Archive for September, 2012

The Thinker

Profiting from our financial ignorance

Do you have a degree in finance? I sure don’t. Sadly, if you want to successfully navigate through today’s financial minefield, you arguably need a degree in finance, or its equivalent. Failing this, you probably need someone who understands personal finance in its mind-numbing complexity: a financial adviser, who of course does not come cheap.

The carnage of financial ignorance is all around us. Yet even before there was a housing crisis and a Great Recession, most of us were still happily reveling in our ignorance. We spent beyond our means and pushed up our credit card balances. Our financial plan consisted of spending as much as we earned and often more, and assuming that we would remain gainfully employed indefinitely.

For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. When your financial life implodes, vultures are ready to swoop in. Debt collectors will hound you day and night on the promise of a percent of the money they collect from you. Investors will buy foreclosed properties and hang onto them long enough to turn a profit on them when the market turns around. Credit card companies will laugh all the way to the bank, which is not hard because they are the bank, and the huge fees and interest rates you pay to live beyond your means simply adds to their shareholders’ profits.

Even tiny steps to address our financial ignorance are vigorously opposed by financial barons. The Consumer Protection Financial Bureau cannot get a permanent director because Senate Republicans won’t confirm one, leaving the president to appoint one through a recess appointment. Attempts to simplify credit card rates and fees into something that might make sense for someone with a high school education draws howls of protest. Clearly, there is big money to be made in financial obfuscation, and it appears that those vested in the current system want to keep it that way.

Financial ignorance is hardly bliss. Financial ignorance can saddle you with a lifetime of poor financial decisions and result in an old age, if you make it that long, mired in poverty. No high school or college that I am aware of requires that you pass a Personal Finance 101 course in order to graduate. Even if you have the knowledge, there is no guarantee that you will use the knowledge. Competently managing your personal finances takes time and worse, persistence.

I wear the green eyeshades in my house. I try to keep the seams of our financial ship caulked, but I know there are always some leaky planks. On a good week I can take care of our financial stuff in a couple of hours. This mostly involves putting last week’s financial transactions into Quicken, watching our budget and paying bills.

If I were doing the job properly, it would probably take six hours or more a week. I would be filing documents and pruning old ones from my files. I would be methodically reading insurance policies and pondering coverage changes. I would be finding the best credit card rates and planning my next vacation. I would be looking at my investments and pondering whether to shuffle my funds around.

Needless to say, little of all this interests me. At best I can only see a few years ahead. Seeing into the future is hard. So I’ve hired a financial adviser. The only problem is my financial adviser actually retired, which means I need to hire another financial adviser, which takes additional time and money. I finally found a local firm that I have some confidence in and we are working on a new financial plan. This guy of course brings a different perspective than my last financial adviser. Right now it means feeding him reams of data about our current financial situation so he can sift through it all. Soon he will give me a plan, which is a good thing, until you look at what is required to actually implement the plan. It’s not hard to imagine since I’ve been down this road before. It will involve shuffling lots of funds around. In spite of the fact that I have a financial planner, specifically hired to make my financial life simpler, it looks like I will be spending even more time managing my finances. If I were independently wealthy, I would hire someone to manage the work my financial planner wants me to do.

This whole process is so frustrating. I figure that if I am frustrated by it, most people are even more frustrated. The really annoying part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Through law we have constructed a large financial minefield specifically designed to profit from general ignorance. There are sporadic attempts to simplify finances for the 99 percent. Federal employees like me have a 401K system called the Thrift Savings Plan. Over the last few years, the TSP has unveiled a plan that automatically moves and rebalances your funds based on your age and planned retirement date. This means that you have one less thing you have to worry about. Many companies contract with financial services firms that offer similar services.

Of course, there is no guarantee that these financial stewards will put your money in the best investment vehicles, but it is better than nothing. At least someone is doing this for you instead of you remembering to do it once a year on your own, something that most of us simply will not think about. Many employers also offer an automatic “opt in” 401K. This too is a step in the right direction, since many of us will never get around to putting away money for our retirement if we have to take explicit action.

Is this socialism? Is it a big nanny state at work? Who knows? These are really just small and measured steps to make the system work for most people instead of those whose paycheck depends on your financial ignorance. We have the illusion of choice in our financial life when the reality is there are so many choices it’s impossible for the average person to work through them all. By default most of us will choose whatever is easiest or least intrusive. In the process we will probably get saddled with poor investment advice and all sorts of usury fees. Moreover, there is no gatekeeper to warn us before we make some really stupid financial decisions. I cringe when I hear about people who use their banks to get investment advice. What a bad idea: to entrust your financial future to an institution that sees you only as a profit center.

Our new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a great idea, providing it can stay true to its mission of protecting consumers. Right now it is having a hard time just conducting any sort of business at all. When Republicans win the White House again, its mission, if it is not abolished, will likely quickly steer away from doing anything that actually benefits consumers. Instead it will probably become yet another organ designed to maximize profits for those already reeling them in, adding more financial obfuscation rather than leveling the playing field.

Which means you are likely to keep getting screwed by all those interests that profit off your ignorance and lack of time and attention. If you do not have at least a basic financial literacy you had best squeeze in the time to get it. Or you probably need to get some help, even if you cannot afford it.

What do you do? I have one possible solution: use the in-house financial advisers available at many credit unions. While I don’t believe banks have your best interests at heart, I think that credit unions do. This is because when you belong to a credit union, you become an owner. The National Credit Union Administration has a tool for finding local credit unions. Some credit unions have special requirements for membership, but it is likely that there are several that you could join and that are reasonably local to you. Call them first to see if they have a personal financial adviser and if so what fees, if any, they charge. Any fees they have are likely to be low. In addition by being a credit union member you are likely to save tons of money on banking fees and credit card interest rates. Just make sure when you move your money into the credit union that you also make an appointment to see their financial adviser too. And yes, sorry, but make time in your schedule to practice financial literacy, because you will need it. A Dummies book may be a good place to start.

 

 
The Thinker

The breech-loaded rifle and The Cloud

Clouds used to be cute puffy white things in the sky. These days when you talk about clouds, you are more often talking about Internet-based clouds. Even recently just a domain for geeks and techies, knowledge of Internet-based clouds is penetrating down to the rest of us. It may be that iCloud icon on your smartphone or iMac, or the convenience of a Gmail account that you access from a hotel business center. It’s starting to register with us that we are using clouds. We no longer store data in our own personal devices. We don’t know or care where it is stored, just as long as it is. Clouds are here to stay.

The cloud is just the latest manifestation of a trend that has been emerging for some time. With the cloud we no longer worry about whether data like our email or digital pictures are archived and backed up. We assume that if we have a connection to the Internet it is all available instantly. The promise is that at some point it will also somehow done transparently and with no hassle.

All of this is also something of an illusion because in reality this level of cloud computing is really, really hard. Google and Amazon are pioneers in the cloud computing business, but pretty much all the major IT providers are lining up to provide cloud services too, from the mighty Microsoft with its online Office cloud service to the lowly web host (who will probably use someone else’s cloud and make it look like their own). Google has had some infamous cloud outages over the years, most frequently affecting Gmail. More recently Amazon has experienced some embarrassing cloud failures too. It’s nice to know that your stuff is out there somewhere, but making it always instantly available is quite a trick. 99.999% uptime is pretty darn good and most of us would not notice minor outages. The same is not true for businesses that depend on continuous uptime, like United Airlines. Since they can’t take any chances, they are sticking with their own data centers, at least for now. In general, cloud computing tends to be a lot cheaper than doing your own hosting. You just don’t want to jump into the cloud computing arena unless you are really, really sure you can trust your cloud vendor.

The Department of Interior, where I work, is taking the plunge. It recently signed a contract with a company that resells Google’s infrastructure to provide the whole department’s email, calendaring, instant messaging and various other services. In doing so it will save heaps of money, unless the vendor’s claims don’t match actual experience. In that case, lots of highly paid people will be twiddling their thumbs until service is restored because the cloud will be like a light switch: it will either be on or off, and bad things will happen if it goes off even for a little while. At least right now when there are problems they will tend to be localized instead of enterprise-wide.

In any event, we are going into the cloud. To affect change you have to break a few eggs, and in this case a lot more than a few eggs are being broken. Every employee in the department has to be retrained. Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino servers are retiring to greener pastures (well, more likely landfills). Our comfy though somewhat weird email clients are being traded for doing email in a browser. Everyone has to adapt, including our director and Ken Salazar himself. I doubt that even the department will know where the heck their servers are. It’s someone else’s problem, specifically Onix’s, which got the contract. Email alone is mission critical for our department. It’s got to work and work reliably, and the transition has to be smooth. Everything ties into email in some fashion. About 80% of my work day is spent reading and responding to email. My team depends on instant messaging as well, as we are spread across four time zones. We run a mission critical system, but this new cloud-based system is even more mission critical. If we cannot communicate to fix our mission critical system, then it can go down. The nation’s motto is “In God we trust” but perhaps it should become “In Google we trust” here at the Department of the Interior.

There are so many wrinkles to this cloud computing stuff that I will be taking a course to understand most of it. For those of us managing information systems, one of the compelling features of the cloud is the promise that it can scale up automatically to meet higher demand. If true this is quite a feature. Automatic and transparent failover to redundant systems is also available. Obviously, vendors charge more if you need these features, but the promise is that overall it will be less expensive to use the cloud than it will be to have your own hosting center.

This may mean unemployment for many technicians now keeping servers running. Those who physically touch these machines are most in jeopardy. At least in the short term, those who configure these machines in the cloud to do unique stuff probably have secure jobs. With a few clicks you may be able to have your cloud provider install an operating system or a web server. (In reality these machines are already likely provisioned, and are just sitting idle.) If your needs are modest, then you may need fewer system administrators. Integrating a server and the applications that run on it are not necessarily simpler because they are in the cloud. It just becomes more abstract. In some ways, administering cloud servers applications may be more complicated, since the whole cloud architecture needs to be well understood, and things don’t work quite the way they used to.

I learned recently of a revolution that happened around 1820 in nearby Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The town is known for many historical events, and some innovation. One of its innovations was the invention of a breech-loaded rifle. It was constructed from completely interchangeable parts. This revolutionary idea first perfected in a gun was extended to all sorts of items. It made possible the Model-T and many other inventions.

Cloud computing is the latest refinement of this idea born in Harpers Ferry by a man named John Hall. The management, storage and configuration of systems used to store data and information is becoming virtualized and commoditized as well. The interchangeable parts are not so much hardware but the software that runs on the hardware. They are becoming so excellent and interoperate so well with other standard software parts that reside on these servers that new levels of performance and cost savings can be achieved.

Cloud computing is the latest and if it works as advertised will arguably one of the most important revolutions in information technology. We out here in the business world will fuss over it for a while, and there will be more growing pains, but like the breech-loaded rifle cloud computing is a fundamental invention made up of lots of other clever inventions, many of them abstract and conceptual and modeled in software.  These will become savings in time and benefits of convenience that we will soon take for granted but which could be as fundamentally transformative to mankind as the Internet itself.

 
The Thinker

Greeted by the lovebugs in Ormond Beach

If home is where your heart is, then my heart is in Endwell, New York instead of Ormond Beach, Florida. I spent nearly ten years in Endwell and they were during my prime developmental years: ages six through 15. No wonder I feel bonded to the area and its climate. In contrast, I spent only three years in Ormond Beach, at least if you are counting continuously. I spent nearly seven years in Florida altogether, but about as many of them were spent going to the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando. By mid 1978, degree in hand, I was out of Florida and glad to put the state in my rear view mirror.

Ormond Beach, Florida

Ormond Beach, Florida

Florida and Ormond Beach never quite felt like home. My friends were seven hundred miles away and there were few prospects at my public school in Daytona Beach that looked friend-worthy, as they struck me as a class to be vacant and intellectually incurious. Florida’s climate was completely different, as was its terrain. For months I felt the need to wear sunglasses; Florida was just so darn bright all the time. In general things felt sticky, hot and harsh in Florida. For most of the year going outside meant being smothered in a hot and wet blanket of air that only blessed air conditioning could relieve. Giant armored rats (okay, armadillos) lived in the woods and were occasionally pancaked on the highways. In New York State I rarely saw a cockroach. In Florida even the nicest houses had them and they were huge, black and hiding pretty much everywhere. I had a visceral loathing for them. They showed up in the least expected and grosses places, like inside my shoes. Even the grass felt unnatural. Bermuda grass, if you were brave enough to walk on it, felt like walking on razor blades. Yes there were palm trees and beaches but there were also flying roaches, snakes, alligators, fire ants and love bugs.

So perhaps it was fitting that as my rental car pulled into Ormond Beach, after a lapse of twenty-six years between visits, that I would be greeted by lovebugs. Plecia nearctica is their official title and these insects only join together for a few weeks at a time, at most. They must really love their mates, so much so that when they join they fly together glued at their butts. This and their black bodies make them easy to distinguish. They hang in the air and are generally harmless, but they become a huge nuisance to drivers. They smash into windshields, die messily and clog radiator vents. Getting their carcasses off the windshield is a challenge too. Ordinary windshield washer fluid and wiper blades won’t do it. Coca-Cola works, but that got expensive. Anyhow, September must be their mating season because they were out in force when I exited my rental car in Ormond Beach to visit the local Catholic church where we prayed for a few years.

Visiting Endwell, as I did last month, was an easy decision. I could easily spend a week getting reacquainted with my hometown. For Ormond Beach, a few hours were plenty. I never stayed in the city long enough to feel rooted to it. Curiously, I had stayed long enough to find my way around easily. I didn’t need a map and always knew just where to turn. Unlike Endwell and its surrounding towns and villages long in decline, the same was not true in Ormond Beach.

The good news: Ormond Beach was looking up: much prettier than it was in the 1970s, and starting to look kind of quaint. The City of Ormond Beach agrees. South Ridgewood Avenue, which I knew well from innumerable bike trips to school and work across the Halifax River on the peninsula, now has signs calling the neighborhood historic. That’s pushing it for an area where the houses were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, but even forty years earlier when I first arrived there, tourism was its cash crop. In the intervening years the city simply has gotten better at presenting a good image. The strategy has largely worked, although the U.S. 1 corridor on South Yonge Street still looks a bit stressed, as does my old neighborhood and the house we lived in.

Where had the blacks had gone? There used to be a clear color line nearby between Ridgewood Avenue and South Washington Street. Perhaps the neighborhood got too pricey for most blacks. Lots of places in Ormond Beach now looked upscale. The old Bowman’s Care nursing home down the street where a couple of my sisters worked is still there, but is now a spiffy managed care facility with a new name and likely corporate overlords. The nearby recreation center is new to me too, and looks like a mini water park.

Hard to believe I lived here (Capri Drive in Ormond Beach)

Hard to believe I lived here (Capri Drive in Ormond Beach)

I had no desire to hang out on its beach, or the more famous Daytona Beach to its south, although I did drive on it, which is still possible in 2012. Even if I had wanted to, the weather was not cooperative. Oversaturated clouds periodically spat rain at me. I ended up taking pictures of our old house on Capri Drive from inside my car. By the time I made it across the peninsula to Seabreeze Senior High School I just had the oppressive humidity to deal with. My alma mater also looked spiffier and modernized. The signs told me to register at the visitors’ desk, but as it was after school hours when I arrived and the campus was empty, I felt empowered to tour the campus without official permission. No one stopped me and I walked the vacant hallways alone.

Daytona Beach, Florida

Daytona Beach, Florida

In the 1970s most of the school had no air conditioning. The school was amply named because you generally stayed cool from the sea breeze, if it deigned to come into your classroom. Back then half the students dozed at their desks, the women wore halter tops (no bras) so thin the outline of their nipples were clearly visible, and students actually brought surf boards to school, the beach being a short walk across Route A1A. Now there is a chain link fence with no easy way to get to the beach or the nearby McDonalds. Nor is there a whiff of marijuana in the outdoor hallways and I am sure the lockers are now inspected regularly for contraband. The 1970s was a much more laid back decade, at least in Daytona Beach.

The tall condos and hotels along the beach have not lost any of their impressive heights, but nearby Belair Plaza where I used to work is stressed. The location of the Winn Dixie supermarket in the plaza where I had my first job is now vacant, although a Publix supermarket has moved in on the south side of the Plaza. The bookstore now contains a Walgreens. The other Winn Dixie where I worked closer to home is gone as well and contains a furniture outlet. I spoke briefly with a lady who runs a consignment shop there. I remembered that part of the supermarket as the stocking area. I remember unloading trucks in the evenings to the sound of blaring rock and roll on the radio. According to the woman sweeping debris near the back of the store, homeless men can often be found behind her store in the morning. That at least is new.

In general, the retail in Ormond Beach is a notch or two higher than when I lived there. Starbucks saw no reason to skip Ormond Beach, in spite of its heat and humidity. I dined, if you can call it that, at a Moes Southwest Grill with all the conveniences of home, including a WiFi for my iPad. The most surprising find in Ormond Beach was the Cheaters Gentleman’s Club that I passed on my way out of town back to St. Augustine. I guess its location makes short work for local private detectives.

I said in my last post that if I had to retire to Florida, I could retire to St. Augustine. Ormond Beach simply does not have its allure. Being forty miles from the city made it easy to visit. There was a reason I had avoided it for more than a quarter of a century: it was nothing special to me. In 2012 it is still nothing that special, just looking nicer.

 
The Thinker

St. Augustine

Judging by St. Augustine, Florida’s East Coast is getting all gussied up. In my memory, St. Augustine has always been a pretty city, but since it has been more than thirty years since I last visited this city (about halfway between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach) my memories of it were dim. Anyhow, whatever it was when I first saw it in 1972, it does not match the tourist-friendly, picture-postcard reality I find in 2012. It is both beautiful and charming.

St. Augustine has a right to call itself historic in a way that no other city in North America can. While a newbie of a city by European standards, St. Augustine can viably claim to be the oldest city in North America. It was officially established in 1565, which is forty-two years before the English got around to attempting to settle North America at Jamestown (1607 for the fort, 1619 for the city) and 55 years before the first Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620. It was the Spaniards who founded St. Augustine. It looked like a good place to place a stake in North America, as it was reasonably defensible due to peninsulas and fresh water could be found nearby. It attracted attention from competing powers, which led to the establishment of many forts that predator nations quickly destroyed. Once Spain decided they weren’t going to budge, they finally constructed the fort that endures today: the Castillo de San Marcos, a huge fort made of over 100,000 blocks of limestone. Should navies want to invade today, it would still be reasonably impregnable. If you had to find shelter in a hurricane, it would be an obvious place to weather one.

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida

Various nations laid claim to the city over time: Spain, then Great Britain, then Spain again and finally the United States got title to it in the 1830s. If the United States is destined to go the direction of other great powers, then it won’t be the last occupier of St. Augustine either. Whichever nation ends up with it in the future, it is likely that Castillo de San Marcos will still be standing looking relatively unchanged. Meanwhile, the fort remains St. Augustine’s premier attraction, competently administered by the National Park Service, with regular cannon firings to delight the tourists during certain times of the year, as well as a fantastic view of the junction of the Matanzas and North Rivers, with hints of the enormous Atlantic between the peninsulas.

I didn’t have to go far to see the fort because it’s where business has taken me this week. Our meetings were not actually in the fort, but in its administration building. This is good because unlike the fort, it is air conditioned. Given the oppressive humidity and frequent storms in St. Augustine, it’s a wonder that the Spanish did not settle in more temperate terrains. The Spanish influence is not wholly gone. Some of the architecture from their occupation still exists, and much that went up around the city is built in a Spanish style. And you can find still Spanish restaurants here too. We found one with excellent food on Tuesday night on St. Georges Street, a lovely pedestrian-only street that slices through the historical downtown St. Augustine. St. Georges Street is a lovely tourist destination and full of boutiques.

St. Georges Street, St. Augustine

St. Georges Street, St. Augustine

In September the tourists have mostly gone, which is how we claimed a government rate at the famous Casa Monica hotel here. This famous and historic four-star hotel is lovely, comfortable and tries to keep it faithful to its historic style, right down to the high skylight windows in the bedrooms, such as I have in my room. If you want privacy, roll down the blinds. You can’t go a block without running into wonderful restaurants (in fact, the hotel itself has a four-star restaurant), but curiously most of them are not open for breakfast. Those that are tend to open around 8 a.m., which is too late for those of us needing to be ready for all day meetings starting at 8 a.m.  That leaves pricey room service or dining at the Starbucks in the lobby. The closest thing to health food there is their breakfast sandwich, which has plenty of protein (eggs) but is otherwise largely tasteless.

But who can complain with the view here in the downtown area? Flagler College is anchored here, and the private university looks more like a hotel than a college campus, which it likely was. Unsurprisingly, it attracts well moneyed students, mostly white. Their beautiful coeds make me wish I were thirty years younger. Well-manicured lawns full of Bermuda grass, lots of historic houses and brick streets, tall and established palm trees helps you forget the oppressive humidity. The humidity is so high that thunderstorms are frequent. The remnants leave large puddles on the streets pedestrians have to walk around. The city is obviously going for a classy clientele, at least here in the downtown area. The major roads include bike lanes. Many roads are under reconstruction. As a result driving around downtown is confusing, with its narrow streets recalling a pre-automobile era. Yet, while it has a cosmopolitan look, you don’t have to drive too far to be in Florida Cracker territory. Even so, there are plenty of well-moneyed people here. The city has the appearance of being progressive, but the area is dominated by Republicans and conservatives. Romney should not have to worry about winning St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is the sort of Florida I hoped we would move to when my family arrived in Florida in late 1972. Instead we ended up near Daytona Beach, at least then a much grungier, pedestrian and low-brow place. In Daytona Beach in 1972 there was the beach, the bars, the liquor stores, the famous speedway, a Greyhound track, a Jai-Alai center, a lot of suboptimal retail, and little else. But here in St. Augustine, at least in 2012, all is much newer, spiffier and classier. The last state I want to retire to is in Florida, but if forced to retire in this state then St. Augustine would do quite well.

Just how Daytona Beach and my old home city of Ormond Beach just north of the city is doing in 2012, twenty six years since I last visited and where I spent about six years of my life will be the subject of my next post.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Artist

Usually you can count on a movie hitting the DVD rack about thirty days after it disappears from theaters. There are exceptions to the rule, and the 2012 Best Picture The Artist took what seemed like forever before it was released and Netflix could send it to me. Time to get out the popcorn, because Best Picture films rarely disappoint.

Yes it is strange in 2012 for any film, let alone a Best Picture movie, to be released as a silent film, in black and white and with a classic 1:1.33 height to width ratio. In fact the movie is not entirely silent, as there is a score that goes along with it, which was typical of silent movies (and was usually performed by a pianist in the theater). And there are a couple of key scenes in the movie where sound is added as well. In some ways the film demonstrates that it is a product of the 21st century and not the 1920s. For one thing, the black and white film stock is much better today than what was available back then.

The movie’s plot is pretty simple and has been modeled in other films (Singin’ in the Rain comes to mind). A famous silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who also won Best Actor for this role) cannot make the transition from silent movies to “talkies” as they were called. His career abruptly ends while the career of a young lady, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), abruptly takes off. George and Peppy intersect at a red carpet event and their chance encounter gets into the tabloids. This is something of a problem as George is married to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). Their chance encounter may have been Peppy’s way of trying to insert her into showbiz, and it does help land her a part as an extra in George’s current film. On the set and in front of the camera they click but the dominoes are already falling for George. The producer behind Kinograph Studios, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) sees the future and it includes movies with sounds. George knows he cannot make the transition, but why?

The film moves rather predictably forward; so do not expect too many surprises. However, do expect the movie to be charming as well as a faithful homage to the end of the silent film era. Director Michel Hazanavicius, who won Best Director for the film, does a terrific job of capturing an era in meticulously correct detail, and both Dujardin and Bejo bring us interesting characters, with Bejo doing the better job. Period pieces are notoriously hard to render correctly on film, but Hazanavicius manages to pull it off, and does so with both style and artistry. Stuck in my head is a scene on a staircase in a Hollywood studio where George and Peppy intersect, the people running up and down the multilevel staircase, which has a silent rhythm all its own. There are lots of moments like this: moments that are endearing and schmaltzy and visually interesting even without the actors.

If there were a category for best acting by a dog in a motion picture, it would surely go to Uggie as Jack, George’s dog trained to obey almost reflexively and in some scenes that seems to be channeling Lassie. Jack is one smart dog, that’s for sure and his heart, like Peppy’s, is made of gold. So is Clifton’s (James Cromwell), George’s chauffeur, who is more like a devoted older brother than a servant.

The result is an endearing but simple story that is unexpectedly clever at points (I am thinking in particular about the scene of Peppy in George’s dressing room) and that also manages to run lots of themes together successfully including loss, romance, true love and (literally) dogged loyalty. It almost makes you want to resurrect the silent film era. In moving to “talkies” and now 3D and surround-sound movies we have also lost much of the art of conveying meaning without speaking. You will follow this movie easily enough, even without the limited subtitles and you should expect to feel charmed when it is all done.

Despite its strengths, I am not sure if it quite warranted Best Picture. Hugo was also nominated, also dealt with the era of silent films, and is arguably this film’s equal, if not its better. I was blown away by The Help. Had I had the privilege of casting a vote, The Help would have received my vote. All three films are excellently done period pieces, so equally excellent that maybe The Artist won by very small margins.

The Artist does get this vote from me: 3.4 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 

 
The Thinker

It’s better outside

I have a blessedly short commute to work, about three miles each way. The fastest way to work involves driving through a suburban, tree-lined neighborhood. This neighborhood is a lot like mine: single family homes with a third to half acre lawns, streets with sidewalks, trash collected on Tuesday and Fridays (I know because I am often dodging the trash truck), mailboxes on posts along the street, and lots of SUVs and minivans in the driveways.

I have been driving this route for years but only recently have I focused on a particular house I pass. It is peculiar in a way that should not be peculiar, but it is. Pretty much every time I pass it, in almost all sorts of weather except for rain or snow, there is at least one adult in a lawn chair parked in front of the garage. She looks like the mom of the house, and there are usually a couple of other neighbors in lawn chairs chatting with her as well.

If school is out, the kids are outside as well. They are mostly on bikes. The smaller ones are on Hot Wheels or pulling red wagons by their handles. Some are just running around the yard, sometimes with a dog in tow. Some are drawing on the sidewalks or driveway with colored chalk. The parents (usually mothers) sit in the lawn chairs, keep an eye on the kids (but not vigilantly), and chat while drinking coffee or iced tea. The kids, being outside and hollering, attract other kids. In fact, it appears that kids from blocks around are there, driven by the energy of other kids being outside.

Yes, this does happen, even in extreme weather. Northern Virginia gets more than its share of scorching hot summer days, with oppressive heat, humidity and bad air quality too. Those kinds of days drive me indoors. I get sweaty just thinking about being outside on days like that. It helps that this particular street is lined with tall trees that provide plenty of shade. Me? I have a porch that faces south and also looks out onto a street. The tree that used to anchor our front lawn was taken down this year, a victim of age. But even when it was in its lush prime, it wasn’t quite leafy enough to wholly block the sun and provide some measure of coolness under its canopy. This house, and most of the street, sits in the shade, which invites children to be outside comfortably.

To make a real kid-friendly neighborhood like this in the 21st century seems to require a mom, or maybe a bunch of them, plus a few neighborhood dads that I see from time to time, often with a can of beer. They seem to like being out there. And they are out there a lot. Mornings. Afternoons. Occasionally I will drive by in the evenings and I see kids and a parent or two out there. In fact, it seems like the mother of this particular house spends more time each day outdoors than she does indoors, and she is mostly parked in a lawn chair in front of her garage door.

In this environment, kids start playing with other kids who might otherwise be indoors on a Gameboy or zoning out on television. They start riding bikes relentlessly up and down the street, often in small gangs of four or six, getting plenty of natural exercise. Sometimes there is a lemonade stand, sometimes even in 2012 some are wearing roller skates, but they always wear helmets of some sort when they are on wheels. They all seem happy, healthy, whole and gloriously alive.

As for the adults, between their iced teas and cups of Starbucks or other brews they are laughing and chatting in the lawn chairs under the trees. They are interacting too, pretty much every day, weekends included. No doubt they are discussing their children and the issues of the day. Matters great and small are likely discussed, but if I had to guess more small than great. They are quite literally shooting the breeze. They are taking life as it comes, mostly outdoors. They are imbued in nature.

Nature can do that to you. It does it to me, at least when the weather is nice, like it has been this week. My doctor’s office is a short half-mile walk from my office, so there is no reason not to hoof it when I visit him. It takes no more than fifteen minutes to walk there, but the simple act of doing so usually perks me up. The view from my fifth story office window look out on trees and mountains, but it is not the same as simply being outside with nature. I don’t hear it. I don’t smell it. I don’t feel it. I just see it through a pane of thick glass.

Even when the weather is not optimal, there is something to be said about the value of being outside. When you are outside, nature fills your senses, whether you want it to or not. Most of the time, even in inclement weather, I find that being outside actually is preferable to being indoors, providing nature’s pests don’t use me as lunch. These days, if you still want the Internet, it’s not a problem. You take along your smartphone.

I’m wondering if that’s what the parents and kids in this neighborhood near Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia have also discovered. Life lived mostly outdoors can be a connected life: with nature, with neighbors, with children, with gardens, and with life. Perhaps we live so much of our lives indoors at our own peril, tuning out the world and seeing life through a filtered prison.

How would our lives be different if most of us spent most of our days outdoors? On a shady street off Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia the answer seems to be that life is a lot better.

 
The Thinker

Why Obama is winning

Pollsters keep telling us that President Obama is statistically tied in the presidential race with his challenger Mitt Romney. “It’s within the margin of error,” they say, and if elections were won based on the popular vote, it would be. It is much harder to make the claim that the candidates are tied if you look at state polls, particularly at swing state polls. It’s beginning to look like check and mate for Mitt Romney.

Can things change? Of course they can. There is plenty of history sixty days out from Election Day showing that polls in early September don’t accurately predict the eventual winner. In this election though, the number of undecided voters is tiny. Moreover, the only undecided voters that matter are those in swing states. In most states, all the undecided voters could vote for one candidate over the other and it won’t change how the state’s electoral votes will go. With a few exceptions, states award all of their electoral votes to the candidate with the majority of votes in the state. Both campaigns know this, of course. There is no point wasting money trying to persuade voters in Texas to vote for Obama, or in Massachusetts trying to convince voters to vote for Romney. It’s only in swing states like, ironically, my state of Virginia where overbearing political ads seem to run nonstop.

State by state polls show that Obama has many realistic paths to the 270 electoral votes he needs for reelection, while few of Romney’s paths are viable. Most importantly, Romney looks like he is not going to win in Ohio, at least not without a lot of ballot stuffing or voter suppression. Polls show Obama with a consistent lead of about six points. Ohio’s Republican legislature has been working hard on the latter, but is getting some resistance from the courts. In recent times no candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio. It is possible that Romney could win in a bunch of other states to make up the difference, but that path looks impossible.

Romney’s hope lies not in third parties that will spend enormous amounts of money to try to change the difference. His affiliated PACs have been doing that for months and it has been mostly wasted money. The recent Republican National Convention gave Romney no bounce at all in the polls. The more recent Democratic National Convention appears to have given Obama a bounce of at least a few points. History suggests any bounces will be short lived. So the race is likely to settle back to where it was before the conventions, showing the candidates close to tied with Obama generally shown marginally ahead.

Romney has only two real paths to victory. First, he can hope for some sort of cataclysmic financial event such as happened before the last election, or a sharply negative jobs report. This certainly is possible, but is unlikely. Second, he can hope that he so shines in the presidential debates that significant number of voters change their mind because they see a different and better candidate that they did not expect. Republican state legislators are hoping that Democrats can be restrained from voting through toughened voter identification laws, thus flipping the state into the red column. At best this strategy will work in only a couple of states.

Voter enthusiasm also makes a big difference in who wins, as Republicans demonstrated in 2010 when Democrats stayed home. There will be no problem turning out Republicans, unless polls make them feel disheartened. Democrats are also expected to turn out in large numbers, but perhaps not in as large numbers as in 2008.

So if Romney is checkmated, as it looks like he will be, how will it have happened? There are of course many factors, but I think the most important factor is that voters sense that Obama really cares about the middle class, and are not convinced that Romney does. Ohio actually makes a great case in point. It was ravaged by the recession, as it is nearly as dominated by the auto industry as Michigan. Obama and his brief Democratic congress rescued the auto industry when no one else would. The American auto industry came back as a direct result of our investment in it. This is the value of actions over beliefs. In this case, it is obvious that these were correct decisions, and probably explains why Obama leads in Ohio by a consistent six percent.

Moreover, voters remain distrustful of Republicans. While they may be unhappy that the recovery has not be broader, faster and more sustained, they do know who got us into this economic mess and they know it was not Obama. Having had their hand recently burned on the stove, they are reticent to put their hand back on the stove. Republicans need to demonstrate political competence. Instead, they are demonstrating obstruction, extremism and intransigence, which may thrill their political base but does not endear them to independents, no matter how desperate they may feel about their job prospects.

It’s not sexy but Democrats and President Obama have spent most of the last four years trying to keep the bottom from falling out of the economy. This Houdini trick became exponentially more difficult after the 2010 election when Tea Party Republicans took control of the House.

In addition, Obama framed Romney very effectively in June and July when voters were just beginning to pay attention to him. The frame, which was not hard to apply, was that Romney was someone with no empathy for the middle class and who understood only profits and losses, not the real issues that Americans face. Obama understands the needs of the middle class from experience, an experience that Romney never tasted. Romney’s own bungling and inconsistency since then helped cement the frame. He seems incapable of any empathy for other than the rich, and cannot even seem to speak in a language that middle America understands.

Smart Republicans have already largely written off a Romney win, and are concentrating money where it matters: on obtaining a Senate majority (which is looking increasingly problematic) and maintaining their House majority (which looks likely). Losses in this election might foment some earnest soul searching from Republicans. The sooner they realize that they need to moderate positions the more likely they are to achieve lasting political power. Republicans are going to eventually realize that they must govern from the center to maintain political power, and this means their extreme positions will need to be moderated or they risk obsolescence as a party.

 
The Thinker

Adrift in the Sea of Relativity

There is lot of twittering among the denizens at DailyKOS over Republicans and their recent convention. Particularly humorous for us was not Mitt Romney, who comes across as a generally decent but vacillating and contradictory buffoon, but his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan. What makes Ryan particularly interesting to us progressives is his ability to hold two completely contradictory notions in his head and pledge fealty to both.

This is hardly news among Republicans, but in Ryan’s case the choice is so stark that it is hard for us Democrats to not feel glee at the resulting contrast. Paul Ryan is simultaneously a big believer in Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism and claims to be a devout Catholic. Anybody with even a surface knowledge of both Objectivism and Catholicism has to ask: WTF?

Long time readers of this blog may remember my little treatise on the ridiculousness of Objectivism. I too was briefly under its spell. Fortunately, I sobered up pretty quick once I realized it was both crazy and unworkable. Yet Objectivism stuck to Ryan like superglue, but of course being conservative and a Catholic he couldn’t just stop going to mass and confessing his devotion to the Catholic faith. And yet Ryan is the same person whose budget plan passed the House in 2011 and consisted chiefly of the cutting the poor off at their kneecaps (well, actually more like the waist) while lavishing tax cuts on the rich.

Wags on DailyKos wondered how a true Objectivist like Ryan could run for office in the first place: politicians are supposed to address issues for the benefit of their constituents, but a real Objectivist would only take an action if it was solely in his selfish interest. Moreover, Ayn Rand was an atheist. The Catholic bishops, hardly examples of shining virtue, quickly cut Ryan down to size, reiterating, among other things, that Catholics must care about the poor and work for social justice. Ryan, of course, remains tone deaf to the church’s criticisms and calls the controversy a mere “difference of opinion”.

Everyone seems to have pillars of truth that they anchor their lives around. In Ryan’s case they are weirdly self-contradictory. Be it Objectivism, or Catholicism, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or secular treatises like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, there is comfort to be had in going with an off the shelf solution. Many, many years back I opined on what it might be like if we all built our own personal philosophy, perhaps by pulling pieces from elsewhere. That appears to be Ryan’s approach. Something about Objectivism he found very appealing, but there must be some nugget of Catholicism that he found appealing as well. Apparently it wasn’t the social justice part. Maybe it was the no divorce ever part. Whatever. Glue them together and with whatever bastardized shape emerges label it “my truth”.

And why not? Because in the end, we all end up dead. So you might as well grab onto some philosophy or religion to get through life. Your life will likely be too short for your tastes anyhow, and you probably don’t want to spend most of it wallowing in an existential angst. We may be compulsively driven toward faith, for the same way we are driven to eat and sleep. We need some faith, even if it is not a religious faith like Communism, to make sense out of a life that would otherwise appear pointless, random and very chaotic.

We get occasional reminders that we keep barking up the wrong trees. Harold Camping’s revelation that the world would end on May 21, 2011 proved incorrect, but at least for a while it got him some attention. When he does pass his fallacious prediction will at least warrant him a real obituary, rather than a death notice. The world will not end this fall when the Mayan calendar resets itself either. One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is that we don’t profess to a creed and thus we never suffer the shame of looking ridiculous like Harold Camping. If we have a creed, it is that our creed is changeable depending on what science discovers. However, Unitarians are weird. We are like people who never want to get off the roller coaster. Most people prefer the solid feel of terra firma under their feet.

The evidence is overwhelming that our lives are accidental rather than a part of some grand design. In that sense, life really is like riding a roller coaster. So you might as well enjoy your random ride through life for the time that you have. If you get the opportunity to enjoy it, consider yourself fortunate. However, be aware that you probably have this chance only because your parents invested time and money in you, and shepherded you through many obstacles so that you could thrive in the jungle called life. For those of us fortunate to be in the canopy, the view is nice, but down on the jungle floor life is hell. Most people on this planet live lives that, if not in hell, are deep in purgatory. When your life is mostly hell, faith anchored in an afterlife has a lot of appeal, which probably explains why faiths have been so overwhelmingly popular. That religion is diminishing in places like Europe suggests a critical mass there has truly achieved enlightenment. So perhaps their time on earth will be decent overall, but we all share the same fate: death.

What do the faithless like me do? Do we live each day like Hugh Hefner? Do we attempt to alleviate suffering even though such efforts are microscopic in the grand suffering going on around us? Should we feel no sanctions against murder, or fleecing our neighbors, or chasing our neighbors’ wives? Is there a point to anything we do when we die and everything else dies as well, and when a thousand years from now we can infer with great confidence that our lives and times will be wholly forgotten?

For me, despite being over fifty, this reality is still pretty scary. Some part of me still longs for the certainty by which the faithful anchor, or seem to anchor their lives. There are no real guideposts for people like me, only our own confused and flawed consciences. We keep trying to do the best for ourselves and those we live with. We are adrift in a Sea of Relativity, and we know it. We also know why so many of those around us, like the Paul Ryans of the world, prefer the delusion of certainty to the uncomfortable angst of being awake.

 
The Thinker

Commemorating the Battle of Ox Hill – 150 years ago today in Chantilly, Virginia

One hundred fifty years ago this evening, nearly twelve hundred Confederate and Union soldiers were casualties of a battle that occurred literally down the street from me. The event was later named the Battle of Ox Hill by the Confederacy, and the Battle of Chantilly by the Union. While it killed two Union brigadier generals, at the time it was almost forgotten. Union general John Pope, his armies wounded and bloodied after losing badly after the second Battle of Manassas, was busy retreating with the remnants of his army. He was anxious to get his armies back inside the safety of Washington’s extensive fortifications.

Pope spent much of his time during the retreat trying to frantically protect his reputation by having his army’s withdrawal authorized by the Union’s commanding general Henry Halleck. Meanwhile, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent General Stonewall Jackson and his army on a journey to the north around the Union’s flank, sending them down what was then Little River Turnpike but which is now appropriately renamed Lee Jackson Memorial Highway (U.S. Route 50). Their mission was to try to inflict more damage on the Union armies before they reached the safety of Washington. The result was the Battle of Ox Hill, which at the time was hardly noticed by General Pope. While he was awake enough to send out the cavalry to probe for flanking maneuvers by the Confederacy, and placed guns covering his retreat near the intersection of what is now Jermantown Road and Lee Jackson Memorial Highway, overall he paid little attention to what began as a skirmish to his north that quickly turned into the Battle of Ox Hill.

Battle of Ox Hill Site (September 1, 2012)

Battle of Ox Hill Site (September 1, 2012)

Twelve hundred casualties sounds like a lot, but in the context of the Civil War it was almost just a skirmish. Of those casualties, 221 soldiers died as a direct result of the battle, which occurred during a terrible thunderstorm that turned the battlefield into mud and ended inconclusively in the twilight. Some consider the battle a Union victory, but only in the sense that due to the quick actions of Brigadier Generals Stevens and subsequently Kearny (who did the strategic thinking in Pope’s absence) the Union army’s withdrawal continued apace, preventing a greater general disaster. Both Stevens and Kearny died in the battle, which probably is why the battle is memorialized at all today. Largely forgotten, of course, were the casualties. Most did not die quickly, but moaned all night in the woods and cornfields where the battle occurred, wet and covered in mud.

This was the only major Civil War battle to occur in Fairfax County, Virginia where I live. (There was a minor battle near the Dranesville Tavern in 1861.) The much bloodier battles on the plains near Manassas (Bull Run) occurred to the west in nearby Prince William County. Other Civil War actions certainly occurred in Fairfax County. Clara Barton helped dress the wounds of soldiers at the Fairfax courthouse near the battlefield. J.E.B. Stuart rode his Confederate cavalry through the county many times, including a probe a mile from where I live at the road near Frying Pan. These and more details I learned from reading David A. Welker’s book on the battle, the first detailed and comprehensive account of the battle, and published just ten years ago.

It took some prodding from local Civil War historical associations, but Fairfax County recognized the battle officially today with an event at a park at the site. Unfortunately, as I ranted way back in 2004, the four-acre park does not begin to cover the territory covered by the battle. In the 1980s and 1990s developers largely succeeded in turning the site into an area called Fair Lakes. During the Civil War soldiers were often unceremoniously buried where they died, if they were buried at all. Generals Stevens and Kearny were lucky only because they were officers, so their bodies were returned under flags of truce. During development at the site, bulldozers doubtless anonymously reburied the skeletons of Civil War soldiers under more layers of earth, forever to remain forgotten or anonymous.

It’s not much, but since I last visited in 2004, the 4.3-acre site on Monument Drive at least has been improved. There are new paths, a formal entrance along West Ox Road with a prominent sign, and a bit more parking. Most delightfully of all, the park authority took the time to put in a cornfield and fence mirroring, at least for a small portion of the battlefield the look of the field on the day of the battle. I listened to local politicians speak of the battle, watched a couple of handfuls of re-enactors drill and shoot from muskets and rifles, and spoke with local Civil War buffs. The crowd was modest, two hundred visitors at most while I was there, but respectably sized. Most of my fellow citizens of Fairfax County were happy to tune out the event, which got little press coverage, and perhaps add to the relative ignominy of the battle.

Stevens and Kearny Memorials

Stevens and Kearny Memorials

The site with the stone markers commemorating the deaths of Generals Stevens and Kearny at least has been spiffed up. There are signs for promised future monuments to Confederate and Union armies that participated in the battle. Mostly we can only rely on old photographs to get a sense of that battlefield one hundred and fifty years ago. The last house on the site, the Ballard home, was demolished in the 1960s.

No hellacious thunderstorms are expected tonight. No armies will fight and no casualties will lie moaning in the woods. Time keeps passing sending history further back into the past to be at some point wholly forgotten. Tonight, in the many multi-family housing units (principally condominiums and apartments) around the site families will cook meals, put children to bed and watch movies on Netflix virtually unaware of the historical significance of the day.

At least a couple hundred of us though came together at the park and remembered one more battle in a long and bloody Civil War, and honor the history literally under our feet.

Update 9/5/2012. Fairfax County, Virginia produced the following short video on the event.

 

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