Geo-Targeting on the Web

One property of cyberspace is that location is pretty much irrelevant. You probably don’t care where I am located and I don’t care where you are located. If you found your way here by surfing to my site we are not likely to ever meet in person. But wouldn’t it be fun if you could look at web sites for people and places that are near you, just to see what’s up?

There are regional directories that attempt to do this, such as Yahoo or DMOZ (via their “Submit a URL” links). But most people with web sites either don’t know about directories or won’t bother to submit their site. (In the case of Yahoo, they probably won’t even list it unless you pay them over $200.) Similarly most web surfers don’t know about regional directories. They can be hard to find. I am certain that any sites listed this way represent only a tiny fraction of the web sites actually located in that region.

It would be much cooler to have a technology that identifies your location in a way that standard software (like your browser) could pick up and use automatically. Fortunately there is such a technology. GeoURL is a location-to-URL reverse directory. Like Yahoo or DMOZ, you have to take the initiative and list in their directory, but it is free. It’s pretty easy to fill out their web form. You tell them your city or zip code. It figures out your latitude and longitude and provides a snippet of HTML you can insert into your web pages that tells people surfing your site where you are located.

Local Feeds builds on top of this database and returns a list of recent news feeds that are within X miles of a zip code or a particular city. For example, this link shows recently updated news feeds near my zip code (20171) in a format suitable for the viewer. But Local Feeds can also return the same information in a RSS feed format that can be consumed by other systems. For example a news reader program installed on your computer could consume a news feed URL easily enough. Some web sites like Bloglines do the same thing and may even notify you when your favorite news feeds are updated.

Since Local Feeds is a fairly new service, my blog entries tend to show up a lot. I also see a lot of entries for my forum and for my friend Jim Goldbloom’s forum Access Denied. But there are other local newsfeeds that run the gamut from the ho-hum to the quite interesting. WizBang’s weblog is one interesting example. I likely would have never stumbled on it had not I learned about Local Feeds. It’s nice to know this guy is in my neighborhood somewhere.

Like with GeoURL, when you first use Local Feeds you can enter your zip code and it will return your latitude and longitude. But you also need to give Local Feeds the URL for your site’s news feed. With this web log this is not a problem. The Moveable Type software I use has a news feed URL that gets updated every time I add an entry.

I could have told Local Feeds that my zip code is close enough for geo targeting my site. But since I have a GPS I figured I’d get more localized. So I advertise coordinates that are accurate to within a hundred feet or so of where I live.

When all done I added these lines of HTML inside the <head> tags to my site’s web pages. It identifies my coordinates (second line), categorizes my web log as belonging to a regional listing (DC in this case, first line) and provides two means for other people or computers to syndicate my content (lines three and four):

<meta name=”DC.Title” content=”Occam’s Razor” />
<meta name=”ICBM” content=”38.922067,-77.400850″ />
<link rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” title=”RSS” href=”” />
<link rel=”EditURI” type=”application/rsd+xml” title=”RSD” href=”” />

Of course you would need to change the information in these tags to represent your own site, but hopefully you grasp the idea.

It would be neat if everyone with web sites used this technology. Imagine if all the restaurants in New York City had their menus on their web sites. Then imagine if they programmed their geographical coordinates into their web pages and listed with Local Feeds. Then imagine a time in the not too distant future when wireless internet access is cheap and readily available. It would be pretty easy with this technology to target restaurants within a couple blocks of me and read their menus. (Something close to this is available with the AvantGo service, but it represents only a fraction of New York’s available restaurants.)

Right now this process is still a bit daunting for the layman. But it would be straightforward for software like FrontPage, DreamWeaver or Moveable Type to simply ask if you want to geo-target your site, insert the code into your web pages for you and notify the proper directories. I hope business picks up on the idea. To me this is a no-brainer.

If you have a web site then why not be on the leading edge and geo-target it geographically? Encourage your friends who have web sites to do the same thing. It’s a simple idea whose time has come.

Going Incognito

I am going incognito.

I am no longer associating my full name with my blog. Now my entries will simply appear as “Mark”.

Until recently I didn’t care who came across my blog. But things are changing. In a little over a week I will have supervisory responsibilities. This changes my calculus about how much of myself I want to readily expose.

Here is my thinking: either I have to parse my words about my professional life here on my blog or I have to make myself less vulnerable by dumbing down my content. Do I really want my employees or supervisors knowing my foibles and private thoughts about them or my agency? Do I really want aspects of myself potentially used against me in an employer-employee relationship?

No I don’t. So rather than give up my blog or further restrict my content I’ll just remove my name from this site.

That is not to say someone who spends enough time looking for clues won’t be able to figure it out. I’ve left droppings in search engines that won’t soon disappear. I’ll still keep my public email address on this site. And doubtless someone who is clever enough could find my association with an internet WHOIS command.

I also maintain a public forum where I am out there for all to see. People may find me that way and may stumble onto my blog through it. Even so, those few things on my forum that I do consider personal are available to members only.

But these are all reasonable risks. Someone who wants to spend that much time learning about me on the web is welcome to do so.

When I send out personal email I’ll still include a link to my blog. I don’t mind people I know outside of work learning more about me.

But I see no point inviting trouble.

Senior Citizen Paradise

I apologize if this sounds like an advertisement. It was not intended to be this way. But I have seen paradise. And you don’t have to die first to get in. You simply have to be 62 or older and have a few hundred thousand dollars in assets available.

I discovered retirement living because my parents seem inclined to move from their house in Midland, Michigan to a retirement community. The community they are planning to move into is located across the Potomac River from me. It is called Riderwood. Last Friday I joined them and my sister Mary (who did all the research) as they checked out the place. I left amazed, impressed and more than a little jealous.

My mother’s health is clearly declining. She is unsteady on her legs, which is not too surprising for a lady almost 84. As long time readers know she has had some bad falls lately. Their willingness to relocate was prompted by concerns from us children, none of whom live closer than 300 miles from them. They have almost no support structure in place in Michigan should something happen to one of them.

American capitalism has responded. There are lots of retirement communities out there but I doubt none have done so well as this particular Erickson community. It is a gated community full of large residential apartments interconnected to each other and overlooking lovely courtyards and ponds. Each building is between four and a dozen stories tall. All were designed specifically for senior citizens in less than optimal health. The goals at Riderwood are choice, comfort, simplicity and safety.

The buildings are lovely and modern with lots of apartment styles from which to choose. Rents are pretty expensive. I’m not sure exactly what my parents will be paying but I think it is in the $2000 a month range. However, they get a lot for their money. They are not paying property taxes. They get one meal a day at one of the four restaurants on campus. These are good restaurants with fine food; they ate there to make sure. There is plenty of parking but most of the time there is no need to drive anywhere. You name it and they have it: mini-mart, bank, meeting rooms, theater, lounges, chapel, even a bar. For those too old to drive they can take one of the community buses to one of the nearby shopping centers. Riderwood has its own doctors and specialists. But it is not too far from modern hospitals, should they be needed.

The apartments can be fully customized. You can paint it or add to it pretty much as you like. The doors are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. It goes without saying that there are elevators in every building for residents who need them.

There are also a zillion clubs, a workshop, a TV studio, pool tables and all sorts of innovative security services. They have a gizmo on each door that the security people flip each night. It comes down when you leave your apartment. If they see it remains unflipped the next day they will check up on you, just in case you fell or are incapacitated. If you need some measure of safety beyond this, you can rent a device around your neck. Press a button and help is on its way. Or press the button in any bathroom.

And the place is beautiful, clean and the staff is just tremendously helpful. No one is kicked out of their apartments because they have run out of rent money. This is because to move in you essentially give them a lien on your assets. So I expect the entry fee is something in the neighborhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars. If you don’t keep up the rent your rent is deducted from your lien. If you end up dying there whatever is left over after expenses is given to your heirs.

So clearly this is not a place for a woman living on social security alone. But it is not beyond the reach of most people with good investments or who live in the middle to upper middle class. Since having assets is the key, if you envision something like this in your retirement then now is the time to start paying off those credit card bills.

My parents looked at another community, Charlestown, near Baltimore that they liked just as much. Unfortunately it has a waiting list of up to two years and its apartments are smaller. My parents can move into Riderwood much sooner, if they can sell their house. They have their work cut out for them in the next few months.

My Mom actually looked excited checking out the model apartments. I haven’t seen her genuinely happy in a long time, but I could see her figuring out how she would decorate her kitchen.

The community is not a dictatorship. It has its board of directors chosen by the residents. Certainly Erickson is in charge of developing the properties, but day to day control belongs to the residents.

Erickson is a company very much on the ball. I should probably buy some stock in it; retiring people is a big growth market and I bet no one is doing this business any better. Their business model is very sound too.

My only question is: Why should this model be limited only to senior citizens? I know I am ready to move in. I hate the whole house management business. Right now my wife and I are contemplating $10,000 or more to replace our siding. We also need to replace our stove, do some drainage work, replace carpeting … the expenses and hassle never end!

Something like this would work great for me. Both my wife and I hate cooking dinner. We’d love to traipse downstairs at our leisure for our “free” evening meal. I could use an ATM and a mini-mart in my lobby. Erickson, build it for ordinary people like me and we will come too.

Now I know what I want in retirement. I am ready. I think it’s not too early to get on an Erickson waiting list. After all I just turned 47!

The Long Goodbye

I came home Thursday to find a welcome packet from my new employer, the U.S. Geological Survey. Inside was my official job offer letter, lots of forms to be filled out, and a CD about USGS from a human resources perspective. The CD was put together with good intentions. But it was obviously created by somebody with way too much time on his hands. It’s a multimedia CD. It is full of nautical “ports of call” that you must visit, or rather navigate to with your mouse. In the background are the sound of seagulls mourning and waves crashing on a beach. Umm, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I would have preferred a manual with the pertinent information. This is just dumb.

But there is no point in watching the CD right away, or even filling out the forms. Because although I gave noticed weeks ago I still have two weeks to go before I can begin my new job. Yes, I have to endure two more weeks of rising at 5:15 AM. Yes, two more weeks of working in some sort of limbo land. Two more weeks of being there and not being there.

Can’t I just leave already? Apparently not. I don’t start at USGS until February 23rd. My new boss is traveling so an earlier date wouldn’t work for her. So I have plenty of time to wind up and transition projects. And I have lots of opportunities to say goodbye over and over again.

Maybe it is just coincidence, but it seems all of a sudden I can get people to work on my projects. Typically when I want others to do work for me, my work drifts to the bottom of a long queue. But since I’m leaving all sorts of mini applications I’ve been working on are moving through development and testing into production. This is good. I’d rather leave things completed if possible. I’m a reasonably tidy person and don’t like to leave loose ends. I have eight more work days to bring them to closure. It should be more than enough.

For days after I gave my boss the news I was leaving I wandered around and no one said anything unusual to me. I found that very odd. Eventually I figured out that the chain of command hadn’t bothered to tell the rank and file that I was leaving. So I just announced it myself. Once the news got out then people stopped by my desk to wish me their best. I thanked them of course, but reminded them that I’d still be around for a while. I don’t want them to forget me quite yet. I don’t want to feel like a ghost walking down the hallways.

I still don’t know if there is a plan to give me a farewell luncheon. I don’t particularly care if I get one or not. I know Lynnette and Yolanda plan to take me out to lunch, and Yolanda is working on some sort of presentation. But I haven’t heard of any date for such an event. Perhaps they will hold it and forget to invite me.

I’ve heard a number of people tell me I am wise to leave at this time. “Get while the getting is good,” I hear often along with “You are one of the first rats off a sinking ship.” I heard this a lot when I left my last job, but AFPCA is still there. And I am sure ACF will continue to exist too. But it’s probably not a good omen for ACF that so many of its people feel this way. I would hope our management would take note. But they seem to be too busy demonstrating they can score all “greens” on the President’s Management Agenda than to worry about minor things like whether the staff’s morale is going down the toilet.

Doubtless to meet one of these pointless goals my position won’t be filled. According to Bush, fewer staff is good because we’ll be meaner and leaner. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration recently publicized our scorecard for the President’s Management Agenda. Woo hoo! We are all green! We’ve met goals like reduced staff counts and increased outsourcing! But this does not mean we are necessarily doing our job better or more effectively. It most likely means the opposite. This means fewer people overseeing work. And that means loss of focus and a higher likelihood that things will be poorly managed.

I’d feel better about leaving such silliness behind but I’m in Club Fed. That means USGS is going through this silliness too. And since I will have some supervisory responsibilities in my new job I too will probably be looking to get green marks to show how effective I am. A note to my new boss: expect me to support these goals but don’t expect me to believe this crap.

Sokhama took me out for a birthday lunch on Monday. Sokhama was my chief customer point of contact for a system I deployed back in late 1999. She since left ACF but since she is still located close by we meet for lunch once a month or so. One of the drawbacks of leaving is I will see a lot less of her. I’ll miss meeting her for lunch on a bench in the gardens of the Smithsonian castle, talking about stuff, then enjoying a walk on the Mall. As much as I’ll be glad not to work in D.C., I’ll also miss the energy of the city and the loveliness of the National Mall that was always so close to me.

I doubt I will have a lunch partner like Sokhama at USGS, but who knows? However, I will be able to come home for lunch any day I choose. And meeting my wife for lunch will be no big deal.

Eventually. Meanwhile, the days pass by so slowly.

The Meaning of Dr. Dean

It’s not been a happy time for us Howard Dean enthusiasts. I don’t often get excited about a politician running for office. I wasn’t excited about Bill Clinton’s candidacy. Al Gore’s left me wholly uninspired. But I was genuinely excited about Howard Dean’s candidacy. So it just makes me ache to see him go down in flames.

We were close, so close. In retrospect the mistakes are pretty easy to see. Dean placed too much emphasis on the Iraq war when polls showed most Americans did not consider it a burning issue. It had its place in 2003. It got him noticed and distinguished him as a candidate. But it worked against Dean in 2004 when the electorate started paying attention. It turned out they were more concerned about pocket book issues than the war.

We Deaniacs networked well. But we didn’t network as well with our neighbors as we should have. We needed to be knocking on more doors and calling more people on the telephone. Instead a lot of us spent our time posting our latest thoughts of the day on Dean’s blog.

And the campaign made some huge mistakes. It squandered $40M trying to lock in Iowa and New Hampshire. It succeeded in winning neither. I was shocked when I learned how much money the campaign spent. For a fiscal conservative it was a reckless strategy. Had Dean spent less he could now be carrying his message to those states he is now writing off due to lack of funds. Instead the coffers of New Hampshire radio and TV stations are bulging.

And Dean stumbled frequently with embarrassing gaffes. His primal yowl confirmed the doubts of all the Dean skeptics. Even though the incident was overplayed it showed a lack of political judgment. Dean always walked this fine line. He was always completely genuine. But there are times when a politician just has to fake it. He was too genuine for his own good.

Alas, the candidates I really like are almost always unelectable in the end. Perhaps that is because I am more of an idealist than a pragmatist. So I shouldn’t be that surprised by this turn of events. It is par for my course. But still it hurts. I thought, or perhaps wished Dr. Dean would be the exception, just this once.

And we organized, went to his meetups and sent him tons of money. I never gave a dime to a politician before, but over the last six months or so I’ve sent the campaign $450.

I found I wasn’t a lone voice in the wilderness. At his meetups I met plenty of people like me who not just wanted to take our country back into the mainstream but were eager to invest their time, their money and their energy to do so.

But apparently it wasn’t a critical mass of Democrats. I’m not too surprised because in many ways Dean is a revolutionary candidate, not an evolutionary candidate. Dean is the Democratic Party’s John McCain. Voters though appear to like their candidates more on the bland side. Democrats want decaf, not espresso.

The voters may be wiser than I am. John Kerry is a nice man and I tend to agree with most of his politics. As President he will be 1000% better than George W. Bush on his best day. Exit polls have made clear the voters also are determined to nominate the most electable candidate. Thrice wounded in Vietnam, Kerry has proved he is no chickenhawk. The most die hard military guy must respect Kerry’s service to his country.

But still I ache for Howard Dean. I guess it’s possible he could resurrect his candidacy but I think it’s over. This horse just ain’t gonna win.

But while Howard likely won’t be the nominee this time around, what Howard Dean and his campaign accomplished is still amazing. Howard breathed real life into the demoralized Democratic Party. He got people who were marginalized and disenfranchised to care about politics again. He got us to believe we could change the country. And we will change the country. We will just take smaller steps.

Thanks to Howard Dean the real issues have been addressed. No longer do we have candidates who support our debacle in Iraq. No longer do we have candidates in favor of more reckless tax cuts. No longer do we get half hearted position papers from candidates on the need for national health insurance.

Howard is the best citizen this country has seen in the last ten years. He showed us the meaning of courage and leadership. He showed that by taking unpopular positions when you know they are right you can be heard. It just takes a lot of nerve, persistence and chutzpah.

And he has demonstrated a new decentralized way to organize and to fight for what really matters. This candidacy may end but I don’t believe us in the Dean community will fade away. We may sulk for a while, but we will be back. First we will ensure whoever our party’s nominee is will beat George W. Bush. Then we will move this country back into the international mainstream.

We will take this country back. It’s a shame though that our far thinking visionary won’t be occupying the Oval Office. He would have been a great president.

And maybe someday he will be back, purged of his defects but still blazing with the primal energy and determination. I have not given up on Howard Dean. I hope this experience purifies and refines him. And perhaps the next time he will win.

$1.5B Proposed for “Healthy Marriage”

News item, courtesy of the New York Times (registration required):

Administration officials say they are planning an extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage, especially among low-income couples, and they are weighing whether President Bush should promote the plan next week in his State of the Union address.

For months, administration officials have worked with conservative groups on the proposal, which would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain “healthy marriages.”

Full disclosure: through February 19th I am employed by the Administration for Children and Families. These views are, of course, my own and do not represent those of my agency. Our agency, under the direction of Wade Horn, would be in charge of implementing a healthy marriage initiative for the government. Mr. Horn is not too worried about this $1.5B initiative, which is to be spread over five years. CNN quotes him saying:

“A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is … but you need to place that in context with the rest of the funding of a whole host of other services that will continue to be available to families,” Horn said by telephone, adding that his agency will spend $230 billion in the next five years.

I guess $1.5B is cheaper than putting a manned colony on the moon or sending a manned mission to Mars. But I suspect we’d do a more effective job establishing a base on the moon than fixing this nation’s marriage problem. $1.5B is a lot of money to flush down the drain. In terms of results, failure is the most likely outcome for this money. I would also not be surprised if most of it ends up in the pockets of “faith-based” organizations. The real agenda here might be to find a way to reward Bush’s religious friends with more taxpayer dollars.

I do agree in concept with the idea of healthy marriage. Who wouldn’t? But isn’t there perhaps just a tad bit of condescension in this proposal? It’s primarily oriented at low income couples. The implication then is that people with money, or who are God fearing Republicans, are much more likely to have healthy marriages. It’s those Andy Capp and Flo types that need to learn about healthy marriage. I guess living in those trailer parks and row houses just brings out the beast in you.

I note we won’t allow gays to marry because we insist that marriage is a “sacred” institution. Umm, yeah right. It must be hard for even Bush to say this with a straight face. Apparently marriage can be spontaneous and cheap in some places, like in Las Vegas. Britney Spears (who had to be high on something) found she could suddenly decide to marry her old boyfriend at 5:30 AM in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Once she sobered up and less than 40 hours later she was able to arrange an annulment. While not all states are as liberal as Las Vegas in their wedding requirements, in general it doesn’t take much time or money to get legally married. Some states, like here in Virginia, don’t even require blood work.

I’ve already proposed an innovative idea that will help healthy marriages, or at least stem the divorce rate. Long time readers will recall my proposal for term limited marriages. But even my own siblings were quick to pounce on me for my creativity.

We probably won’t see this one from the Bush Administration but here’s my new innovative idea on healthy marriages: let’s make marriages a lot harder to get into. Let’s start with a mandatory and uniform six month waiting period.

But let’s go further. Let’s require all couples to undergo premarital counseling. Instead of having government-funded counseling, let’s require engaged couples to get their own marriage counseling. Considering how expensive divorce can be, a couple should be more than willing to pony up some money up front to reduce the risk of divorce later on. If couples want to get the counseling from their house of worship or a non-sectarian place that’s fine, but it should be a real premarital counseling, not something rubber stamped. Perhaps it could include discussion sessions with successful long time married couples. My hope is that these old married folk could give couples a realistic idea of what marriage is really all about. Anyhow, let’s require, say, 40 hours of counseling and course work.

During premarital counseling let us insist the proposed couple put together a plan for living together. It should include a proposed budget; discuss how they plan to raise children or whether they plan not to have children; and how they will dissolve their marriage if it doesn’t work out. Particularly if they are of child bearing age let us make sure they take classes in parenting before they tie the knot. A few weeks working in a day care center wiping snotty noses and changing poopy diapers would be a good wake up call. Couples should jointly submit all this evidence to a family judge. Once certification is complete and the six months have elapsed, they could be legally married.

My guess is that if we did this at least half of these marriages wouldn’t even start. I don’t pull that number out of a hat. About half of marriages in our country end in divorce, with the average marriage surviving about seven years. Before those starry eyed couples end up screaming at each other and keeping the neighbors awake, before they start popping out children who bear the emotional wreckage of their immaturity, let them test their mettle a bit. This is the stuff that is at the heart of marriage. Love, sex and commitment are the lures of marriage. But those of us who are old married farts know that at best these are decent foundations for a marriage. Successful marriage is really about two people learning to work through both the everyday and very tough issues together. If you can’t do that before getting married, you are likely to find marriage very daunting.

Across Europe marriage is a dying institution. If a man and woman want a long term relationship they just start living together. If they have children they are both held responsible for their upbringing. In many ways I see this as a better system. It has the virtue of at least being honest. If anyone can leave a relationship at any time then both spouses have natural incentives to work on their relationship. I am not sure that is true in traditional marriage. If anything the marriage contract feels both like a ball and chain around the feet and a reason not to work on relationship issues. “He won’t leave me! He takes our marriage contract seriously!”

For those who want and value marriage I say go for it. But given that we contend we are failing as a country in the marriage department (it’s probably always been this way) let’s make marriage more difficult to start in the first place. Let’s make sure couples go in wide eyed and sober. They need to understand that even for the best and most committed of couples that the failure rate is going to be significant. A successful marriage will require a lot of luck, but it will also require tenacity, an open heart, and a lot of determination.

I don’t think marriage is an institution in need of promotion. If anything it needs to be surrounded by lots of caution signs. It is not for everyone. If we are serious about healthy marriage let’s make it more difficult.

Thoughts on the Cusp of Being 47

It’s that time again. Tomorrow I have another birthday. To be precise, it will be my 47th anniversary of my birth. That means, in reality, I have already lived 47 years and I begin my 48th year. But never mind, 47 sounds better than 48. And age is just a number, right? So should I even be reflective about dates I check off on a calendar?

I guess so. I can’t pass any of my birthdays without some reflection. Being 47 is not particularly more difficult than being 46, and was a heck of a lot easier than turning 40. On my 40th birthday I hid indoors. Thank God my wife did not give me a 40th birthday party; she must have took my not so veiled threats of bodily harm seriously. Now turning 50 doesn’t seem so terrifying. I can join Alex Trebek and become a member of AARP, although I will be nowhere near retirement age. And I can pretend I will look a lot like Lauren Hutton, who recently passed 60. She graced the cover of a retirement magazine recently. It declared that 60 was the new middle age.

Maybe so. I can use balms like these, but as my age creeps higher the likelihood of my death becomes less abstract. Aging seems to happen at a slow enough pace so that I hardly notice the new lines on my face, or my need for trifocals, or spots of sun damaged skin or the occasional liver spot. Perhaps I flatter myself but I seem to still retain something of a boyish look. I have some gray hair but it blends in well enough with the dirty blond stuff that it’s hard for me to notice except when I am visiting a hair stylist.

In general my health is excellent. I weigh a bit more than I would prefer, but it is not a dangerous weight. And while I haven’t measured by BMI lately I work out with weights a lot, so much of my weight is muscle and not fat. Like most middle-aged people I’ve discovered I can’t eat what I want anymore. My inner child occasionally rebels against being on a perpetual diet but I’ve largely come to terms with it. I learned long ago that life isn’t fair.

I keep waiting for my midlife crisis to end. Every year I think I am just about there and I find out I was a bit premature. But this year it does feel that, if I am not out of the woods, at least I have glimpsed the edge of the forest. For much of my thirties and forties I was driven by an indefinable angst centered on thoughts of aging and death. But also I felt like my life was being directed more by what was expected of me rather than my own will. I often longed for the irresponsibility of youth with, of course, none of its drawbacks. Those fears, at least for the moment, have receded like a low tide. I now understand on both an emotional and a logical level that I am finite. That’s just the way it is. So I must accept this simple truth. This means if I arise each day in good health and with the ability to direct my life then I am blessed. I can’t stop death from happening to me someday, but I may be able to delay it. For the moment at least life is good.

I am king of my little hill again. I’ve staggered through some difficult problems when I was 46, including whether to change jobs (I start a new and more challenging job at the U.S. Geological Survey on February 23rd), my dear mother’s decline and partial rehabilitation and various family issues I can’t get into here. And the moment at least these problems feel sort of managed.

Yet the years go by so quickly. Sometimes when I think about it, it seems impossible that so much time has passed. My high school graduation is nearly thirty years in my past. My marriage is in its 18th year. But in my memory it is like it all happened yesterday. I often can’t reconcile in my mind the reality that so many years have passed. It seems surreal to be 47.

But if I have to be 47, I feel good about being where I am. I pictured myself in my youth at 47 as a much older and weather beaten creature than I actually am. For a couple years, and longer perhaps, I can have the illusion of some youth. I know I see a fundamentally false picture of myself but I don’t care.

So I am trying, and usually succeeding, at smelling life’s roses. I am fortunate in so many ways. I have a job I enjoy and that pays very well. I have the free time I need to putter and indulge my hobbies. Soon I will not have to endure the torture of a soul draining commute to and from D.C. every day.

Life offers no guarantees. It just is, but I can make it as pleasant as possible given its chaotic nature. During my 47th year my parents will likely move to this area for the simplicity of a retirement community and to be closer to my sister and myself. It will be good to see more of them and be able to help them without driving 600 miles. But their move also brings with it some anxiety of being a caregiver.

I will need to be there for them in their last days. I know I will do my part to bridge their passing. No one should leave this world unloved and uncared for, and I will do my best to make sure that is one less burden they have to face at that time of life. I will keep my fingers crossed that problems with my wife and daughter will become less difficult and more manageable in the years ahead. But there are no guarantees. There may be lots of heartache and misery in the years ahead.

All the more reason that, on the cusp of 47, to seize the day.

Bring This On?

I saw this image in today’s Washington Post. The image has been haunting me. Seeing it I can’t help but put myself in this poor guy’s shoes.

This man was one of the “injured” men from a suicide bomber attack near the Shaheen Hotel in Baghdad yesterday. The blast killed four people, including two Iraqis, and wounded four others, including this man.

He appears to have no hands or feet. It’s hard for me to think of someone like this as “wounded”. What is he lucky enough to be alive for?

I am aware that if Saddam Hussein were still in power that people would still probably be tortured. Many others would be summarily executed for being the wrong ethnic type or hosts of other trivial reasons. Had we not invaded, there might have even more mass murders by Saddam’s regime.

But it is clear that no war is without its ripples. It is important that once in a while we see a consequence, however unintended, or our noble intentions. This “ripple” is just another innocent man wounded in a terrorist attack in Baghdad. Just to stay alive he will need constant support. He will not be able to feed, bathe, or even go to the toilet by himself.

So far over 500 of our soldiers have died. At least 5000 of our soldiers have been wounded. Conservatively 9000 Iraqis died as a direct result of our invasion. Who knows how many more will die in terrorist bombings like this that were unlikely to have even started had our invasion not opened up this Pandora’s box. There was no al Qaeda presence inside Iraq before we invaded. These and most of the other suicide bombings sure bear the mark of al Qaeda.

Saddam may not be terrorizing his own people these days but others with axes to grind, principally against us, seem to be stepping in to fill his shoes.

Bring this on?

A Man injured in the blast of the Shaheen Hotel in Baghdad. Credit: Ali Jasim -- Reuters

Odd Choices for the Oscars

I guess I should be thrilled that “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” was nominated for eleven Oscars yesterday. To me it was a no brainer that Peter Jackson should have also been nominated as Best Director. Clearly the movie also deserved its many of the other nominations, including Best Music and Best Makeup. Since both the movies and the director were skipped in these categories over the last two years the chances are good that Peter Jackson will win Best Director this year, and LotR:RotK will win Best Picture. Hollywood has some serious dues to pay Peter Jackson and Wingnut Films.

So why am I ticked off? Because despite the stellar acting by a superb cast, it did not receive even a single acting nomination. For me it is hard to pick among such worthy candidates from the film. Let’s start with Elijah Wood. I long ago got over that he was too young to play the part (Tolkien portrays Frodo was in his early 50s). And I must say as I watched Wood’s antics in the extended DVDs I personally don’t like the guy. He comes across as young (which he is), abrasive, arrogant and full of himself. Nonetheless his performance across all three films was outstanding. It’s hard for me to pick his best scene, but the one that comes to mind is the one at the end of “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” where he decides to leave his friends and travel to Mordor alone. His performance in that scene alone was worthy of an Oscar.

Arguably Sean Astin as Sam should have at least been nominated for a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor nomination. In LotR:RotK his acting reached a crescendo. Like the horse Seabiscuit he came from behind and surprised all of us with the quality and depth of his acting. Was it because he portrayed someone who was at heart a very simple and plain man that he was overlooked? Maybe Sean didn’t deserve an Oscar, but surely he deserved a nomination.

And how could the selection committee get through the movie and not possibly nominate Miranda Otto for Best Supporting Actress? My wife loathes the character of Eowyn in the book. And yet she was totally blown away by the depth and complexity of Miranda Otto’s performance. At all three showings of the movie that I attended, the highlight for both me and the audience was Eowyn’s killing of the Witch King. It was one of those magic movie moments that are increasingly rare. You know, the kind where you get so lost in the story that the whole world goes away you actually become one with the story. That scene is unforgettable and produces a primal thrill that never really leaves you. I have been engaged in tasks as mundane as driving when I recall the scene and tears spring from my eyes.

Along with Elijah, Sean and Miranda there were also top notch performances from Bernard Hill (as Theoden), John Nobel (Denethor) and of course Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn). Here we have six excellent candidates and yet not a single nomination. It makes no sense. Instead, who do we get? Johnny Depp for “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Give me a break! Yes, it was a very comic and enjoyable performance but his performance was hardly one deserving of a nomination. It was so over the top it was in outer space somewhere. As my wife pointed out, he looks like he is either high on dope or drunk throughout the movie. The man belonged in detox.

Other odd nominations included Keisha Castle-Hughes in “Whale Rider”. It was certainly not a bad performance for a girl about 13 years old, but hardly one of an actress at the top of her form. I really liked “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” but Best Picture? Nah! Not even close. I haven’t seen every movie on the list but of those I’ve seen the only movie that deserves coming close to LotR:RotK would be “Seabiscuit”.

It’s been clear to me since “The Color Purple” lost both Best Picture and Best Director in 1985 that something is wildly wrong with the Oscar’s nomination and selecting process. While there will always be disagreements, when things are that out of skew all we can do is shake our heads. It is not our judgment that is at question, it is Hollywood’s judgment that has gone awry. But time is the ultimate arbiter. “The Wizard of Oz” lost in 1939 and is now an acknowledged classic. The same is true of “The Color Purple” and will be true of the Rings pictures, even if Hollywood snubs them and Peter Jackson one more time. A hundred years from now people will be huddling around their plasma screen TVs to see the Rings movies one more time. “Master and Commander” will be forgotten as just another sea picture.


It’s important that you take a look at my extended entry today folks. My thanks to The Whiskey Bar for compiling this list of quotes on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction claims by Bush Administration officials.

These are not ambiguous quotes. These are quotes full of complete certainty. Then how can it be that just the other day our chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay contradicted all that we’ve been told by this administration? His conclusion:

“My summary view, based on what I’ve seen, is that we’re very unlikely to find large stockpiles of weapons. I don’t think they exist.”

So how did this happen? I see three, and only three possibilities here.

The first is that the intelligence given to the president was conclusive. It said that Iraq currently possessed weapons of mass destruction and was targeting the United States. But that’s not what the intelligence summaries said based on information known and published even before the war started. They were clear that the information was partial and sketchy, and that the findings should not be used to draw any definitive conclusions. Intelligence agencies actually disputed each other on numerous point. The State Department was in particular skeptical of claims made by other intelligence agencies.

The second possibility is that the American people and our Congress were lied to by our Administration. This is possible but unlikely. Although this is one very arrogant administration, it’s hard to imagine if the administration knew that intelligence this poor it would still make these pronouncements as fact when it knew them to be wrong.

The third and most likely reason was that intelligence was read selectively. Evidence supporting Bush’s predisposition to invade Iraq was deemed credible. That which offered a different point of view was dismissed. This is quite plausible former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, in his recent book, made it clear that the administration had plans to topple Saddam Hussein even before 9/11. It was also the entire point of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s personal intelligence office. It was instructed to find the evidence that supported toppling Saddam, and to ignore the rest.

Ultimately though the reason doesn’t matter. In the first case simply did not happen. The intelligence summaries provided to the press prove it. In the second case we have clear grounds for Bush’s impeachment and removal from office. In the last case we have the most egregious case of misleadership imaginable.

Thus far over 500 American soldiers have died in our preemptive and unnecessary war in Iraq. We already have over $150B either spent or allocated to fighting and occupying Iraq, and doubtless the number will continue to climb in the years ahead. Conservatively at least 9000 people, mostly Iraqis have died in this war. Over five thousand of our soldiers have been wounded. Our armed forces are spread thin and occupy a country that had no connection with 9/11.

We fought the wrong war at the wrong time. We actually made our country more vulnerable to terrorism because we diverted forces away from those responsible for 9/11: al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. And if that were not enough we managed to squander most of our good will with other countries.

I can think of nothing a president can do that is worse than sending off our armed forces to start and fight the wrong war. For such widespread misleadership alone George W. Bush must not be reelected.

Continue reading “Misleader”