The Thinker

Ducks in a row

Houses are not really sold until closing. That’s something I am beginning to understand in my gut after our house was “sold”, i.e. put “under contract”. A real estate contract is actually a highly conditional contract that gives the buyer plenty of reasons to later opt out. These typically include a satisfactory home inspection, a termite inspection and a radon test. No house is perfect, of course, and home inspectors are paid to find stuff.

The home inspector for our house sure found stuff, stuff we would have never noticed in a million years and stuff that really didn’t matter. A handrail we added for support on the stairs to the basement had pickets too widely spaced in this inspector’s opinion. A really stupid child might fall through somehow and hurt themselves. So Elias, our handyman, is busy adding these redundant railings to preclude any such thing, although we are pretty sure the buyer is a single guy. He also noticed a vent missing from a room in the basement and wrote that one up too. And lots of other stuff. But we could get rid of the contingency just by reducing our sales price $7000, the maximum price to fix these “defects”, which included a pool of water from snowmelt in our backyard too he felt should require us to regrade the lawn. Apparently, someone had not informed that the buyer the house was 30 years old, not brand new. I guess if you are a home buyer, you have every incentive to shoot for the moon.

We fought back of course and figuring we had the better bargaining position (given that we had two full price contracts to choose from) told him we wouldn’t fix the swale or tear up the stucco ceiling to add a vent that really wasn’t needed. And we crossed our fingers he wouldn’t walk away. He didn’t. The rest of it we can fix up for another $1000. So that contract contingency is satisfied, as is the radon test. The termite inspection will come in time but that has never been problem. Which leaves the appraisal. The appraiser may tell the buyer that he paid too much for our house, so he should pull out of the contract, or negotiate a lower price. I doubt that will happen.

This is the downside of owning a house. The mortgage interest deduction is nice, but a house is a second child that never stops going to college. It means you don’t have to sleep on the street, providing you can keep up the payments for thirty years. To translate its value into hard cash you have to jump through these flaming hoops, the next one more daunting than the last. But increasingly it looks like we will get through them all with only minor burns, but not without ingesting a lot of antacid.

So now we are here back in Western Massachusetts looking at a hole in the ground. It’s not any hole in the ground, it’s our hole in the ground, what will be our next house, a condominium in a 55+ community which is actually a single family house. As holes go it looks pretty good and that’s because the foundation is laid. Moreover, despite the freezing temperatures and most of the snow unmelted the land is reasonably graded. What’s missing is all the rest that makes a house a home, like a frame and a roof, but that will come in time. We have to be ready for that time, which is why we are here not only pondering our frozen concrete filled hole in the ground, but shuttling around Western Massachusetts talking to vendors about stuff like floors, lighting, cabinets and appliances. Gas or electric appliances? Which of the hundreds of chandeliers we looked at today will hang from our foyer? Hallway lights in the ceiling or on the walls? The builders need to know these details, not immediately, but they must be planned for, and now is the time to figure out these details.

Then there is the minor matter of living somewhere until the house is ready. There are plenty of places to rent out here after our house is sold near the end of April. Unfortunately, almost all of them require a yearly lease, so we have to spend time calling around and scouring Craigslist for sublets and month-to-month rentals. It’s a hit and miss process, but we found a renovated apartment building in Easthampton that will work, only because it is nearing completion. The investor-landlord need tenants in an otherwise empty building. New carpet and appliances make it appealing, but the neighborhood is a bit sketchy. An auto repair shop is across the street and down the street are many old Victorian houses, some somewhat dilapidated. It will do for the four months or so we need temporary lodging. The good part about paying rent is you don’t pay a mortgage, or property taxes, or for the general property upkeep. Owning a house in many ways is a foolish thing to do. The owner is willing to cut us a deal just to start to get the building occupied.

It’s unclear where all our possessions will sit in the interim. There are the usual storage facilities out here and we visited a few to discover they can’t take our stuff, at least not yet. Check with them a week or two before we move up, they tell us. We’ll have to find something. For now we take it on faith that it will somehow work out.

When not occupied with these logistical maneuvers, I ponder this major life change we are about to make. I know I will miss many things about Northern Virginia, where I spent the last 31 years. I will leave behind a daughter, the bulk of my friends, a whole network of doctors and  various other professionals, and many pleasant memories. There’s really no going back. It’s a big gamble that life will somehow be better up here in Massachusetts, and it’s harder to believe two days from spring when the temperature here is below freezing, the winds are gale force from the northwest, piles of snow are everywhere and killer potholes pocket virtually all the streets. If it had been just me, I’d probably not have chosen to live here, but of course it’s not just me. It’s also my wife, who hates Northern Virginia and needs a colder climate. It’s what we could agree on. I know that it will take a long time to feel this place is my home, and not just another way station in life.

Selling our house though will be a gigantic relief. It’s been a money pit and a constant hassle. I’ll be glad to finally cash in on that asset, which may mean no mortgage at all for the new house. A new house will buy us, at least for a time, a respite from worrying about infrastructure. Then perhaps retirement can genuinely begin.

All it requires is getting all our ducks in a row. After much work they are at least all moving in the same direction. That’s progress.

 

 
The Thinker

47 mutineers

I was hardly the only one shocked and more than a little dumfounded when 47 Republican U.S. senators sent an unsolicited letter to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, Ali Khamenei last week. The letter said that any agreement between the United States, Iran, and all those other pesky countries (including China and Russia) working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons could easily be abrogated by the Congress, something that is simply not true.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. We have a Congress in full mutiny over this thing called constitutional government because it is proving to be inconvenient. They are in mutiny because they hate the guy leading the executive branch because he has the audacity not to agree with them on everything. Just a week earlier House Speaker John Boehner made good on his unilateral decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. Hitherto foreign policy, with the exception of treaties has been the purview of the executive because, well, it’s that’s what it says in the constitution. It must be very confusing to foreign leaders. Just who speaks for the United States government? It’s pretty clear in other governments, but not in our government, not anymore.

Only it’s not just the Congress. It’s also the Alabama Supreme Court. It started when its supreme justice Roy Moore told county clerks not to marry gay and lesbian couples, this after a federal court ruled they could marry. Subsequently the entire (Republican) state supreme court backed him up. Alabama is basically telling its court clerks that its decision nullifies the federal court’s decision. This is something close to treason. At the very least it is a conscious effort to ignore the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. We fought a three-year civil war to resolve the issue of states’ rights. One can understand the impulse not to want to accept these rulings, but a court is never supposed to do anything that obviously conflicts with the settled and unambiguous law of our land. Alvin Toffler would say this is a classic case of future shock. It’s clear that Republicans and southern states in general aren’t doing very well in dealing with the future that has already arrived and won’t follow constitutional processes to change things they don’t like.

Still, what these 47 mutinous Republican senators did reached a new level of arrogance and stupidity. New Arkansas senator Tom Cotton initiated the letter. I had two thoughts when I considered how this letter got started. First was that Cotton hadn’t bothered to run it by staff first. If he had they would have doubtless provided a sanity check and told him that this was a really bad, potentially career-ending act, not to mention factually wrong. The other alternative is even more mind-boggling: his staff told him it was a bad idea but he proceeded anyhow.

The even crazier part is that 47 out of 54 Republican senators signed it as well. This included their majority leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, hitherto one of the rational Republicans. This wasn’t rocket science. The letter was wrong about how our constitution works. It suggests that 47 Republicans don’t even grasp the basic workings of our foreign policy and congress’s role in it. You could both see it and hear it in Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony. It was basically: are you really this stupid? Did you not hear the words about swearing to uphold our constitution when you took your oath of office?

Some of the signers have belatedly suggested that maybe signing it wasn’t a smart move. Editorial boards across the country were virtually unanimous in condemning what these senators did. Some of the signers of course doubled down, particularly those who seem to be angling to run for president in 2016.

None of these senators should be trusted to so much as guard a roll of pennies again. It was a potentially criminal lapse of judgment, so much so that a petition calling for them to be tried for treason has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures on whitehouse.gov. Their hatred for all things Obama and their obsessive pandering to the worst elements of their own party overruled common sense, decency and apparently clouded over basic knowledge of our federal system and constitution. These erstwhile champions of the constitution clearly didn’t bother to read it before they signed the letter.

This is another Mission Accomplished moment, something none of these 47 senators will be able to live down. For many their states are so red it won’t make much of a difference to their jobs, but they will forever be ridiculed, insulted and scorned for their mutinous act. Like Lady Macbeth, they will never be able to remove this damned bloody spot from their careers. It’s a mark of deep shame they will carry into death, to be ever recorded in major sections of their biography. The many good things many of these senators have done are likely to be overwhelmed by this egregious, mutinous and profoundly stupid act of putting their anger and partisanship ahead of statesmanship.

 
The Thinker

Hillary’s emails: what the critics are missing

The current kerfuffle over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private Blackberry and private email server for her official business while she was Secretary of State is mostly about making a mountain out of a molehill. Nonetheless the molehill makes for a pretty interesting discussion and analysis. I have some thoughts about this coming from my time as a civil servant as well as some technical perspectives from my career in information technology that I haven’t heard in the media. Hence I’m taking some time to blog about it.

There are many dimensions to the issue. You can look at it from either dimension and feel completely justified that your side is right. Let me advocate for both of them and you tell me which is right.

First, I’ll take the critical perspective. Records should be kept of official government business. The Secretary of State does a lot of official business and it impacts national and international policy. Moreover, the email threads of these historical events may provide useful lessons for the future. The Secretary of State is essentially a civil servant. She works for the taxpayers. So her email should be archived, not necessarily for instant critique, but for history and for congressional and criminal inquiries when they are needed.

However, she was not just anyone. She was the Secretary of State. I can think of few positions in the government, including the Director of the CIA, that are more sensitive. If I were trying to have a confidential back channel communication with the Prime Minister of Israel, would I really want him to communicate with me through [email protected], even if the email were highly encrypted? Or using any state.gov email address? Would any leader outside our country want anything less than innocuous content to go through such a system? There is always the telephone, of course, and the Blackberry includes a telephone. However, a telephone is synchronous. It’s a relatively inefficient way to work. It’s much better to reply with thought and nuance when you have the opportunity to do so, i.e. use email.

The reality is that the Secretary of State (and most high level government executives) has multiple channels of communications to do their business. Email is an important tool. Staff communications happens at another level and is also vital. In general, all sorts of lower level communications have likely happened before the Secretary picks up the phone or sends an email. If there are times when a confidential email is the best choice for the Secretary, an off the record email system makes a lot of pragmatic and business sense. It’s hard for me to think of myself as Secretary of State but if I was, it was lawful and I had the money I’d probably have done mostly what Clinton did, except I’d have a separate email for strictly personal use. A private email address though was pragmatic and necessary. We should trust implicitly anyone we pick for Secretary of State. If we didn’t trust her, the Senate should not have confirmed her.

Using the same email account for both personal and public use even though it offers convenience is stupid. Personal systems are likely to be less secure as government systems, although government email systems are hardly perfectly secure. One could make the business case that overall her public emails would have been more secure being hidden on a private server inside the government technical enclave. Ideally she would use a hidden government-managed email server that was patched and highly secured.

However, those who think that she should have done all of her email using a [email protected] email address clearly don’t have much of an understanding of how impractical this is. If this was her only government email address, it would be inundated with thousands of emails every day, even after the spam filter removed the obvious garbage. She would depend on staff to sift through it and flag the ones that she would read. Staff are not perfect though and might potentially not flag the important ones. In addition, there are times when you really don’t want staff reading certain emails but you need to communicate asynchronously. So you need a channel for that. And the open nature of email means anyone can send email to anyone. In short, this approach is not the least bit practical for someone at her position. She needed an email system that only let in those that she needed to let in, and this could not be done through the technology of the time.

What she did was not unlawful at the time, but certainly gave out a bad odor. It feeds into conspiracy theories that the Clintons always attract. It suggests a need for rigorous control and confidentiality; something I argue is not unreasonable for someone in her position. Mostly though I think the problem here is that the technology did not exist that allowed her to do her work pragmatically. It still doesn’t exist. Email is not quite the right medium for what she needed, but it was a tool everyone had. A private email address and mail server was a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton is as paranoid as Republicans believe she is, and that all their theories about her are true. If so she has plenty of company among Republicans. I strongly suspect that she is guilty of being pragmatic and efficient, and using these somewhat unorthodox means allowed her to be the highly productive Secretary of State that most historians agree that she was. And given the unique sensitivity and nature of her work, I think the ends largely justified the means here. I also believe that if there were a technical solution available that would have met her requirements, she would have used it.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: March 2015 edition

Sorry Craigslist fans. I am a bit late with this month’s review. I typically do it on the first Friday of the month. But I was occupied with my weekend trip to Baltimore and selling my house. So here I am midweek and wondering if the quality of postings on the Northern Virginia Craigslist Casual Encounters section on a Wednesday will come close to matching those I usually find on Fridays. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to dive in.

A few statistics first. For February I had at least 255 web page requests for my Craigslist posts, about 14% of total traffic. Doubtless there were many more via email and newsfeeds that I can’t track. The first page of listings today shows no women at all looking for men. This would be strange except such posts are almost quickly flagged and deleted, because they are usually judged as bogus. So I will browse beyond the first page so women get some representation today. Otherwise on page one I see:

  • 39 men looking for women
  • 47 men looking for a man
  • 2 men looking for a couple
  • 2 women looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for another couple
  • 4 transgender people looking for a man

So here we go:

  • He’s a 23-year-old man with a hotel room and his own gloryhole inside it. I’m trying to figure out how he does this. He can’t replace the hotel room door with his own door. I guess he would have to haul his own door into the hotel room and put it up there, but presumably it can’t attach to the wall or anything. And it would be pretty hard to hide from security cameras. Or maybe he strings a blanket from the ceiling and cuts out a hole in it, or puts up an eight foot high piece of cardboard attached to the walls with duct tape. I have no particular attraction to my own sex, but I kind of wish he included a picture with his set up. It would probably qualify for posting on whitetrashrepairs.com.
  • She’s from Manassas and wants to learn how to milk your prostate. Speaking as a guy, this sounds about as much fun as getting kicked in the balls, but if you are into this give her a try. You must send a photo and be over 40.
  • He’s basically a 22-year-old virgin. He’d probably have more luck snaring a woman if he simply put that in the ad’s title.
  • She’s 19, from Bristow and is into daddy incest. Not with her real daddy of course, and I suspect this is ultimately about separating you from your wallet. Her picture may convince you to give her a try. If you want to do this with a MILF, this 41-year-old woman is looking for a male to do bondage with and possibly incest role-play as well. What she really wants is to use you to find another woman to join you who she would then top. This sounds very complicated! So if that’s too much, there’s also this 42-year-old woman looking for a similar daddy encounter, which presumably would mean a happy time for some 60+ area man. Incest, or really fake incest, must be the new up and coming kink on Craigslist.
  • They are a couple looking for another couple but they do have their standards. To weed out flakes, the women must chat on the phone first and you must send them a picture of both of you together. Also, you must be in shape and under 50.
  • Somewhere in Sterling or Ashburn is a 48-year-old crossdressing man who wants to meet another man in the public restroom stall in his office building. He wants to get to the bottom of this encounter, his bottom actually, but only until 5. Presumably he’ll be on an extended potty break from his desk job.
  • If you are into urinating on, berating and degrading women on their balcony in the dark check out this attractive woman. She’s also looking for a big cock (aren’t they all?). Bonus if you like chomping on and smoking cigars. For something this weird, I actually hope she realizes her fantasy.
  • Here’s a forties couple from Manassas/Woodbridge looking for a couple to basically date. Getting between the sheets is not their main objective.
  • Men, if you are not into lady boys, you might want to make an exception for this 25-year-old tranny from Dunn Loring. Check out her picture and tell me what you think. Her only requirement is that you be under 30. Or maybe you would prefer a visiting black tranny with long black hair and wearing a spotted bra and a cool leather coat. Only I think she is charging. The Dunn Loring lady boy swears she is not.
  • This is a bit strange. A 50+ guy is looking for a 50+ woman, principally because he needs a woman with him to get admitted into local nudist parties.
  • He’s a 28-year-old tomcat, but at least he’s open enough about it. He wants to screw you every which way possible, all unprotected. Just don’t expect him to hang around and do boring things like love you, marry you and pay child support. I’d suggest that he hook up with this 24-year-old woman from Arlington, but she is looking for someone at least three years younger.
  • For some reason I don’t understand, plenty of women are into seeing their man get off with another man. Do you have a husband, boyfriend or significant other you’d like to see get oral sex from another man while you watch? Here’s a guy that will oblige, but he’s strangely particular. The guy must be at least seven inches and under 35.
  • Are you a man with an extensive collection of sex toys? This 31-year-old woman from Woodbridge is willing to let you try all of them on her, providing you are okay with her being a very, very large woman. You must host.

This is not a bad sampling for midweek. Another review will come next month, which is likely to be my last Craigslist critique, at least for here in Northern Virginia, as we’ll be moving. It is likely that there won’t be this level of kink and craziness where we are going.

 
The Thinker

Sold to the man with $505,000

Now here’s something I won’t miss I thought as we sat in capital beltway traffic during the middle of the day. How many weeks or months of my life had I squandered sitting in Washington traffic? There was no possible way to tally it, but at least it was coming to an end soon. While we were escaping to Baltimore, there was no escape from Washington’s predictably unpredictable traffic, at least not while we still lived here.

Or maybe there was. Ahead was the spur to I-270 north. A relatively new Intercounty Connector now connects Montgomery and Prince Georges counties in Maryland. For $3.20 we could avoid yet another tedious beltway tie up. It was hardly the shortest route to Baltimore but unsurprisingly it was the fastest today.

We were escaping to Baltimore because escaping was what our realtor recommended during open house weekend. Baltimore served the purpose of keeping us close but distracted while allowing our newly listed house to be easily inspected freely by prospective buyers. The big event was Sunday’s open house from 1-4. The calls from realtors had already started. Bright Photoshopped images of our house were now online, emphasizing light filled rooms, wood floors and empty kitchen countertops. Based on the calls we were getting, all the hassle of transforming our home into a house was clearing working. Come by anytime, we would tell the always-polite realtor on the other end of the call. The calls came while we drove down Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, in search of landmarks recommended by my sister who lives nearby. And they came in while we ate an early dinner at Matthew’s Pizza, Baltimore’s renowned hole in the wall pizza institution, also on Eastern Avenue.

The idea of escaping during open house weekend would only be partially realized. There was no escape Friday from the below freezing temperatures, endless snow banks and the partially snow filled parking spaces of Baltimore. There was no escape from the usury parking rates near the Hyatt Regency hotel at Inner Harbor, where we had a room for two nights. At least there wasn’t until we opted for the Arena parking garage six blocks away where the socialist City of Baltimore’s daily parking rate was just $16.00.

Inner Harbor was bone chillingly cold and mostly empty on this Friday night. We had made sporadic forays to Baltimore over the last thirty years, mostly to its touristy Inner Harbor area. In 1984 my then girlfriend Terri had surprised me with two nights in this very same hotel, a perk of being the one who made travel arrangements at her office (and being known by name by the Hyatt reservations staff). It is still an impressive hotel, but Inner Harbor was not quite as impressive thirty years later. The shops were less upscale and there were some vacancies. Thirty years ago Mayor (and future governor) Donald Shaffer might have been seen here strolling among the stores. Inner Harbor was his idea and it was very successful. While Shaffer is dead, his statue is still here overseeing Inner Harbor.

Saturday found warmth slowly returning and snow melting. The free Charm City Circulator made it relatively painless to get from point to point downtown. It helped if you liked to walk. Federal Hill was snow covered, but the walks to Fort McHenry were at least shoveled. The place known for the rockets’ red glare during the War of 1812 was unvisited by my wife, but even on this frosty morning the view of the harbor was still spectacular. The most spectacular find of the day turned out to be the Walters Museum accessed via a slow moving Circulator bus. William Thompson Walters was clearly filthy rich (he was a railroad tycoon). He and his son created a staggering collection of mostly European art, almost all of it in excellent condition that highlights medieval periods and the Renaissance. It’s all available for free but is largely unknown, perhaps because it is hard to get to.

Part of our mind was stuck back home. We wondered how many realtors had come through our house with clients in tow. The phone calls had slowed down, but some realtors might have not tried our cell number and simply brought their clients by. We had seen that happen routinely the last time we had a home on the market.

Sunday morning my sister Mary, who lives in nearby Columbia, volunteered to give us a driving tour of Baltimore. Mary might as well have been born in Baltimore. She adopted the city and likes to dress up like a Baltimore “Hon” with a beehive hairdo during Honfest week. She gave us a tour of areas of Baltimore we had never seen. Baltimore has an undeserved reputation. It’s actually an amazingly diverse but very urban city, known for its endless brownstones and many ethnic areas, most of which are quite safe and festooned mostly locally owned businesses. Urban prospectors would be smart to check it out. We checked out the Broadway Diner on the far side of Eastern Avenue for breakfast before starting our driving tour. We also checked out my father and stepmother on our drive back home, and stayed for dinner with them as well.

We returned home near sunset, our house emptied of people but with the back doors unlocked and a stack of real estate business cards on our dining room table. We spoke by phone with our realtor. The open house was a huge success. So many cars were parked along the side of the street that our neighbors had a hard time getting down the street. One prospect had driven up over our curb into our driveway, leaving tire tracks on our sod. Our house was still clean, but the driveway was full of muddy boot prints and tire tracks.

Our realtor was proactive enough to hire an assistant. They had prospects leave their boots and shoes on our porch. Debbie (our realtor) handled the front of the house while her assistant handled the back of the house. Rooms were frantically inspected and closets peered into while various couples tried to imagine if they could live here and afford our $505,000 asking price.

Debbie said we had an offer and to come by her office Monday afternoon. When we arrived on a spring-like Monday afternoon, she had two offers for us to consider. Both were at our full asking price. Both buyers were highly qualified, putting 20% down in cash and financing the rest. Both were happy to pay our asking price. And both were single men. The offers were essentially the same. We chose the Indian guy mainly because his settlement date worked better for us. (We imagined he had a bride to be back from India, and that our house would eventually be full of children.) We drove home with an Under Contract sign to place atop our For Sale sign. Our house had been on the market exactly three days.

This outcome was surprising but should not have been. It’s not for the same reason that we sat in beltway traffic three days earlier. Despite the hassle of living in the Washington region, people still have a frantic need to live here, and are willing to pay the price. It is a seller’s market in our area right now. Moreover, we were the only house for sale in our desirable neighborhood, and our house is in excellent condition. We hit the jackpot, but it was by design, not by chance. It meant about $10,000 more in fix up expenses in the last six months, and a huge amount of labor. It meant cringing while a stager turned our home into something we did not recognize. And it meant a weekend in Baltimore playing tourist while buyers assessed our house and pondered offers on our hot property.

It was a triumphant and to me stunning conclusion to our house selling odyssey. We now have to figure out where to live while our house is built, and we already have an unexpected offer from my sister Mary to live with her rent free in Maryland.

The Walls of Jericho have fallen down. A new adventure in Massachusetts waits for us.

 
The Thinker

Double feature, take two

Jupiter Ascending

The last time I reviewed a Wachowski movie, it was a review of Cloud Atlas, a film with lots of potential. It sadly missed the mark, but was still worth seeing. The Wachowski siblings will probably always be best remembered for The Matrix (1999) and its two sequels.

In my humble opinion, Jupiter Ascending is equally as good as The Matrix, and maybe a little better. Sadly, it’s not doing too well at the box office. I have to attribute this to poor publicity, but it may also be because it is at its root a feminist movie and that will bug some people. The heroine, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) doesn’t take much shit. She spends her days in part getting rid of shit by cleaning toilets. She’s part of a Russian immigrant family living marginally in Chicago. Thieves in Russia killed her father before she was born. Of course Jupiter is drop dead gorgeous, and it’s kind of hard to see her being so devoted to her hardworking extended immigrant family that scrambles together a living cleaning other people’s houses. She naturally resists her 4:45 AM wakeup call to begin another day on her hands and knees. She hates her life, she tells us, but won’t do much to change it.

This is not much of a compelling plot but it quickly gets very weird. Apparently Earth is just one of many planets owned by huge profit-oriented conglomerates controlled by various families. We humans and specifically our DNA are much in demand so that its rulers can maintain effective immortality and maximize their profits. In fact, the likely heir to the earth, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) is eager to harvest Earth, but first has to get rid of Jupiter, who has no idea that she owns the planet. It’s Caine’s (Channing Tatum) job to try to protect her, even though he is from a far inferior class (half human, half wolf). He does have a few tricks up his sleeve, including these amazing boots that keep him levitated and effectively make him a skywalker. He also has a terrific if somewhat violent dad, Stinger (Sean Bean) who when he is not beating up his son is busy helping him save Jupiter.

Jupiter’s hard scrapple life though is something of a blessing. It makes her tough, resourceful and someone who won’t take much shit when she learns she actually owns the earth and is something of a queen. It also makes her grounded, and she begins to appreciate her simple family that quickly becomes pawns in a much bigger chessboard of universal intrigue.

So that’s the plot, and it seems more appropriate for a comic book than the screen. What’s amazing is what the Wachowskis manage to do with this story. They breathe real life into it in an amazing directorial tour de force. I generally hate CGI in movies because they tend to overwhelm the story. That’s not the case here. The CGI complements the story, and intelligently so and it is full of neat special effects that I’ve never seen before, including ghostly figures and amazingly detailed extraterrestrial civilizations. Moreover, the characters (all of them) are quite interesting. There’s a real universe here, full of quirks and complexity and it is amazingly well visualized by the Wachowskis. There are also some very humorous scenes, such as when the new empress has to get certified by its bureaucracy, which is something out of a 19th century Dickens novel. If it seems a little familiar, think Brazil (1985), which was Terry Gilliam’s (of Monty Python) directorial tour de force. Gilliam shows up here as one of the bureaucrats. It’s a minor part but memorable one.

I personally have not had this much fun at the movies since the last Indiana Jones movie. If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy, this is equally as good as that, if not better. It’s just not getting the same traction, for reasons I really don’t understand.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Birdman

I usually end up seeing Best Picture, for which Birdman took home the Oscar this year. It is usually sometime after it wins the award, and that was the case this year. Birdman is definitely memorable and is a directorial tour de force just like Jupiter Ascending, just on the micro scale. This movie by director Alejandro Iñárritu was made on a shoestring but he managed to assemble a pretty impressive cast anyhow, including Michael Keaton as Riggan (i.e. Birdman), Emma Stone as his borderline dysfunctional daughter Sam, Naomi Watts as his ex-wife Lesley and Edward Norton as the temperamental actor Mike. If you are looking for something you haven’t seen before at the movies, Birdman definitely qualifies. It is mostly a small series of very long takes wherein the camera closely follows Riggan, a washed up actor known for his Birdman superhero movies from twenty years earlier.

The sixty-something Riggan looks pretty awful. (Michael Keaton is not aging well.) This has to do with his life being a complete mess. His daughter Sam is fresh out of rehab and acting as his assistant, and doing a bad job of it. Riggan is out to prove himself, not as Birdman, but as a Broadway actor, and at the St. James Theater of all places. (I saw The Producers there many years ago.) He has sunk what is left of his fortune into this play, but he can’t seem to keep the other male actor. His producer manages to snag Mike at the last moment, but Mike is quirky, temperamental and prone to blowing up. Riggan struggles mightily to keep his play from imploding, which seems impossible, as each preview is rife with major problems. Moreover the characters intersect, mostly disastrously while what feedback Riggan gets is that he is not cut out for the real theater on Broadway.

It’s all this and Riggan seems to have the mystical powers of his Birdman character, including the powers of levitation, moving objects and flying. It’s left unclear how much of this is real or a product of Riggan’s imagination. But it is impressive to be able to pull off these incredibly long and intimate scenes so flawlessly. I am sure it took a lot of rehearsals. It shows what can be done for so little money and in such a short period of time. I am not sure it deserved Best Picture but it’s quite fascinating as a technical achievement, but perhaps a bit longer than needed. Plus you get to see Michael Keaton go around Times Square in his underwear.

3.3 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Spock lives!

When us denizens of the Internet yesterday weren’t debating whether a certain dress was gold and white or blue and black we were mourning the death of actor Leonard Nimoy, famous in his portrayal of the logical and taciturn Vulcan (well, half human-half Vulcan) Mr. Spock in the original TV series Star Trek, not to mention a bunch of Star Trek movies and even some animated episodes in the 1970s. It was unclear to me which topic won the day, but I do know which topic will endure: Leonard Nimoy’s outstanding portrayal of our favorite Vulcan. Spock, and by extension Leonard Nimoy who defined him, has become immortal.

Here’s the truth about Star Trek: it was always far more about Mr. Spock than it was about Captain Kirk. This was because Leonard Nimoy could act and William Shatner could not, unless he had a really good director (e.g. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)). But of course it was also because Spock was a far more interesting character. He was deep and mysterious, in spite of his projected lack of emotions and clockwork-like brain. He was different but somehow cool, an outsider but someone most of us secretly wanted to emulate. He was Sherlock Holmes on steroids, a super outsider fighting for truth, justice and the United Federation of Planets. He was virtually flawless: an intellectual giant that specialized in synthesizing disparate information for the benefit of good. His only flaw to my way of thinking was his dopey, over the top and undeserved loyalty to James T. Kirk, his friend for life who frankly deserved his scorn, not his admiration.

Unsurprisingly, Nimoy was thrice nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor for his role as Spock while Shatner never got a single nomination. Maybe it was the 1960s, but we couldn’t get enough of Mr. Spock. Women in particular were fascinated by Mr. Spock. In a time when women were required to tightly reign in their passionate sides, Mr. Spock gave them a safe channel to vent. In particular women were fascinated by the Kirk-Spock relationship, mainly because it hinted that two men could have a relationship of great depth during a time when men’s relations with other men were typically superficial. Women knew there was something deeper there that us men did not see: a homosexual context. Perhaps Kirk was a repressed homosexual, or at least a bisexual. Spock’s puppy dog admiration for Kirk hinted that Spock’s ultra logical personality was a mere projection. Inside he was a cauldron of passion for his true love: Kirk, and certainly not Nurse Christine Chapel.

Spock was the infectious character of his time. While the series died in 1969 the character simply would not go away. Star Trek lived principally because of the subtext of the Kirk-Spock relationship. It was women more than men who kept the show in their hearts and petitioned Paramount for movies and spinoffs. When the movies became successful (and they did when the Kirk-Spock relationship became front and center in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan) of course the demand would spin off all sorts of Star Trek themed shows, some good, some not so good.

The emotional subtext of Spock aside, we grooved on Spock because of what he stood for. Our world today is far messier than it was in the chaotic late 1960s. But Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry laid out an idealistic but somehow hopeful vision of humanity’s future where we had overcome issues like racism and classism. We lived in peace and in something close to utopia, except for the Klingons, Romulans and other another assorted unenlightened species we encountered exploring brave new worlds that wanted to do the United Federation of Planets harm. Star Trek inspired us. It inspired me. The Prime Directive (which Kirk often ignored) was an enlightened way that acknowledged the greater forces at work shaping civilizations. Maybe it inspired the Beatles to create their song Let it be. It shaped my thinking on our war in Iraq and how we should handle our current conflict with ISIS. It was Spock, not Kirk that modeled this new and enlightened universe. As long as this half-breed could maintain his civility and logic, there was hope. I often think that President Obama channels Mr. Spock, so much so that I wrote a post about it. Due to Nimoy’s death, the post has surged to the top of my most popular posts list.

It was Nimoy of course who impressively pulled off a plausible and coherent character that the rest of us could latch onto. Unsurprisingly, Nimoy developed a love/hate relationship with his character. It caused him write a book, I am not Spock and years later another book, I am Spock where he wrestled with his feelings with being saddled by the character. However, it was Nimoy that really brought Spock alive. The character brought Nimoy huge celebrity and also drove him to drink, but like it or not it made him and his character immortal.

Nimoy quickly became typecast by Spock, which put a serious dent on his acting career. He wanted to be more than Spock, but for the most part he wasn’t allowed. He dabbled in directing and summer stock. His most impressive non-Spock role was as Morris Meyerson, the husband of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, but didn’t feel too bad for losing, as he lost to Laurence Olivier.

Nimoy is gone but Spock has endured, and was most recently portrayed by Zachary Quinto, who was tutored in the role by Nimoy himself. At one time (2003) I was convinced that Star Trek was dead. These newest Star Trek movies proved me wrong, thankfully, because they were done so well. However, the reason they survived was because Spock, not Kirk, proved too popular to die. After all Spock died in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and we had to resurrect him, just like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from certain death.

Nimoy, a Jew, did not believe in resurrection but his character is likely to endure and may prove as immortal as Sherlock Holmes in the decades ahead. It would not surprise me if when the 22nd century dawns that portrayals of Mr. Spock will still endure on popular media and Star Trek, in it’s 22nd century projection, will as well. United Federation of Planets, here we come! And here’s hoping that Spock will be in charge.

 
The Thinker

Some taxing mistakes

The tax code giveth and the tax code taketh. In 2014, the tax code tooketh, to the tune of about $3000 in checks I did not expect to write to the U.S. Treasury and Virginia Department of Taxation. Ouch! No one likes paying taxes and I don’t like paying mine anymore than anyone else, but I particularly didn’t like it this year when instead of getting refunds I was writing four figure checks. Because of my success in previous years I sort of assumed that it wouldn’t be a problem in 2014 either. So I kept things on autopilot. I didn’t change withholdings or exemptions. I figured it would sort itself out.

But it didn’t. And the answers of why I suddenly paid so much more in taxes when the tax rates haven’t changed were lessons for me and maybe for you too if you read this. What were the causes?

  • We lost an exemption when our daughter moved out. She was employed all year but lived with us until October. She paid for her automobile expenses but otherwise lived off house fare and got free rent. I assumed because we paid most of her expenses we could still claim her as an exemption. An exemption is worth almost $4000 off your taxable income. If you are in the 25% tax bracket like we are, that’s about $1000 in taxes. How much of her expenses we paid does not matter to the IRS. What matters is how much money she made and since she made more than $3,500 we could not claim her as a dependent. So in our benevolence to help her acquire the savings she needed to live independently, we were also taxed for the privilege. Ouch!
  • We started earning interest again. We put a lot of our cash into Ally Bank, an online bank, which pays about 1% interest. 1% interest is not much, but it beats the .01% we were getting through the credit union and USAA Savings Bank. It’s nice to earn interest, but it’s income so you have to report it. $219 in additional interest effectively cost us $53.50 in extra taxes.
  • When I retired I was paid for six weeks of accrued annual leave, a significant lump sum of money for which I was disproportionately taxed. There is wisdom in retiring on the first of the year. That way your lump sum applies to the next tax year when your income will be less. I didn’t do that and retired August 1. Despite our retirement for five months of 2014, our earned income was just $16,500 less than in 2013. This was largely due to the lump sum paid on my retirement.
  • My business income went up but I didn’t want to pay quarterly taxes on the income because of the paperwork hassle. It worked out in the past by making my four-digit tax refund three digits. This time it worked against me.
  • I could not claim my health saving account deduction. Last year I got the full $2500 credit. Since I wasn’t employed all year in 2014, I actually only put about $1700 into the HSA, but there is no requirement for money to accrue for it to be paid out. $2500 was paid out. The end result was that I could not claim the credit at all, so that effectively cost me $625 in taxes.
  • I hassled my wife to put money into her employer’s 401K while I kept putting money into her IRA. Because her 401K money was tax deferred, her IRA money was not. It’s good to save money but because it was not tax deferred it effectively cost us $812 in extra taxes. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time! On the plus side some day I will be able to take out the money we put in for 2014 and not pay tax on it.
  • Because I made more money consulting, I had to pay more self-employment taxes. Cost for the extra income: $128 in taxes.
  • Our cars depreciated, so we paid fewer personal property taxes, which added $33 in taxes.
  • Our mortgage is almost paid off, which means there is less of a mortgage interest deduction. That effectively meant $150 more in taxes.
  • We gave less to charity. This is mainly because my wife stopped going to her temple and feeding them regular checks. I didn’t think to make up the deduction with other charitable spending. This effectively cost us $566 in taxes.

The above was slightly offset by some good things: lower earned income, more consulting income and of course the pleasure of being retired. But I have learned that tax-planning vigilance is needed. Moreover, I learned that major life transitions can cost you a lot in taxes if you don’t anticipate them. When we lost an exemption, it was not entirely bad. We won’t be paying for our daughter’s expenses in the future.

2015 will not be any easier for us tax-wise, as we will be relocating and buying and selling homes. But it was clear that I was not withholding enough money for income taxes. I tried a number of online calculators but even the IRS’s calculator is really deficient. It turned out to be easier to estimate income, deductions and credits in a spreadsheet based on the fields in a 1040, calculate my estimated 2015 tax from it and then figure how much I needed to increase my withholding so not to end up in this situation again. It’s about $500 more a month.

I hope in 2016 I find I am not similarly surprised.

 
The Thinker

The Walmart egg cracks at last

Walmart protesters like me are cheering, somewhat tentatively. We are celebrating Walmart’s announcement this week that it is raising its starting wages. Walmart will boost starting wages to $9 per hour this year and it will raise them to $10 per hour by February 2016. $10 an hour is still not a living wage, but it is at least a start in the right direction. In addition, Walmart is changing policies to allow more predictive schedules for its employees, many of who are part time and many of who have to struggle their Walmart schedules with other job schedules. Employees will know more than two weeks in advance what their hours will be and when their hours will be. In addition, those desiring more hours will be able to request them. This good news is trickling up. Department managers will get a raise too, up from $13 an hour to $15 an hour.

So hip hooray, for Walmart, but certainly not a hip-hip hooray. Walmart has obviously been assessing the optics of its labor policies for a long time. Organizations like Making Change at Walmart have given widespread attention to their lagging wages, and the hassles and often brutish conditions that their employees endure. This included some strikes, sit-downs and walkouts, not to mention Black Friday protests such as I helped organize last year. It is quite likely that without these events there would have been no announcement this week from Walmart.

I have been focusing on Walmart’s unfair labor practices for many years because I believed it was where the fulcrum of labor change needed be applied. This is because it is the nation’s (if not the world’s) largest private employer. So affecting real change in Walmart was likely to have a nudging effect on all the other private employers out there. Indeed, that is the expectation. There is at least one Walmart in any community of size. $10 an hour may still not be a living wage, but when someone looking for a job has a choice between Walmart at $10 an hour and washing dishes at an Applebees at $7.25 an hour, they will go with Walmart. Walmart gets a richer set of potential employees to choose from. To compete at some point Applebees has to raise its wages too.

Unquestionably some of this is due to the improving economy. With the official unemployment rate at 5.8 percent and many disaffected people rejoining the labor market each month, the labor pool is tightening up at last. A number of employers have been proactive. Costco and Wegmans have long paid their starting employees a living wage and not coincidentally have prospered. Starbucks, Gap Inc., Hobby Lobby and IKEA have all seen this freight train coming their way and recently raised wages. Walmart then is something of a laggard. However, due to its size it has sent a signal that other employers must respond to or have their businesses put in peril.

I doubt that the bean counters at Walmart have figured this out, but raising their employees’ wages is good for their bottom line as well. Most likely much of the raises will be spent at Walmart. As starting wages are raised nationwide Walmart stands to increase sales, as they cater to value customers that come predominantly from the middle class, working class and poor. Happier employees are likely to be more productive as well, which means that Walmart’s notoriously poorly stocked shelves may be less so in the future.

It also means, however marginally, that money which would have otherwise gone toward the rich, where it is unlikely to be spent, will instead go toward the working class, where it will almost certainly be spent. In short, it will mean that the economy will grow more than it otherwise would have. Since the United States leads the world economy, our greater prosperity and our demands for goods and services will spur the world economy, the beginning of a virtuous cycle.

None of this should be news, but it may be to those who favor austerity. Walmart’s and all employers’ low wage policies are ultimately self-defeating. Low wages create high turnover and lower employee morage. Low wages do not build employee loyalty and give no onus for employees to be productive. Low wages make employees feel used instead of valued. It creates unnecessary conflict between employees and management and creates the conditions for labor to organize that employers don’t like. It taints businesses by projecting them as cheap, uncaring and harsh.

It also tends to stifle business creativity. Fast food restaurants like Chipotle are prospering by offering fresher, tastier, trendier and more natural foods. Chipotle’s simple use of a cafeteria line moves customers through more quickly and more cheaply while allowing them to pay employees more while needing fewer of them. In short, this makes them more productive and profitable. McDonalds, which has used the counter methodology for its more than sixty years in business, can’t seem to rethink its business model in such obvious ways. Clinging to tradition rather than embracing change is a major reason for their lackluster sales.

Employers that demonstrate that they value employees in the form of living wages set up a virtuous cycle wherein higher profits are a probable outcome of a generous corporate philosophy. Walmart is beginning to dimly grasp this but in fact this is what worked for American for most of the latter half of the 20th century. In truth, Walmart’s profitability is centered on its ability to treat its employees with respect through living wages and humane working conditions. Without employees it simply cannot survive. It needs to see its employees as invaluable and treasured assets, not as commodities. Living wages are the primary way to demonstrate this. Then Walmart may see sustainable increases in sales and profits again.

 
The Thinker

There’s no place like house

Our six-month home improvement adventure is finally nearing a close. Our punch list: it’s nearly punched out. There are no large and annoying tasks to put our house on the market remaining. Some of those that do remain simply cannot be done right now. Most likely though the five inches of snow on the ground will melt and temperatures will stay reliably above freezing before our house lists in two weeks. When it does then I will pound those stakes into the ground to make the edging along our garden look right again. And we will pull the wild onion shoots from the garden as well. Right now though these imperfections are covered, quite literally! Two weeks from tomorrow, our house will get listed and a new set of hassles will start.

Inside our house though we are getting down to things that probably don’t matter. My touch up painting in the laundry room is pretty obvious. I’d like to repaint the walls, but not sure I want to buy yet another gallon of paint to make it look seamless. I am thoroughly sick of painting. I am sick of painting and all the crap that goes with it: caulking, patching, priming, masking, sanding, positioning drop clothes, taking knobs out of doors, and switch plates off the walls and putting them back in again. I am sick of cleaning up afterward and trying to get my paintbrushes clean yet again. It is more than painting, of course. To name just a few, I am also sick of constantly vacuuming, dusting, cleaning, trashing and rushing to and from the local Lowes.

There is still stuff that needs to be moved around or put away to make our stager happy, but for the most part that work is done. We are also loath to remove some stuff until the last possible moment, such as most of the items on our kitchen counter. If you encounter a kitchen counter minus most appliances, it’s a good sign that the house is about to go on the market. The assumed buyer wants to imagine her stuff on those counters, which is not your ugly toaster or your very used electric can opener. So we must make it look like no one actually uses our kitchen instead.

All this is really for the photographer. Twenty-one years ago when we bought this house, there was no World Wide Web. If you were lucky you had a brochure of the house to look at first that you got at your broker’s office. Instead, you generally depended on cryptic house descriptions that realtors gave you. They came from printouts off dot-matrix printers in the realty office. You plotted the actual locations of these houses using a local atlas so you could get some idea if the house was in a neighborhood that would work for you. Now your house is mostly sold online, thanks to your stager who makes each room unrecognizable to you but mostly thanks to the photographer, who has a unique assortment of extremely wide angle lenses that can make a bungalow look like a mansion. It will all be brightly lit, using Photoshop if necessary. The fancier photographers might use panoramic cameras with high-resolution detail so strangers can get 360-degree sweeps of your bedroom. That’s when you’ll be glad the stager noticed the bottle of lube on the bedstead and had you put it away in that special drawer with your many whips, frottages, restraints and adult DVDs.

Our house has been ruthlessly decluttered. We’ve given away literally thousands of dollars of stuff, mostly to Goodwill, mainly because we don’t want to invest the energy to sell it. Freecycle has been another godsend. It’s amazing what people will take when you advertise it for free. My wife posted on Freecycle four bottles of a sports drink she’ll never finish. Some slinky Asian American woman stopped by a few hours later in her gym clothes to pick them up; I guess she needed some electrolytes for her workout. My wife can give away practically anything, no matter how trashy I think it is, with a creative posting on Freecycle. A lot of stuff gets claimed in minutes. An occasional item will languish, but a reposting will usually get rid of it. Some stuff though is not even fit to give away. One (an outdoor table) literally fell apart as I helped to put it in a guy’s truck. He was nice enough about it and helped me haul it to the curb.

It took us twenty-one years but finally our house is clean and fit for human habitation. It’s just too bad that actual human beings don’t live in houses like ours. That’s because you have to be retired for six months with little else to do but fetishly turn the real into the surreal using lots of disposable cash to reach this level of crazy perfection. Real people fill their house with stuff (most of it junk, actually). Real people don’t vacuum daily, and they leave dishes in the sink, sometimes for days at a time. Real people (and we are guilty here) leave baskets of clean laundry lying around until some amorphous day in the future when we decide to fold them, by which time half of it has been picked out, worn and is back in the dirty clothes basket. Real people don’t scrub their sinks after each use, so it will look shiny and unused if some potential buyer comes by. I leave out rich people because they aren’t real IMHO. If you want to get some sense of what it takes to live 24/7 in a clean and well-ordered house, watch the staff in Downton Abbey. No one else has the time, except when buyers are house hunting. Then they expect to see a surreal HGTV-like house; a house that will never again appear once the first moving box is plopped down on the living room floor.

What the next owner of our house won’t notice or give any thought to is how much time, money, fretting and brute labor went into our house while we owned it. Developments like ours were sprouting like weeds in the mid 1980s, and construction standards were somewhat sloppy. Our house had many defects, stuff you wonder how any county home inspector could approve. Among the ones we encountered were drywall ceilings on our porch and the deck literally nailed into our sliding. We fixed these and many other defects, not to mention did a lot of remodeling, painting and repainting, replacing appliances, and fussing about dandelions and drainage in the backyard. We spent huge amounts of money, well over $100,000 according to my records, just to keep our house functional.

For the new buyer it all that comes free. Once they own it and entropy reasserts itself they will discover the real cost of home ownership. It’s something that we will escape, at least for a time, when we move into our newly constructed house in Massachusetts this summer. Moreover, the condo association will have to fix problems with the exterior of our house.

Still, despite the hassle and expense of being homeowers, with a mortgage that is still not completely paid off, I’m going to miss this home of ours, which BTW is now mostly just a house. I know that even after the messiness of this gargantuan change in our lives that I will often feel nostalgic for this place I still call home.

 

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