Monday, April 11, 2011

Playing it safe

I just got some mail from Howard Dean asking me to contribute to the campaign of a candidate in a congressional election in the LA basin. His story is that Debra Bowen is running for Jane Harman's recently-vacated seat. She's a progressive. We should help fund her election. A little research shows that this is not the case. Debra Bowen is not a progressive. She's a status-quo Democrat. She supported Enron. I don't mean to say she's a bad person, but that shows poor judgment.

There's a real progressive candidate running for Jane Harman's seat in the primary: Marcy Winograd. She's in favor of cutting military spending. She's in favor of enforcing international law without playing favorites. If I were living in her district, she'd have my vote.

If you got that email from Howard Dean, I suggest you ignore it. I asked to be removed from the mailing list--the last thing I need is people asking me to do things that I wouldn't do if I knew all the details. I usually don't have time to check, so I can't afford to trust a source that's given me bad information.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Effective Griping

Andrea and I found ourselves behind a car today, on the way to do some walking and mom-tipping. It had a bumper sticker that said "Don't Steal. The Government Doesn't Like Competition!" What a useless thing to say.

If you don't have the power to change something, griping about it is like getting upset at a rock you stub your toe on. A natural reaction, perhaps, but in no way useful. The only effect of such a reaction is to make life unpleasant for the people around you. I do this a lot, so I know.

If you do have the power to change something, griping about it is like pointing at a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk and loudly saying "someone ought to clean that up." You are someone. Why don't you clean it up? I do this a lot too. It's really useless. It humbles me to see people who actually clean up the dog poop instead of complaining about it, and to the best of my limited ability I try to emulate them. I feel best about myself when I succeed.

So what about the bumper sticker? It's a truism that government takes money, in the form of taxes, and that some amount of that money is wasted. It's not unreasonable to describe this as stealing. But it's useless to speak in generalities, because it means that you are griping about something you can't change. It will always be the case that there is government waste of tax money. If you think it can be stopped, you're delusional.

Take away the government, and a new one will form to fill the power vacuum. It will also levy taxes, and it will also waste some of them. Take away the government's ability to tax, and it will fail, lacking the money to pay for its operation. A new government will arise to fill the power vacuum. Don't be naive enough to think that the new government can only be better than the old one. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. If you actually want change, work to change what you have into what you want. Don't just blow everything up and hope something better arises through random chance.

So when you phrase a complaint in such a general way, you might as well be complaining about the rock you stubbed your toe on. You can't change the fact that government is imperfect. If you really think that government waste is a bad thing, identify some, and work to put an end to it. Pick a problem you actually have a chance of solving.

And if you just want to have a clever bumper sticker that makes you look smart, take a hint from someone who knows: griping doesn't make you look smart. It makes you look like an ass.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Be A Grownup

A good friend of mine recently forwarded me a political cartoon he'd paid someone to draw. The cartoon portrayed Hillary Clinton talking to Egyptian president Mubarak, and made Ms. Clinton out to be a long-time supported of the Mubarak regime, using our taxes to support a repressive dictator.

This image seemed like a mistake to me; I wasn't sure why at first. After all, our taxes have been supporting "president" Mubarak's regime. Hillary Clinton's our Secretary of State. She's been involved in implementing this policy for a while now, although she certainly didn't invent it, nor did her husband. We've been supporting Mubarak my entire adult life, since Anwar Sadat was brutally assassinated in the wake of the signing of the Camp David peace accords.

What's wrong with the cartoon is, first, that it doesn't give the reader a clear picture of the problem. The cartoon implies that if we could get rid of Hillary Clinton, or if we could get her to stop behaving the way she is, that the situation would change. In other words, that Hillary Clinton is the problem.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Hillary Clinton is not responsible for the situation in the middle east. She didn't create it. She doesn't exist in a political climate where the situation *could* change. We aren't really even permitted to talk about what would have to change in order for her *not* to be supporting regimes like Mubarak's. If a serious person were to advance a serious solution to the actual problem of the U.S. supporting repressive regimes in the middle east, that person would be shouted down by people on all sides of the political spectrum.

THAT is the problem.

When we engage in political tactics that don't address the truth of the situation, it's like teenagers playing school politics. Who cares? Who cares if it's Hillary Clinton, or Henry Kissinger, or any of the Secretaries of State who've come between them who are implementing the broken policies that we see implemented? None of that matters. When we talk about personalities instead of issues, we are being ineffectual. We might as well do something else, like play golf, or read books, or watch TV. Our efforts will come to naught.

If we want to see the U.S. stop supporting repressive regimes, we need to stop allowing certain topics to be forbidden, and we need to stop our national obsession with gossiping about personalities. Discussing real issues honestly and seriously is never a bad thing. When we allow people—pundits, politicians, university professors, religious leaders—to tell us what we are allowed to discuss, we are behaving like children.

It is time to behave like adults.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sen. Simpson's call for lesser Americans to forgive the debt owed the Social Security Trust

[This is a copy of a letter I just sent to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility. If you agree with what I have said in this letter, their email address is]

MoveOn is calling on me to ask Senator Simpson to resign from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility. They've put up a video of a pleasantly candid interview that Senator Simpson did on the way out of a meeting with a MoveOn journalist. I think Senator Simpson should resign, but the reason MoveOn gives in calling for his resignation is trivial in comparison to the real reason.

It's very encouraging that Senator Simpson was willing to be so frank. At the same time, though, several things Senator Simpson said indicate to me that he is out of touch with reality. I do not want the Senator Simpson that I saw in that interview deciding what happens to Social Security. I'm 45 right now, 20 years from retirement.

Senator Simpson said that Social Security is for "lesser Americans." I take it he means Americans like me, and like my parents, and like their parents. I find it astonishing that these Americans—the ones who voted him into office and paid his salary all those years that he was in the Senate, and the ones who are now paying for his enviable health care package, are somehow "lesser." But this is a trivial point; if it were all that Senator Simpson had said, I would not be writing this letter.

The thing that really bothers me is Senator Simpson's willingness to default on a loan made by these "lesser Americans" to the federal government. For many, many years we have labored under the illusion that the national debt was far less than it actually is, because the money borrowed from the Social Security trust fund was not counted as part of the debt, even though no honest accountant could ever argue that it is anything but.

Now it seems that Senator Simpson considers it a given that Congress will default on that loan. Rather than manning up and admitting that the national debt includes those IOUs, Senator Simpson considers it decided that those IOUs will not be paid, and intends instead to gut Social Security in one of a variety of ways. It is "necessary," he insists, in a very reasonable tone of voice. The only question is which of fifteen different ways of defaulting on this debt will be chosen.

Where I come from, we call this stealing. I've had FICA taken out of my taxes my whole life, and it's been a *lot* of money. Now Senator Simpson is saying "sorry, we're just going to keep that money."

Senator Simpson's remarks on "lesser Americans" pale in comparison to this calumny. It is for *this* reason that Senator Simpson should resign: because he is willing to casually default on a debt owed to the American people by a Congress that felt, for most of my adult life, that it was okay to lie to the American people, using an accounting practice that would land a corporate officer in jail for fraud, to pretend that the government had money to spend on Iraq, on Afghanistan, and on tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.

So while Senator Simpson seems like a very pleasant gentleman, because of his willingness to shirk on such an important debt, I do call for his resignation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

So maybe it's time for a few updates. Andrea and I were staying mum about the house sale until it sold, but it's sold, so I can talk about it now. We were really pretty fortunate - we got some good advice from a home staging person on how to use our existing furniture and junk to stage the house. We did that, and it looked very good--so good that we're tempted to hire a home stager to give us advice when we have a new house. Decrapulating the living space in the house really did make it feel nicer to live in.

So we went back east to be with my folks for the month of December. On the 20th, we got an offer on the house, and the buyers wanted a rapid close. So we got tickets back to Tucson for the close (I had business in San Francisco, so I just did an open jaw trip that landed me in Tucson at the end). The close was supposed to happen the day before I got back, but there was a big snag.

If you've ever purchased a house, you probably know what PMI is - mortgage insurance. It's fairly expensive, but you have to have it if you have less than a 20% downpayment. Once your equity comes up above 20%, you can get rid of it, but it adds a significant bump to your mortgage payments until then. Our buyers had 15%. Normally PMI is a no-brainer, aside from the cost - if you can get a mortgage, PMI is just a line item that gets tacked on. But it's a line item that comes from an insurer, not from the lender. And you may recall that one of the big insurers in the business, AIG, took a really big hit recently.

Now of course, the government bailed them out, but they're being a lot more paranoid about writing PMI policies than they were. I guess that's probably a good thing, but Tucson's property values have dropped quite a bit since the big financial crisis started, and the underwriters don't think it's a good risk. So the buyers couldn't get PMI. So there was a week of nail-biting, and they finally came up with another solution to bring their equity up to 20%, and we finally closed.

And then things got exciting. I wanted to spend some more time visiting with my parents, and we had rented an apartment once all of the contingencies we thought were going to get in the way were clear, so we needed to move all our crap out of the house and out to Brattleboro quickly. We got a quote from some movers for $6000 to move everything, which seemed like a lot, so instead we rented a truck from Penske and did it ourselves.

It took two days to pack the truck. This included a lot of shoving stuff in boxed and taping them--it wasn't all loading. We rented the biggest truck you can drive without a commercial license. It was really big. Our stuff barely fit. By the time the door came down, there was less than an inch of clearance in places between it and the load. The good news was that the load was really stable - I tried moving it, and couldn't. And that proved to be true - when we opened it up on the far end, nothing was pressed against the door, although the contents did shift a bit.

Driving the truck across country wasn't as fun as driving the Prius. It turns out that the Interstates are a lot bumpier than you think when you're driving a nice cushy car suspension. There were sections of road that were pretty smooth, but there were some truly amazingly bumpy sections of road as well, and there were more bumpy sections than smooth sections by quite a bit.

Also, the truck handled like, well, a truck. There was a section of highway around Benson, early in the first day's drive, where I felt as if the truck was not very much in my control for a while, until the shock waves slowed down. So I was very, very conservative the whole way across the country - we rarely went above 65, and often went below 65, particularly at night. We were meticulous in our planning with respect to the weather, and had three different routes to follow, depending on how the weather broke as we went across the country. We were fully prepared to just stop for a day if the weather got really bad.

Fortunately, we caught a break--we followed a storm system across the country with about a day of lag, so we kept seeing signs of problems caused by severe weather, but never encountered any serious weather-related problems ourselves. We stopped for the night in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and the next morning when we got on the road it was clear that we'd just missed driving into a really, really bad ice storm.

I hadn't wanted to drive any further that night because of the temperature and the fog, so I'd actually decided to stop when we did partly because of the weather, but it was striking how we left Arkadelphia and within a few miles crossed up above the frost line and were seeing ice-encrusted trees everywhere around us. Later on that day we started seeing overturned trucks every few miles. It was pretty sobering - the whole way across Arkansas I was wondering if I was unknowningly making the same mistake as those drivers. But the road was dry most of the way to Nashville.

Things were a bit dicey in Nashville because they'd gotten probably six inches of snow, and clearly their snow-clearing equipment wasn't up to it. So there was snow melting on the sides of the roads, and I was afraid it was going to re-freeze and create trouble. But as soon as we crossed the Kentucky line, the snow-clearing got better, and the roads were dry. And that was really the last of the difficult weather for the rest of the drive.

When we arrived in Brattleboro, we got there just as the Comcast installer got there, so we had internet almost immediately, and I unloaded some necessities like the easy chair and the mattresses. And then Mel came and picked us up, and we had a nice dinner at my parents' house before reclaiming the Prius and driving back to Brattleboro.

There were some problems where we hadn't used enough furniture pads and some of the furniture got a little worn away, but by and large everything survived the trip intact, and now the apartment in Brattleboro is a semi-functional pile of boxes. We unpacked the essentials, but it'll be another week or so of work to really get it set up.

It was really nice to be able to visit my parents so easily - we went over several times during the time we were in Brattleboro, and one day I brought my father in for lunch with Andrea, which was really nice, and he got to see our junk pile, which seemed to amuse him. But very quickly after our arrival we had to pack up and leave again.

I shipped my bicycle to Arizona via UPS, because I wanted to have the full-sized bike, and it would have been really expensive to fly with (plus, I didn't want to have to deal with it getting misplaced). It was expensive - about $100 - but they were happy to ship it in a piece of bicycle luggage I bought many years ago called a Pedal Pack.

The bike arrived this morning, right on time, and appears to be no worse for the wear, although I did learn one important lesson: when packing your bike, clean all the grit off the tires beforehand. If you don't, it will be evenly distributed over all the exposed greasy surfaces in the bike when you unpack it. I had to do a lot of cleaning to avoid a grit meltdown. But it's here, and it's assembled, and it appears to work, so I'm a happy camper.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Survivor Bias

One of the things I've discovered in writing this blog is that it's actually very difficult to talk about my life in a meaningful way. I don't mean that I have nothing to say. I mean that it's hard to choose what to say, and hard to know if the choices I make are really meaningful and honest.

The problem is that I tend to think about my life up to the present moment as narratives, and I tend to think about the future as if it were a continuation of that narrative--as if the two were connected. But really, it's nothing like that. The backward-looking narrative is how I explain how I got to where I am. The forward-looking narrative is an entirely different thing - it's baseless speculation, and essentially meaningless.

One example of this is a story that my father told at his retirement party. He was talking about how he got into the business of teaching. My father often tells stories about his former students, some of whom stay in touch with him, and many of whom have contacted him at one time or another to express their appreciation of him as their former teacher. So the narrative you might tell of his life would be about how he'd always been destined to be a teacher, and you could definitely string the events of his life along that thread, so that none of it was accidental, not something he just fell into by chance.

And yet. And yet, when he told his story at his retirement, I came away with the impression that he did fall into it. It wasn't necessarily how he intended to spend his life. He had a mentor who coaxed him along, and as a result of her coaxing an entire successful career unfolded. If you'd asked him at 20 what sort of career he'd be looking back on at 65, I wonder what he would have said.

I'm a published author. I can't say I never wanted to be one, nor aspired to be one, but the way it happened was that a friend of mine, years ago, asked me to do a project for him that I would never have sought out on my own. I agreed to do it, and it became something with a huge amount of momentum that's carried my career for a long time, and it's why I was asked to write the book. It all makes sense looking back, but the sequence of events that led to me being a published author is one that I never would have predicted in advance.

And then look at the stories of people who survived great tragedies. My favorite illustration of this (because it's not something anyone is emotionally involved in) is the sequence at the beginning of the recent War of the Worlds movie that starts out with Tom Cruise standing right where the aliens landed. When he realizes they're hostile, he runs. In the course of running, he dodges around obstacles, left and right, ducks through buildings, and through all of this the alien's energy weapon is shooting in his general direction, and you see people and buildings right next to him disappearing in puffs of dust, but he never happens to be standing in the path of the beam when it fires, and consequently he's still alive when he gets out of range.

If he were to tell the story of his survival, he might say that he was dodging, and that's why he survived, but really the aliens weren't trying to kill him specifically—they were trying to kill everyone. He didn't die because they weren't 100% successful, and he just happened to be in the 1% who didn't die during that attack. His survival had nothing to do with any volitional act on his part other than trying to escape rather than giving up.

So when I look to the future, I do make plans. These plans are based on my past experience. Sometimes the plans work, and sometimes they don't. When they work, I remember them. When they don't, unless they were spectacular failures, I forget them. And so when I think about what works and what doesn't, and how to plan our future, my thinking is polluted with a kind of survival bias.

This survival bias is what allows me to make sense of my past as an orderly thing, rather than the chaotic process that it really was. It's pleasant and comforting to think that I got to where I am (which is a pleasant place at the moment) because I made the right decisions.

But at the moment my life is in flux. Andrea and I are moving to Vermont. We have reasons for moving to Vermont, and a plan for what we're going to do in the short term and even in the long term. Part of the plan is to build a house. The collection of detailed decisions that go into the very beginning of the house-building process is truly overwhelming. You can't even dig the foundation until you have a pretty clear picture of the finished result you're shooting for.

So my situation is completely in flux, really. I have plans for the future, and no idea whether or not they will work out. Fortunately there are no aliens with death rays breathing down my trail, but I pretty much have to run and dodge and hope for the best. What materializes a year from now, or four years from now, is completely unknown, even though I have plans for all of that time.

Why does any of this matter? If I buy into the idea of a continuing narrative from the past leading into the future, all of the unknowns in the future I've planned become objects of stress. The more you worry about the future, the less sleep you get, and the less relaxed you are. The less able you are to run. So by being attached to my plans, I actually make it less likely that they will come to fruition.

So right now I'm trying to find the balance between having plans, which is necessary so that I have something to do to move forward, and being attached to plans, which might make me freeze in place and stop making progress.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ice biking...

Andrea and I are on the east coast for the next month or so visiting my parents. It's cold here. I've been trying to get back into bicycling, now that I have a bike again (for those who aren't up on the news, all our bikes were stolen a couple of months ago when, after a day of working on getting the house ready to show, I left the garage door open all night).

I was really lucky in my timing on buying a new bike--we finally got around to it after Thanksgiving, so the sales had started, and the local Trek dealer happened to have the exact bike I was looking for in a size that fits me well. I wouldn't have sprung for this bike if it was full price, but it was heavily discounted - about 40% off of the usual retail price.

It's really pretty. Anyway, I think so. But more importantly, it's really fun to ride. I had some adventures on it before we left Tucson, and have been looking forward to biking around out here in Massachusetts. Of course, temperatures in Massachusetts are somewhat cooler than they were in Tucson. It was ranging from 60 degrees to maybe 75 degrees there. This morning, it was six degrees on the outdoor thermometer at Mel's house, where we are staying.

Well, either you're going to go riding, or you're not. If you let a little thing like cool temperatures dissuade you, you're not. So I decided to test the waters a bit. Riding in cool weather is a challenging problem. When you're going three miles an hour up a hill, the wind chill factor might be fairly low. When you're going 25 miles an hour down the hill, it's going to be substantial. Your gear has to keep you warm on the descent, without creating a sweat bloom on the ascent (which will then freeze you on the descent). Today, at rest, the wind chill factor was 6, because there was no wind. Descending, it was probably -16 degrees. This is all in fahrenheit, of course. Ascending, it was probably about -2.

My ride was a short one - about a mile each way, to the bakery in the center of Warwick. I put on a ski parka, and I was wearing jeans, and a nice polyester fleece watch cap, and a scarf. The only gloves I could find were my cold-weather bicycling gloves, which, as it turned out, were hugely inadequate (more on that later). The ride starts with a descent down Mel's driveway, which is dirt. The driveway wasn't particularly icy, so I made it down with minimal angst. Then there's a very mild climb up to a summit for about a quarter mile, followed by a half-mile fast descent.

The pavement starts at the summit, and the road is just dirt until then. This time of year, what that means is that you're basically riding on a layer of ice that's got a lot of dirt in it. The ice forms as a result of moisture in the road freezing and rising to the surface, plus snow that's compacted into ice by tires driving over it. Because the roads are frequently sanded, this ice tends to be permeated with dirt, but because it's driven on frequently, and because sanding is not a uniform process, what you wind up with is a surface that's got patches of slick ice and patches of dirty ice, varying pretty randomly.

This surface works fine for a car - you can climb up a fairly steep hill, and you can do a fairly quick panic stop on it, because although you will slide when you hit the icy patches, you hit enough dirty patches to make up for it. On a bicycle, if you try to brake hard or change direction on an icy patch, you will wash out the front tire, and if you're going fast, you will have a bad accident. If you're going at a walking pace, you can just put your feet down and recover. It's tempting to plan ahead and pick patches that aren't slick, and see if you can't string together sections of good traction, but that way lies madness: you'll start to go too fast, and then when you hit an icy spot, you'll crash.

So I picked my way gingerly up the dirt section, never going very fast, careful not to turn on the slick sections, and never had even a moment's loss of traction, although I went over some fairly shiny ice. I suppose it helped that it was six degrees - ice is slippery because the surface melts as you put pressure on it, so really cold ice is no slipperier than a similarly smooth steel or glass surface. When I got to the descent, I covered my face with my scarf, which was a pretty thin wool scarf, and went for it - the road was nice and clean, without a single icy section, so I didn't feel like I had to hold back.

My face got a little cold on the descent, but not alarmingly so. My hands were fine. My knees felt a little cold, but again, not too bad. Surprisingly, the jeans seemed to be enough. My core was perfectly comfortable, but not overly warm. I was pedaling on the descent, which probably helped my knees. So I made it to the bakery feeling pretty good about the ride - clearly I don't want to do any riding on dirt roads until summer returns, but I can manage just fine on paved roads.

It was on the way back that the trouble started. I never had any problem with my nose freezing, which was what I was really concerned me, but about halfway up the ascent back to Mel's house, I noticed that my hands were getting uncomfortably cold. I've used the same gloves for cross-country skiing in similar temperatures, so I don't know why it was so bad on the bicycle, but bad it was. Maybe because my fingers are out in the wind when I'm riding, whereas when they're on the poles they are all over the place, and not consistently out front.

I tried just flexing and flapping them around to keep the circulation going, but it was a losing battle - if I'd had much farther to ride, I would have had to stop and put them in my armpits to warm them up. Fortunately I was pretty close to Mel's house, so I just finished the ride to the base of her driveway, walked the bike up her driveway (my fingers were quite painful by then, and I didn't feel like riding up the driveway) and went inside.

My fingertips weren't white, so I knew I didn't have frostbite, but it was still pretty sobering. After fifteen minutes, they were back to normal. So the lesson I take from this is that for bicycling in really cold weather, you'd better have really good wind-proof gloves. Of course, the downside to really good windproof gloves is that your hands might get too warm and start sweating. The funny thing about this is that even though my fingers were painfully cold, I was otherwise quite warm. Not warm enough for a bad sweat bloom, but very comfortably warm. It's kind of amazing to come off a steady half-mile ascent wearing a full winter parka and not feel overheated.

So the experiment was a qualified success. I will try a longer ride soon, but not a lot longer, because I am sure I will discover some new temperature-control problem I'll need to deal with, and I don't want to be ten miles from home when it happens. And it's pretty clear that I can't think of the bicycle as basic transportation in this weather - I would not want to try to ride it from Mel's house to my parents' house, which is entirely on that dirt road. Even if I made it safely, I'd be a ball of nerves when I got to my parents' house. I think on a longer ride I need to do something to prevent my kneecaps from getting too cold, even though I didn't have a problem with them on this ride. Long underwear, or knee warmers.