an hour on the hour you can still watch the animatronic fall of Atlantis for no money whatsoever. I wandered the mall feeling no inclination to buy anything. This is a mall for fashion chicks with fat charge card limits. Nonetheless my second trip to Caesar’s Palace cemented my opinion that it must be the most over the top, opulent and gaudy place in America. The only place I have ever been that was more opulent was Versailles. Caesar himself could not have afforded to live in such opulence. But I doubt Caesar had casinos either. Maybe he should have.

The Bellagio, just to its south, is a close second. The Bellagio has the virtue of being a more tasteful hotel and casino. In fact, parts of the Bellagio are just plain beautiful. Its hotel lobby is a work of art, with Picasso inspired ceramics hanging from the ceiling. Yet everywhere are the omnipresent slot machines and the smell of cigarettes.

Of course, there are shows to see in Vegas. I had not planned to see any shows at all, but since Spamalot is playing here and tickets were not hard to acquire, we bought some for the 8 PM show tomorrow night. There is a “gentlemen’s club” conveniently next door should I feel the need to ogle some female flesh. Fortunately, few things bore me more. Therefore, I have ample time to blog, surf the web and walk the streets of Vegas.

I will be glad to fly home on Monday. Las Vegas must be experienced once in life. Each subsequent return though leaves me less inclined to come back. Booze, loose women (at least the kind I have to pay for) and gambling hold no appeal to me, but that in a nutshell is what Vegas is all about. I will be glad to return to Washington Dulles International Airport, where baggage claim contains exactly zero slot machines, and where I can leave my gate without being accosted by someone trying to sell me a time-share. For all its glitz Las Vegas is really an empty city, bereft of spirit. Perhaps some of these things can be found off the strip and maybe some day I will discover that side of Las Vegas. For now, I just want to go home.

 
The Thinker

Unlamented

Las Vegas attracts many of life’s losers. If people are going to gamble on living then why not die here in this neon filled city that epitomized the extremes of American living? In 1998, my wife’s father, a man who I never met, died indigent and homeless here in Las Vegas.

His death was suspected for many years but for a long time could not be confirmed. He had a habit of disappearing for a few years then reappearing. When he reappeared, it was usually not a joyful experience. Generally, he was petitioning his siblings for two things: money and shelter. He must have been something of a smooth talker because over many years he talked them out of thousands of dollars. They wanted to believe in his rehabilitation. He promoted cockamamie business schemes involving their money, all of which eventually failed. At about this time that he crept out of town.

Around the year 2000 after many years of no one hearing from Bob, one of my wife’s aunts entered his name into the Social Security Death Index. When his name and social security number came up positive, some basic facts about his death were gleaned. Date of death: September 14th, 1998. Age: 67.

Earlier this year I happened to speak to one of his sisters, my wife’s Aunt Pat. I informed her that her brother had died. She expressed neither surprise nor sorrow. However, she did take the time to get a copy of the death certificate, and she sent me a copy.

The death certificate filled in a few holes about his last days. He died at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in Henderson, Nevada. Henderson is a town just outside of Las Vegas. His place of residence did not list a street address, but Searchlight, Nevada was listed on the death certificate. Searchlight is a town of about 500 people an hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. There is not much in Searchlight, but it is the birthplace of Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Bob must have died indigent because the Clark County Social Services Department was listed on the death certificate where his parents’ names would normally be. The certificate showed he was never married but here too the facts were incorrect. He was married to my mother in law for many years. In addition, he sired not only my wife but also my brother in law. He died of “end stage cardiac and pulmonary failure”. In other words, his heart stopped, but he was likely suffering from some form of congestive heart failure. He was reputedly quite obese as well as an alcoholic.

Among his entire family, including his former wife (my mother in law) there has been a noted absence of curiosity about Bob. When I broached the subject with them, what I usually heard was that he was just a bad man. The less said about him the better. Yet I found myself wanting to know more about Bob. For better or for worse he help shaped the woman I married.

My wife essentially grew up without a father. In the first six years of her life, her father did live in the household. However, he was not the nurturing type. My wife does not remember much about him in part because she was so young. What she does remember is not flattering. He was loud. He and her mother argued a lot. Perhaps that is how she acquired her introversion. Perhaps it was safer to be alone in a room reading a book than to deal with the ugly reality of two parents yelling at each other.

By early grade school, her mother and father were divorced. Her mother had custody, but her father had informal visitation rights. Her father’s idea of daughter-father time was to take her to bars to meet his friends. Since her brother was nearly ten years older than she was, she spent much of her formative years living with only her mother. There was no June Cleaver mother waiting for her after school with milk and cookies; she had to work. In the mid 1960s, she was the only child of divorce in her entire class and felt its stigma.

Trying to know her father so many years later is a challenge. Bob apparently was loud. He argued a lot in front of the children. At times, he had trouble maintaining a job. He was obsessed with his son excelling in sports, but not enough to bother to attend any of his games. My mother in law claims that he never physically abused her, but her son remembers differently. He recalls one episode when he was so angry that he put his fist through a wall. For a day or two, my wife was an innocent six-year-old girl embroiled in a nasty marital dispute. Her father essentially abducted her for a few days. Her brother, then sixteen at the time, threatened to kill their father if he ever showed up in their lives again. Apparently, he took his threat seriously and disappeared. He reappeared only to sympathetic siblings that hoped for his rehabilitation.

I had this image of Bob as fat, a drunkard, coarse and abusive. However, a discussion about Bob with my mother in law this week (we were in Phoenix, Arizona) portrays a somewhat different man. He did not always drink to excess, but when he drove a beer truck, he had more opportunities to imbibe, so that may have started his addiction. That and perhaps his loveless marriage seemed to tip the balance toward dysfunction. I imagined him running around with other women but that was not the case. He wanted to desperately to save their marriage. My mother in law wanted it to end because she was not in love with him. Much of his emotional abuse was manifested as reckless attempts to keep their marriage together. He had a hard time coping with the reality that there was no way he could win back her love. Moreover, my mother in law was doing quite well in the workplace by the standards of Flint, Michigan. She could provide for her children on her own income. She was eventually able to purchase her own home and even furnish is with brand new furniture. As she entered her teens, my wife had a home in the suburbs at last with her own bedroom and supportive neighbors. My mother in law made the best life she could for her daughter.

Nor was Bob a bad provider. He managed to stay employed in decent blue-collar jobs throughout his marriage. It appears that the divorce and his messy abduction of my wife triggered a long descent. He lived in Denver for a while, close to one of his sisters. I have heard that he probably had adult diabetes. He may have lost a leg because of his drinking. He sounds like a man who was probably clinically depressed for much of his life. Like most people born in the 1930s, he chain-smoked.

Talking with Aunt Pat I learned something of his family of birth. He was raised in a poor North Carolina household. The family eventually moved to California. He grew up in a family full of marital strife and high drama. Perhaps I assumed he was a philanderer because he had the opportunity to learn it from his father. His father and mother eventually divorced. Bob became the family’s black sheep. Aunt Pat was pulled toward the other extreme. She embraced religion. Now in her early eighties she remains a devout Adventist who despite her background managed to add a PhD to her name. Pat also sponsored my wife for several months when she moved to the Washington area. Were it not for Pat’s loving heart, I would never have met my wife.

Only my mother in law offers a different perspective of Bob from the other stories I heard. He was a good provider when they were married to each other. He only actually hit her once, and he just pushed her. She was not physically injured. She just did not love him. She wanted to be free of him. In particular, she wanted to follow her infatuation with the man who was her boss.

It appears that their divorce instigated Bob’s long, slow and painful downhill spiral. Eventually he ended up homeless in Searchlight, Nevada. He ended up sick but made it to a hospital in Henderson, Nevada. He died there ignobly and most likely alone. With no one to claim his body, the Clark County Social Services Department took up the slack. They paid for his cremation. His remains are now deep in a county crypt somewhere in here in Las Vegas. They can be released to the family if sufficient documentation is provided and for a $200 fee.

While I am forwarding these details to Aunt Pat, I doubt anyone will claim his remains. No one mourned his passing. In fact, everyone seems glad to know that he has exited this world. With Bob gone, their lives became just a little less stressful too.

We arrived in Las Vegas today, where my wife and daughter will attend a convention. I was going to try to track them down along with any records maintained by the county that may exist. However, after a couple phone calls I know not to bother. There is no place to go to see what is left of my father in law. There is no county crypt with his name on it that I can photograph. They will not even release his records, not even to family. It is prohibited by HIPAA regulations. There is a possibility that I could retrieve his hospital records, if a local probate court grants the writ, but it is unlikely it would shed much information about the last years of his life.

Therefore, I fill in what I can with sketchy information, anecdotes and a certain amount of reasonable conjecture. I should be angry with my father in law too. I should be angry at his abduction of his own daughter. I should be angry at how he used her, a vulnerable child, as a pawn in a larger personal war. Nevertheless, I am also now aware that in many ways Bob was acting out the behavior he witnessed inside his own dysfunctional family.

I do not know how long Clark County in Nevada will hold his remains. They will likely not stay in county custody forever. Perhaps in fifty years, perhaps in a hundred, Bob’s remains, like the many of indigent homeless men and women who have the misfortune of dying out here in the desert, will be unceremoniously dumped into a county landfill. After all, there are plenty of new desperate and homeless people in Las Vegas. Others wandering the streets here tonight are doomed to also share his fate.

Everyone just wants to forget about Bob. Perhaps I should too. Perhaps instead of keeping his death certificate, I should throw it out with the garbage. “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind,” the poet John Donne once wrote. My Unitarian Universalist values call me to respect the inherent dignity and worth of every human being including less than stellar humans like my wife’s father.

It is nice to know that Bob was not entirely a bad man. Most likely, he was just a lost man, who never knew love and consequently did not know how to show it. It is good to know that he loved my mother in law in his own inept way, even if she did not feel the same way. It is good to know that even though he never paid child support, he helped support his family for a number of years. It is also sad and a bit pathetic that his life devolved the way it did.

This leaves only me, lamenting only not knowing the man who sired the woman I love. I wish I could have a conversation or two with him and hear about life from his perspective. It may be that after such a conversation, like his son, I would want to kill him. Instead, I feel an unrequited mild curiosity. It might be the hardest thing I would ever do, but if he were alive here in front of me, I would try to give him a hug. Somehow, I do not think he ever received one.

There is just a cardboard urn of his ashes somewhere here in the Clark County crypt. There they are likely to remain forever unclaimed.

 
The Thinker

AJAX is not just a scouring powder

(Note to readers: I leave on vacation tomorrow, so I will be posting sporadically next week if at all. I expect to be internet inaccessible for a few days. My family will be in Phoenix and Las Vegas.)

It used to be that Ajax was a scouring powder. Actually, it still is, but to us geeks there is also AJAX (all upper case) which stands for “Asynchronous Javascript and XML”. When a web developer programs in AJAX they can do cool things that markedly improves the usability of a web interface. Perhaps the most prominent example of AJAX in use was one of its pioneering applications, Google Maps. Somehow, wholly within a browser and without refreshing the page, Google was able to do things that hitherto seemed impossible, such as moving a map by dragging on the image. The new map images are fetched in the background; the web page itself is not redrawn.

This magic is possible in large part because finally we are using newer browsers. Hidden inside your browser is something called the XMLHttpResponse object. This little sucker makes it possible for your browser to contact the server without redrawing your web page. This seems like such obvious functionality you have to wonder why it was not designed into the browser ten years ago. Part of the reason was that HTML (the language used to describe web pages) was not standardized at that time. Both Netscape and Microsoft were unwisely adding nonstandard tags to differentiate their browsers. This had the effect making life hell for us web developers. In addition, the other part of AJAX, the XML part, did not even become an official standard until 1999. It took many years for the browser makers to agree they all needed to work from common references. The common references were HTML, Javascript (a programming language that lets your browser do dynamic things) and something weird called the HTML Document Object Model. The World Wide Web Consortium is the standards organization that created these standards.

Now that browser manufacturers are testing to a common set of standards, web developers can breathe easier. There are still browser quirks that need to be programmed around, but they are largely minor annoyances now. More importantly since these three components can be taken for granted at least 98% of the time it becomes possible for web browsers to do amazing things that used to require installing separate programs on your desktop computer. The logic to make it work in your browser gets a bit complex at times but it is possible to emulate most of the rich functionality of a desktop application inside the browser. Most web developers, however, have yet to dip their toes into this AJAX stuff. Until about a week ago, I was one of them.

I dallied because being a web developer is a very part time gig for me. My full time job is in Information Technology management, not in programming. You can make a programmer a manager but some part of the manager remains a programmer. On nights and weekends, I have been dipping my toes into the AJAX world. It is not entirely a waste of my time. I have a few practice domains where I can try this stuff out without embarrassing myself. What I learn I can often apply to my job. For example, we have a need to collect names and email addresses to run a customer satisfaction survey for the system that I manage. If we can avoid the overhead of having a page refresh, we can drop the form onto many of our web pages without disrupting their flow of business. This allows us to target particular kinds of system users so we can get a better response rate to particular kinds of questions.

I run two other domains. I use the Oak Hill Virginia site as my test bed. It is designed to be a community web site. While it does not get much in the way of traffic, judging from the ads served on my site by Google it is of interest to the real estate community. When I purchased the domain in 2001 there were little in the way of tools that I could use to integrate real estate content into my site. Fortunately, that has changed. Working with the husband of a local realtor, I became aware two sites. Zillow.com offers a home valuation service. Trulia.com offers a real estate search engine that can plop houses for sale on top of Google Maps. Both offer APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. This means a developer like me can register to use their APIs and embed them in my web sites.

My first AJAX project was to integrate the Zillow.com home valuation service into my site. I did not want my page to refresh. I simply wanted someone to enter the address of a house and have its price unobtrusively appear on my web page. This could only be done using AJAX. My original hope was that I would not have to write any proxy script for my website to get the home price from zillow.com. Unfortunately, browsers have security mechanisms built in. Unless you specifically configure your browser otherwise, it cannot use the XMLHttpRequest object to call any other server other than the server that served the web page. (Not only that but the browser will assume www.domain.com is not the same server as domain.com.) Therefore, I had to create a proxy script on my server, which I wrote in PHP. It took the address and simply passed it on to zillow.com. It waited for a response from zillow.com then echoed back the value of the home. Zillow.com’s API, like most, uses a REST based XML service. It avoids the overhead of using SOAP. However, the lack of standardization in the REST world meant that I had to fine-tune my script to accommodate the eccentricities of the zillow.com API. Still, this was easier than dealing with the overhead of getting the data as a SOAP service.

It took about a day of development but I was able to make it work. You can see the service on my oakhillva.com website. I found the W3 Schools web site to be invaluable. It has a simple AJAX tutorial. I copied, pasted and changed a few things from their example to get it to work. To make the form usable I also had to dig into their HTML DOM reference and research a few things I forgot from their Javascript reference.

Now could I write my own AJAX web service instead of relying on someone else’s service? I created a contact form where people interested in buying or selling property in my community could simply type in their information and it would be sent to a local realtor. This was not that difficult a service to create either. For both services, I found I wanted to record information received into a MySQL database table on my server as well as have the service send me an email whenever someone invoked it. Since I know MySQL and its programming API rather well this was not terribly challenging. In addition, PHP comes with a handy mail function, so it was also straightforward to have the services send me email. Eventually if the services prove to attract sufficient contacts, the contact information will go automatically to the realtor. Right now, I am reviewing content for spam.

AJAX applications like Google Maps are of course an order of magnitude more complex than my little AJAX applications. For most of us in the IT business though, we early our bread and butter through standard business applications like these. Eventually as time permits I hope to create a real estate page for the site, integrating the service from Trulia.com that lets me show local home listings in Google Maps, and serving related ads (mostly from realtors) around the content.

Whether I will succeed in my ultimate goal of making this site profitable remains to be seen. I have learned a few things along the way: AJAX programming is not too hard if you have a decent understanding of HTML, Javascript, the HTML DOM and a server scripting language. My applications so far are simple, returning a single value. If I need to return multiple values in a single call, I will have to delve into the details of using the XML parser built into browsers, plucking and displaying the content that way.

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