Archive for the ‘Life 2006’ Category

The Thinker

Thanks Frank

My friend Frank Pierce died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve.

Frank is a friend who I initially “met” online. Meeting someone online nowadays is not a big deal, but around 1990 it was a weird thing to do or to even acknowledge. In those days, there was an Internet, but it was not accessible to the average person. I met Frank on The Back of the North Wind, an electronic bulletin board system that resided on the spare PC of a woman named Dawn Gibson who, if memory serves me right, lived in Arlington, Virginia. In those days, you used your 2400-baud modem to dial up these computers, play games, swap software and engage in electronic conversations with people in your community. I wrote more about those days a year or two back in this entry, if you are interested.

The Back of the North Wind drew an eclectic crowd. You had to know someone who knew someone to get on the board because it was not advertised on Mike Focke’s BBS list. My friend Debbie who I met on a board called Zonzr directed me there. I quickly spent almost all of my electronic social life on Dawn’s board. A good part of the reason was Frank Pierce. Frank was an older gentleman who was fifty something at the time. He was virtually unique among people in his age group for indulging in this online community thing. His passion was discussing politics and he quickly found that an online community allowed him to engage in his habit very easily. Somewhat to Dawn’s disgruntlement (for she hated politics) her board was nearly taken over by an inner ring of Washington area amateur policy wonks. Frank and I were two of the main contributors to those political discussions.

The thing about Frank though was unlike lots of amateur policy wonks, he knew about what he was talking. Frank had a depth of understanding that always amazed me. Our political discussions evolved on The Back of the North Wind and later on the message board I set up and which is still in business, The Potomac Tavern. (Frank was the co-host.) There was not much about the world that Frank had not studied in some depth. When the conversation moved from politics to other areas like religion, Frank was equally well informed.

Since I “met” Frank in 1990, I figure I have known him for sixteen years. Over those years, I figure I actually met him in person less than a dozen times. Our last meeting was about two years back when I met him at a Starbucks near his house. We spent about an hour discussing Potomac Tavern business and just chitchatting. I also had the privilege of being invited to his house a couple times. Once he hosted a Back of the North Wind get together in his backyard. We did these get togethers once or twice a year for a number of years. More recently, he invited me to stop by so I could take him for a test drive in my new hybrid.

Frank was tall, thin as a rail, bony, grey haired and both gregarious and scholarly at the same time. He and his wife Nancy had been married forever. If my memory serves me correctly, he is also survived by two sons and a daughter. He was active in the local German American community, spoke excellent German, and even wrote a newspaper column for a German newspaper called, no lie, The Potomac Tavern. It discussed current political topics happening in our nation’s capital in the context of a real tavern with a regular crew of erudite patrons. Frank recently related a story of a reader who came to Washington and was disappointed to discover that there was no Potomac Tavern in the city. Frank’s portrayal of this fictional tavern was so convincing he had some people fooled.

For among Frank’s many talents, he was an excellent writer. He wrote a number of books. None of them was a best seller, but he knew how to target the small markets. You can buy a number of them from online sources like Amazon.com. Writing alone would suffice as a creative outlet for most people. However, Frank was also a photographer. On The Potomac Tavern, if you dig for them, you will see many an amazing photograph taken by him, often carefully retouched with Adobe Photoshop. Frank’s photography occasionally dabbled on the risqué side. He spent some time doing figure photography, and a number of his models posed in the buff. I recall one trip to his house when he showed me his portfolio of nude photography. As with all his other art forms, he excelled here too.

Frank was also incredibly generous with both his time and money. While on The Back of the North Wind, he grew to know a woman named Judy. Judy lived in the backwoods of Virginia somewhere. Frank saw potential in Judy: a very smart woman who simply did not have the resources to go to college. For whatever reason, Frank decided that he would make an investment in Judy. I do not know to what extent he did it, but I know he helped pay her way through college. Frank could do these things, you see, because along with all his other talents he was a shrewd investor. This, plus his modest lifestyle, gave him the leeway to occasionally indulge in these acts of targeted charity.

I expect to blog more about Frank in the weeks ahead. I am getting details of his death second hand, but it sounds like Frank died from the complications of bronchitis. I can say that I was shocked to learn he had died, since I believe he was in the bottom half of his seventies. He always seemed in such abnormally good health. He was so skinny and his mind was always so sharp that I fully expected him to be pontificating on my forum into his nineties.

Among the many topics I explored with Frank over the years was aging. For me death was and still is a very scary thing. Frank was not scared. He was pragmatic: there is nothing you can do to stop death, so the only thing to do was to enjoy what life that is given to you to its fullest. From a man who did not seem the least bit religious, this was a both a very pragmatic and positive philosophy. He succeeded in walking his talk. He lived his final years as if he expected to live a hundred years more. He said he was not concerned about death, but he was concerned about leaving a legacy. At that, Frank clearly succeeded.

Frank taught me many life lessons I might never have grasped otherwise. I am trying to emulate his philosophy and to see every day as a gift full of boundless potential. If I can manage to do it, and I have a lot of work to do to achieve this, then perhaps Frank will have passed on to me his most treasured gift.

Frank, I am going to miss you like crazy. You have been such a positive presence in my life these last sixteen years. You are one of these people who, when you pass on, leave a large and beneficent wake. You touched and inspired many people. We in your online world were a small fraction of them. Thank you for your friendship, which has touched me in ways I still do not fully realize. I am hopeful that I will carry forward your positive spirit into the second half of my life. I hope that I can draw on your positive energy and pull some people into my wake too.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

 
The Thinker

Blogging Snafus Solved

Virtual private server hosting is a dubious joy. While it offers a lot of flexibility it also assumes you are something of a geek. While this is true with me, it is not true that I am the sort who likes to revel in the mysteries of Apache httpd.conf files in my spare time.

Since I rehosted about a month ago, I have been trying to get my blog entries to publish dynamically on this new host. In frustration, I went back to static publishing, which means every page is stored as a file on the server. Since I have dynamic content on the sidebars, this meant rebuilding 600+ entries every time I published, a process that took 20 minutes or so. I took dynamic publishing for granted on my old web host, so I assumed I could do it here.

I tried to find a solution through free support through the MovableType forums and knowledge base, but nothing worked. So yesterday I did what I should have done a month ago, but was reluctant to do: dug out my credit card and spent $49.95 for paid MovableType support. Thankfully their support is good.

My problem turned out to be a default setting for how my web server processes those mysterious .htaccess files. These hidden files control who has access to a web site. The files were there and I could set them any way I wished, but the setting in my httpd.conf file ensured that Apache would blithely ignore them.

Thanks to MovableType support, this problem is solved. In case you need to do something similar, look for that first instance in httpd.conf and change this:


Options FollowSymLinks
AllowOverride None

to this:


Options FollowSymLinks
AllowOverride All

And then restart Apache.

Now I can really enjoy my holidays. I don’t return to work until January 8th. I will truly have a Merry Christmas though if Google decides to put my site back in its index by Christmas.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

 
The Thinker

Four Years of Blogging

This entry marks my first entry in my fifth year of blogging. Over four years I have racked up a total of 610 entries. That is a total of 670,253 words, or an average of 1099 words per entry. (Yes, I am anal enough to keep statistics.)

I have tried and generally succeeded at blogging regularly. For me this amounts to three to four entries a week. Many other bloggers are far more frequent with their postings than I am with mine. I hope that what I lack in quantity I make up for in quality. At a minimum each entry goes through four edits before posting. A typical entry will consume two to three hours of my free time.

Except for the past five weeks or so, my little blogging universe has been growing steadily. On November 3rd for reasons at remain mysterious I was dropped from the Google search index. I could count on 150-200 page views per day as measured by SiteMeter. This SiteMeter graphic gives some idea of how my growth was slowly growing month by month.

2006-yearly-stats.gif

However on November 3rd, all that changed. As you can see by comparing my November statistics with October’s, the “Google Effect” accounts for about 70% of my traffic. I never fully quantified it, but I would guess that about half of my visitors were typing “Occam’s Razor” into Google and generally I was on the first page of search results. The others happened to find me through other search terms. Those finding me through other search engines find me just fine. However, Google remains the 800 pound gorilla in the search business. So to some extent my blog thrives or dies depending on whether I am in their index.

I still remain hopeful though that I will not remain in the Google doghouse forever. There was nothing about my content that would lead it to banishment. I figure it was a Google programming gaffe. In fact, I used Google to research my situation. I am not alone. If what I am reading is correct then after 45 days they will re-scan this site. Even if I make it back though I am not sure how long it will take for my page views to recover. For I will likely be seen as a fresh site, not one that had established a small reputation. It all depends on Google and their proprietary algorithms for indexing content.

However, since I am in the Google doghouse, I feel less pressure to work on this blog. When my page views were going up, my motivation was higher. Since they are now down, the motivation is less. Nonetheless, as I start my fifth year I do not intend to stop blogging altogether. My goal until I get out of the Google doghouse is to keep contributing a couple quality entries a week. Meanwhile, I can and have found other ways to use my limited free time creatively.

You, gentle reader, can do me a small favor. If you like and value what you read on my blog, please recommend it to a friend or two. If you have a blogroll, consider adding me to it. And please give me feedback. If for example you prefer political entries, please let me know. Left to my own devices I am more inclined to write about whatever pleases me at the moment. However, I am capable of pushing up the content in one category if I know it will be better received.

Encouragement is always welcome too, so let me know via a comment or an email if you enjoy your time here and what you would like to see improved or changed. Leaving a comment is easy enough. To send me email, write to m...@occams-razor.info. Please put “Occam’s Razor” in the subject so it does not end up trapped in my spam filter.

Thanks for reading.

 
The Thinker

Rehosted

This will be a short entry. My writing here lately has been constrained because (a) I have been busy at work (b) having Google abandon my blog has made it more difficult to get inspired (c) I have been busy doing phpBB modifications work for clients and (d) I have been up to my armpits with rehosting issues.

Thankfully, the rehosting issue is finally solved. I went through a tedious process of moving over my two phpBB message boards (Oak Hill Virginia Online and The Potomac Tavern) but the last domain, this blog, has proven daunting. Thankfully with a help from my friend Jim Goldbloom, calls to the tech support people here at westhost.com, and helpful users in their forums, plus a lot of the troubleshooting common sense skills acquired from being in this business 20 years, this blog is now rehosted too.

So hopefully I will feel a bit more inspired, Google will put me back in their index and clients will not need my services as much, so I will have more leisure time to get back to the sober and well crafted blogging I hope I do so well.

Thank you for your patience.

 
The Thinker

Coaxing the Cat

Language is a wonderful invention. If only we could talk to the animals like Doctor Doolittle, perhaps life’s little adventures with our pets, like trying to pill a cat, would be much less stressful on all concerned.

Our three year old cat Arthur has been with us almost two months. Whereas he used to spend 90% of his time hiding in fear behind the couch, now he spends about 25% of his time there. He can come out when coaxed a bit, and sometimes when not coaxed. When he comes out we lavish him with attention, which mainly consists of petting and belly rubs. He purrs outrageously.

But he is a cat from a shelter. He spent a year in a cattery with thirty plus other cats. So it is not surprising that he is skittish. He is used to being vigilant 24/7. He is constantly watching for threats. In short, he has not learned to trust us, probably because he was abused by a previous owner. If we approach him he generally backs away toward a safe distance. We usually have to get on the floor or assume a non threatening posture before he will move toward us. Our approaching steps give him plenty of warning. He assumes the worst: that there is some evildoer out to kill him. He figures it is better to be safe than sorry. So behind the couch he goes.

Arthur must have lived a Spartan life. He does not know how to enjoy life. We bought him a nice, comfortable cat bed and even tried placing him in it, and he runs away from it. We also have gotten him a scratching post. He will not go near it. Instead of a nice cushy cat bed, he chooses to sleep behind the couch. There he feels relatively safe, but he is always facing with his eyes looking outward so he can react to potential threats. Our last cats liked nothing more than to rest in the sunbeam in the middle of the living room floor. He either doesn’t understand its allure or sees being out in the open like that to be too much of a threat.

He likes the safety of our screened in deck. When weather allows we send him out there. He vigilantly looks down upon the lawn in search of other animals. A cat wandered into our yard once. That got him very excited. The days are now shorter and cooler now, so it is harder to send him outside. However, he must petition us endlessly even if after going outside in 40 degree weather he quickly decides maybe inside is better. He is very polite about petitioning though. He will sit a few feet from the door and stare at it. Surely, he must think, if I stare at it long enough it will open. Of course if the weather permits we let him out. We do not have a pet door.

He has also discovered the basement. Aside from the deck, it is his favorite place. He traipses down the stairs and sits on the old couch in the family room, facing the door. This way, of course, he has plenty of warning if predators are approaching. I think this is where he finds the most peace. He has at least thirty seconds to hide, if necessary. It is quiet and cool in the basement. I come down in the evenings to say hello. I often bring a kitty treat or two. He is a bit reluctant to let me sit next to him, but eventually accommodates. Getting a tummy rub is too much of a temptation.

Arthur is also an oral cat. Thankfully he is not particularly aural. His meows are more like high pitched squeaks, which makes him rather enduring. He would just as soon lick you as have you pet him. His sandpaper tongue is a bit annoying, but it is his way of saying he loves you. He would be thrilled to lick your finger or, better yet, gently gnaw on a digit or two. Arthur is amazingly respectful for a cat. He has never scratched us or bit us out of malice. In fact, his one game with us is to gently push our hands away with his paws when he is lying on his back. He is inured to typical cat toys. Even a peacock feather failed to elicit a playful reaction from him.

For a homeless and likely previously abused cat, Arthur is adopting rather well. Still, earning his full trust will require many more months, at least. On occasion he can be coaxed on to our laps, but only for a moment. Like virtually all cats he has the ability to jump on couches and countertops. However, he prefers the floor. Maybe he figures they are forbidden territory.

So earning his trust is a long term project. This is why his recent bladder infection was particularly unwelcome. A few weeks ago we noticed the pungent smell of urine when the heat went on. In fact, it was so bad I nearly had to leave the house. We investigated the heating grates and sure enough, there was evidence that he left his markings. We have had enough cats to suspect what the issue was: a urinary tract infection.

Off to the vet he went. He did better getting into the cat carrier than I expected. Still he whined all the way to the vet, but calmed down once he was in the office. They had to keep him all day in order to get a urine sample. Sure enough, the UTI was confirmed. We were given a two week supply of pills. But they also wanted us to put drops into his ears and eyes. Uh oh.

At first, getting the pills into him turned out to be rather easy. They have these Pill Pocket thingies now for pets. You place the pill inside and generally the cat or dog just gulps it down. They think they are eating chicken or fish or whatever. As for the ear and eye drops, they quickly became impossible to administer. Arthur simply did not trust us enough. Both my wife and I have scars on our arms from valiant attempts to keep him restrained while the other person put them in. In fact, medicating him made the situation worse. He spent more time behind the couch, not less. Eventually we decided the trauma we were inflicting was counterproductive. We gave up on the drops for now.

Then a few days ago Arthur figured out that there was something funny tasting inside those pill pockets. He became reluctant to eat them. We could have picked him up and tried to shove them down his throat, but we knew that would exacerbate his trust problem. So we were reduced to coaxing. And if you know cats you know how well that worked. I was reduced to putting it in his food dish and waiting until he got hungry enough to eat it.

A return trip to the vet yesterday gave ambiguous results on whether the infection had cleared up. Fortunately we returned with a different flavor of pill pocket, this one salmon flavored. Arthur decided this one was okay to eat. With less than two days of pills left, we may get through the UTI problem. Still, our house still smells somewhat of cat urine. I have cleaned the heating grates with a professional cat spray odor remover. I did the same thing to the wood floors. I sprayed parts of the carpet. The odor still lingers from time to time. I hate it.

Hopefully the UTI and spraying problems are now behind us. He hasn’t been digging at his ears as much so we are hopeful there too. Perhaps we can now regain his trust. Perhaps eventually we will reach the point where he will realize we are there to help him, not to hurt him. We are looking forward to it because while he is a skittish cat, he has a fundamentally sweet nature.

I keep hoping that one of these days he will nestle into my lap like my last cat Sprite so enjoyed. He may not be a lap cat at heart. I have coaxed him up on our bed a few times, and he enjoyed the attention he got. But the road to winning his full trust will likely be a long one. Perhaps if he has a long enough respite from further medical issues, he will feel like a full member of the family.

 
The Thinker

Public Radio: The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am a big fan of public radio. With rare exceptions, I do not listen to anything else on the radio. Perhaps if I subscribed to Sirius or XM satellite radio I would stop listening to public radio. On the other hand, perhaps not. All I know is that I consider public radio, and NPR in particular, to be a national treasure. Which is why I want to chew nails every time the local public radio stations, as they did last week, host yet another membership week.

Seriously, we loathe them. Heck, even public radio stations hate membership week. That is why increasingly stations like WAMU-FM here in Washington D.C. try to bribe us listeners into shortening membership week. For a few weeks before membership week officially starts they try to get us to send them money. If they get enough, they will take one day off the campaign. Yes. Anything but that. Anything but one more day of their grating and near constant grubbing for money.

Yes, it is sadly necessary, but is undignified. Our Congress can give obscene and duplicative payments to farmers, but just spare change to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Enduring public radio’s membership week is like watching a classy dame who goes regularly to the opera and shops at Neiman Marcus spending four weeks a year hanging out on street corners and hiking her skirt for strangers. It is not pretty and it is in fact just plain revolting. Just as you do not want to watch a car wreck, you do not want to listen to public radio during membership week. Really, I would rather have my fingernails slowly pulled out one by one.

At least with commercial radio you know what to expect: fifteen or twenty minutes of annoying commercials every hour. The master of it locally is WTOP, our local all news and traffic station. The proportion of commercials to content is so high you would think the volume of commercials on the station would be unlawful.

For 11 out of 12 months a year, public radio is a welcome respite from our overly commercialized world. Not that outside of membership weeks it is completely commercial free. Virtually every show is sponsored by some well moneyed commercial or non-profit organization that is anxious to tell you what they are up to and to give you their website address. Some TV shows, like The News Hour on PBS almost might as well be commercial TV, with the lengthy “sponsored by” messages that are (hate to break it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) just shameless commercials.

Clearly, all that corporate and non-profit cash is not enough. That is why the announcer usually informs us that most shows on public radio and TV are also sponsored “by viewers like you”. That is nice to know. Viewers like me who appreciate public radio and TV contribute most of the funds necessary to keep them on the air. I know I do my part. I give my local public radio stations a healthy chunk of change every two weeks through the Combined Federal Campaign.

So since I am giving regularly, can you please cancel membership week? For that matter, will WETA stop sending me regular (as in once a month) junk mail soliciting further contributions? Yeah, I know I am on their mailing list because I made the mistake of just once contributing during membership week. Now they will not let me go. I am constantly badgered for more money. I have tried to tell them that I am sending them money via other means anyhow, but they never listen. They are like the doe-eyed orphan Oliver Twist asking Mr. Bumble, “Please sir, can I have some more?”

For the record, I certainly do not want public radio to go out of business. I make sure I send them money regularly to keep them in business. I depend on shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition for my news fix. WAMU-FM in particular has just the right mixture of other public radio programming that keeps me tuning in for more. I need this refuge of commercial-free sanity on the airwaves to keep my psychic lid from popping. In my mind, public radio models what I want my country to be but simply is not. The announcers are scrupulously nonpartisan. They can discuss President Bush’s latest incoherent ramblings without even a hint of bias creeping into their voices. While I am sure I will get disagreement, I feel that on balance public radio shows are fair to both sides, as well as to the middle. Everyone is so thoughtful and civilized.

Until membership week. Then public radio becomes a bad carnie sideshow. It is amazing that public radio gets as much money as they do during membership week because public radio announcers are so excruciatingly bad at selling public radio. It is not that they do not have a valuable product. So many public radio listeners like me would not be listening to them if they did not. Their product is unique and singular. They just cannot sound convincing asking for money. The more they grub thank you products for $50, $100 and $200 contributions the less convincing they become. Besides, we know it is an important service and do not need further convincing. From the tone of their voice, it sure sounds like they too would prefer having their fingernails slowly pulled out rather than have to suffer through another membership week. This is to let you know that we here in the public suffer with you.

For me, membership week means tuning in for just the news or turning off the radio. Thankfully, in the Washington area, there is one final place of refuge on the FM dial when all else fails. It is WCSP, C-SPAN’s completely commercial-free public affairs radio station. (For those of you who live far from Washington D.C., you can always listen to it online.) Granted, spending your Saturday afternoon listening to archival recordings of the Lyndon Johnson tapes, or hearing the late Hubert Humphrey ramble about his life, may not be your cup of tea. Fortunately, its political content is usually more timely than these examples. However, at least in my area, its signal strength is low, so tuning it in can at times be hit or miss.

Membership week is beneath public radio. I think what public radio needs is a sufficiently well moneyed foundation. Perhaps Bill Gates, with all his billions, could put us public radio listeners out of our misery and fund an endowment for public radio. Then it would never be necessary again for a public radio or TV station to grub for money or have to find sponsors again.

And while I’m at it, I’d like pony.

 
The Thinker

Fine Dining at Ruth’s Chris

Thursday’s dinner was one of those that I would have every night if I were independently wealthy.

Had my wife and I not had a reason to celebrate, our dinner would have been something much more prosaic. In fact, there probably would have been nothing resembling a family dinner. We do have family dinners, but mostly on the weekends. During the week, we usually scavenge. When we get hungry, we go make something, generally for ourselves. (You can do this if your family consists of only three people, like ours.) I would have likely pulled something out of the freezer and microwaved it.

However, Thursday just happened to be my 21st wedding anniversary. Since it was an anniversary, my wife and I elected to go some place very nice for dinner. Last year as you may recall we went to The Hermitage, in Clifton, Virginia. There we had no problem happily departing with $130 or so. Thursday we went to Ruth’s Chris in Fairfax, Virginia. Rarely have I left a restaurant more satisfied. Moreover, rarely have I had to dig so deeply into my wallet to pay the bill. With tip, our bill came to $155. It would have been more had we ordered drinks.

Ruth’s Chris is a national steakhouse chain. You may have eaten great steak before, but unless you have eaten a steak from Ruth’s Chris, you probably have never have eaten perfectly prepared steak. I bet any other steak you have eaten cannot attain Ruth’s Chris lofty standard of excellence.

The steak though was just the centerpiece of a rich dining experience that was meticulously controlled and arranged to impress. There actually are entrees other than steak on their menu. It just seems like such a waste to come all the way to Ruth’s Chris and not order the steak. It is like going to Starbucks and not ordering coffee. I ordered the Petite Filet with Shrimp. It was a mere eight ounces of corn fed USDA Choice steak, cooked at 1800 degrees and served on sizzling, 500-degree plates. On top of each four ounce filet was one jumbo-sized shrimp.

But oh, the ecstasy of that first bite! Actually, each subsequent mouthful was equally excellent. Each slice was dripping in butter, lightly seasoned and so tender it offered no resistance whatsoever during consumption. Each swallow sent another little surge of ecstasy down my throat. The taste simply radiated through my whole mouth. I found myself slicing my filets very finely just so I could savor each bite to the maximum.

If Ruth’s Chris has a downside, aside from the price, it is that everything is sold separately. This includes the baked potato. I chose a Caesar salad. It was delivered with unchopped leaves of romaine lettuce artistically arranged on my plate, covered with shaved Parmesan cheese and allegedly dressed with croutons. Their croutons resembled shaving the top eighth of an inch of a crusty loaf of bread. Of course, I elected to have it garnished with black pepper. This was one of the few salads where I had to apply my knife before it could consume it. I so rarely have pepper on any food (since my wife is allergic to it) that it was almost a shock.

My wife ordered a baked potato with her steak, but I elected for a side of mashed potatoes. One of the reasons I mourn my late mother is that she was excelled at preparing mashed potatoes. They always came out lumpless and were both creamy and buttery. I look for mashed potatoes whenever I dine out, but can rarely find them. I do not find lumpless mashed potatoes to necessarily be a sign of excellence. In fact, I like a little something to chew on in my mashed potatoes. What I look for is flavor. Ruth’s Chris mashed potatoes did not disappoint. They were as creamy and buttery as my mother’s famous mashed potatoes and came lightly topped with parsley. The serving was enough for two people. Between my fond memories of my mother’s excellent mashed potatoes and the exquisite steak, I was in culinary overload.

My wife chose a side of sautéed mushrooms. Each mushroom was uniform and perfectly round, and came in a lightly buttered and seasoned sauce. Sautéed mushrooms are one of my wife’s specialties. She frequently serves them on special occasions like Thanksgiving dinner. They get rave reviews. However, Ruth’s Chris’s mushrooms were actually better.

Of course, we found room for dessert. My wife ordered the Warm Apple Crumb Tart, which was enormous and more than she could finish. She gave me a taste, but it was hard for me to judge its quality, because my mouth was overwhelmed by the taste of the Chocolate Sin Cake that I ordered. The “cake” was excellent but perhaps misnamed. It was more like a big chocolate in the shape of a small cake slice than a cake. There did not seem to be anything in it that needed baking. It came garnished with a finely sliced strawberry and with drizzled raspberry sauce across the plate. I had to restrain myself from licking my plate when I was done with it.

As you would expect, the service was impeccable. Each table was covered with real linens, which were replaced after each dining experience. If I had a complaint, it was that perhaps our server gave us too much time to linger over our meals. The dining room was clean, attractive, quiet and well laid out. Clearly, they have been in this business a long time. They have this level of dining down to a science.

I have eaten better prepared food, but only very rarely. You go to Ruth’s Chris because you want the best tasting steak available. You will not be disappointed. Yet I have had fancier meals. More than ten years ago when it was still in business, we took our first cruise on a Dolphin cruise line. Our cabin was tiny, but the meals were to die for. At the time, Dolphin was known for its high cuisine. When it was still in business, my wife and I also had several meals at The Windsor House in Middleburg, Virginia. Both of those were better than our meal this week at Ruth’s Chris, although I do not recall ordering steaks with those meals. I know there is better dining is available. If I were independently wealthy, I would make sure at least once a year I dined at The Inn at Little Washington, which is renown in our region and which requires diners to sign up months in advance. Since Ruth’s Chris is a chain, there is likely one near you. Unquestionably, Ruth’s Chris is an excellent restaurant. If you have the money for this kind of dining, you will not be disappointed.

 
The Thinker

Adventures in Financial Planning

If you have been wondering why I have not been blogging this week it is because real life has been keeping me busy. Some weeks there simply is not time to blog. This was one of those weeks.

Many things have distracted me. There is my job, of course, which more than fills the daylight hours. There was my wonderful daughter’s seventeenth birthday, part one of which we celebrated last night. In addition, a sister was in town this week. We got together for dinner in Tyson’s Corner, discussed family news and politics. You cannot put two of my siblings in the same room without politics coming up.

We both shared the same shameful and sick feelings. We were grasping how to articulate them. What comes out are not so much words as an inchoate primal scream. We cannot believe that our Congress has given President Bush permission to torture people and limit the rights of enemy combatants. Congress approved a law so broad that it appears that the president could declare me an enemy combatant and indefinitely detain me. We can only hope these unconstitutional laws are quickly overturned by the courts. It boggles my mind that our Congress could discard the tradition of Habeas Corpus that goes back to the Magna Carta. As if these outrages were not enough, the House of Representatives approved a bill that lets President Bush conduct widespread government eavesdropping. The Senate will likely follow along, after the recess. The congress believes that these actions will show they are tough on terrorists and consequently will help them retain control of Congress. What is does to those of us who are politically awake is make us wet our pants. One diarist on DailyKos put it accurately when he wrote an obituary for our country. I hope after all the wreckage from the last five years that America has finally woken up. We will know in about a month after the midterm elections. In any event, I cannot fully articulate my feelings about these events right now; just express my abject horror, and my disgust at our president and our Congress. I cannot even absolve my own party, which should have filibustered this bill in the Senate, but did not.

While the bizarre and surreal actions in Washington have occupied my forebrain, ordinary life still goes on. I have also been planning for my father’s 80th birthday, which we celebrate next week. My family is still getting to know our cat Arthur Dent better. We spent part of each day is spent coaxing him out of hiding, petting him and giving him tummy rubs. Then there have been the illnesses. Our daughter brought home some nasty cold from school, promptly gave it to me, and I passed it on to my wife. My wife is the only one who still has cold symptoms. Her voice sounds like gravel and she spends much of her waking hours coughing and chugging expectorant. In addition, my side business of installing modifications to phpBB has gotten more active. I have been working with a very assertive client who has been uncovering many hitherto undiscovered bugs in my Digest and Smartfeed modifications and naturally wants me to fix them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the slow Chinese water torture of implementing our financial plan. I am discovering why I have procrastinated on our family’s financial planning all these years. To put it mildly, it is a pain in the tuckus to implement our financial plan. I can see why many choose to outsource the whole business to a trusted broker. Jerry, my financial planner, says I am in the worst of it right now. He has made things as simple as possible, by doing things like providing many of the forms I need and having one of his employees fill them out. Once this load of work is behind us, he assures us that we are in for a long period of smooth sailing. The hard part is changing course. We may trim our sails once a year during our annual review. I cannot wait to get to that stage because right now I am up to my armpits in forms and phone calls. I am discovering that it will take months to make this course correction.

My wife has two 401-Ks that have sat dormant for the last few years. It should be routine to roll them over into someone else’s plan. Alas, it is anything but. Instead, there is a plethora of confusing and poorly documented hoops to jump through. Each company that manages 401-K or IRAs has its own bizarre procedures for rolling money in and out. Prudential Retirement, for example, holds one of my wife’s 401Ks. They require a spousal notification form. That is fine if only a signature were needed but no, it has to be notarized, which means I have to find a notary and arrange a time when we are both available to have the form notarized. One plan simply requires that I give authorization on the receiving institution’s forms. Another insists on sending us their special forms. They must be returned before they will accept a transfer request from the receiving institution. Setting up receiving accounts is not necessarily straightforward either. Vanguard, for example, requires a minimum investment in each kind of fund (usually $3000). One fund, their Energy Fund, requires a minimum of $25,000. In addition, you must set up a money market account with at least $2500 in it in order to move funds around.

Working through just one of these rollover issues is enough to trigger a migraine. I have discovered that financial institutions are not necessarily anxious to part with your money. They seem to put up lots of hoops just to see if you have the patience to jump through them. The details on how to do these things are not necessarily on their web sites. Therefore, you have to call them on the phone, decipher their financial speak, then call back the receiving institutions, and ask more questions. The whole process feels medieval and is both frustrating and aggravating.

My wife used to work for USAA Insurance. The only way to get a rollover of her 401K going is to access their employee only web site. That requires an ID and PIN. Maybe she knew once upon a time but long ago forgot. So now, we are waiting for snail mail to arrive with a new PIN to get that process going.

Then there are the non-retirement assets to shuffle. Closing two funds with USAA was actually straightforward. I just logged on and pressed a few buttons. Money instantly shuffled into my money market account. Great. I opened my money market checkbook to write a check to the new institution only to discover I had just used the last check. I now have to wait 4-6 business days to get new checks.

Altogether, I have to move five funds in four institutions and place them into eight funds maintained by five institutions. Three of them are retirement accounts, which have to go through a rollover process to avoid withdrawal penalties. Other existing funds, which I was told to keep, required some minor tweaking. Changing contribution and reallocations for my Thrift Savings Plan took only a few minutes and were done conveniently online.

My wife made all this more challenging. She hates anything to do with money management. It required coaxing her to do things she really, really hates, like speak to retirement fund specialists. This is just one of the reasons why I keep the books. She can be challenged just holding to her receipts. Fortunately, she has a process for that now: she stuffs them into her wallet. I typically sort through them once a week or so. So getting her on the phone with those holding her 401Ks and talking through issues like IRA rollovers was challenging. Often I had to initiate the call, conference her in, get her permission to let me talk to them, and then get the answers I needed.

Once our money is shuffled around, other issues loom. Life insurance is one of them. Next year when I turn 50, my term life insurance costs will nearly double to about $800 a year. Jerry says that I need to keep the life insurance through age 60. He has sources that offer much better deals but work only through financial planners. One gave him a quote for about $500 a year for ten years. That is great, because it means I will save at least $3000. Of course, to save the money I have to go through an obtrusive physical examination and then wait 60 days or so. That process needs to start now, because I turn 50 in February.

I am keeping a notebook of things I need to do. The list keeps expanding. It took about three weeks, but we finally returned the papers for our home equity loan to the credit union. Second trustee endorsement statements first had to be added to our homeowner’s insurance. Much, much notarizing was needed. We made one appointment with a notary, but missed one place where we needed a notary’s signature. This required finding another notary while working it around my wife’s illness.

The recommended umbrella insurance policy arrived, but the bill has not, at least not yet. I have not even begun to think about updating our will. Jerry has some lawyers he can recommend. Setting up a special IRA for my wife was straightforward, but required a $2000 initial investment. That money had to come from somewhere. Fortunately, last month was a three-paycheck month.

I figure it will be several more weeks of aggravating phone calls and filling out dense legal forms before we succeed in transferring all our assets. Dotting all the I’s and crossing the T’s with items like life insurance policies and wills will take longer. Once these assets are in place, then I need to set up regular contributions for many funds. I am hoping somewhere around the start of 2007 all this will be behind us and all we need to do is trim those sails once a year. For it will take many margaritas under some palm tree in the Caribbean to make up for this aggravation.

 
The Thinker

Kashi: It’s what I am eating for breakfast

First, a disclaimer. This is an honest product endorsement. I was neither solicited nor compensated for this review. In addition, as you can see by browsing through my blog, I am not one of these paid corporate or candidate bloggers. I speak my mind free of any overt external influences. Except from some spare change from Google Adsense revenue, which, at best, just pays my hosting costs, I do not make a dime off this blog.

I am not one of those whole food types. I do not go out of my way to eat organic or “natural

 
The Thinker

Welcoming Arthur Dent

It took about a week, but Arthur Dent (our newly adopted cat) has emerged from hiding. He still likes to spend much of his day trying not to be seen by hiding under the sofa. Increasingly though, we find him in less hidden spots, such as on a dining room chair. He is waiting, waiting silently and patiently for something or someone. Maybe his is waiting for the other long dead cats that he smells to emerge. On the other hand, maybe he is just waiting to feel sufficiently safe to release a restless spirit that so far he has not chosen to manifest. Since he chooses to wait then we will wait too.

Our cat Arthur

When he wants attention, it helps to listen. Unlike our evil cat Squeaky, he is not a shouter of a cat. He lets out plaintive and short duration high-pitched squeaks. We understand that means, “Does anyone want to pet me?” Mostly though he prefers silence and stealthiness. Having spent a year with thirty or so cats in a room the size of our living room, perhaps he is just enjoying the luxury of being alone.

He remains something of a peculiar cat. We are used to cats that are in your face. It is likely that over time, as trust is established, he will become one of these cats too. Right now, he remains skittish. He wants to be approached gently and quietly. If I lumber down the steps, he will go hide. If I sit down on the floor, call him in a soft tone, look him in the eye and then gently offer him my hand, he will approach me tentatively. Once I give him a quick pet and he turns into my love slave.

He loves to be gently scratched under his chin. He also likes me to use both hands and gently scratch both sides of his face at once. Like most cats, he demonstrates pleasure by kneading the carpet with his paws, licking me with his sandpaper like tongue and, when he is feeling very comfortable, flopping on his back and exposing his belly. I can rub his belly up near his chest, but not much further. In that sense, at least so far, he is a different sort of cat for us. My last cat Sprite was totally fearless in my arms. I could touch him anywhere, carry him anywhere, and put him in any position. The more outrageous the move, the louder he purred.

Perhaps in time Arthur will become this way. Right now, he seems to be in no hurry to sit on our laps. This seems to be something he does not do. He has not established enough trust with us to allow us to pick him up either. Nevertheless, when stimulated he certainly can be very affectionate, purring strongly and rubbing his soft fur against our hands and legs.

He is not much of a vertical cat. We are also used to cats for whom ascending vertically is as natural and walking. Thus far, he has not gotten above chair height. I am thinking that perhaps a previous owner trained him not to get up on the furniture. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We never liked our cats to think they could jump onto tables and countertops, and would shoo them off. Otherwise, we gave them free reign to ascend as high vertically as they wanted.

Nor has Arthur yet expressed an interest in the outside. Darkness and quiet are mainly where he finds comfort right now. We have tried to entice him to play with a number of toys. No dice. His one game is the paw game. He will reach out and pat your hand or finger with his paw. He does it very nicely and does not scratch you at all.

We have learned a few things about Arthur from his medical record. He is about three years old. He spent the last year in the Friends of Homeless Animals cattery. He has been to the veterinarian twice while he was homeless, once for an upper respiratory infection. He is current on all his shots and is neutered. He also once had mild conjunctivitis. He has an appetite and generally eats all the food I lay out for him. He is fastidious for a cat. He keeps himself well groomed, which I take as a sign that he is reasonably happy. Mostly he is a gentle cat. This is fine with me. I just wish he would come out more often. Every time he does, he gets plenty of positive attention. The good news is that we can usually coax him out now.

For myself, I am satisfied at present. Now that he is out, I am content to let him become adjusted to his new home at his own pace. If I can pet him once or twice a day, that suffices. If I can eventually coax him to jump on my lap, I will be happier. If he turns into a cuddle cat, I will be ecstatic. I think in time all these things are possible as trust is slowly extended and replied to in kind.

One thing for sure: our house now feels like a home again. Thanks and welcome home at last, Arthur.

 

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