Archive for October, 2010

The Thinker

Laughing our way to understanding

How many people yesterday attended Comedy Central’s Rally for Sanity and/or Fear on the mall yesterday? The U.S. Park Service no longer estimates crowd sizes. Newspapers reported tens of thousands but I think it is more likely the crowd exceeded 100,000. CBS News estimated 215,000.

I can say as someone who tried to attend the rally that plenty who wanted to attend the rally must have simply given up. My wife and her friend managed to get the rally but I eventually bailed. I-66 going into Washington was largely a parking lot, almost all of it due to people trying to get to the Vienna metro station to attend the rally. Getting to the metro station and finding parking was only part of the problem. There were also half hour to hour queues to get Metrorail tickets, and then more waiting to actually get on a train. As often happens at these events, people at stations further down the line found trains too packed to get on. They had to take a train to the end of the line simply to get a seat to take a train back into Washington.

We had two electronic flash passes but our friend who was from out of town had to buy a ticket. So I loaned her mine and went home to watch the rally on my computer. That way at least two of us would get there on time. I probably got a much better view at home anyhow. Glorious fall weather, a super friendly crowd and the light comedic touches by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert kept the event fun, reasonably short and mostly apolitical. The only ones being skewered seemed to be the most egregious examples of the right and the left.

The real purpose of the rally was hard to figure out. In some ways, the rally seemed unique. Has our nation’s mall ever been used for a large, comedic event before? I could not recall a time, unless you consider most political rallies to be unintentional comedic events. The event was covered without commercials and participants were encouraged to contribute to the Trust for the National Mall, as well as not to trash the mall, which is what typically happens after rallies of any size. It was also hard to figure out the point of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on August 28th, which was clearly smaller than this event. Both rallies seemed a little surreal. At Beck’s rally, Glenn Beck tried to momentarily morph into an apolitical figure. At yesterday’s rally, Jon Stewart’s closing monologue also seemed surreal: serious but with a touch of comedy, almost a sermon about how we must all learn to live with each other.

Generally, comedians simply try to make us laugh, collect a few quick bucks and move on. It is easy to forget that comedy can help us understand and frame real issues by looking at them in a different way. All humor is based on some contrast with reality. Comedy can, if only for a moment, be like opening a small window in a stuffy room and letting some fresh air come through. As it turned out, that was the purpose of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It was an attempt to tell the nation that our polarization is beyond the dangerous phase. Jon Stewart’s message was to let us know that it has reached a toxic phase where it is destructive to all who seek to make this country a better place. As Stewart eloquently put it (in words that are likely to endure), “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Some will doubtless question Stewart’s credentials to diagnose our national problems. But if not Stewart, then who? Stewart’s political leanings are well known, but he is always civil. Moreover, Walter Cronkite is dead. As Stewart noted, between barrages of negative ads, endless highly skewed talk shows and 24-hour news channels, who can cut through all the noise? Stewart and Colbert did, at least for a little while, to at least some of America (principally a younger crowd).

The rally had its lame moments, but at least for a few hours it did succeed in focusing a critical mass of people on our national dysfunction and warn them of the seriousness of our problem. Sufficiently high levels of disunity and chaos feed national dysfunction and in one case triggered a civil war. Nowadays, it opens windows of opportunity, not for America, but from those countries and movements glad to clean our clocks. While we argue about tax cuts and health care for all, China is mastering clean energy technologies. It seems to have bought controlling rights to most of the world’s precious minerals, and is attempting to blockade our access to them. Massive disunity like we have now serves no national interests and further weakens us as a nation.

Short of totalitarianism, there is no way Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Partiers or any political movement will ever fully succeed. Even if success were possible we would become a sterile, monolithic culture stripped of our fundamental freedoms. We have gone dangerously awry but through comedy, Comedy Central is making us aware that while we can laugh about our national problems, it really is not a laughing matter anymore. As Stewart noted (and as I noted in this blog post), however much we might not want to get along, if we are to be a functional nation we must find a civil way to do so anyhow. This is not facilitated when extremes on either side characterize the other side in dehumanizing terms.

While I am a liberal, sometimes I see liberals cross the line. I found Keith Olbermann’s most recent special comment disturbing, not for its untruthfulness, but for the visceral hatred that Olbermann so obviously feels for weird but disturbing Tea Party candidates. I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear any Olbermann special comments that are not dripping with a similar tone of animosity. The common factor is outrage. Yet it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, to separate a person’s position from a person’s character. Neither Sharron Angle nor Sarah Palin are bad people because they disagree with me. It is their policies that I think would weaken our country. I wish politicians on both sides could learn basic civility. It was never a problem for the late William F. Buckley. However, these days vitriol seems to pay. It works as well for Keith Olbermann as it works for Rush Limbaugh. Both are banking on their ability to outrage, as well as entertain. If Olbermann did not flush with rage and anger regularly on camera then it’s unlikely he would be earning his very comfortable salary.

The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear gave us a few good laughs, kept us entertained, but also opened up a conversation on civility and moderation that is long overdue. Some people have had enough. Moderation is driving more genteel movements like The Coffee Party. We need to stop closing our ears to each other, and try listening with an open heart instead (and I count myself as one of these people). We must try to listen with empathy and figure out what meta-causes are driving this animus.

For social conservatives, I really doubt that the size of the federal government is what gets their blood boiling. It is likely something far more basic, like the enormous social and technological changes happening all around them that seem so unstoppable, and thus uncontrollable. If that bothers you then why would you not, like Bill Buckley, do your best to holler, “Stop!” For liberals, the animus is probably not health care for all, but values rooted in a sense of community, compassion and wanting to see those values emulated by our government. Some may ridicule us for “feeling their pain” but for many of us, we feel their pain because we lived their pain.

We will never be a wholly united country, nor should we strive to be. Disagreements are natural. What is unnatural is near total polarization, which is where we are now. When this happens, genuine dialog becomes impossible. Stewart and Comedy Central may be our Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but at least they are trying to foster a climate that encourages moderation and civility. That is not worthy of laughter, but is worthy of our applause and thanks.

 
The Thinker

Baby Sleep

The Comfort Suites here in Linthicum, Maryland doesn’t have too much to recommend it. It does have location, just a couple of miles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It also has the de rigueur shuttle bus to ferry you to and from the terminal. And it has a free breakfast, although it is nothing gourmet: a few cereals, a couple varieties of pastries and breads, and little compressed round yellow things that I assume are scrambled eggs but which look remarkably visually unappealing.  High speed wireless? In theory yes, in practice no. It feels like I am using a modem.

My room is a bit musty, the bathtub a bit chipped but otherwise the room is clean and nice. The view outside my windows speaks of the local zoning laws. A Red Roof Inn offers its imposing presence across the lot. A Quiznos is on the corner and I look down at a Budget Truck rental lot. A private park and ride is across the street. In short, it’s a basically clean hotel but except for an oddly placed electronics museum across the street, it has little else to recommend it other than its convenience to the airport. My team found it convenient because five of us were within local driving distance. This plus the bargain rate we negotiated with the hotel makes for a very cheap developer’s meeting at a facility a few miles down the road. It is almost close enough to drive home every night, but Washington’s legendary traffic jams makes it more convenient for me to sleep here for three nights instead.

My hotel room though does have two big plusses. First, it is quiet for a hotel. You may hear an occasional door slam down the hall, but it is well muffled. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it has a very comfortable bed. I have slept in much better beds, and arguably the fine mattress we have at home is even better. But a quiet room and a comfortable bed yield something I rarely get at home: a really good night’s sleep.

This is my guilty pleasure with hotel living, when I can find it. However, when the hotel is quiet because it is only half occupied, the beds are comfortable and, most important of all, I am sleeping alone, I can sleep like a baby. I wake up remarkably refreshed. This happens, at most, one night a week when I am at home. Part of this is due to rising at 6:30 during the week, but the larger factor is that by Friday night I feel sleep deprived enough where I can mostly tune out my beloved spouse’s snoring.

I don’t hold her snoring against her because I snore myself. I never hear myself snore, even when I feel like I am awake and just beginning to nod off. But I usually hear my wife snore, and even a quarter century later I still find it challenging to sleep through her nocturnal noises. What I do most nights is insert silicon ear plugs into the ear canals. It helps quite a bit but is not a solution. To rest well, I generally need to either be exhausted or to be sleeping alone. In short, I need no loud or aberrant noises. I prefer silence or, lacking silence, some gentle white noise that helps tune out other nocturnal noises. I know that if I am snoring, I will tune out my own snores. It’s those other miscellaneous sounds that will wake me up, or cause me to rise momentarily out of a deep slumber and into something lighter that feels less restful.

It was not always this way. I think I learned the habit of sleeping fitfully during the early childrearing years when a baby monitor sat next to our bed all night. Also, somewhere along the way, both my wife and I began to snore more. I assume it is related to aging. It does not help to also be a middle aged man with an active nocturnal bladder. In short, I have learned to sleep deeply but sustained sleep is very elusive.

Here at the Comfort Suites, like many of the hotels I have stayed at, an hour of sleep here feels like two hours of sleep at home. Getting eight hours of sleep, which is supposed to be ideal, feels luxurious. I can arise at four in the morning to shuffle off to the bathroom feeling incredibly rested. I am happy to throw myself back into bed. At six o’clock in the morning I am almost feeling like getting up because I feel fully rested, and yet there is time to sleep even more. It feels decadent to go back to sleep, but I do. When the alarm wakens me at seven o’clock, I realize I had eight hours of restful sleep. This is the way you should feel getting out of bed, but it is something so many of us seem to have lost.

Sleep is highly underrated. We find other distractions that make staying awake far more inviting. I confess I can succumb to these desires as well. Nonetheless, I try to listen to my body. When it tells me it is time for sleep (generally ten p.m. on weekdays, eleven p.m. on weekends) I shuffle off to bed. Unfortunately, it usually takes an hour or so for my wife to join me. Sometimes I will just turn off the lights and go to bed, but usually I elect to read for half an hour, which will almost certainly put me in a narcoleptic mood. The same cannot be said about my wife, a natural night owl who only shuffles bed around eleven p.m. because she has to get up early in the morning.

Tonight out here in BWI’s hotel alley, I anticipate another very restful night of sleep. It is odd that I find a strange bed to be more restful than the one I share at home, but that’s just the way it is. I can see why older spouses often migrate into separate bedrooms, simply because they realize that being able to snuggle at night, however pleasurable, does not surpass the greater joy of a good night’s rest.

I will not need earplugs tonight, as I enjoy my last night at the Linthicum Heights Comfort Suites, but doubtless I will reach for them tomorrow when, home again, I slip back into my own bed.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Social Network

Is the story of the social networking website Facebook really so interesting that it needed to be turned into a movie? Facebook, after all, is phenomenally successful, has half a billion members and is ranked just behind Google as the world’s most accessed web site. Why would we not want to learn more about it, since so many of us spend so much of our electronic lives on its site?

So perhaps The Social Network was inevitable, but the movie that you get tells a story that struck me as less than compelling. Most of the characters in this movie are more than a bit annoying. Perhaps that comes with territory. After all, Harvard University and Silicon Valley are full of socially inept nerds. Apparently at Harvard University it is much more important to get into the Phoenix S-K Final Club than it is to date a bombshell.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. No doubt, Zuckerberg is irascible in real life, but it is hard to imagine him being quite as impertinent and annoying as he is portrayed in this movie. In fact, if looking for a reason to skip The Social Network, do it so you don’t have to spend two hours of your life inhabiting the world of this annoying, self-centered nerd. Zuckerberg is way more annoying than dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) in the movie Ghost Town. Pincus at least had comic relief in the form of Greg Kinnear. The closest thing we get to comic relief in The Social Network is Joseph Mazzello, who plays Dustin Moskovitz, the effusive entrepreneur behind the late music-sharing site Napster. Otherwise, the movie is framed solidly in a lawyer’s office, where Zuckerberg is forced into a lengthy deposition as part of a civil suit. This frame results in frequent flashbacks.

If one has to say what this movie is about, then it is not really so much about the rise of Facebook as it is a look inside the insular brain of Mark Zuckerberg which, quite frankly, is a very unattractive place. Zuckerberg is portrayed as one of these brilliant, socially inept but nonetheless gifted individuals able to discern patterns meaningless to the rest of us. He is a quintessential hacker and geek, constantly in jeans and T-shirts who excels at tuning out reality around him. All he really knows is that like most Harvard students, he needs to prove himself, so he must do something really, really big. The clue to Facebook’s success, he quickly discerns, will be exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Originally, it is designed as a site for Harvard students only, with all the prestige that implies. It is only after Facebook has networked most of the nation’s academic elite that it slowly expands its boundaries out to normal plebes like you and I.

Along the way, there are other less annoying individuals to encounter. These include the haughty flaxen haired Winklevoss twins, who feel cheated when Zuckerberg backs out of his commitment to help build a Facebook-like site for Harvard that they had planned first. They eventually feel compelled to sue him for alleged breach of contract and for stealing their ideas. The Winklevoss twins, somehow portrayed by just one actor Armie Hammer, encapsulate everything we loathe and love about Harvard students: ambitious, handsome, athletic and fanatical about their participation on the Harvard rowing club.

Andrew Garfield, playing Zuckerberg’s roommate and business partner Eduardo Saverin, is as close as we get to an interesting character in this movie. While he has the requisite business skills, he is not agile enough to move in the Silicon Valley world that opens up to them after they meet Moskovitz. He soon finds himself estranged when a closer relationship develops between Zuckerman and Moskovitz. Moskovitz seems determined to recapture his faded Napster glory using Zuckerman as his vehicle. Fortunately for Moskovitz, Zuckerman’s insular nature makes him reasonably easy to impress and manipulate, and his Silicon Valley skills ensures Facebook gets a proper Silicon Valley start up experience.

In some ways, this movie is an ode to the hacker lifestyle, and for an information technology guy like me this world is comfortable territory. The problem is that it just does not translate well into celluloid. While managing to be a reasonably faithful portrayal of the origins of Facebook, it is excessively nerdish and chock full of annoying characters. In honing close to reality, it loses much of its animus. This is mostly a movie of nerds and lawyers talking to each other, with extensive flashbacks. With all the lawyers, it could use some Perry Mason moments, but it has none. It really tells us nothing new or interesting. If you are hoping to have a better understanding of the social networking phenomenon, the movie will likely leave you empty handed. Instead, you may find yourself grateful for the movie’s end, so you can remove the bad taste of Mark Zuckerberg and the other annoying characters in this movie from your mouth.

As a realistic portrayal of the origins of Facebook, the movie probably hews fairly close to the truth. The truth though happens to be a whole lot less interesting that the phenomenal success of Facebook would suggest. While technically well done and reasonably well acted, there is not much there there, which means you can probably find better use of two hours and ten dollars.

Nice try, guys, but because this story is really not very interesting, you did not ascend much out of mediocrity. 2.8 on my four-point scale.

 
The Thinker

Random thoughts running around my brain

My brain is too scattered these last few days to put out anything like a coherent essay. So instead you get little snippets of stuff leaching out of my brain.

  • Bill Clinton sure is looking old. Today’s Washington Post showed him at a campaign rally looking all grandfatherly. He should look grandfatherly because he is 64. Fortunately, for Bill, he is not yet a grandfather in fact as Chelsea only recently got married and last I checked she had no buns in her oven. Still, grandfatherly or not, I miss the guy. The 1990s was a great decade that seems unlikely to come again. Somehow, I know that despite his sleazy ways, if he could be our president again we’d be in much better shape. He knew how to get things done and he wasn’t afraid to bitch slap Republicans. Even Obama is not as suave and slick as Bill. Bill was the master, unlikely to ever be exceeded.
  • As much as I enjoy my Mac Mail email client, web-based GMail has gotten so good that I am going to 100% web-based GMail. I think email clients are obsolete. GMail’s only remaining problem is the latency inherent with the web, but they are AJAXifying everything as much as possible to make minimize any latency issues. The new features for GMail just keep coming and most are compelling. I am overwhelmed with political emails, mostly begging me for money. Since all attempts at unsubscribing seem futile, with GMail’s new Priority Inbox, it is easy to push these into a seldom-read folder. Email sanity at last. Thanks Google!
  • Oh, how I hate Facebook. I don’t hate it enough to leave it, because that would piss off my friends, but how I wish I had the nerve to do so. As with most things, Google seems on the right track toward building a better social network. I have been experimenting with Google Buzz, Google’s answer to social networking. I really like features like being able to share an item I find while surfing with Google Reader, its RSS and Atom newsreader. Their integration of social networking components, while nascent, is done with a light touch and makes so much more sense than Facebook’s. Rather than put things all on one web site, it distributes features in its various products and is promoting an open social network. For example, I like how Google’s chat feature is integrated into a sidebar on GMail. For this anxious parent with a daughter two hours away, seeing her online inside GMail at least lets me know she is alive. That’s what I need in a social network, not annoying waste of times notices like knowing how a friend is doing playing Farmville and that some vague friend of a friend likes some pointless website.
  • RepubliCorp buys democracy one race at a time. This parody site is both funny and, not to put too fine a point on it, true, particularly after the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision. Priority Number One after the election should be a constitutional amendment outlawing corporate or organizational spending on elections. Since Republicans in Congress will block the amendment from coming up for a vote, most likely, such an amendment would have to come from the states. I doubt state legislatures would have a problem with such an amendment. What more proof do we need that we have a Congress bought and paid for by corporate interests when close to eighty percent of rank and file Republicans want Citizens United overturned, but their leadership won’t allow it? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone has spent at least $21 million dollars for ads for the midterm election, and haughtily refuses to tell us who gave it all this money.
  • Investing money is just too damned complicated. Why are we expected to have the education of a Wall Street financier in order to come out ahead in the market? No wonder Americans keep falling behind! Investing money feels increasingly like a Ponzi scheme to me, developed specifically to inflate the pocketbooks of Wall Street executives. Between the obfuscation, fees and thousands of funds to sift through it is hard to know what you are buying. Sometimes I feel like it is so much easier just to give up trying, put all my investment money in something like U.S. Treasury Bills and hope I am not living on dog food when I retire.
  • Voters who vote for Tea Party candidates are proof that no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American people. In less than two weeks time, unless polls are mistaken, Americans are about to elect a crowd of uncompromising rowdies openly hellbent on making the rich richer and further cutting benefits for people, like those voting for them. If you are planning to vote for any Tea Partier, please send me your name and address. I have some Florida swampland I want to sell you. You must be dumber than a box of rocks.
  • And speaking of Tea Party candidates, it is so hard to decide on any given day which Tea Party candidate is making the biggest fool of themselves. One of the few pleasures of this election is daily seeing who will win the contest for the most ignorant and shameless Tea Partier. The competition is tough. Will it be the mighty Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Rand Paul, Joe Miller, Sharron Angle or Ken Buck? They are taking hubris and ignorance to whole new undiscovered heights.
  • Why is it that before Obama was elected, Republicans were all for mandated health insurance because it emphasized personal responsibility? And now are all against it because it is socialism? Nothing says Republican like hypocrisy.
 
The Thinker

Am I overpaid?

The Washington Post, the newspaper of record in this federal city and whose suburbs I inhabit decided to poll the country. The subject: me, or more specifically, the 1.9 million employees of Uncle Sam, and whether Joe and Jane Citizen thought we were overpaid and under qualified for our jobs. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the country does not have much good to say about us. Fifty two percent of Americans surveyed said people like me were overpaid, while only 33 percent thought we were paid the right amount. More than a third of those surveyed thought we were less qualified than those with similar positions in the private sectors.

Opinions, of course, may or may not have a basis in fact, but particularly in a hurting economy, it’s understandable that so many would feel miffed at us feds. After all, our jobs are very secure and come with a pension component (although it is significantly less for those hired since 1984). We can select from a broad cafeteria plan of health insurers and Uncle Sam will pick up somewhere between half and two thirds of our premium. We even have 401-Ks or their equivalent, something called the Thrift Saving Plan.

With nearly thirty years as a civil servant, I’ve seen this show before. It often peaks before elections when Republicans are trying to get back in power. Federal employees make easy targets. It’s not like we are likely to dissent, at least not very much, and we certainly cannot go on strike, as it is illegal. So we make for convenient piñatas right before important elections. Republicans are making snarling noises about cutting our inflated salaries once they control Congress again.

In fact, few in the private sector even consider federal employment, in spite of the obvious benefits. Why? Well, federal employment has an undeserved reputation for not being meaningful work. Citizens seem to understand that when you join the civil service no matter how much talent you have, your salary will be limited by law. So why try harder when recognition will come mostly in the form of pats on the back, rather than cash in the pocket?

There is no question that President Obama lives quite comfortably on his $400,000 a year salary. Only four elected officials make more than $200,000 a year, including the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This is obviously not small change, but with a 1.9 million federal workforce, that says a lot. The Senior Executive Service consists of about a few thousand high level managers, often with political appointments, who earn about $146,000 to $200,000 a year. As a percent of the total workforce though, the SES is tiny.

The “rank and file” civil service workforce consists of people like me, usually attached to the General Schedule. Under the General Schedule, the complexity and responsibility of your work is assessed at a grade somewhere between GS-1 and GS-15. The median grade is probably close to a GS-11. A person at the GS-11 level typically has a college degree along with at least several years of specialized experience. Within each grade, there are ten steps, and steps bring a higher salary (but not a promotion) based on satisfactory performance. You never get above a Step 10. A GS-11 Step 5 makes about $57,000 a year, but the actual amount depends on the area where your job is located. Obviously the cost of living in Washington D.C. is a lot higher than in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A GS-11 Step 5 in the Washington D.C. region is making about $71,000 a year.

Since the public thinks we are so overpaid, you would think the competition would be keen for most jobs. In some cases, there are hundreds of applicants, but often the list of qualified candidates is small. Sometimes there are no qualified applicants at all! This is because many jobs are quite specialized. For example, where do you go to find new hires for inspectors for the Transportation Safety Board? Not a whole lot of us can piece together the causes of transportation accidents. There are many jobs like this in the federal government. There are also many jobs like mine in the computer and information technology area. So it’s easier for me as a supervisor to find qualified applicants.

After 28 years, I have progressed from a GS-4 clerk typist to a GS-14, one step below the highest rank in the civil service. In the interim, I acquired a ton of experience, lots of sterling performance reviews and a master’s degree in Software Systems Engineering from George Mason University. My salary is in the six-figure range. Am I overpaid? You be the judge.

I am responsible for a large, real-time web site. We serve critical near real-time data, as well as a wealth of historical data used in studies and analyses, from redundant hosting centers so our system never goes down. Flood forecasts are developed from our data and many decisions are made as well that can save lives and minimize property damage. Data constantly streams in and is put on the web and all of it has to be both timely and as accurate as possible. In a typical month the site I manage gets thirty to 50 million successful requests. My employees and me must make sure our frequently queried real-time data is available 24/7/365, including during major storms. I have four employees who report directly to me, and five others whose time I buy, either part time or full time. I make more than $120,000 a year, but less that $130,000 a year. We run the whole operation for about $1.3 million dollars a year. Am I overpaid?

Or take my boss, a program manager. She is a GS-15, the highest you can go in the civil service. She manages twenty to thirty people nationwide, has overall responsibility for her entire program, deals with innumerable reporting requirements, large customer communities with diverse needs, has a fistful of certifications that demonstrate her competency in areas like project management and manages her whole program, worth about $6 million a year. I don’t know her salary, but it is probably between $140,000 and $150,000 a year. Is she overpaid? Could it be that a comparable job in the private sector with this level of visibility and responsibility would pay better? It would not surprise me. I suspect she is underpaid.

Or what about a new employee I recently hired? She hesitated to take the position when offered. Why? It did not pay enough. That’s right, she made quite a bit more in the private sector than she would if she joined the public sector because she would have started as a Step 1. However, I was impressed enough with her qualifications to go through a convoluted process so the government could just match salary in the private sector. Is she overpaid too? That does not seem likely. Now I could have thought like a Republican. I could have saved the government money by hiring someone less competent and maybe at a lower grade. Would this have been a smart thing to do given the complexity of the system I manage and its critical nature? Or would it have been pennywise and pound foolish to do so?

The truth is, at least here in the Washington metropolitan area, it is hard to convince any candidate who does not already live here to take a position. Why? Because of the cost of living, but also because of other negatives, like the Washington area’s legendary traffic jams. If you are lucky enough to work eight-hour days, you often have to tack on another two hours or more for commuting every day. Even GS-15s like my boss live modestly. $140,000 is certainly a lot of money in Sioux Falls, South Dakota but not in Reston, Virginia. If you lust after a good single family house in a respectable neighborhood a few miles from work then be prepared to pay at least $500,000 for the privilege, and this price is after the recent decline in home prices.

I do not think that civil servants are overpaid; I think we are fairly compensated. A GS-11 Step 5, my hypothetical “average” civil servant, doubtless depends on a spouse’s income, or is living a very modest lifestyle because $71,000 is not enough income to purchase even a townhouse around here, unless you want to drive two hours to get home. I am certainly grateful for the steady income, in good economic times or bad, as well as our benefits, which twenty years ago were seen as good, but due to the decline in many private industry benefits, now look excellent. Nevertheless, I also know no matter how innovative and creative I am, I cannot be a public servant and make $200,000 a year. The same is not true in the private sector. You can ascend to salary levels as high as your talent takes you. Any performance bonus I get is likely to be in the 1.5% to 3% of salary range, if I earn anything at all. It certainly helps pay some bills and an indulgence or two, but it won’t make me independently wealthy.

So some perspective please. If federal salaries seem higher than the median private industry salary, it’s not necessarily because we are overpaid. It is because the government does not need the equivalent of a lot of busboys, retail workers, truck drivers and hotel maids on its payroll. (Because that kind of work is very generalized, it is typically outsourced.) Most federal jobs require rather specialized skills and the vast majority of us have bachelors or graduate degrees because we need that level of education to perform competently in our jobs.

If you are unhappy with the way government is run, look to policymakers. They decide what government shall be. My job is to deliver it and I am glad to do so at a fair wage and to the maximum extent of my talents.

 
The Thinker

Looking out for Number 1

I hope I am wrong, but I am predicting a mean decade ahead, particularly here in the United States. Americans may be voting their bum out of office on November 2nd, hoping for real change or genuine bipartisanship, but at least through 2012 they will not get it. Political paralysis over the next couple of years is easy to predict, with a high probability that a Republican House of Representatives will try a reprieve of its 1995 government shutdown. The results of the 2010 census will encourage governors to draw congressional districts even more tightly to ensure even higher partisanship in Congress.

In addition, there are structural problems with our economy that are going to linger, particularly high unemployment. The “government is spending too much” mantra combined with businesses sitting on huge piles of cash but unwilling to use it to actually hire people simply means a prolonged period of high unemployment. And since Republicans in general will block spending on infrastructure and high tech investments, those jobs that will be created are mostly going to pay less. Add to this mess our massive foreclosure problem, wars in Afghanistan that will linger, massive climate change and the natural disasters that they will cause and it is hard for me to be optimistic about anything.

The Glenn Beck’s of the world would have me running to buy gold at inflated prices as a hedge against all this uncertainty and potential turmoil. The problem with gold is that it is not fungible. In any event, the world now runs on electronic currency. I am not worried about a currency collapse, but it’s clear that government is not going to look out for me, the little guy. And due to the Supreme Court’s incredibly bad Citizens United decision, we can expect even more extreme government by and for the corporation. Unless you are very agile and smart, you are going to be screwed.

Since I like prefer to live in the real world, I have been running “what if” scenarios with my financial future. I happen to be a federal employee who can retire in less than two years. Until recently, I assumed that I would never have to worry about my pension. It is as solid as the United States government and its sterling ability to print money, right? However, using Greece as an example, at some point if in the opinion of its creditors a state is insufficiently well managed, the creditors will show who is really in charge. In Greece, the effect has been a sudden reduction in the wealth of its citizens in general and government pensioners in particular.

While the social security system is fully solvent for at least twenty years, Medicare is not and Congress seems unwilling to do much more to make it more solvent. Larger structural issues remain to be solved but of course, there is nothing close to consensus on how to do this, and the situation will only get worse. It’s easy to see that even for a vested civil servant like myself, my pension may be on someone’s chopping block.

While I don’t see my pension going away altogether, I can see the federal government devolving into something like California. I can see mandatory cuts in pensions as well as many other programs in order to make creditors and Wall Street happy. How do you survive this new reality when the assumptions you made for your life plan change fundamentally?

Answer: not very well, as many unemployed and overleveraged Americans have discovered over the last few years. While I have escaped it through the virtue of steady employment, watching what has happened during the Great Recession to those caught in its vice is instructive. It has had me sending emails to my financial adviser, who all along has warned me that the solvency of some of my retirement benefits was questionable.

To some extent, I may worry too much. My wife and I are fortunate because we have mostly lived within our means. We do not carry a credit card balance. Our homeowner’s equity line of credit is now paid off as well. All our cars are paid off too, although we are dealing with the major expense of shepherding a daughter through college. It’s not today I am worried about. It’s my standard of living ten years or more from now when I am living on a fixed income that causes me concern. It’s when Uncle Sam’s creditors are forcing austerity and all that austerity means they are raiding my pension fund and scaling back my benefits. I think it is unlikely that my pension will disappear altogether. However, I do think it is prudent to assume a worst case of a 25% reduction in my pension, 10% reductions to my social security income and a lot higher premiums for health insurance. I am having my financial adviser run the numbers. What would my retired life look like? How can I mitigate now some of these potential serious financial consequences to my future?

Here’s the gist of what I am learning. You may want to take notes. I need to save as much as I can and pay off debt as fast as I can as well. For me, saving more is actually difficult to do. The federal Thrift Savings Plan is essentially a 401-K and I have maxed out my contributions into it. The one thing I can do is put money into an IRA as well, but that is limited to $5000 a year. I could save more as a financial cushion, but there are no tax benefits for doing so, and I must report interest as income.

The second thing I am learning is that I need to get out of debt. We are doing very well there, but we still have $85,000 for so left on the mortgage. This seems the wisest place for me to park any extra income. I have been chipping away at it the seventeen years we have been in the house, but need to be more aggressive. I am looking at strategies like applying all leftover income to paying off the principle on our mortgage.

So basically, to reduce our impact to any financial shocks, we need to be debt free as soon as possible, and save and invest as much money as possible. There are also other strategies that may seem not particularly patriotic. My financial adviser has had me move most of our funds into international stocks, where economies that are growing and the legislatures have more common sense. While Wall Street remains one of the few bright spots in our economy, investing too much money with Wall Street may be unwise, at least over the course of the next decade or so, because it will be buffeted by shocks to federal and state governments that seem likely to continue and exacerbate.

With luck, at some point, Democrats and Republicans will agree on a common path forward. It’s not hard to see what that future will be because it is likely to be laid out for us by events. Eventually we will all find that our lives will become more austere and we will be paying more in taxes. There is no way to escape this reality indefinitely, and no amount of vitriolic partisan clamoring otherwise can change it.

However, if our mortgage is paid off, we have a new real asset: our house. Washington Post financial columnist Michele Singletary made an excellent point recently: those of us who think having equity in our house means we are homeowners are fooling ourselves. We are homeowers, and our home as a permanent as our ability to keep sending mortgage payments every month. You are only a homeowner when the mortgage is paid off. Only then can you truly count your house as an asset and as part of your net worth.

We do own our investments free and clear. Properly managing that so it grows but does not lose value when we retire, that matters and is something we can control. Unfortunately, there are so many other variables that I cannot control. I can change those variables within my control and lessen my overall financial risks, and I can do that by saving like the Japanese, investing wisely and getting out of debt.

You are welcome to follow these strategies as well, which are sound and should be much more viable than buying gold from Goldline. I suspect many of you are younger, start with many more liabilities and have less in the way of income. In general, we all need to acquire the painful habit of living beneath our means to the extent we can and save or invest the difference. In addition, we need to become educated if we are not and continually keep our education relevant to the job market. The unemployment rate for college graduates even during these tough times is about five percent. It’s those with less education who are bearing the brunt of these times. Education in a decently paying field is the key, as well as mastering the social skills to get and retain these jobs.

It’s clear that no one is willing to look out for you anymore. Our safety net is collapsing. So much about the future is uncertain, but following these principles should greatly increase the odds that you will emerge with most of your standard of living intact.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 15: Dieting, Fitness and Nutrition – do you know the difference?

This is the fifteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

(Note: If you like this, you might also like Lesson 7 and Lesson 11.)

Young adults, you cannot get online without see articles on dieting, fitness and nutrition. Do you know the difference?

I confess I find it confusing at times. I know people think dieting must make them healthier. It can, but it can also make you sick. In some cases, if done without medical supervision, it can even kill you. So dieting is not necessarily healthy. I also know people who eat very nutritiously and yet it hasn’t made them any healthier. In addition, I know people who get plenty of exercise yet who are unhealthy. All these practices contribute to good health, but none of them guarantee health. Each has their pitfalls and misconceptions. Voluminous media reports on the latest scientific studies only muddles answers. I may be able to help you see through the mist a bit.

Let’s start with dieting. My bet is that any one time, most Americans are either on a diet or wish they had the willpower to go on a diet. They want to lose weight because the media drums it into them that being overweight or obese is unhealthy. They figure: if I can get to a normal weight, I’ll be healthy!

This is not necessarily true. I see many skinny things that are not healthy at all. Maybe it is because they smoke, take narcotics, are anorexic or never exercise. Having normal or below normal weight does not mean you are healthy and dieting to achieve a normal weight may or may not leave you healthier. You can be morbidly obese and still be healthy, with low cholesterol and blood pressure. However, a normal weight combined with good nutrition and regular exercise dramatically raises the probability that you will enjoy a healthy and a long life. Yet, there are never any guarantees. Even the healthiest person can contract a cancer or pick up a virulent infectious disease. Dieting alone is not a solution to your health. It is one of many means that may allow you to be healthy.

A legitimate diet followed rigorously will lower your weight. Nothing else is guaranteed. Losing weight is simple, but not necessarily easy. You must burn more calories than you take in. Diet plans merely offer different approaches for losing weight, but they can only succeed if you burn more calories than you ingest. Losing weight is often associated with reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, among other welcome changes, but there is no guarantee that these healthy goals will be achieved by losing weight.

Dieters often make the mistake of thinking they can lose weight by exercising more while they diet, reasoning they will burn more calories and thus take off weight more quickly. The research is now compelling: exercising has a number of healthful benefits but it may defeat your attempts to lose weight, at least if done to excess. If you do a lot of heavy work, like chopping wood, your blood sugar is lowered. This may cause your body to taunt you to eat more food to make up for the extra calories you burned. You may end up healthier from the exercise but your diet may fail. Over the years, I have experienced this, and I have seen it happen to too many of my friends as well. If you really want to lose weight, I would avoid the heavy cardiovascular exercises until after I was at my desired weight. Especially if I were obese, I would check with my doctor first about doing any heavy cardiovascular exercises.

Exercise, while a healthy practice, is actually a very inefficient way to burn calories. The vast majority of your calories are engaged in a much more Herculean task: maintaining your body. How inefficient is exercise? Men’s Health Magazine recently estimated that to consume a popular six hundred calorie entree, you would have to walk the stairs from the ground floor of the Empire State building to the observation deck twice. So counting calories to lose weight is much more effective than vigorously exercising and dieting, as it is more likely to succeed. Choosing mild, moderate or even no exercise is probably more effective at succeeding at dieting than heavy exercising. The most effective way to lose weight is actually simple: consume many measured, small mini-meals during the day so you never get hungry.

Is there a point to fitness given that it may not help you lose weight? Yes! Assuming you are exercising correctly, not overdoing things and not overly stressing joints and such, you are likely to have fewer aches and pains, you will feel a lot better and will have more energy to engage in life. If it’s been a long time since you have felt that way, you will be amazed how wonderful you will feel after a couple weeks of moderate exercising. In fact, the value of exercise arguably increases with age. What is the key factor for living to ninety and still being in good health? Good genetics certainly helps, but falling is what often kills or disables old people who haven’t succumbed to other disease. What causes most falls? It is a lack of exercise, both walking religiously and strengthening the muscles that maintain your balance, such as your thigh and hip muscles. My father, age 84, remains an avid and religious walker. He may be 84, but he goes to the gym regularly. That he walks without a stoop is proof of the value of regular exercise late in life.

While exercise is in general good, exercise is vastly improved by marrying it with good nutrition. Eating healthy while not exercising and being obese may help a little, but if you suffer from problems like high blood pressure, it is likely not a cure. As I mentioned in Lesson 7, nutrition is about giving your body the right stuff so that it can work optimally. If you are overweight or don’t exercise, it may make symptoms like adult diabetes less chronic, but it will probably not solve the problem. Proper nutrition does help you think clearer, feel better about yourself and aids all parts of the body.

Putting this all together: diet to lose weight but as a part of a plan to keep yourself at a healthy weight for life. Yo-yo dieting is not healthy, and may be worse than not dieting at all. Exercise to feel better and so that you can live a long life with minimal health issues. Eat nutritiously so that your body is primed to work optimally.

While these are foundations to health, there are also many other factors that contribute to health. Washing your hands regularly, flu shots, dental checkups, physicals, getting eight hours of sleep a night and avoiding many of the preventable stresses in life, like toxic bosses also contribute enormously to your good health. Your goal should be optimal mental and physical health. All these strategies help achieve it but none of them by themselves guarantees it.

 
The Thinker

Why Republicans are duty bound to cancel their insurance

Over the last couple of years, my family has been at fault for two automobile accidents. I got in a minor fender bender when a car clipped the side of my bumper as I was trying to pull into traffic. My daughter, being a relatively inexperienced driver, also had an accident. She learned it’s not a good idea to change a CD if your car is creeping forward.

No one was hurt in either accident, thank goodness. My daughter was in shock for a while, but after paying a $250 deductible for each accident and about a week of hassle, our cars were better than new. Our auto insurance rates did go up modestly. Clearly, we were not out of pocket the $5000 to $10,000 it would have cost to pay the full cost of these accidents.

Of course, the whole purpose of insurance is to protect you from major financial liabilities. Most of us would agree that insurance is perfectly reasonable, as most of us are not sitting on a pile of money to pay out a judgment against us if we were found at fault.

Still, isn’t there something more than a little socialistic about insurance? That’s what I am wondering after listening to conservatives, Tea Party and Republican activists talk about repealing “Obamacare”, assuming they get a majority in one or more houses of Congress. As best I can tell, they consider the legislation socialism, even though no public option survived in the legislation. A couple of things seem to be sticking in their claw. First, they really don’t want to pay for those who cannot afford insurance. Second, is their incessant mantra of “personal responsibility”. People should pay for their health insurance. If they cannot afford it, well, things are tough all over, Mac. Trust to luck, vitamins, five-dollar prescriptions from Wal-Mart and, most importantly, don’t get seriously ill. And if you do end up with some chronic condition, rather than send the bill to the government or those who are insured, host a fundraiser, get relatives to pay your bills, or just accept the fact that you must suffer more and die prematurely. After all, the dictate of personal responsibility is more important than anything, even if this means because of your inability to pay that you are subject to immense suffering and an early death. Your suffering simply makes us a stronger country!

Curiously, few conservatives, Republicans or Tea Partiers seem to object to uninsured motorists insurance that they pay as part of their auto insurance. Whether auto insurance is required or not, some drivers won’t buy it. Also, some people have such miserable driving records that no insurance company will sell them a policy. For you, the driver, the result is the same. If you are hit by an uninsured motorist, then unless the motorist is independently wealthy, you will pay the cost of someone else’s mistake. In other words, someone will have escaped personal responsibility!

Fortunately, the number of uninsured motorists is relatively small. The same cannot be said for the number of Americans without health insurance. At last count, some fifty one million Americans did not have or could not afford health insurance. That’s roughly one in six Americans. Many more have some insurance, but it is insufficient. Certainly some of the uninsured pay their medical expenses out of pocket, but more typically, uninsured Americans allow chronic conditions to develop because they cannot afford to treat them earlier. When driven by necessity, they run to our emergency rooms and receive essentially free care. As most of us know, the insured bear the cost of this care. It is added in indirectly to the cost of a health insurance premium. So if you have health insurance, you are paying for the uninsured whether you like it or not, albeit indirectly.

At least with auto insurance the cost of uninsured motorist coverage is usually itemized. This rarely happens with your health insurance premiums. The last statistic I read estimated that about eight hundred dollars of each annual health insurance premium went to reimburse hospitals for the uninsured. These costs contribute substantially to the cost of health insurance. Moreover, as the ranks of the uninsured grow, these costs escalate. In addition, both state and the federal government, principally through Medicaid, pay other health care costs for those too poor to afford health insurance.

A good Republican, Conservative or Tea Partier though should not have any insurance policies. Why? Because they believe that personal responsibility is a black and white issues; no shades of gray allowed. So you should not even drive a car, or see a doctor unless you know you can pay these costs out of pocket. Co-pays are socialistic in nature because they encourage you to take risks at someone else’s expense. So you need to first either inherit a pile of money or have to earn enough money on hand so that you can pay for all your costs out of pocket. (This also allows you to negotiate good deals with your doctors, who are inclined to give cash discounts.)

Republicans, think carefully because insurance defeats the whole notion of individual responsibility. It encourages you to get into auto accidents, to neglect your house maintenance and to hit the Country Buffet every day. If you knew you would have to pay a million dollar judgment or hospital bill out of pocket, of course you would be far more prudent. If you knew because of hitting the Jack in the Box twice a week you would not be able to afford your Lipitor, you would be eating salads instead.

So that’s my suggestions for everyone into personal responsibility. No more weaseling. Time to put your philosophy where your mouth is. Cancel all your insurance immediately and pay for everything out of pocket. Because surely if everyone did the same America would be a utopia, right?

 
The Thinker

Review: Clerks II (2006)

In 1994, then (nearly) brand new director Kevin Smith gave us the world behind the cash register with his arguably brilliant albeit ultra low budget movie Clerks. Filmed at night in the very convenience store where he spent years engaged in retail drudgery, Smith gave us a bawdy and far more entertaining version of retail life than exists out there, although web sites like Not Always Right do liven up the retail world for those who inhabit or have inhabited it.

With the surprise success of Clerks, Smith cemented mainstream movie success with movies like Chasing Amy and Dogma. It was no surprise then that Smith eventually decided to make a sequel to the popular Clerks. Of course, to succeed it required most of the characters from the original movie. However, most sequels are shadows of the original movie, and thus should be avoided. I could not resist the lure of Clerks II, given how much I enjoyed the first movie. I was prepared to be disappointed.

Not so. Clerks II is not quite as good as the first movie, but nearly as good. Thus, it inhabits the narrow realm of sequels that are nearly as good as the original movie. The venue this time is not a QuikStop convenience store but a Mooby’s fast food restaurant. Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) would probably have stayed at the QuikStop indefinitely had it not inconveniently burned down a year earlier. The venue may have changed but the customers and faces have not. Instead of juggling coffee pots and sorting magazine racks, Dante now scrambles behind the counter at Mooby’s where you can enjoy drinks like a Bovine Size It. Unlike QuikStop, which is a real franchise, the cow-oriented Mooby’s chain is fictional, reflecting Smith’s deeper pockets since his impoverished 1994 directorial debut. It might as well be a QuikStop, because the coffee pot is still there and steam is always rising behind the counter somewhere.

Twelve years may have elapsed but the characters seem stuck in time and are now inconveniently in their thirties. Instead of peddling videos next door to the QuikStop, Randal (Jeff Anderson) is now haphazardly grilling burgers and working the French fry vat at Mooby’s next to Dante. Like Carmen and Winslow in the comic strip Prickly City, Dante and Randal seem doomed to inhabit their adult years together in a generally unhealthy and crass relationship. Perhaps Randal’s unhealthy presence is why Dante’s girlfriends from his convenience store days are no longer items. However, now that Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (played by director Kevin Smith) are out of prison, they have of course chosen to hang out in front of Dante’s Mooby’s as a choice place to sell drugs.

Dante cannot be without love interests, of course, or there would be no movie. In Clerks II, Dante is oddly engaged to the skinny, attractive, blond, leggy and controlling Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith). She plans to move him to Florida where her wealthy family is preparing to give the new couple a house. In fact, it’s Dante’s last day at the Mooby’s, which is unearthing a lot of subterranean feelings from the whole cast of characters. Dante is about to become respectable and move out of detested New Jersey to Florida, and through Emma’s conniving, far, far away from his loser friend Randal. Yet he does not seem terribly happy at the prospect of his new and richer life, even when Emma shows up at his workplace to slide her tongue down his throat.

And what about Becky (Rosario Dawson), the acerbic manager of the Mooby’s? She is supposed to be Dante’s boss but it is clear both have the hots for each other, to the extent that one of Dante’s unofficial jobs is to paint her toenails in the privacy of her office when the morning traffic lightens. Somehow, in the course of the day, you know all these tensions will somehow resolve themselves. Since it’s a Kevin Smith movie, you know it will all happen in weird, quirky and generally obscene ways. So expect the usual variety of very odd scenes that include a donkey sex exhibition that Randal puts together as a sort of bachelor party. Also, expect strange dialogs with customers, including a Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings discussion in front of the cash register.

As long as you can appreciate Smith’s crass humor and the endless four letter words coming out of all the characters mouths, the movie manages to hit pretty much all the right notes. We get a lot more of Jay and Silent Bob, which is good, and some terrifically funny and weird scenes, including a dance scene between Becky and Dante on the roof of the Mooby’s. So now, I need to add Clerks and Clerks II to my DVD collection. Both movies are good enough to share, at least with my select group of friends and families who can also appreciate this level of irreverence and trash humor.

It seems unlikely that there will be a Clerks III, or if such a movie were made that it can be as funny as Clerks II, but I am hoping once a decade or so Smith takes us back into the bizarrely funny world of Dante, Randal, Jay and Silent Bob.

3.2 on my four point scale. If I were to measure it on my funny bone meter, it would be even higher.

 
The Thinker

God as a gecko

Looking for God but having a hard time finding him? Most people claim to know where he (sometimes she, occasionally it) lives and what you must do to know God. They will be glad to lead you to their local church, temple or place of worship so you can find God too. Others will be glad to give you their holy book of choice, whether it a Quran, Bible or Torah and say that you can find God by pondering the words therein.

None of these approaches will render a tangible God. Rather you will find that you need an intercessor or intercessors of various sorts. The intercessor may be Jesus, or Mohammad, or Buddha (although Buddha did not believe in a deity in the classical sense) or a televangelist. You are invited to try to find God through them.

The problem with this approach is that unless you are consumed with an unquestioning faith, you can never be quite sure the God you believe in is the genuine thing. Recognizing this paradox, a number of people have decided they don’t believe in God at all. Christopher Hitchens is a prominent atheist who is inconveniently dying of stage-four esophageal cancer, the same cancer that killed his father. Curiously, his imminent demise has certain people (principally dyed in the wool Christians) busy praying for Hitchens. Specifically, they are praying that before Hitchens passes into the great unknown he finds God and especially for him to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. (For some peculiar reason, the chance to know God can occur only during life, not in the thereafter.) Hitchens, as you can imagine, is not too happy with these religious people. He has the weird idea that he should be allowed to die in peace and respected for his convictions, rather than listen to a torrent of well meaning religious folks convinced they know the truth and passionately praying for his quick conversion.

Clearly there are no lack of folks that due to their passionate religious beliefs would like to introduce you to their idea of God. However, suppose you want to find God independently. Where could God be hiding? Why is your sight so veiled?

It could be that God is not who you think he or she should be. Humans have anthropomorphic tendencies. If this word does not ring a bell, it means we like to endow on things human qualities. For example, I treat my cat Arthur much like I would like to be treated myself. I talk to him (in English, not in meows), pet him and hug him when he is on my lap. Arthur’s way of communicating with me is to treat me like a fellow cat. Basically, he would prefer to lick me with his sandpaper tongue. For most of us humans, we expect God to have human-like characteristics. That’s why, arguably, intercessors are required to understand God. Could any human have found the Christian God without Jesus? It seems unlikely. The same is true with Muhammad. How were we supposed to know there is but one god and his name is Allah if Muhammad had not told us so? Were we supposed to read it in tealeaves?

It may be, as I believe, that God is indifferent to us as individuals because we are part of an immensely complex universe unfolding according to his plan. In my opinion, if God exists, it is as futile for us to try to understand him as it is for an ant to try to understand calculus. (Understanding nature, however, is a different matter.) We are all trapped within the boundaries of a finite life, our limited senses and intelligence, our culture and our biosphere. By definition, God must be greater than these finite boundaries but those boundaries frame our level of understanding. Some claim that certain practices, like meditation, allow momentary escapes from these constraints. Others claim that certain practices, like prayer, allow us to hear answers from the Almighty.

It could be that God simply does not speak to us at all. Does this mean that God does not exist? If you see God only in the terms prescribed by the major religions, then maybe not. This version of God is authoritarian, and personally vested in human affairs and cares uniquely about you. In other words, this type of God is anthropomorphic. Yet, God could just as easily be remote and hidden. In fact, God could be nothing more than this tableau we are in called The Universe. God may be just the universe and to the extent that we understand the Universe, we understand God.

Or perhaps God is hidden in plain sight. Like a gecko that blends into the brick façade on our house, maybe he is there but we have to look very hard to see him. That’s sort of what I believe. This was brought home again to me last week when I traipsed through the Black Hills of South Dakota. From the grandeur of the stars at night (normally unseen because of our light pollution), to the beauty of Sylvan Lake late on a sunny autumn afternoon, to the light whispering of the winds racing through the pine forests of the Black Hills, to the largely barren lands of Custer State Park where the buffalo roamed, it was hard to escape the feeling of being surrounded, if not by God, then by the sacred. It was like God was pouring out his essence. All I had to do was choose to feel God’s majesty.

Arguably, humans have learned to survive through wearing blinders. Our lives tend to be rigorously prioritized, because if we don’t put first things first, we may not survive. When you live your life this way, it is easy to tune things out. You may find though that if you can move the importance of survival to some corner of your brain, and feel the presence of nature and the now, that you will experience something far larger than yourself. If you ask me, that is God whispering in our ears.

I feel this God. For me God is not personal, but instead God is the entity that simply is and fills up all time and space. It does not speak to me directly, but reveals its majesty through nature and my senses. It has no special message directed at me, but God speaks nonetheless. God speaks in the splendor of creation in all its manifestations, a work of immense complexity and beauty. This God is found in between things and in moments of time when I choose to be aware of its majesty. It is worthy of awe and worship, although it has no particular message to me other than, “Behold, this universe!”

I believe that God is neither a journey nor a destination, but is always around us. Perhaps in order to find God rather than rifle through our holy books, we should put them down, take a long walk, and revel in God’s presence.

 

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