Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Thinker

A shameless plug

After working with a couple of agents and being told her book was very good, just not marketable (because homosexuality is normalized) my daughter decided to self publish her fantasy novel Godspeaker. So please consider getting your own copy. It’s available for the Kindle ($4.99) or as a paperback ($12.99) from Amazon, but it’s also available on createspace as a paperbound book, also at $12.99. She makes a little more in royalties if you buy it from createspace.

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

If you like my writing, you will like her writing better. Frankly, she’s a better writer than either my wife or I and we both are reasonably talented writers. It’s actually quite humbling for me to realize I helped sire this force of creativity. It’s not for homophobes. If you look at the preview on Amazon, you will find that she dedicated it to my wife and I.

The novel is obviously an enormous investment in time and creativity. It’s been improved in part because two agents have reviewed it and requested changes. It’s also an investment of fortune, as she had a professional cover done and bought an ISBN. It will also be available as an audiobook soon.

Tessa Crowley is obviously not her real name, just her pseudonym. You can follow Tessa on her tumblr or check out her website.

 
The Thinker

Brave new carless world

Her graduation gift (if the over $100,000 we spent on her college education wasn’t enough of a gift) was the title to her car. It was a 2005 Toyota Prius, with about 110,000 miles on it. She had the mis/good fortune to have its battery go out on it a few days after delivery. It was good because these hybrid batteries cost about $3000 or more, so it was covered by the warranty.

So why is she giving up her car? It’s paid for and thanks to us she doesn’t have student loans to pay. It’s not like our daughter is convenient to mass transportation. She lives in the far-flung Washington D.C. suburbs, Manassas Park to be exact, known for its traffic, miles of tacky strip malls and its poor public transportation. What drove her to give up driving was a check engine light. A mechanic said it would be about a thousand dollars to repair it as well as replace some tires, as the old ones wouldn’t pass inspection. The Prius is about the most reliable car available. Despite its age for some modest repairs she could ride it another 100,000 miles.

The problem was she was hardly ever using it. She works from home doing closed captioning for television, mostly at night when most of us are asleep. Her life is a studio apartment on the third floor and a black cat. With her free time she mostly writes. Extremely introverted by nature she had no place she really needed to go to.

So she ran the numbers. It turned out that for her it was much cheaper to go carless. She has stopped paying hundreds of dollars a year for insurance, not to mention all the costs associated with maintenance. No more personal property taxes to pay. No more registration fees and license fees. No federal and state gasoline taxes either. To the extent she needs to get around she will now use feet, her new bike and Uber.

Mostly she will be using Uber. So it costs her $15 or $20 each way to take the cat to the vet, or herself to the doctor. It’s still much cheaper than owning a car. A bus is not out of the question, but it involves walking about a mile to the main drag and putting up with all sorts of inconvenient transfers. She’s not poor, just a bit monetarily challenged. So Uber it is, and sometimes the Schwinn bike when the weather cooperates. For food, she has Safeway deliver it and creates an order online. It usually costs $10, but she can save money by having deliveries during the off hours.

I think my daughter maybe something of a trendsetter. Of course lots of young people are giving up their cars, but they tend to live in more connected neighborhoods, not way out near the edge of the frontier where she is living. If she wants to see a movie, she may be able to bike to it if she dares take her bike down the strip and under I-66 to the Cineplex. She is tight with a couple of longstanding girlfriends and usually goes with them. Most likely one of them will pickup and deliver. Or she can stream something online.

It’s quite a self-contained life, and I can empathize. I lived without a car for a few years in my early 20s (she is 26) and did not enjoy it. I couldn’t afford a new or used car and I could not afford to keep the old one going. Once a week I took the county bus to Rockville, Maryland for groceries at the Giant and lugged them home. They had to fit in two bags. It worked but it was not pleasant. Of course in those days there was no Internet and virtually no one worked from home. If you did, a car was essential to your business. You had to go meet people to make a living. I biked to work most days, took the bus if I could make it work with my schedule or simply walked toting an umbrella. I lived cheap but I didn’t like it. It made certain things that most people take for granted, like dating women, pretty much impossible.

This is not a problem for my daughter. She’s not interested in dating anyone, let alone getting serious and married. She says she is asexual, so she simply doesn’t feel attracted to anyone, at least not in a way that might lead to conjugal pleasures. There’s no place she is dying to go, at least at the spur of the moment. If she needs things, she buys it online and has it delivered. (Unsurprisingly, she has Amazon Prime.) She has discerned that we live in a service economy, which means you can get pretty much any service delivered these days. The exceptions are doctor and vet visits (and a few vets do make house calls) and hair stylists.

That’s where Uber comes in. She says Uber is better and much cheaper than a taxi, but it is effectively a taxi. Her smartphone tells her when the driver will arrive, so she doesn’t have to waste time waiting around. She pays in advance over the Internet. She knows of course that those Uber drivers probably aren’t making much money. Uber won’t treat them as employees. They are individual contractors, which mean they pay the freight for maintaining their cars, not her.

I’m waiting for her to tell me it was all a big mistake but I don’t think she’ll give me the satisfaction. It all works for her. It probably won’t work for those who still have to go to an office everyday, but that’s their problem, not hers. All this plus she got a nice chunk of change for selling her graduation gift. Meanwhile her parents still have two cars in the garage, even though being retired we use our own cars much less often. Apparently we are Luddites. We just don’t get the 21st century.

I wish her luck in her brave new carless world.

 
The Thinker

Time in a bottle

I fell in love all over again last week. Curiously I fell in love with my daughter, who I already love. My daughter is 26. Instead, I fell back in love with my daughter, ages 10 months, one, two and a half, four, five and ten. This was because those old dusty VHS tapes of her have finally been transferred to DVD. For the first time in more than twenty years in some cases I am seeing them again.

Our VCR died a decade or so back and we felt no compelling reason to replace it, despite a stack of videotapes. Most of the videotapes were movies or TV shows, hence junk. A few of them though recorded precious memories of life with our young daughter. I never felt rich enough back then to buy a camcorder but I did rent one from time to time. I first gave it a try when our daughter Rose was ten months, resulting in the cute little snippet of her crawling around the floor of our kitchen on a Saturday morning (below).

We have tons of scrapbooks documenting lots of her milestones, most very minor. A picture turns out to be a poor substitute for a video, which like Dorothy in Oz has the magical power to transport you back in time. For those families that record everything I doubt these recordings hold much allure. Given the slim few hours I have of our daughter from those years, and seeing it again so many years later it is hard not to be transfixed.

I don’t look much different. I was younger and not quite as wide and perhaps with a bit more hair. My enchantment comes not from seeing myself, or our old neighborhood or even snippets of my parents, now both deceased. It’s mostly from being transfixed by just how inexpressibly cute our daughter was back then.

Parents generally form a love bond with their child. It’s hard not to given how much time and attention children require and how focused they are on you, as you are literally their path to survival. Over time we forget the bad stuff: the temper tantrums, the constant ear infections, getting in trouble in school, etc. Blissfully, only the good stuff remains. As children our kids are naturally innocent and if raised right they are trusting too. Watching these videos again though I had forgotten how much I enjoyed being a father. This was perhaps in part because I was stretched rather thin with a full time job and many other responsibilities. But certain rituals were sacrosanct, such as bath time and reading to my daughter before bedtime.

The intimacy of our connection was special but ultimately fleeting. At story time she would snuggle up close next to me on the couch. I’d wrap my arm around her and hold a book in the other arm. She would help turn the pages. Tucking her into bed followed. We’d watch her almost coo like a dove as she snuggled up to her stuffed dog and generally fall happily asleep. These sorts of routine moments got sporadically captured on video.

Rose was always an interesting child but for me she was most adorable at age four, with her big doe-like eyes, her utter transparency and her relentless curiosity about how the world works. She could believe in Santa Claus with complete innocence, take delight in trick or treating, get enrapt in a book or a toy and liked to impress her parents. In the videos I can see things like her throwing kisses to us while at a ballet recital or singing off-key at her kindergarten graduation.

If in the afterlife I find that time is like a camcorder I would like to go back and replay those events. I’d want to feel again the softness of her baby hair when I kissed her goodnight, the urgent intensity when she held my finger while noshing on her evening bottle and her squeals of delight when we finished reading a book together. I’d like just one more time to read her Dr. Seuss.

Those events were instrumental in the woman she has become. Writing forms the center of her life today and she is working to get professionally published. Now she has an active community of followers interested in her fan fiction. Meanwhile she lives independently with her cat and does closed captioning for TV, generally at hours when everyone else is asleep.

These memories are precious but for me they do answer the question of why are we here. We are here to enjoy life as best we can, improving it for future generations if possible. We are basically here to love and connect and one of the strongest connections is the love between parent and child.

On February 1, my father passed away. He went rather gently as these things go. He knew his time was short. I imagine as he lied in his hospital bed he too rifled through memories of many episodes like this in his own mind until death gently took him. When my time comes I hope to do the same: to succumb to eternity nestled in the memories of the loving connections I was fortunate to have through life. This is what makes life worth living. All the rest is ultimately meaningless.

 
The Thinker

Time zone madness and sanity

The Washington Post recently published an article on a proposal by an economist and professor of physics and astronomy to create a single time zone for the entire planet. Those of us who travel regularly know that time zones are a hassle because adjusting sleep cycles is rarely easy. Their plan is to use UTC (basically, Greenwich Mean Time) as the planet’s time zone.

Putting the planet on a single time zone wouldn’t solve this particular problem unless we decided to ignore our circadian rhythm, i.e. rising around sunrise and going to sleep in the dark. I would imagine the Japanese and Chinese would be pissed as they would arise around sunset and go to sleep around sunrise. However, China already sees an advantage in having a single time zone. The whole country is on one time zone, basically +12 UTC. Perhaps this helps bind them together as a nation but for those in the far eastern or western parts of the country it must seem weird. It’s particularly weird when you move from eastern China into far eastern Russia. You jump two time zones to the east! China is about the size of the United States, so it would be like everyone in the United States being on Central Time.

I don’t think a law can easily break our circadian rhythms, which is why so many of us groan when entering daylight savings time. It feels unnatural because it is unnatural, at least in early March. But it’s less unnatural if you are lower in latitude and you happen to live close to a longitudinal meridian evenly divisible by 15. For those of us on the edge of a time zone, life seems to either start too early or end too late.

I certainly noticed it last year when we moved to Massachusetts, so much so that I blogged about it. Spain is considering changing its time zone to something more natural; it has been on central European time since World War Two. Spaniards get nearly an hour less sleep because of their unnatural time zone and unsurprisingly tend to be late to bed, at least by their clocks. Siestas are a way of compensating for their unnatural time zone.

Airlines already use UTC for flight schedules. This makes a lot of sense since pilots are frequently changing time zones. Of course they do take into account the sleeping habits of the people they are moving, which is why more flights happen during the daytime than at night. Laws vary so widely across the world (North Korea recently decided to change their time zone by half an hour) that some sort of time uniformity sounds desirable. As a practical matter geography often gets in the way, with Indiana being a case in point, as it is split between eastern and central time. No system is perfect.

Living in Massachusetts the time really feels “off”. I’m not alone, which is why there is a proposal to put New England on Atlantic Time, or -4 UTC instead of Eastern Time (-5 UTC). States can set their own time zones. However, here in New England it doesn’t make much sense for each state to go it alone, as our states tend to be small. It only makes sense if everyone adopts it. Rhode Island state Rep. Blake Filippi has proposed a bill to do just this, but only if Massachusetts also adopts it. He’s hoping it would coax the other New England states to go along.

My suspicion is that if Massachusetts embraced it, the other states here in New England would too. The possible exception would be Connecticut and that’s because it has so many commuters going into New York City everyday. As “off” as the time feels here in Massachusetts where the sun rises as early as 5:12 AM where I live and sets as early as 4:17 PM, it’s even worse the further east and north you go. To take an extreme example, the sunrise in Lubec, Maine starts as early as 4:41 AM and sets as early as 3:47 PM.

This is not a big deal in more extreme northern latitudes, but New England is simply not as far north as most of Europe. We are roughly at the latitude of Northern Spain. Being on Eastern Time is purely a political decision. Going to Atlantic Time for us pushed way north and east on the U.S. eastern seaboard would make a lot of sense and would feel more natural. We’d get later sunsets in the summer and more daylight in the winter when it is greatly needed.

So here’s hoping. Maybe I’ll write my state legislators. Winter is dark and dreary enough around here. There’s no point in making it more so. So I say let’s skip the idea of a worldwide time zone and make tweaks to the time zone maps we already use to make them fairer to actual human beings. As for us in New England, we have already suffered enough. Put us on Atlantic Time!

 
The Thinker

Footloose

Way back in 2005 when I was still relatively new to my job I wrote about what it meant to be a professional based on what I saw within my own team. They really wowed me. So many people claim to be professionals but in my estimation so few are. So when I see it, it makes an impact. I am happy to report I have found a new member of this slim group: our humble local pedorthist.

You are probably saying, “pedor…what?” That’s what I said too when a local podiatrist gave me a prescription to see Mark, the local pedorthist. A pedorthist is a specialist in modifying footwear so that people like me can wear shoes with little or no pain. Mark has been a godsend and simply would not quit on my case until every last foot pain was gone and I was completely satisfied.

If you are a professional like Mark it helps to have enthusiasm for your work. Pedorthics does not sound like something that would be that stimulating but for Mark it’s a passion. It causes him to work past his scheduled hours most days. Evenings he will often be found in the back of his shop grinding, extending and shaping orthotics (fancy inserts that go into your shoes) until your walking becomes natural and pain free again. Monday he is supposedly off but this is when he does most of the hard work in the back: shaping and tweaking orthotics and shoes that he can’t get to the rest of the week.

Admittedly it was hard to get an appointment to see him. I waited more than a month and endured considerable pain and discomfort during that period. What I didn’t understand was why my orthotics weren’t working for me. A podiatrist I saw back in Virginia had gotten me a new set and of course there is quite a protocol for getting good shapes of your feet so the orthotic would fit. Still, it wasn’t enough. The metatarsal lift I needed wasn’t nearly enough, causing pain to radiate down my toes, mostly on my right foot. I had given up running (too much pressure on the feet) but persevered at walking several miles a day, often with some discomfort despite my orthotics.

Once I finally got in to see Mark, things quickly improved. First I found him both passionate and personal, characteristics I’ve never seen in so-called professionals like physicians. He spent a lot of time listening to me, pressing my feet and looking at my shoes. Then he started fine-tuning my orthotics.

The result was better but not anywhere near being a pain free experience. So after using them a few weeks I went back to see him again (no charge). He listened to my feedback and a few days later I had a version two set of orthotics to try on.

These were much better but not quite perfect. It took me months of experimenting to figure it out. I got a new set of shoes and since they were narrower they were a better fit. But something wasn’t right. So I got a set of walking shoes. These had something the other shoes hadn’t: cushion. That was the clue: I needed both the shape and the softness. So three months later I went to see Mark again.

That’s when version three was created that finally solved my problem. This success inspired me to get a pair of sandals, which I preferred to wear in the warmer month due to my naturally sweaty feet. He let me look through catalogs to find the right one: closed-toed were what I wanted, but soft. We found the pair and after they arrived he made these innersoles match the orthotics I used in my other shoes. All this was done for the price of a new pair of shoes ($159) plus one fitting fee ($43).

It was a bargain, but I also got something I did not expect: to spend some time with a really interesting man who opened up a lot on his life, treated me with respect and great concern and who reiterated over and over again to let him know if there were any issues. He refused to stop until I was satisfied. It took five months, but I have escaped my foot purgatory.

Mark embodies the myth that seems to elude most of us: he made a successful and meaningful life for himself. He owns his own small business, he give his customers complete satisfaction, he is not owned by a Wall Street conglomerate and he takes immense pride and joy in his work. Through knowledge, tenacity, close listening and feedback he makes dozens of us foot sufferers happy every week.

I think he is lucky: lucky to have a passion for his job, lucky to carve a niche for himself in our local market where it’s hard to find a job that pays decently and one that provides a service of immense value. If you haven’t suffered from chronically painful feet consider yourself lucky. I was the luckiest one. He brought me relief that more than ten years of podiatrists could not quite solve.

Now I feel like I can live life fully again. I am grateful and more than a little wowed by Mark. If you have foot problems, look for a local pedorthist. They are harder to find than podiatrists, but probably of more value. If you can find a pedorthist like Mark you will be in good hands (and feet) indeed.

 
The Thinker

Spellbound

Who likes a good challenge? Who also likes to associate a good challenge with masochism? If you like to solve crossword puzzles it seems that to prove that you are “good” you need to be a bit of a masochist. Or a cheat. Or both.

I’m not a great crossword puzzle player, which is likely due to not having much time or inclination for doing them. The key to successful retirement I’ve been told is to stay active, both physically and mentally. On the latter I am trying to stay mentally agile by doing the daily crossword puzzle in our local newspaper. This usually occurs over lunch when I get to that part of our paper.

It means exercising parts of my brain that don’t like to be exercised. So naturally Monday crosswords are best, i.e. easiest to do. I can usually finish it myself but if there are a few incomplete, I leave them to my wife who is a much better crossword player than I am. This is because while her body is declining too quickly as far as she is concerned, mentally she is sharp as a tack. She’s always been that way and it’s one of the reasons I married her. I like someone with an informed opinion and she rarely disappoints.

These puzzles are easier earlier in the week because that’s how they write them. By the weekend crossword though you want to spit nails. Not even a Jeopardy! champion is going to solve it without cheating. The clues become obscure if not downright misleading. The authors go out of their way to write long answer questions stacked on top of each other and write super obscure clues for the short answer words. I figure they must use special crossword puzzle software to sift through millions of possibilities. That is not enough of course because once you create the answers the idea becomes to obfuscate the questions so much that you will go on wild goose chases.

So you do what everyone else is doing: you cheat and turn to Dr. Google, or to Siri or to your favorite search engines. And invariably there are people out there that solved them before you and leave the answers for you. I’m doubting that a person solved these. I think it’s a computer, which may have provided a host of possible answers for human analysis. Just type in the question in the puzzle and it will pop right up but usually you have to scroll down a page for the answer. This is based I think on the theory that the hints they provide might allow you to solve it without scrolling down to the answer. But of course you won’t bother and you’ll scroll down then scribble it in with your trusty #2 pencil.

As the week progresses you realize that the only way to solve these puzzles is to find authoritative questions that cannot be wrong. Unfortunately, they tend to write fewer of these as the week goes along, but you have to work with what you got. That’s where the challenge/masochism starts because you have to use a correct answer to build the answers that join these words. And the clues will be obfuscated. At times it feels like playing charades because so many clues end in a question mark, which means the answer is really a huge stretch, which means it’s tangentially related at best or the answer is some sort of pun.

So at some point you ask yourself why you bother, and by Friday that’s how I usually react to the crossword puzzle: I won’t even bother, or I might pick at solving a clue or two then abandon it. Perhaps I’m a mental midget but I’m not a masochist. There is satisfaction in solving a puzzle that is fair. On Friday and Saturday they are not trying to be fair; they are trying to be obscure and deceiving. In short, they are being mean and it’s up to you to play along. It’s like going to Las Vegas and thinking you are going to win at slots. You know that the puzzle is rigged against you. It has become an exercise for the puzzle author to see how many he can defeat and frustrate. I am sure there are some geniuses out there so gifted in crosswords they can solve these without using the Internet or consulting a bunch of reference books, but in some cases you must consult a reference book because the answer is so obscure even a learned professor in the topic probably can’t recall the correct answer.

So here’s a call to puzzle authors to write fair crossword puzzles. It doesn’t have to be easy but it should not lead you down erroneous paths either. There is an implicit contract between the author and the player. At some point the puzzle reveals much more about who the author is as a person than the player trying to solve it. And it’s not flattering.

So puzzle on this, puzzle-masters. We enjoy a good puzzle but we don’t like being misled and we don’t think it’s fair to throw in answers that require scholarship to answer. A great puzzle is not based on how complex it is, but on how well it stimulates the far recesses of your brain based on accurate clues.

Don’t make me take up Sudoku.

 
The Thinker

Eulogy for my father

Grace: (in Christian belief) is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

My sister Mary related an anecdote about my father, who passed away on Monday at age 89. Two days before his death, she had to return to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland to retrieve her cell phone. He was rapidly losing his war on pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis. So she trudged back through Washington’s daunting traffic, through security and back to his room on the sixth floor. Dad looked zonked out but she did explain to Dad why she was there just in case he was listening. As she was heading out the door he heard him say in a calm and soothing voice, “Good night, dear.” It was the last coherent thing he said to her.

My father at his 80th birthday celebration

My father at his 80th birthday celebration

That was my father: so full of the milk of human kindness that even on his deathbed with hardly enough breath to form a sentence, he took the time to be kind. This was actually my father all through his 89 years and nearly four months of life: a kind, gentle and heartfelt man. It was who he was and it was apparently as reflexive as breathing.

He was this way with everyone and harsh with no one. When you were with him you felt special, heard, listened to and deeply appreciated for the unique soul that you were. It didn’t matter whether you were related to him, whether you were some momentary encounter on a bus or saw him every day. That’s the kind of father I was fortunate enough to grow up with, a true Mr. Rogers who took honest joy and interest in everyone he met, warts and all. While you were with him you thought here’s someone who really gets me and when you left him you felt the warm glow of connection.

Such empathy is sometimes expected in women, but it often feels forced. It is rare to find this in a man, but he took real joy in your presence. He was never judgmental, but always accepting, always open with a loving heart, and always happy to pass on his love to whoever he encountered in life.

A devout Catholic, he was catholic in the best sense of the world. The definition of catholic is universal, but you rarely see this kind of catholicism from Catholics. Instead you get dogmatists. Do this, don’t do that, avoid sin, lead a clean life and you will get into heaven. And my father did all of that, just absent the in-your-face dogmatism. He was about modeling the religious life than preaching it. He was abstemious to the point of fanaticism. Communion wine was as close as he ever got to drinking, and most of the time he only took the host. He never smoked. Despite having served in the Navy, he never learned the art of swearing. I only recall hearing him swear twice in his whole life, and only under the greatest duress.

He might have been seen as queer or effeminate but as best I can tell he was never perceived this way. It was not that he did not enjoy sports: he could toss the football with us and often coaxed us to do so. He was more interested in spending time with us than being outdoors or getting exercise. He was an engineer by trade, quiet and bookish, freakishly sober but gentle beyond words. Dad had to be experienced, and once experienced you rarely forgot it or him.

Dad never had grand ambitions. He never ran for political office or spoke that much about politics in general. One of the great mysteries of his marriage is where he fell politically. All we knew is that he and my mother were in different parties, but they wouldn’t discuss their feelings on candidates or elections with us. Late in his life I deciphered his quiet political leanings. He was where I thought he was all along: a Democrat, not so much because of its ideology but because he aligned with candidates that felt we needed to be compassionate to people. Curiously, in his second marriage he married a Republican, a woman who admired Bill O’Reilly but who was also a devout Catholic. They made it work somehow. My mother was the submissive in his first marriage. In the second one, his new wife was the brass and outspoken one. Dad just kept being dad, but I think he enjoyed the change of pace.

As I said in this post, Dad was saint-like, but not a saint. He did have some human foibles. Gluttony perhaps was one of his sins, although he was never obese. He enjoyed chocolate and baked goods too much, although it seemed to have no effect on his lifespan. My mom was the submissive in their marriage, but the dominant with the children. She was a harsh disciplinarian. She was in fact emotionally and physically abusive to some of us. For some of my siblings it simply washed over them like rain on a duck’s back. In my case it hurt and nearly crippled me psychologically, perhaps because I never saw it modeled in Dad. It took months of therapy after my Mom’s death to make sense of it. I was a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); at least I had all the symptoms. Perhaps Dad should have stepped up to the plate and stopped my mother’s behavior, or maybe he was unaware of it because it happened when he was at work.

When Dad came home from work all his children were tickled pink to see him. We’d yell “Daddy’s home!” and run around the house excitedly. My mother was jealous of the attention he got. Sometimes a few of us would hide in the back of his closet and pretend to sneak up when he came in the bedroom to change clothes. (Our giggles generally gave us away.) We loved Dad with an honest and sincere intensity, counted our time alone with him as precious, and looked up to him.

I certainly looked up to him. Compassion forms a major part of whom I am, although I inherited a lot of my mom’s judgmental ways, so I am quick to scold. I will never be as good a man on my best day as my father was on his worst. But he taught me volumes: how to be thrifty, how to plan our finances, an engineering outlook where you make your future predictable, the importance of science and the value of empathy. I picked up some of his passions too: musicals, theater in general and an appreciation for classical music.

My friend Tom whose own father passed away recently related his relationship with his father, which was much different and much more challenging. I took my father for granted but he always wowed me. I just assumed most fathers were like mine. They were not. My father was exceptional in just about every way a human being can be exceptional. His religion gave him a frame for living his life that fit him like a comfortable glove, and amplified his native tendencies. He was not saintly but he was saint-like who intuitively and effortlessly touched people’s souls. He is a tough act for anyone to follow.

He lived a long, happy, healthy and productive life. I am convinced his life was so long in part because he was at peace with himself, and so few of us are. Like all of us, he was one soul adrift in a sea of many souls; he was just never lost. He reveled in the love all around him and drew it near him effortlessly. He lived the life that matters: not of power, or material possessions but of character, of love and the value of relationships.

I am so blessed to have spent 59 years with the man. His passing of course is a great sorrow, but bittersweet. He touched my soul so many times and I am an infinitely better and more humane person because of him. He was a gift of grace to all who knew him. I am humbled and full of gratitude to have known him.

What a man! What a life! He was a father indeed, a father in deed.

 
The Thinker

I, Roomba

The future hasn’t worked out quite the way I envisioned it. I’m old enough to have grown up watching The Jetsons, which kind of modeled my thinking on what the future should look like. In the Hanna Barbara cartoon, people flew around in little personal airplanes that didn’t seem to need a runway and they could park on the balcony. No one had cell phones but there was this Skype-like thing at the house and on their putt-putting airplane that provided visual communications. The Jetsons did have a robot, Rosie, who did the cleaning, most of the mothering (Jane had other things to do) and occasionally dispensed pills.

In 2016, I have a smartphone, high-speed Internet and many awesome technologies that the Jetsons never imagined. But some things I do remain doggedly old fashioned. Cleaning is one of them and it usually involves brooms, scouring powder, detergents and washrags. No one has invented Rosie the robot yet, but it’s not hard to imagine that within twenty years she will get invented. Until then we at least we have a Roomba.

A Roomba is no replacement for Rosie. Our Roomba won’t make beds, clean bathtubs, dispense pills or give me any sass. A Roomba simply sweeps floors and carpets. The product, pioneered by iRobot, now has plenty of competition. We acquired our low end 600 series model at the local Costco for $359. It wasn’t my idea. As usual my wife spent months petitioning me for one of them and I kept putting her off. I don’t mind sweeping floors. As retirees we get little enough exercise already. But I don’t have a bad back like my wife and I’ll tend to procrastinate sweeping until it’s noticeable. We do have two cats that constantly leave their playthings on the floor, not to mention their dander and fur. And we have a lot of hardwood floors, which can be a pain to sweep. Roomba to the rescue!

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It doesn’t (at least this model) respond to voice commands. It can’t climb stairs or jump onto sofas, but at least it’s smart enough not to fall down a flight of stairs. It does have a couple of neat tricks. Perhaps the most impressive one is to slide under sofas and other furniture and pick up the stuff underneath that we typically uncover years later when we have a reason to move furniture. And it can usually find its way back to its charging station, which has to be butt up against a wall.

Our Roomba doesn’t listen very well, but it does talk from time to time, only when it needs your attention. You can program it to talk in your favorite language, providing it is English or one of fifteen other popular languages. Mostly though it doesn’t so much talk as whirr, and it’s reasonably loud. You will know when it is on.

It’s also (if you have pets) it is something of an amusement and/or torture device. There are plenty of pet videos you can watch on this theme. One cat watched with it with interest from across the room. The other ran under our bed. Running under our bed is not a great idea, because it won’t stop a Roomba, so cats will learn to climb for safety instead. After a couple of days though the Roomba became just another piece of furniture, just one that moves. Cats don’t do much talking but it would give them something to talk about. In a few more days I expect they will sleep through its work cycles.

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It won’t pick up objects off the floor unless very small and lightweight. It seems to move in a haphazard way but there is actually some intelligence built into the way it pings off walls or (if a floor is particularly dirty) moves in swirls. It does a pretty good job of avoiding obstacles. It doesn’t usually tip over the cat’s water bowl and does a decent job of picking up stray cat litter around the litter box. It can be agile. We have carpet runners down the hallways, sometimes with creases in them due to cats madly dashing around, and it usually manages to clean them anyhow. It “steps” onto and off of carpeting pretty well.

But it’s hardly autonomous. It needs our help. It needs us to pick up larger stuff off the floor first. If there is an area we want it to avoid, we have to put down a battery-operated device that essentially says, “stay away!” You have to empty its cleaning tray after each job. And periodically it requires more serious maintenance: brushing its brushes or replacing them as well as cleaning and replacing its filter. Actually though these defects aside it probably does a better job sweeping and vacuuming than I would. I won’t go under furniture and I tend to miss certain spots with the broom.

So it is at best a modest step toward a robotic future but actually quite a useful tool not to mention cat pal/torture device. It’s starting to feel like a member of the family. Perhaps we will give it a name in time. And Rosie will come along one of these days, and I’ll happily let her do those chores I really don’t like, like cleaning toilets and bathtubs. She can even dispense my medications, as I’m already old enough to forget when to take them.

Meanwhile, the Roomba will do.

 
The Thinker

Today Jesus would be an atheist

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

 
The Thinker

Occam’s Razor 2015 Statistics

I only analyze my blog’s statistics annually, usually on January 1 for the previous year. The more I study web statistics however, the more I realize that they can lead you astray. For example, about 50% of my web hits come from referrals from search engines. This explains why my most popular web content is old, in some cases a decade or older. Just 7% of my web traffic was from a known referral (such as another website) and 4% came via social media links.

The blog’s home page is still the most hit web page, but it’s just 8% of all web page requests. This means that from the perspective of those using a browser this blog is more of an archive of potentially interesting disparate topics than someplace to go to get some insight into current issues. Increasingly those interested in current content on my blog are getting it indirectly through feeds. My stuff pops up in whatever technology they are using, perhaps a Tumblr account or in their Feedly instance. I can’t blame them. This is exactly what I do too since it is much more efficient.

Web hits

So my web hits are a lot less important than they used to be and don’t measure all my traffic, which partially explains my declining web hits over the years. In 2007 when feeds were relatively unused, I started reporting web hits to Google Analytics. Mostly since then my web hits have dropped, some years precipitously, but at least some of that traffic moved toward feeds instead.

In any event, I intuitively trust Google to provide reliable web statistics. Here are my annual web statistics courtesy of Google Analytics, which shows a 9% drop in sessions in 2015 compared with 2014 and a 12% drop in page views. For 2015 there were 17,950 sessions, 16,800 users and 22,871 page views. That’s on average 49 sessions a day and about 63 page requests a day. Presumably it is all human traffic. Overall though, web traffic has been pretty flat the last three years.

Next is a chart of my daily web hits over the year, as measured by Google Analytics. I noted a major spike beginning in November that has continued into December but seems to be receding. I don’t know why as no new post registered lots of hits. But I know most of these new hits are coming from Germany. Can someone from Germany leave a comment if you know what’s going on?

Occam's Razor's daily sessions count (2015)

Occam’s Razor’s daily sessions count (2015)

I also track hits with StatCounter and Quantcast. Quantcast recorded about 16,300 visits (which is roughly equivalent to Google Analytics sessions) and about 24,000 page views. Note: statistics for December 31, 2015 are not available yet.

pic3

Occam’s Razor Quantcast measured traffic (2015)

StatCounter counted 14,523 unique visits, 14,041 first time visits and 18,374 page views, so it’s recording a fraction of what Google and Quantcast noted. I think this is mostly due to pings getting lost or blocked on their way to their servers.

Occam’s Razor StatCounter Measured Traffic (2015)

Feed hits

While my web hits sagged compared to previous years, I’m at least doing well with feed (syndication) hits. A year ago I had 198 readers. Today I have 643 readers. A few weeks ago I hit 2096 readers. Feedcat, my feed broadcaster, won’t give me raw numbers but it will give me a traffic graph for the last six months:

Occam’s Razor Feed Traffic, last 6 months of 2015

Feeds show interest in current content by measuring how many times a single client polls the feed. So these numbers are good news as it suggests that over the course of the year I tripled interest in my current content. It also shows a surge in readers starting in November, with 43% from Germany, with lots of daily spikes up and down since then. This is not unexpected, as I don’t normally post every day. Thanks again to all the Germans and others who are reading my blog. I do appreciate it.

Content

Now I’ll delve into what people were reading in 2015. Feed hits are for current posts and tend to represent a bundle of posts (usually the most current ten posts) displayed at once. I can only count web hits here so presumably a lot of people were reading my current posts. I get few comments, probably because commenting through a feed is a hassle. (Note: this should now be much easier as I have addressed the spam comments issue with a Cleantalk subscription. So go ahead and click and comment; you should not have to go through a CAPTCHA.) From my web hits though I can see what’s hot and what’s not for those in browser-land.

Most viewed posts

If you wonder why I feature a monthly review of local Craigslist casual encounters post, you can see evidence here. Three of my top ten posts are Craigslist related. People read this stuff, albeit irregularly and mostly through web searches where a post matches some particular search term. My Google Analytics dashboard shows at least 2284 Craigslist pages viewed, and there’s much more from feed readers. I’m not sure if it’s because the web surfers are kinky, super horny or like me just find some humor in the bizarre stuff found on Craigslist. It’s for the latter reason that I also read the People of Walmart site daily.

  1. Site home page (1779 views, #1 last year too)
  2. Eulogy for my mother in law (1282 views, #2 last year too)
  3. The Illusion of Time (761 views, #7 last year)
  4. Craigslist casual encounters: now a crazily dangerous and illegal waste of time (663 views, #3 last year)
  5. The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason (380 views, #4 last year)
  6. Craigslist casual encounters: now officially a complete waste of time (366 views, #5 last year)
  7. If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win? (334 views)
  8. Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: May 2015 (Hartford CT) edition (322 views)
  9. Eulogy for my mother (286 views, #6 last year)
  10. Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (238 views, #9 last year)

Top tags

I tag every post with one or more tags. A tag archive contains a collection of posts with the same tag. These were my top five most popular tags in 2015:

  1. Craigslist (325 views)
  2. Taxes (265 views)
  3. Las Vegas (198 views). This is basically my Sinless in Sin City
  4. Porter Stansberry (179 views)
  5. Battle of Chantilly (164 views)

Top category: Sociology (89 views)

Top browsers

Looking at browser usage is interesting to me and these usually follow web trends in general. Chrome is now dominant and IE, formerly the 800-pound gorilla, is fading quickly as Microsoft has largely give up this game and is promoting its new Edge browser instead. It’s curious that my Firefox traffic actually increased, bucking the general trend.

  1. Chrome (45% of traffic, up from 31% last year)
  2. Safari (22% of traffic, down from 23% last year) – This is probably mostly hits from iPhones and iPads
  3. Firefox (15% of traffic, up from 11% last year)
  4. Internet Explorer (13% of traffic, down from 23% last year)
  5. Android browser (2% of traffic)

Busiest month: December (3443 sessions)

Slowest month: August (969 sessions)

Mobile sessions in 2015: 3580 smartphone and 1761 tablet sessions

% Mobile visits of Total Visits: 30% (unchanged from last year)

Who’s reading?

Quantcast used to provide demographics of my readership. This year it tells me it can’t. Google Analytics though think it knows. Here are some things it says about you readers:

  • The highest segment of readers is ages 25-34 (23%), but these statistics are incomplete due to highly sporadic sampling
  • Men mostly read my blog (62%)
  • 53% of traffic comes from the United States, 24% from Germany, 4% from the United Kingdom and 3% from Canada

Why people bother to read my blog is a mystery Google will probably never understand, as it tends to be theme-less. A general survey would help but I have no way to get a representative sample. For those who subscribe to the blog, I suspect its appeal is that its scope is wide, which makes it relatively unique. The web excels at narrowcasting and my blog has more of a broadcast flavor.

Social Media

According to AddThis, which adds a tracking anchor to the end of URLs if you hit the site with a browser, there were 161 shares in 2015, with 134 sharing by copying the address bar in the browser, 6 Facebook likes, 8 Twitter tweets, 3 on Pinterest and 10 other shares. This is miniscule and nothing to brag about. It also says there were 5,508 visits, but I’m not sure what that means. The top content shared:

  1. Eulogy for my mother in law (111 visits)
  2. Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: May 2015 (Hartford CT) Edition (55 visits)
  3. Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (36 visits)
  4. Craigslist tag (35 visits)
  5. The root of human conflict: emotion vs. reason (32 visits)

Google Analytics tracks social media differently. It looks at the referrer (referring web site) and if it’s a social media site, it counts it. It counts as top referrers:

  1. StumbleUpon (608 sessions). These appear to be almost entirely for my “The Illusion of Time” post.
  2. Pinterest (78 sessions)
  3. Twitter (44 sessions)
  4. Facebook (34 sessions)
  5. Tumbler (22 sessions)

Raw web log statistics

Finally, there are my raw web log statistics. Most of these hits are various search engines, not actual human beings, which means there are a whole lot of search robots regularly indexing the blog for a relatively tiny amount of human traffic. Here is my AWStats summary for 2015:

  • 277,672 visits (down 19% from 2014)
  • 112,365 unique visitors (down 21% from 2014)
  • 853,172 page views (down 7% from 2014)
  • 5 GB of bandwidth

More in 2017.

 

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