Archive for December, 2012

The Thinker

Sometimes you have to be your own doctor

2012 ends for me with some positive health news. Problems I have been chasing for years appear to be on their way to resolution, or are at least in remission. The bad news is that despite the many physicians and specialists I have seen, overall I have had to become my own doctor. Such is the world of chasing annoying medical problems for middle-aged people like me in the 21st century.

The one physician I cannot complain about is my primary care physician, who is on the ball, at least about problems he can easily figure out, like my high cholesterol. I have been on a variety of statins, first Lipitor before it went generic, then Simvastatin because it was generic. My physician was on the ball enough to order me to get regular blood work after I switched drugs. It detected that the Simvastatin was causing muscle deterioration, so much so that if it had gone on much longer I would have ended up in the hospital. He saved my insurance company and me thousands of dollars and me from a potentially life threatening condition. So now I am back on Lipitor, which is now generic, with the only yellow flag being an increase in a liver enzyme, something that can happen when you are on Lipitor.

I have also been chasing my painful sciatica. Sciatica is a particularly baffling condition since there are so many possibilities for its root cause. Having it meant that sitting was painful and brought burning sensations down the back of my thighs. I’ve been dealing with it for years and have gone so far as to consider solutions like standing desks. Pretty much everything I have tried brought no permanent relief. When no relief was in sight despite seeing orthopedic surgeons and chiropractors, I ended up on the Internet. It seemed there were two possibilities: a herniated disk or piriformis syndrome. The latter seemed more likely and it occurs when the piriformis muscles in the leg constrict nerves exiting the spinal column. After a lot of traction at my chiropractor’s office and releasing pressure on the piriformis muscle it seemed to go away. Then like a doofus I thought it was gone for good, and stopped getting traction, only to have it come back with a vengeance. What works now is more traction, but this time getting it regularly so my L5 joint does slide back into a position so that it presses against the spinal nerve again. I am getting traction every three weeks now. I also have a special ergonomic chair at work that does not put pressure on L5, like many supposedly ergonomic chairs too, including Aeron chairs due to the drop at the back of the seat. The sciatica is not completely gone but most days I don’t notice it. Moreover, it looks like regular traction will keep it in remission and the key is to keep coming back for more traction at regular intervals.

I also have large feet and consequently a lot of foot related issues. These were originally numbness in the feet. My foot issues got more acute with a recent recurrence of plantar fasciitis on the left foot. Plantar fasciitis typically manifests it out as a burning feeling on the souls of your feet, although this time it was at the heel of the foot. This is a condition occurs when tendons are torn in the feet and it takes months to heal. So I have been wearing running shoes with lots of cushion in the heels. Four months later it is not quite gone, but it is nearly gone.

What to do about all the numbness in my feet? I had seen neurologists and confirmed neuropathies. My podiatrist speculated that my varicose veins might cause them. I had the veins removed on the right leg, where the problem was more acute, but it did not solve the problem. At one point I spent four weeks in a boot that immobilized my foot because the joint pain became excruciating. I was beginning to wonder if I would be better off without my feet. The metatarsal bones in my feet felt like they were not where they should be. Had something broken and moved out of alignment? Eventually my podiatrist agreed to have an MRI done of my foot. Everything was exactly where it should be, which would be good news except for the occasional excruciating pain. One thing that was noticed: muscle atrophy in the feet. So I was sent to a physical therapist and spent weeks trying to regain my balance and strengthening the muscles in my feet. With more muscle mass in my feet, my condition began to clear. It appears if I had done this to start with, I would have avoided years of pain and consultations. No one had the ability to figure it out, and it never occurred to my podiatrist to test the strength of the muscles in my feet. Moreover, the sciatic nerve cascades down into the feet. It is likely that sciatica contributed to the problem.

It seems like an informed and inquisitive patient is the key to solving these chronic problems, because our physicians for the most part can’t seem to properly diagnose these more complex issues. I found that pain is a pretty good motivator for action, but I feel frustrated because I had to piece it altogether, as well as prompt my physicians to get tests that I thought I needed.

Obviously, it shouldn’t be this way. However, I am at a loss on how to improve our health care system so that these probably typical experiences that I had are faster to get properly diagnosed. Whatever medical training our medical specialists are getting, it seems insufficient. They are good at seeing trees, but not so much the forest.

The Thinker

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I haven’t read The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien’s first book on Middle Earth in at least three decades. I have read The Lord of the Rings at least a half dozen times. Frankly, The Hobbit is simply a far less compelling book: relatively slim and oriented toward children. It would have been a great book to read with my father at age eight or so once I was past the Dr. Seuss years, but not so much as an adult.

Unsurprisingly, movie producers skipped right to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That The Hobbit was turned into a movie at all was due to the success of the three rings movies and Peter Jackson’s eventual willingness to both direct and produce the movie. The movie? I misspoke. The Hobbit (as a movie) will become a trilogy of its own. This will involve a lot of padding and stuffing it with materials from the appendices and other source material developed later by Tolkien in The Silmarillion, plus undoubtedly some poetic license. There is plenty of the latter in this first of The Hobbit movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Jackson must have gotten the note: don’t mess with the formula. To make this movie as palatable as possible to fans of the Rings movies, the same music that framed the Rings movies is used, with the exception of one new tune. Also, as long as you are not messing with formula, why not invite back much of the cast from the Rings movies? That’s not to say that they are all back, at least not yet. Gandalf at least is central to The Hobbit book, and Elrond had an ancillary part, but rest assured the white wizard Saruman was not in the book, or the elven queen Galadriel or Radagast, a wizard of the forest, who was only alluded to in the Rings books. Frodo is back as well Ian Holm as the elder Bilbo, both only briefly at the start of the movie. There is no sign of Sam, Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir or the rest, although there are two movies to go. My bet is Peter Jackson will find a way to slip them in somewhere.

For all practical purposes, Thorin is Aragorn in this movie. The resemblance is so striking that I initially mistook Richard Armitage for Viggo Mortensen, as he uses the same poses as Aragorn and even holds his sword the same way. Aragorn was the dispossessed King of Gondor. Thorin is the dispossessed dwarf king under the mountain. Both have major challenges. Aragorn has to summon the will to be king and defeat Sauron. Thorin has to reclaim his kingdom and kill the dragon Smaug. Aragorn is one prominent member of a fellowship. Thorin is the leader of thirteen dwarves. Bilbo Baggins enters the picture at the start of this movie as the dwarves converge on the Shire and because the wizard Gandalf chooses Bilbo as their burglar, a duty the homebound Bilbo does not seem to eager to take on.

Oh, but it’s great to be in the Shire, which is eternally peaceful and bucolic, and in particular it’s great to be back in Bag End, Bilbo’s home, even if it is quickly taken over by dwarves who monopolize both conversation and his pantry. Martin Freeman, who I first knew as John Watson in the BBC’s latest series Sherlock, plays a younger Bilbo. It is clear that he studied Ian Holm’s interpretation because much of his acting here is imitating Ian Holm. Nonetheless Freeman proves an apt choice for Bilbo and brings just the right mixture of sincerity and naivety to the role.

Ian McKellen (Gandalf) looks ten years older, which he is, but actually does a more satisfying job of portraying the wizard than he did in the Rings movies. You might say he has fully mastered the part now, and he does so effortlessly and to delightful effect. Otherwise those brought back from the Rings movies don’t look any older, including Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Ian Holm as Bilbo. Holm actually looks younger, if that is possible, and Blanchett doesn’t look aged a day, which is good if you are portraying an immortal elf.

As for the dwarves, they don’t all look as weathered as Gimli did in the Rings movies. Thorin in particular looks more human than dwarf, which is good because we have to relate to someone in the movie and there are no parts for actual humans. They all make a memorable introduction at Bag End near the start of the movie where poor Bilbo plays unexpected host to all thirteen of them, plus wizard. Jackson earns the big money in these early scenes, because their exposition unfolds so comically and seamlessly. It is unlikely that any other director could have pulled it off. And Freeman is just so excellent as the befuddled Bilbo. His casting was inspired.

This earlier version of Middle Earth is older and a bit more fun than the one we saw in the Rings movies. That was one of the problems with the original movies: Middle Earth was changing, but not so much in The Hobbit, except giant spiders are inhabiting the Greenwood, trolls have come down from the mountains, and orcs are on the warpath. Jackson seems determined to integrate it with the Rings movies and to portray a Middle Earth that is subtly changing for the worse. As for the dwarves that Bilbo belatedly joins as its burglar, it’s hard for them to go a day without some hair-raising adventure: trolls, orcs and stone giants are just some of the perils they have to encounter. There is also, deep in the Misty Mountains, a peculiar creature called Gollum that Bilbo must encounter for the first time. It’s peculiar but pleasurable to encounter Gollum again. He should be thoroughly unlikeable, but Andy Serkis does such a good job of portraying him that you look forward to the encounter.

The movie feels quite padded, but in a good way. Middle Earth is a huge tapestry. In the Rings movies Jackson had to be very selective about what to show of Middle Earth. Finally he has a chance to imbue us wholly in Middle Earth. Probably half an hour could have been trimmed from the movie at no appreciable loss, except for us Tolkien-heads for who these movies were really made, and there are millions of us. We can’t get enough!

So parts feel formulaic, but also in a good way. The dwarves and Bilbo escape all sorts of improbable disasters. Jackson has wholly mastered adventure movies and we get lots of rickety catwalks, collapsing bridges and drops from crazy heights. Middle Earth is dazzling, more so than in the Rings movies, and it is a comfortable place in spite of all its perils. It’s quite a pleasure to walk in Rivendell again and although meetings with characters like Saruman and Lady Galadriel seem quite contrived, you won’t care. Middle Earth has never felt quite so homey.

Good job, Peter Jackson and crew. I’m not sure how you will pad out this slim book into three three-hour movies, but if the other two are as good as the first, we Tolkien addicts are going to be happy. Meanwhile Peter Jackson, how about starting preproduction for The Silmarillion? Thanks.

3.4 on my four-point scale. A good time for all.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

Not quite the end of the world as we know it

Sigh. Today was another day when the world was supposed to end, but here I am still alive and frankly feeling rather disappointed. Granted that most end of the world scenarios are bleak. Fire, brimstone, wailing and gnashing of teeth are all usually assumed at the end of the world. In some scenarios the elect (usually those who accept Jesus Christ as their Personal Lord and Savior ™) at least get raptured. In general, it’s not the end of the world unless huge numbers of people suffer violently and in blistering pain, then die noisily, painfully and traumatically. It all over in a few hours.

So why was I rooting for the end of the world? Well, at least it would be different. Instead, it’s same old, same old.

There was no brimstone falling this morning when I walked to my car. 7:30 AM found me at the chiropractor for another round of traction to make sure my painful sciatica does not come back. At 10 AM, I was getting my haircut by Basma, who had to reschedule for doomsday because she is flying home to Jerusalem on Monday, three days after the end of the world! Thence I tootled to Wells Fargo Bank, not because I am a customer, but because a check from my money market account won’t process electronically. Finally around 11 AM I made it into the office and I realized the day was a huge disappointment. Another day parking in the same parking lot. Another morning flashing my badge to the security guard as I entered the building. Another trip up the same quiet elevators to my fifth floor office. On my desk was the same peace plant in need of water. Lunch was the same too: salad with chicken pieces dropped on top, with the only variant being the soup de jour (vegetable beef).

It was all the same stuff on the news too. Fiscal cliff. Dysfunctional congress. A snowstorm was moving across the Midwest. The NRA was making the same tired noises, this time in response to the Newtown massacre a week ago. (Their “solution” is to put an armed guard in every school.) And of course there was the usual slow moving climate crisis: melting polar icecaps, loss of biodiversity and most Americans living happily in denial.

Sharon at least found her own exit. Sharon was a lady in our office who died of complications from heart surgery a week ago, at the premature age of 51. She was a sweet lady, a huge Redskins fan, always the first to help others and good at herding us cats: people like me who put our time into our payroll system. It was part of her job to manage us cats so we could actually get paid on time. She did a great job of it because our payroll system is a crappy web-based system seemingly put together by trolls. Her funeral was yesterday and most of us in her herd went to it. We pondered our appreciation for having her in our lives and offered sincere condolences to her grieving family. But during the service we also learned of a blessing from her premature passing: she was spending Christmas with Jesus this year.

That sounds pretty awesome. Rapid climate change and fiscal cliff diving are no longer issues she has to worry about, although I don’t recall her being worried in particular about any of these things. And Jesus sounds like a pretty neat dude. I can think of worse things than hanging around him for eternity, like, say, hanging around this world and watching with daily horror as we slowly kill it.

Ask a Mayan (as we did in January when we went to see Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula) and you learn that they never said the world was going to end today. Rather, their calendar starts afresh. Today is like January 1, 2000 was to the rest of us. It’s a day for celebration, and the Mayans have plenty to celebrate. They may have been about four feet tall when their calendar was invented (their height was limited due to limestone water they drank) but they were amazing in many ways: astronomers and mathematicians arguably more advanced than the ancient Egyptians were at the same time. No, as our Mayan tour guide told us, it’s us Westerners who chose to hear what we wanted to hear. So today became yet another day to proclaim the end of the world and sell a few more newspapers. I won’t hold the Mayans to blame, just shoddy journalists who can’t be bothered to do basic research.

If you were to pick a day when Armageddon actually started, today would probably do, although any day would meet the criteria. Here’s the thing: barring some sort of large asteroid hitting earth (something we would know about) Armageddon is not something that happens quickly. Rather, it happens very slowly. It’s like boiling a frog by putting it in a pan of water on the stove and slowly increasing the heat. Feeling a bit sweaty? I know I am. The end of a world with us humans in it strikes me as an inevitable consequence of global climate change and our dogged determination to largely ignore it. It’s coming at us way faster than we can adapt to it. While it’s impossible to say any one particularly extreme event is a direct result of climate change, Hurricane Sandy sure felt like Mother Nature was giving us a wakeup call. So for me Armageddon began officially on October 30, 2012, the day when Sandy made landfall on the Eastern Seaboard.

The earth will survive, of course, but humans won’t. There are far too many of us to keep the Earth in something resembling a natural balance. We make it worse on ourselves by craving a first world lifestyle. It’s not hard at all to see how this ends, and it won’t be with a joint Kumbaya. Sandy should have been our wakeup call but we will rebuild along our coasts anyhow, only to see these areas get soon wacked again by the next Sandy. Eventually we will figure out we need to move further inland and build on higher elevations, but that of course doesn’t solve the problem, it just lessens our pain.

Our whole ecosystem is rapidly changing, and not for the better. Lowlands are surrendering to the sea. Storms are becoming larger and more destructive. Farmlands are becoming deserts. Crop yields are lessening because it is simply too hot or too parched during the summers for food to grow to maturity. In good years the Obamas of the world will try to inspire and lead us. We may cheer them a bit but mostly we will prefer to wallow in our own issues rather than wrestle with the macroscopic ones. In bad years the John Boehners of the world will tell us to plug cotton into our ears and pray about your concerns at church.

We already know what causes this real Armageddon that is unfolding: reliance on fossil fuels, cravings for first world lifestyles, humans breeding like bunnies and succumbing to greed. These actions make the world hotter and it makes people meaner. Climate change is killing us and the species we rely on to survive.

The fiscal cliff diving of the moment inadvertently reveals the real end of the world underway. There are too many of us and the world cannot increase in size just because we keep having too many babies. So we enter a resource competitive era and that means someone has to take it on the chin. No one will volunteer to be the first to reduce their standard of living, so we will duke it out instead, and most likely this means the poor will get more wretched and the rich will get richer. The last bloodied man standing can keep his SUV and iPhone but there will be no place to go and no one to call. Eventually he will die, Armageddon will end, but because we won’t be around to tip the balance perhaps the Earth will finally have a chance to restore a natural balance.

The Thinker

When you live by the gun, don’t be surprised if you die by the gun

I am trying to think what else I can add to the billions of words posted on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Friday’s tragic and senseless mass murder of twenty children and seven adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and in Newtown, Connecticut. It was, of course, horrific and the sort of event that gives even those of us with strong stomachs a persistently queasy feeling. I could write another blog post about my revulsion of guns, or why we need to do more help to help the mentally ill, but of course I have written many of these in response to other sad events like this one. This one is especially egregious not just for the number of fatalities but that our most young children were the primary victims.

So yes, this is more tragic evidence that we need to do more to control guns in our society, and need to make special efforts to keep them away from mentally disturbed people. There are currently no laws that would have kept Adam Lanza from getting the guns he used to kill so many people including him. In particular, there are no laws prohibiting people without criminal records from possessing semi-automatic weapons. But it appears that it didn’t matter in his case. The guns came courtesy of dear old mom, 52-year-old Nancy Lanza, who also turned out to be Adam Lanza’s first victim.

According to various press articles, Nancy Lanza was one of these citizens who liked to pack a lot of heat at home. If paranoid schizophrenia runs in the Lanza family, perhaps Nancy had it first, because her house was not only her castle but also apparently her armory as well. She is one of probably millions of Americans who truly believe that the government (in this case Obama in general, but also the United Nations) was out to take away her freedoms. Just in case, she was prepared. Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo writes:

There’s been some level of mystery about just why Adam Lanza’s first victim, Nancy Lanza, had such a stock of weapons, particularly military style weapons like the .223 Bushmaster, the weapon we now know was actually used in the killings. She wasn’t just into guns. She was apparently stocked up for when the economy collapses and when everyone’s on their own with their guns.

It’s not hard to infer that Adam had some issues with his mother; otherwise presumably she would not be dead. Perhaps he was beyond typical mentally illnesses and was psychotic or on drugs or something. Perhaps after an extensive forensics investigation we will eventually understand the puzzle of Adam Lanza.

In some ways though it does not matter. If you want to commit mass murder, it’s obviously not too hard in America. But even if there were laws that were enforced to keep psychos like Adam Lanza away from lethal weapons, there are always trusty, law-abiding citizens like mom, paranoid about their own government and probably convinced via various right wing media that they needed to arm up now, with their lethal stash easily accessible that can be put to the wrong use.

I remarked before that the most likely person to kill you is someone you know personally, most likely someone you are related to through blood, marriage or a close relationship. Maybe keeping a handgun under your mattress will save your life, but chances are whoever is planning to kill you knows you have a gun, has a good idea where it is and plans to take you unaware. That’s most likely what happened to Nancy Lanza. All that lethal armature meant nothing because she was caught off guard. And that’s generally how these homicides happen. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, that’s where it would end. Nancy would be dead, Adam would hopefully be convicted, and the incident would have been buried near the back of Newtown’s newspaper. But Adam found some reason to keep murdering after killing mother. And thanks to mom, her .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and of course her large supply of ammunition he had the ready means to unleash mayhem.

The price of paranoia is ever more paranoia and it seems that little can be done to temper paranoid tendencies. When your mindset is survival, even when your life is not really in danger from vapid external forces, instead of living a normal life you live a life that is fear based. And it likely carries an emotional impact. It’s speculation of course, but if I grew up with parents that believed the government was close to imposing totalitarianism and kept closets of weapons and bullets handy, I’d likely pick that up as a value too, and carry it into adult life. Perhaps despite the fact that Adam clearly had issues with Mom, he picked up that value from her, much like so many of us chooses our parents’ religion in adult life.

I believe the murders of Nancy Lanza and twenty-six other people in Newtown, Connecticut is to some extent due to a culture of mistrust and paranoia that pervades so many Americans. This paranoia causes people to give money to the NRA, which petitions for ever-looser gun control laws and gives rare but sizable opportunities to the psychos of the world like Adam Lanza to conduct egregious and murderous rampages.

Those of us who are for gun control are not for it just because we think that guns are dangerous, which they are. We are for it because we realize we need to set values for our society that we can and should all live together peacefully, and that we can trust each other and our government. When you pack a lot of heat at home and keep your closet flush with ammunition, your values are saying that you don’t trust your government or your neighbors, at least not enough to give up your weapons and let the police department deter and prosecute crimes. You are spreading a toxic culture of paranoia that murders.

The tragic irony in this case is that the paranoia Nancy Lanza felt in her heart came back to kill her. Those who live by the gun should be prepared to die by the gun. I feel safer knowing that I am contributing to a safer society because there are no guns in my house, and never will be.

The Thinker

Simply Nick’s

Business travel is a bit of both bore and chore. The bore part can happen if you travel to the same place a little too often. That’s how it is with Lakewood, Colorado and me. Lakewood is a nice enough city on Denver’s western edge, nestled a few miles from the start of the Rocky Mountains. It has a nice view of the mountains and Denver, many affordable houses, convenient strip malls, a new hospital and the Denver Federal Center, where I hang out during the day. Soon it will have light rail as well. It’s a decent city and might be a nice place to retire to if you dream of retiring to a ranch house and like to bike places. It is quite bike-friendly. Still, there is nothing particularly special about Lakewood, aside from its scenic views. It is the average American city, the sort of place where Dagwood Bumstead would feel at home.

Nick's Cafe

Nick’s Cafe

Business travel to Lakewood usually means sleeping in the same so-so hotels. The TownePlace Suites where we usually stay is very much so-so: standard clean Marriott hotel, just not one of the nicer ones. Calling them a suite is a bit of a stretch. There is a tiny kitchen, but there it is basically one room with a bathroom. There is also something resembling breakfast in the lobby in the morning. Breakfast means a continental breakfast: cereals, milk, bananas, apples and bagels. The closest thing to protein is the hardboiled eggs, which only recently appeared on the menu. The price is right but meal quickly gets boring. You find yourself craving some real breakfast food: like scrambled eggs with bacon, fresh orange juice, pancakes and hash browns. For most Americans this means Denny’s, and there is a Denny’s across Highway 6 about a half a mile from the hotel. There is also a hole in the wall called Nick’s Cafe.

You would be wise to choose Nick’s over Denny’s. Granted, passing this tiny restaurant at 777 Simms Street your first reaction might be to run to Denny’s instead. Nick’s epitomizes the hole in the wall restaurant, and its location in a tiny and disheveled looking strip mall with a liquor store might have you wondering if restaurant inspectors ever come by. Moreover the place is tiny. Your chair might well bump up against a chair of the table next to it. It can’t possibly seat more than two dozen people and when it does it must be with considerable discomfort. There is that plus all the kitschy stuff on the walls, almost all of it with an Elvis theme. Nick, the chef behind the counter, reputedly used to cook for Elvis though for how long I don’t know. Nick’s is part restaurant and part shrine to the crooner, with a dash of Marilyn Monroe thrown in. Rumors of Elvis’s demise may be exaggerated, because at Nick’s he has a parking space awaiting his return.

You can likely get breakfast 24 hours a day at your local Denny’s, but at most restaurants at 4 AM you are out of luck. Not so at Nick’s because Nick is an early bird. He arrives around 4 AM and departs around 3 PM after lunch. Nick is not intimidated that most of us are asleep at 4 AM rather than searching for a hot breakfast. He is there, probably because he’s wide awake anyhow. He knows what he does well which is make great tasting breakfasts and lunches for prices that make him competitive with McDonalds. Unlike McDonalds though you can also get a taste of Greece or Mexico, if not during lunch when his hot and tasty gyros are in high demand, but even during breakfast where if you think your taste buds are awake enough for it you can get the breakfast burrito.

Nick concentrates on the food, not on the silverware, which is plastic, or the glasses, which are paper cups, or the plates which are Styrofoam. You can watch Nick prepare your meal if you want since he is right there behind the window. And you cannot escape Nick, as you pay him, not the waitress, on your way out the door. Tip the hard working waitress of course, but leave your credit card at home. It’s strictly cash at Nick’s.

I eat at Nick’s a few times a year, usually toward the end of my trip when I cannot endure another continental breakfast. I am on per diem anyhow, and breakfast is always cheap at Nick’s. It’s also a short walk across 8th Avenue, across a gas station lot and up a short but steep embankment. It’s worth the short climb just to have the pleasure of sitting down, enjoying the Elvis memorabilia on the wall, the Today show on the TV (in the morning) and to hear the comforting sound of food frying on Nick’s grill. The waitress is always there, so it is a matter of seconds before you get a cup of water and a menu. (Seat yourself.)

Perhaps it is just as well that Nick’s Cafe is unknown. With a restaurant so small, Nick simply does not need much more business. It’s the sort of place that should have a line outside the door but I have never seen one. This may be due in part to the severely limited parking. It may be small but that does not mean it does not have loyal clientele. They are also friendly clientele, perhaps too friendly. As I had breakfast the other morning, one patron walked in to pick up her usual order of takeout, but stayed just long enough to sit on the lap of a much older patron. Nick’s is apparently the dining choice of penny pinching Lakewood police, two of whom came in for breakfast while I was there.

As much as I enjoy the ambiance of Nick’s as well as its great food, I confess my primary motivation is the bacon. Nick knows his bacon and he delivers thick strips of bacon cooked just right: neither too greasy nor too brown. It’s bacon you can sink your teeth into and ingest with great satisfaction. I haven’t found it served in any other restaurant, probably because other restaurants are too busy making their bottom line to worry about giving patrons thick slices of bacon. At Nick’s there is only Nick behind the counter and a waitress handling customers. He serves what is good, not what makes him the most money. He cannot be in this business to get rich, as he charges so little. I figure he works simply because he enjoys it. He is the master of his own small domain, a cash-only business, and it works for him. He can open his own damn store at 4 AM if he wants and there is no one to complain. And so it goes until the last gyro is sold around 3 PM. If you need to see Nick, he will be back at 4 AM. Count on him.

The Thinker

The blog turns ten

Occam's Razor turns 10 years old

Occam’s Razor turns 10 years old

To channel The Bard, “To blog or not to blog? That is the question.” This blog has its tenth anniversary on Thursday. Subtracting out this post, I have written 1406 posts since the first one appeared on December 13, 2002. That’s 1,569,166 words, with an average of 1116 words per post.

In short, it’s a heap of writing and a heap of my time over ten years. I’m guessing I spent on average ninety minutes per blog post. I would have to sit down for more than eighty-seven days nonstop to match the same number of words. Blogging takes a huge amount of my time, but as a financial investment I’ve been panning for fool’s gold. I’ve earned just $343.51 in Google AdSense revenue over the years.

So naturally I have been considering calling it quits. Ending after completing exactly ten years seems like a logical time. Like cartoons, a blog tends to be best when it is fresh. When I look back at ten years of blogging, clearly my best writing was during the first few years of the blog. At times I have been repetitious, which is easy enough to do when you blog, as you can’t remember every single idea you have ever conveyed (and sometimes you don’t care). This may be reflected in my declining web statistics. It’s hard to say for sure since for years my statistics were probably wildly inflated by SiteMeter, but even during the time I have been metering traffic with Google Analytics I have seen traffic diminish by roughly half, maybe even more. I peaked at 8515 visits in February 2008 and fell as low as 1461 visits in June 2012. There is no perfect mechanism for measuring human traffic, and Google Analytics has had its issues too, as I documented. In general the trend has been down, which makes it easier to throw in the towel.

And yet measuring traffic via Google Analytics alone can be deceiving. This is because while GA measures web traffic, increasingly blog content is syndicated.  GA does not track most of this usage. If you are reading this via email or a newsreader, you are reading the blog as syndicated content. As of today I have 85 syndicated subscribers, as measured by Feedburner. In short the number of subscribers to this blog is now roughly equal to the number of daily visitors I get via the web, maybe more. So while fewer people are finding my blog content via search engines, or pulling up the blog in their browser, more people are reading the blog through syndication. Presumably most these readers can be considered regular readers. Crunching my raw Feedburner statistics, I see steady growth in syndicated readers, as the attached graph shows:

Occam's Razor Feedburner Statistics

Occam’s Razor Feedburner Statistics

I have also been tracking social media usage of my blog. I am a latecomer to this, and my reach via social media is certainly in the mediocre range. Since mid March 2012 I’ve been tracking social media usage by using AddThis. You can see how content is being shared from this graph:

Occam's Razor social media statistics

Occam’s Razor social media statistics

My readers are largely a silent lot, with a handful of readers commenting regularly, but with most readers content to read only. Over ten years, I have logged just 891 legitimate comments. (Many more were obviously spam and were removed.)

In short, the statistics offer a mixed verdict on whether I should continue blogging. A number of commenters have said to continue blogging if it makes me happy. Overall, blogging does make me happy, but it also competes for my time among my many other interests, including my job and the time consuming chores that come with living.

It used to be that I would strive to write a blog post once every other day. If I could not keep up that pace, I would feel guilty. Now I am more relaxed about blogging. My slower rate of posts may be responsible for declining traffic. It is believed that one criterion for your search index ranking is how frequently content is added. So then perhaps it is not surprising that web traffic is down, as I am probably averaging two posts a week presently. However, at this point I cannot blog at a faster rate, at least not with an acceptable level of quality. Moreover, I have less to say than I did ten years ago. I don’t feel the chronic need to write simply to improve my search page ranking. Indeed, I have largely stopped writing posts that I know will boost traffic. Based on my popular pages, I suspect I could write a blog that critiques Craigslist, and probably get thousands of page views a day. But I simply don’t care that much about writing about Craigslist, pornography, human sexuality or Walmart, despite the fact that if I did write about these things regularly I would get much more traffic.

For those few enemies I have made over the years, I expect to keep blogging as the blog turns ten. To the rest of you, most of who choose to stay silent, I hope I don’t bore you too much, and you find some wheat among the voluminous chaff that makes up this blog. I take some pride in that Occam’s Razor has kept going so long, as it is ancient in the world of blogging, and that I have consistently maintained a high standard of quality throughout ten years of writing.

That people read my blog in any amount is really a bonus. The blog remains principally my sandbox, where I get to keep my creative juices flowing. Sometimes, perhaps serendipitously, I open a mind or move someone to tears. Although I usually have no idea when these events occur, or how often, perhaps I really write for these elusive moments.

The Thinker

Advice to Democrats

I love to give advice, even though if I am inconsistent in following my own advice. Recently after their losses in the latest election I gave some advice to Republicans. Today, I figure turnabout is fair play. Here is some advice for Democrats.

Democrats, it’s easy to assume that due to changing demographics that Republicans are in permanent decline and that in a few election cycles Congress will resemble itself during the 1960s and 1970s, when it was overwhelmingly Democratic. That may happen but if you think this will happen solely because of demographic changes, you are wrong. It may not happen at all.

Republicans still control the House, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. In short, the party remains a huge and powerful political force. Even at the national level, Democratic control is fragile. Democratic control of the House remains elusive and made less likely by redistricting and the resulting highly gerrymandered districts. In the Senate, Democrats survived a very tough election and actually added a couple of seats to their majority. Our 55 seats include two independent senators caucusing with the Democrats. In 2014, Democrats will again be fighting headwinds as more Democrats run for reelection than Republicans.

Of course to really get things done in the Senate a party needs a supermajority, which is 60 seats. However, even when we have 60 seats, it is very easy for Democrats to split into factions. Democrats rarely show the sort of unanimity that Republicans do. The Affordable Care Act was a prime example, passing late and watered down, with certain senators in conservative leaning states (like Max Baucus) leveraging oversized influence and some senators (Joe Lieberman comes to mind) acting obnoxious and petulant. In retrospect, it’s amazing it was passed into law in even its watered down state.

The news is better on the presidential front. It used to be that by default Republicans were more likely to win presidential contests, due to various demographic and electoral vote advantages. Those days appear over. It is unlikely that any true conservative Republican (at least “conservative” in its modern and antediluvian form) can win for the foreseeable future. Of course, it all depends on who gets nominated, and arguably Democrats have nominated some stinkers with little national appeal including John Kerry, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. In short, when choosing nominees Democrats can tend to be as highly-partisan as Republicans, choosing from their hearts instead of their heads. Choose someone without broad appeal and the party is likely to lose despite favorable demographics.

Looking at the 2012 election, two factors worked in the Democrats favor. First were the obvious demographic changes that are turning traditionally red states blue. I live in such a state (Virginia), but it is blue principally only in national elections. We have a Republican house and senate, and a Republican governor, and an attorney general on the right side of the Tea Party. Other states like Ohio, traditionally a swing state, have a similarly Republican disposition but are turning reliably blue in national elections. The most important reason that Democrats won this time is that they turned out the base. Democrats outnumber Republicans nationally, so they win when they turn out the base. They tend to lose, and lose badly, when they stay home. Independents tend to swing more toward voting Republican, so turning out the base is critical for maintaining and extending Democratic control. This means that selecting candidates on all levels that both excite the base but have mainstream appeal is critical for increasing Democratic power.

We may have a few cycles where Republicans will give Democrats a break. This is because Republicans have not really come to terms with their loss, which means finding a strategy appeals to moderates. At least at the moment, the critical mass of Republicans figure doing more of what lost them the last election, just with more sincerity, is how to get back into power. Perhaps after a couple more election drubbings they will figure it out.

Democrats have a tendency to settle into comfortable factions within the party. This is less of a concern than it used to be, as conservative Democrats are in decline and liberal Democrats are ascending. When this happens, Democrats can become as ideologically stubborn as Republicans. However, it tends to hurt them more than it does Republicans. One of these fault lines has traditionally been in the area of gun control. Thoughtful Democrats need to discern between issues that they can win on and those they cannot. The gun control debate cannot be won at the ballot box, at least not for a couple of generations. Consequently there is no point wasting energy advocating for such issues. It will only boomerang against Democrats, despite the fact that sensible gun control regulation probably makes complete logical sense.

Instead, Democrats need to concentrate on issues that appeal to both Democrats and Independents generally. Gay marriage is one of these issues where the national consensus has changed. Americans fundamentally agree with the notion of equality and fairness, at least under the law. Being the party of the workingman is never bad either. Democrats need to continue to advocate for people at the low and middle income levels, and target policies that help these groups. There is no downside to this. Democrats also need to avoid bad habits, like sucking up to Wall Street, which is almost always going to vote Republican, or at least for the party which panders to their selfish interests the most. That Wall Street almost invariably does better under Democratic administrations seems lost on them.

Democrats also need to advocate for policies that are in the best interest of people generally, not necessarily those that are in the best interest of their most vocal groups. A good example of this is public schools and support of teachers’ unions. Democrats should insist that every child deserves a high quality education, even if they cannot afford it. They should not assume that a dysfunctional public school system that puts the needs of teachers ahead of students is acceptable. The public school model is clearly under stress, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Democrats should be open to charter schools particularly in districts where public schools are clearly below par. They should also advocate for policies that nurture healthy students so they have the capacity to learn. This may mean, for example, that three healthy meals a day are served at schools. The school may need to morph to be more than a center of education, but be thought of as a second home for students, whose parents likely aren’t working 9 to 5. They should advocate for safe public housing for poorer students, with residency contingent upon good behavior and for the upkeep of rental property. It should be obvious to Democrats that the real problem with education in poor areas is not substandard teachers (although certainly there are many of them) but are mostly due to environmental factors. These include the lack of affordable healthy food, and stressful families and neighborhoods. Republicans, of course, will choose to remain clueless of this reality, since their brains cannot seem to absorb that a multiplicity of factors affect ability to learn, not evil union-loving teachers.

In short Democrats, having power is not about living drunk on the privilege of power when you get it. It’s about refusing to be headstrong when you are granted power and keeping a relentless focus on improving the common good. Democrats have to earn their keep. When they get sloppy for too long, they will lose power. More importantly, much of the good they have done can be lost too, and that would be the true tragedy.

The Thinker

Shuttling to Denver

Someone once told me I could make anything interesting, so today’s challenge is to write something halfway entertaining about this routine flight to Denver. This is going to be quite a challenge and I doubt I can do it. Here goes.

I am at thirty five thousand feet, there is little turbulence but there is this annoying TV screen in front of my seat that I cannot turn off. This at least is new, at least on the United Airlines 737 fleet. You now have the option of DirecTV on this flight, with a hundred channels to choose for the low, low price of just $7.95, but should you not be interested there is no way to turn off the screen. So if United cannot convince you to swipe your credit card for this service, they figure they might as well subject you to annoying ads instead for the full length of this three and a half hour flight. The off button has been conveniently disabled on my armrest. This is all for my pleasure, or something, but of course is really about United’s bottom line. The only way solution is to shut your eyes, which is what I have been doing until my last podcast ended.

On this flight I am trying a few new things to handle the tedium of traveling quickly two thirds of the way across the country. First, I purchased a set of noise canceling headphones. These jetliner cabins are noisy places, eighty decibels or more. You get used to it after a while, but it can’t be healthy. Noise canceling headphones do not deaden the noise of air whooshing across the airframe, but they do make it tolerable. They cancel perhaps twenty decibels of sound, which is good. I can now hear content through my headphones again, not only when it is at near piercing volumes. So both watching and actually hearing movies on my iPad in flight is now a possibility and something perhaps to try on the next trip. This noise canceling technology, while hardly perfect, is making sitting in an airline cabin for three plus hours much more bearable.

I am also trying to use my smartphone for entertainment during the flight. It is in airplane mode, of course, but it still has its uses. I can read books and articles on it easily enough and, at least for this flight, I can listen to podcasts with the nice little BeyondPod podcast app I installed. I won’t listen that much to music, but I can queue up a nice set of podcasts. My playlist is actually a mixture of political, economic and tech podcasts, and I can listen to them or not. Usually my brain is like a sponge and likes to be fed a steady stream of facts and opinions until at some point, like now, I can’t take more input and have to do some outputting, which means blogging. Being that the smartphone is much more portable than even my iPad, it will probably end up as my default electronic traveling companion.

It seems that if you have to travel by air, early December is a great time to do so. This plane is about three quarters full, which means I have the luxury of an open middle seat next to me back here in economy class. Also empty were the airline ticket counters early this afternoon at Washington Dulles International Airport. Two Ethiopian dudes speaking behind the counter seemed really animated about their topic of the day, not that I have any idea what they were saying in Ethiopian. This is another example of the weird multiculturalism around here, but has become so routine that I hardly notice it, other than the language is different. There is no line at the TSA baggage check, and only a couple of people ahead of me at the TSA credentials check. Note to self: try to travel more in the off season and schedule flights that leave in the middle of the afternoon. This no hassle way is the only way to travel by air.

You know you travel too much when you get sloppy at the airport. Today this meant I never bothered to check my concourse and gate. Concourse C, I figured, since that is where I usually catch these United flights. I stood for a few moments before the subway to Concourse C before I thought to check my boarding pass. Oops. My flight was out of Concourse D. No subway for me; instead I had to take one of the old fashioned mobile lounges to my gate. Washington Dulles seemed as close to dead today as it can get in the middle of the afternoon. No lines at the Starbucks of Subway sandwich shop in Concourse D. The stalls in the restrooms were even spotless. All of them!

We passengers on Flight 1160 are an apathetic and self-absorbed bunch. Mostly people are not bothering to look out the windows, but instead are focused on their tablet computer of choice. Tablet computers and eReaders are everywhere on this flight. Hardly anyone can be bothered to get up out of their seats and walk the aisles. With kids in school, there are no crying children to distract us or ratchet up the noise level. One lady across from me is studiously writing in longhand in a spiral bound notebook, which suggests she is at least forty something. Increasingly, cursive is not being taught in elementary schools. In fifty years will anyone remember how to read cursive? Ah, there will be a Wikipedia entry on it.

Off season also means the plane is relatively clean. This makes a nice change of pace for United, where they go through the motions of cleaning the cabin but you can usually find trash under the seats if you look or sometimes crammed between seats. I flew on two regional jets with United recently that were disgracefully unclean. Not only was it filthy, you could barely see out the windows they were so caked with grime and what looked like encrusted saltwater. Today, there is a dirty stain or two on the carpet, but at least the carpet looks vacuumed. This is high quality for United Airlines. Instead of rating the flight the usual C- perhaps I will give it a C+. The best news of all is at the rear of the plane: no lines at all at the toilets! This is very unusual and for once I can ponder the possibility: do I want the starboard or the port toilet? Decisions, decisions.

I figure that since 2004 I have made at least twenty trips to Denver, mostly on United Airlines, which means roughly forty flights between Washington Dulles and Denver International. It’s a mostly featureless flight, but usually there is a bit of excitement on approach to Denver. Denver International (DIA) consistently gets strong crosswinds coming off the Rocky Mountains, to the point where I expect them on approach and to encounter a bit of a bumpy landing. A smooth landing is the exception at DIA.

Once deplaned I know what to expect: I will be in Concourse B, probably need to use the restroom, then take a smooth subway ride to the terminal. On the ride there will be the annoying recorded announcer with a fake cowboy voice on the PA system. I will claim my bag at Carousel 12, and take a shuttle to rental car row, a few miles from the airport. Thence will commence a substantial drive from the airport in far northeast Denver to Lakewood in the rental car, where the local Towneplace Suites awaits, our hotel of choice for the last four years or so. It feels like my second home now. While I have a rental car, I will likely walk down to Jus Cookin’s for dinner instead, a one of a kind family restaurant where everything on the menu is home style, cheap and delicious. Tomorrow there will be the continental breakfast to greet my tummy, and three days in a conference room at the Denver Federal Center.

With luck on Friday I will be on an on time return flight to Dulles, arriving toward dinner hour. My spouse is likely to whine about her boss. My cat will be complaining that he is starving even though he will have been fed. In February I am likely to do this shuttle circuit again.

It’s boring business travel but at least this time of year, unless there is a premature snowstorm, it is at least predictable. For that and the empty seat next to me, I am grateful.


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