Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Love of Books

As I've mentioned before, I participate in a tutoring program at my church. This is my 5th year with the program, and my 4th year with the same student. J---- and I were paired up together when she entered the program as a 3rd grader, and now she's in 6th grade. Time flies!

Her birthday was on Sunday, so Monday night after tutoring, I took her out for dessert to celebrate. And Teller's managed to out-dessert the ultimate dessert-atarian! She was overwhelmed by the richness of their Molten Chocolate Cake with raspberry sorbet.

It was a Good Time.

I like to give books to J---- as birthday and Christmas gifts. Mostly I've been giving her the books that were my favorites when I was her age. First, I gave her the Chronicles of Narnia books, and last year, I gave her Anne of Green Gables. So this year, Anne of Avonlea was one of the books that I bought for her.

I also found a recommended reading guide, which was really helpful. Since J---- has read all of the new Nancy Drew books from her school's library, the guide book suggested Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach. I also picked out a jewelry-making instruction book / kit that looked fun.

(And because I think that it's really important to teach kids about money, I also bought Complete Idiot's Guide to Money for Teens. But that's a tutoring/mentoring aid, not a birthday gift. J---- usually finishes most of her homework before tutoring, and she doesn't really need to work on basic math or reading skills, so we're going to devote part of each tutoring session to reading this book and talking about money.)

This year, I decided to include a letter with J----'s gift. I thought I ought to share it here, in honor of all of the people who gave me books when I was a kid:
Dear J----,

I wanted to tell you a little bit about why I buy books for you as birthday gifts and Christmas presents. The first reason is that I’m your tutor, so I think it’s good to give you gifts that are at least somewhat educational. But that’s kind of a boring reason.

The other reason is because I love books. I have always loved to read, and that’s something that I want to share with you too. (When you love something, like reading or skiing, of course you want to share those activities with people that you care about!) Many of the books that I have given to you are books that were given to me by people who loved me.

My step-mother gave me the Chronicles of Narnia books when I was a little girl, because she also loved those books when she was younger. I’ve read them dozens of times, and I still re-read them every couple of years, because C.S. Lewis’ stories are more than just fairy tales. He was a very wise man who wrote some important books for adults, but adults can also learn from the stories that he wrote for little kids.

I bought you the Anne of Green Gables books because my grandmother bought those books for me. My grandparents used to go to Prince Edward Island for their vacation every year, and my grandmother bought the books for me while she was there. My grandmother loved history, especially the history of the United States and Canada, and I remember her house was filled with books. One of her hobbies was studying genealogy, and she discovered that she had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.

So these books are a sort of heritage that I want to pass on to you. In addition to being great stories, they remind me of people who loved me. And I hope that when you think about these books, you’ll also remember that I gave them to you with lots of love!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Who lets these people write for the New York Times?!?

How High Gas Prices Can Save the Car Industry offers this ridiculously naive proposal for bailing out the automotive industry:
"One way to do that would be to establish a price floor of $3.50 per gallon on gasoline. If the price drops below that, as it recently has, the federal government would impose a variable tax to bring the price up to $3.50. If the price goes above $3.50, then the tax disappears. The money raised by the variable tax would be used, at least in the short term, to provide loan guarantees to the auto companies. (To ease the burden of higher gasoline prices on low-income taxpayers, some of the revenue would be provided to them as tax credits or vouchers.)"

I don't need a degree in business or economics to know that this will never work. Gas stations compete on price. If you artificially prevent them from doing that, then why should they make any attempt to keep their prices down? If there's no competition from the gas stations across the street, then of course they're all going to set their prices at $3.50 a gallon, and the government will get nothing.

Let's assume for just a minute that the government has the authority to determine exactly how much profit that each company is permitted to take, as a percentage of their revenue. (We'll ignore for now all the reasons why this is a colossally bad idea.) Here's the problem: The government can't force a company to keep their overhead costs down. Only competition can do that.

And that's exactly what's happening to the automotive industry right now.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Big, Bad Bailouts Revisited

Another article on the bailout debate:
It is all a reminder that the biggest threat to a healthy economy is not the socialists of campaign lore. It’s C.E.O.’s. It’s politically powerful crony capitalists who use their influence to create a stagnant corporate welfare state.

If ever the market has rendered a just verdict, it is the one rendered on G.M. and Chrysler. These companies are not innocent victims of this crisis. To read the expert literature on these companies is to read a long litany of miscalculation. Some experts mention the management blunders, some the union contracts and the legacy costs, some the years of poor car design and some the entrenched corporate cultures.

There seems to be no one who believes the companies are viable without radical change. A federal cash infusion will not infuse wisdom into management. It will not reduce labor costs. It will not attract talented new employees. As Megan McArdle of The Atlantic wittily put it, “Working for the Big Three magically combines vast corporate bureaucracy and job insecurity in one completely unattractive package.”

Generation Y is excited about this election because their votes helped put Obama into the Oval Office. On one hand, this is a great thing, because now they're no longer feeling disenfranchised by the election process. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that what they're about to experience is disillusionment.

In my opinion, it doesn't really matter who's elected as President, and it doesn't really matter who's elected to Congress. At this point, they're all equally bad. The only thing that Republicans and Democrats work together on is spending money that this country doesn't have, and Obama isn't going to be able to turn things around overnight, even assuming that he wants to. Maybe that sounds horribly jaded, but let me explain where I'm going with this.

As I've said before, "People do what you pay them to do." And our politicians aren't getting paid to represent the best interests of our country. (Well, they are, but not really.) Instead, their re-election campaigns are financed by lobbyists for special interest groups like the automotive industry, the pharmaceutical industry, tobacco companies, and teachers unions.

Now I do think that lobbyists have the potential to serve a valuable purpose. They can do research, and gather facts, and present logical arguments for new legislature. I don't have a problem with companies paying lobbyists to present their case to Congress. But I strongly object to the fact that lobbyists spend millions and millions of dollars to buy the votes of Senators and Representatives. How can politicians possibly put the best interests of America over the special interests of industries when their careers are being funded by lobbyists?

So until we have real campaign finance reform, all we're going to get is more of the same-- Our government will continue to fork over money to the industries that provide the biggest kick-backs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Big, Bad Bailouts

I just got home from another trip to the Rust Belt. Living in Cincinnati, I don't feel like we're experiencing a true recession. (For sure, the parking lot at the mall is crammed full on Saturdays.) But up in Saginaw, you get the feeling that the recession is firmly entrenched.

My company has several customers in the automotive industry-- Not the Big Three automakers, but their sub-tier suppliers. So in the past few months, I've had the privilege of meeting lots of intelligent, hard-working engineers who work for these companies. These are people who get excited about designing steering columns, seat adjustment mechanisms, and wiring harness connectors. And ultimately, all of their livelihoods are controlled by the "leadership" at GM, because when GM stumbles, every sub-tier supplier also takes a financial hit.

That's the tragedy of the latest bailout debate that is currently being discussed in Congress. In essence, it comes down to this: How many millions of people should lose their jobs because GM's management has been willfully stupid for the past 20+ years?
General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.'s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, G.M. threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers.

(And here's another reason why I equate SUV's with being willfully stupid.)

I am NOT in favor of bailing out GM. Frankly, I think they probably deserve to go under. But I also believe that if that happens, thousands of hard-working engineers will lose their jobs, and it will be an enormous blow to our (already wounded) economy. I don't know what the right answer is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Confessions of an Undecided Voter

I was one of the Undecided Voters. I went into voting booth on Tuesday still unsure about who I was going to vote for, so I skipped the first question and filled out the rest of my ballot. Then I came back to the big decision. I seriously considered voting for the Libertarian Party of Ohio. (But I didn't.)

I still don't know what I would do if someone came up to me today and said, "You are responsible for casting the deciding vote. You alone have the power to decide who becomes the next President of the United States." I'd be in trouble. I really don't know if I would decide for Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin. In fact, if I had the power to do it, I would probably go back to the old method of picking the top candidate from one party as President and picking the top candidate from the other party as Vice President. I'd actually feel pretty good about that, except that I'd have a hard time deciding which of them should be Thing One and Thing Two.

In the end, the matter was decidedly settled by many people who are clearly more decisive than I am. (Despite the fact that Time magazine just published an article about how the Cincinnati area is a Republican County, the vote went to Obama by more than 5 percentage points-- 52% to 47%.)

The point is of this blog posting is that I'm not an Undecided Voter because I haven't given it serious thought. In fact, I'm probably guilty of over-thinking the whole situation.

Here are some of the reasons for my quandary:

  • I'm mostly a Republican.

    I believe that "Government is the least-efficient way to do just about anything," so obviously I believe in minimizing government programs and reducing taxes. I believe that our healthcare system is broken, but I don't think that socialized medicine is the best fix. I'm generally anti-abortion, although I can also see that sometimes painful decisions have to be made between the lesser of two evils. I wish that the Republican party would focus more on environmental issues and stop pandering to lobbyists for big industries, but overall, I'm much more of a Republican than a Democrat.

  • The Republican Primaries

    Early in the primaries, I was pulling for McCain. I liked the fact that he was an advocate for immigration reform. I agreed with most of his decisions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The Democratic Primaries

    I really don't like Hillary Clinton, so I thought that the Democrats made a good choice when they (finally) picked Obama.

  • The Presidential Debates

    When I watched the debates, I thought that Obama had more poise than McCain, and his statements were more coherent, but when I thought it over later, I agreed with more of John McCain's positions on the issues.

  • Sarah Palin

    When they introduced her, I had doubts about her qualifications. Two years ago, Sarah Palin was mayor of a township the size of my hometown, which is actually a village, technically. But I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. Then I watched the Vice Presidential debate, and I was appalled by her cutsey-ness.

    Ultimately, it comes down to this-- As a woman, I am offended by the fact that John McCain picked an under-qualified woman and expected us all to jump for joy over the blatent tokenism.

  • The McCain Campaign

    I grew increasingly cynical about McCain's campaign strategy, which seemed to consist exclusively of making up pseudo-facts about Obama's voting record. I think McCain has some good ideas, but I'm baffled as to why he never took the time to explain them in a rational manner.

  • The Phone Calls

    Because we live in a battle-ground state, we have been receiving 4-5 election-related phone calls every day for the past week. I work from home, so I was extremely annoyed by the constant distractions. By Monday, I was ready to scream, "I'M NOT VOTING FOR ANY OF YOU!!!" (But most of the calls were pre-recorded messages, so it wouldn't have done any good.)

  • The Dream

    I participate in a tutoring program for kids from Cincinnati Public Schools. On Monday night, all of the students were really excited about the election. It's so cool to be able to tell these kids, "You can grow up to be anything you want to be, if you're willing to work to make it happen." Barak Obama is exactly the kind of role model that these kids need to see, and I'm proud to live in a country where part of Martin Luther King's dream has finally come true:
    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    Even if Barak Obama were to accomplish nothing else in his career, that's a truly awesome legacy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thoughts from this week...

I spent most of this week at our company summit meeting at Lake Monomonac, in Winchendon, MA. (It's near Leominster, which is pronounced Lemon-ster.) We're a small "virtual" company-- a total of just 8 employees, and we all work from home. Up until now, I had only met 3 of my coworkers in person, so I got to meet the other 4 this week.

I started calling our meeting a retreat, because the cell phone reception was pretty sketchy, but I'm pretty sure that our retreat didn't cost $440,000 because we were staying at my boss' 3-BR / 2-Bath lake cottage and one of my coworkers brought his camper. (Wall Street should take business frugality lessons from us!)

The Tip of the Iceberg

I know that our software does some complicated engineering analysis, but this week I realized that the expression "tip of the iceberg" is a gross understatement. I would guess that probably 99% of the software is "underwater" or behind the curtain of the user interface.

Maybe that's true of every product to a certain extent. I'm sure that surgeons never stop to think about all of the analysis and testing that go into the development of the devices that they use, which is what I used to work on.

But this week I realized that now I'm on the other side, sneaking a peak at what's happening behind the curtain, and I'm feeling a little sheepish because I'm out of my element. I have written computer programs to crunch data through equations, but I am not a programmer.

My coworkers spent several hours talking about graph theory, Dinic algorithms, valency, and supernodes. They did their best to explain some of these concepts to me, but I still have only the foggiest clue of what those terms really mean.

Airport Aggravation

Am I the only one who feels bullied by airports that don't offer free WiFi access?

I mean it's bad enough that you're holding me hostage for hours with crummy overpriced food, uncomfortable seating, and noisy announcements repeated over-and-over-and-over again. (Most airports banned smoking decades ago. Do we still need announcements to remind people of this fact?!?) Couldn't you please just let me check my email and surf the internet for an hour for free, to help take my mind off of how tired and miserable I am?

I really don't feel like I'm being unreasonable here.

I suspect that most people are like me-- They boot up their computer to see if there is a free connection, but when they find out that they have to pay for access, they just shut everything down again. (I actually use my iPod touch to test the waters first, so I don't have to deal with the hassle of waiting for my computer to boot up.) Because it's not worth paying $8-10 just to get online for 45 minutes. And if the cost isn't really the issue, then there's the hassle of having to submit the credit card charges for reimbursement on an expense account.

I just wonder how much revenue is actually being generated by the exclusive partnerships between airports and the internet service providers for "pay by the hour" access?

On that note, I just have to say that Dayton is a nice little airport. Free WiFi access, reasonable parking, quick security lines, and much cheaper flights than Cincinnati. I just wish they were closer to my house. I had to get up at 2:45am on Monday morning so that I could leave my house at 4am, and I was still a little bit rushed catching my 6:10 flight. So my busy week got off to a very early start!

I'm a Mac

I love these commercials, and I think The Bean Counter is especially great.

Maybe it's just fun to cheer for the underdog, but seriously, Microsoft has made themselves such an easy target with Vista...

You know you've really screwed up when you have to disguise your product as something else (i.e. the "Mojave" commercials) in order to get people to even consider taking a look at it.

My coworkers (i.e. brilliant software developers) have struggled with serious problems installing Vista on their computers, so I have a hard time believing that Vista is ready for prime-time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Tell me how this makes sense:
The government put itself four-square into the country's banking business Tuesday, resorting to what President Bush conceded was the unwelcome choice of a partial nationalization in order to loosen paralyzed channels of credit.


Nine major banks will participate initially including all of the country's largest institutions, he announced, in a move that sent stocks soaring on Wall Street.

Some of the nation's largest banks had to be pressured to participate by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who wanted healthy institutions that did not necessarily need capital from the government to go first as a way of removing any stigma that might be associated with banks getting bailouts.


Executives of the country's biggest banks were summoned to a remarkable meeting at the Treasury Department on Monday to be briefed on the plan. Paulson basically told the bank CEOs that they had to accept the government stock purchases for the good of the U.S. economy.


After the purchase of preferred stock in nine large banks, the new program is expected to be expanded to many others. Among the initial banks participating will be all of the country's largest institutions, including Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Morgan Stanley, said one official, with each institution expected to receive billions of dollars in return for the sale to the government of preferred shares.

The advantage to the taxpayer is that if the rescue plan works, then the shares can be sold for more than the government initially paid, providing a profit on the transaction.

I just don't understand why we're buying shares in banks that aren't even in trouble. I really thought the whole point of a bailout was to rescue the financial institutions that are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, not to invest in a private industry for the fun of it.

These organizations systematically destroyed their own reputations and undermined our entire economy, and we're stuck bailing them out. And now they're going to divert extra money to "remove the stigma" from their failure?


And then there's that tiny little word "if" hidden in the last paragraph:
...if the rescue plan works...

And what if it doesn't?

Does anybody know where I can find Galt's Gulch? I'm ready to move!

Monday, October 13, 2008

You know you're an adult when... suffer through a Thirtysomething Crisis.

I spent an hour or two on the phone with my friend J---- last night. She's having a Thirtysomething Crisis. She loves her job, but she's also under more stress than any human being was meant to carry. Having been through this sort of thing myself, I can empathize completely with what she's going through, so we both wound up sniffling and crying while we were talking on the phone.

I have several friends who have suffered through this type of crisis in the past couple of years, and I can only wonder why Life has chosen to haul off and punch us in the gut at this particular age.

It can't be called a Midlife Crisis, because we're only in our thirties. And it's not an Existential Crisis, because it's NOT triggered by a search for significance, but rather by an external voice telling us that we're failing at the one thing that we thought was our purpose in life.

Being an adult is really hard sometimes.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Joy of Skiing

They've implemented a new online registration process for getting season passes at the ski area.

You know, when you put it this way it doesn't sound like fun at all:
I am aware that the sport of skiing/boarding/sliding involves numerous risks of injury or death, including, but not limited to, injury due to loss of control; falls; the failure of skiers/snowboarders/sliders to ski/ride/tube within their own abilities; use of ski lifts; collisions with or falls resulting from trees, rocks, lift towers, fences, snowmaking equipment, snow vehicles, signs, other skiers/snowboarders/sliders and other manmade or natural obstacles.

[I have to say that the bit about "failure of sliders to tube within their own abilities" is especially ridiculous. You sit on a tube, and gravity does the rest. How is there any skill involved in that?]
I understand that I may encounter obstacles that are inherent in the sport, including but not limited to, bare spots, variations in snow, ice and terrain including bumps, moguls, terrain features, stumps, forest growth and debris, rocks, and other slope hazards or obstacles whether they are marked or unmarked, manmade or natural, or a result of slope design or modifications. I understand and agree that ------- ----- ------ shall have no duty to warn me of or to remedy any natural or manmade risks, dangers or hazards.

[I'm only surprised that they didn't mention any other natural hazards, like running into a deer, for example... which actually happened to someone at our ski area.]
I agree that, as a skier/snowboarder/slider, I have responsibilities to myself and to others to ski/ride/tube safely and in control.

[I'd guess that 90% of all injuries in skiing and/or snowboarding happen because people ignore that one little sentence.]
I also understand and agree that it is important to my safety to pay attention while loading, riding and unloading ski lifts, and I agree that I will not attempt to load, ride or unload a lift unless familiar with the proper way to do so.

I understand that I am voluntarily choosing to participate in the sport of snow skiing/boarding/sliding at ------- ----- ------ with knowledge of the aforesaid risks of injury or death involved and hereby expressly agree to accept and assume all such risks of injury or death associated with the sport of snow skiing/boarding/tubing.

As lawful consideration for being permitted by ------- ----- ------ to participate in the sport of snow skiing/boarding/tubing, I hereby agree to release from any and all legal liability and agree not to sue or make a claim against, and to indemnify, defend and hold harmless ------- ----- ------, all of the owners, officers, members, agents and employees for any and all claims for damage, injuries, death to myself or any person or property, including all defense costs, attorney's fees, and other expenses of any type, caused by or resulting from my participation in the sport of snow skiing/boarding/tubing or other alpine activities while on the premises, whether such costs, damage, injury or death was caused by their negligence or from any other cause.

I authorize ------- ----- ------ Ski Patrol to administer treatment in the event of an injury to myself or to the the minor for whom I am signing.

And that's why they pay us the big bucks!

Oh, wait...

Actually, we're a volunteer patrol, which means that we don't get paid.

But our ski area gives us free family & guest passes, they offer discounts on food & gear, and they pay for first aid supplies and equipment for the patrol, which more than most other ski areas do for their patrollers. We pay for our parkas and our annual membership fees to National Ski Patrol, but we get to ski for free, we have lots of fun, and we help people.

Seems like a good deal to me!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Random Vices

Random thoughts on the Vice Presidential debate tonight:

  • Isn't "a team of mavericks" an oxymoron?

  • When did candidates start referring to their opponents by their first names during debates? I'm hearing a lot about "Joe believes X," "Barak voted for Y," and "John's plan is Z."

  • You know that there has been a major upheaval when a Republican candidate starts talking about big, bad corporations (specifically, Banks and Oil Companies) taking advantage of average people. I really thought that was a Democratic platform...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Quality of Life

I've been doing a lot of blogging recently, when I really ought to be doing real work. But I've got something personal to share, so I hope you'll stick with me here...

In the past few days, I have been processing through several seemingly disconnected concepts, and they just kind of congealed into a consistent theme this morning.

Here are the three motives, and also two figures that fill the spaces in between them:
A Global Financial Crisis has occurred because the world no longer has faith that America can make good on its debts. And I'm starting to think that they're absolutely right not to trust us--As a country, we are upside-down, deep underwater, drowning in debt, and it's entirely possible that we can't be resuscitated. As this article in Time magazine puts it:
Japan and Germany make cars. Saudi Arabia pumps oil. China supplies the world with socks and toys and flat-screen TVs. What does the United States produce? Lots of stuff, but in recent years this country's No. 1 export--by far--has been debt.

When you look at things this way, it becomes clearer what the frenzy in New York City and Washington is all about. There are major quality issues with our nation's flagship product.

I'd like to hope that we're just facing a mild recession, but realistically, if we're going to prevent a profound Depression, we have give the rest of the world a reason to have confidence in us. We need to pay back our debts (personal and national) and start living within our means.
So while today's crisis management makes a certain amount of sense, returning to the borrow-and-spend status quo afterward seems like a disastrous idea. If the U.S. is to have a future as an economic power, its long love affair with borrowed money has to end.

And so our race for a bigger and better Quality of Life has become a death march.

Two weeks ago, we had a huge windstorm in Cincinnati. Most areas lost power for days. But I've heard a lot of people talking about the good things that came out of it--Neighbors got to know each other; families played games together; we were all forced to slow down and interact with people, instead of wasting all of our free time in front of televisions and computers.

Maybe McMansions, SUVs, and HDTVs aren't the secret to happiness after all.

I believe that there's a better way to live.

About two years ago, I lost my job, and we lost 50% of our household income. I immediately rushed into another job, earning less than half of what I had been making.

It was not a good job. It was juvenile and frustrating, but I stuck to it. It took a couple of other life crises to bring me to the point where I was broken enough to quit.

The thought of being unemployed terrified me. I was afraid of fighting with my husband about money, I was afraid of losing our house, and I was afraid that my career was in a downward spiral, circling the drain. My sense of self-worth was totally tied up in the idea of earning a six-figure income.

I have to believe that the past two and a half years have been God's way of showing me that that's not what my life is supposed to be about.

You know what? Saying "God has a Plan" is just too glib, too simplistic. These two and a half years have been SO hard. I had been worried about a financial crisis, but I wound up in a crisis of faith.

I felt like every single time I got back on my feet and started moving forward, another door would be slammed in my face. I said that to my husband several months ago, and a few of weeks later, I found a couple of quotes from C.S. Lewis saying exactly the same thing:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be--or so it feels--welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, 'So there's no God after all,' but, 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'

He's talking about the death of his beloved wife. I was grieving for my personal goals and dreams. (How crazy is that?) Fortunately, the story doesn't end there:
Your bid--for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity--will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man--or at any rate a man like me--out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.

And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: You are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

The analogy is perfect. You have to be so exhausted, so very nearly dead, that you stop struggling and go limp, and that's when God can finally start to turn things around. That's exactly what a crisis of faith feels like.

So in the meantime, my husband and I had to cut back on ways that we were spending money. We had to give up going to Hawaii and the ski trips out West that we had been doing every year. We ate out less, and we didn't buy new clothes. I started getting books from the public library, instead of spending hundreds of dollars at Barnes & Noble. My husband deferred a lot things that he wanted to do--taking a sabbatical to finish the basement, buying woodworking equipment, purchasing an HDTV, etc.

But here's the crazy thing: We didn't really miss most of those things. And we didn't fight over money, and we didn't have to sell our house. (My husband deserves full credit for that, because he's the one who insisted on using conservative estimates for our income when we first established our budget for building the house five years ago.)

And three months ago, I wound up with a job that is a hundred times better than anything I could ever have imagined. I'm only earning about a third of the salary that I was making before, but I'm not wasting my life feeling tired, and anxious, and stressed out all the time.

I'd love to say that the story ends here. "And we lived happily ever after." But that would be glib and simplistic too.

I still have hopes and dreams that may go unfulfilled. I still struggle with thoughts like, "God, if you love me, why won't you give me the one last thing that I so desperately want?" I still have bouts of self-pity and depression. And it's still really hard for me to accept that I'm not the One in control of the Plan for my life.

So I guess you'll just have to stay tuned...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The How's & Why's of the Financial Crisis

There's a fantastic story on NPR about the process that caused the current credit crisis. I highly recommend reading the entire transcript, or you can go to this website and click on the "Full Episode" link to listen to the piece online.

In a nutshell, here's how it goes:

1. The "Global Pool of Money" essentially doubled from 2000 to 2006. Global investors were looking for safe ways to make a reasonable profit on investing this money. Since the US government was keeping interest rates low on treasury bonds, these investors started looking for other places to invest that money.

Adam Davidson: How does the world get twice as much money to invest? Lots of things happened, but the main headline is all sorts of poor countries became kind of rich making TVs and selling us oil: China, India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia. Made a lot of money and banked it. China, for example, has over a trillion dollars in its central bank, and there are office buildings in Beijing filled with math geniuses-- real math geniuses-- looking for a place to invest it. And the world was not ready for all this money. There's twice as much money looking for investments, but there are not twice as many good investments. So, that global army of investment managers was hungrier and twitchier than ever before. They all wanted the same thing: A nice low risk investment that paid some return...

Think how attractive a mortgage loan is to that 70 trillion dollar pool of money. Remember, they're desperate to get any kind of interest return. They want to beat that miserable 1 percent interest Greenspan is offering them. And here are these homeowners, they're paying 5, 7, 9 percent to borrow money from some bank. So what if the global pool could get in on that action?

2. Banks and mortgage brokers discovered that they could bundle mortgages together and sell them as securities.

Adam Davidson: There are problems. Individual mortgages are too big a hassle for the global pool of money. They don't want to get mixed up with actual people and their catastrophic health problems or debilitating divorces, and all the reasons which might stop them from paying their mortgages. So what Mike [Francis] and his peers on Wall Street did, was to figure out how to give the global pool of money all the benefits of a mortgage-– basically higher yield-- without the hassle or the risk.

So picture the whole chain. You have Clarence. He gets a mortgage from a broker. The broker sells the mortgage to a small bank, the small bank sells the mortgage to a guy like Mike at a big investment firm on Wall Street. Then Mike takes a few thousand mortgages he’s bought this way, he puts them in one big pile. Now he’s got thousands of mortgage checks coming to him every month. It’s a huge monthly stream of money, which is expected to come in for the next thirty years, the life of a mortgage. And he then sells shares of that monthly income to investors. Those shares are called mortgage backed securities. And the 70 trillion dollar global pool of money loved them.

3. The demand for these mortgage backed securities became huge, and brokers got creative in finding ways to supply Wall Street with new mortgages.

Alex Blumberg: So Wall Street had to find more people to take out mortgages. Which meant lending to people who never would’ve qualified before. And so Mike noticed that every month, the guidelines were getting a little looser. Something called a stated income, verified asset loan came out, which meant you didn't have to provide paycheck stubs and W-2 forms, as they had in the past. You could simply state your income, as long as you showed that you had money in the bank.

Mike Garner: The next guideline lower is just stated income, stated assets. Then you state what you make and state what’s in your bank account. They call and make sure you work where you say you work. Then an accountant has to say for your field it is possible to make what you said you make. But they don’t say what you make, just say it’s possible that they could make that...

Then the next one came along, and it was no income, verified assets. So you don't have to tell the people what you do for a living. You don’t have to tell the people what you do for work. All you have to do is state you have a certain amount of money in your bank account. And then, the next one, is just no income, no asset. You don't have to state anything. You just have to have a credit score and a pulse.

Alex Blumberg: Actually that pulse thing-- Also optional. Like the case in Ohio where 23 dead people were approved for mortgages.

4. The mathematical models for the mortgage-backed securities said that they were safe, but the models were based on historical data, from previous decades when banks didn't give mortgages to people who couldn't afford them.

Adam Davidson: As we now know, they were using the wrong data. They looked at the recent history of mortgages and saw that foreclosure rate is generally below 2 percent. So they figured, absolute worst-case scenario, the foreclosure rate may go to 8 or 10 or 12 percent. But the problem with is there were all these new kinds of mortgages, given out to people who never would have gotten them before. So the historical data was irrelevant. Some mortgage pools, today, are expected to go beyond 50 percent foreclosure rates.

Alex Blumberg: To be fair, they knew there were risks. But investors have a system to assess those risks. They’re these special companies. Credit rating agencies. Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, Fitch. Their job, their main job, is to assess risk for Wall Street and the global pool of money. They rate every kind of bond according to its risk. Triple A is the safest, then there’s double A, single A, all the way down to single B and below. And that’s all most investors look at-- the letter grade. They trust the credit rating agencies. And these agencies blessed most of these mortgage-backed securities. Gave them AAA ratings, which means they were considered as safe as a US government bond. This was the magic of this whole system. You could take a pool of thousands of risky mortgages, and create a security that was called money-good, as safe as any investment out there. At least that's what people thought. But now we know those agencies relied on the wrong data. That same historic data that had nothing to do with these new kinds of mortgages.

5. And as if the mortgage-backed securities weren't risky enough, someone found a way to integrate even more risk into them by creating something called a Collateralized Debt Obligation.

Alex Blumberg: Let’s translate some of that. A mortgage-backed security, you remember, is a pool of thousands of different mortgages. These are all put together and divided into different slices. Jim [Finkel] used the word tranche. Tranche is just French for slice. Some of these slices are risky, some are not. OK, a CDO is a pool of those tranches. A pool of pools. And Jim and most companies like his weren’t buying the top-rated tranches-- the safest ones, the AAAs. They were buying the lower-rated stuff. The high-risk stuff. Jim’s company was buying tranches that came from Glen Pizzolorusso’s company. The guy who hung out at nightclubs with B-list celebrities. The guy who said he was selling mortgages to people who didn’t have a pot to piss in.

Adam Davidson: There's another term the industry uses, no joke, they call these lower-rated tranches toxic waste. They're so high-risk, they're toxic.

Alex Blumberg: So, a CDO is sort of a financial alchemy. Jim takes that toxic stuff, these low-rated, high-risk tranches, puts them all together. Re-tranches them, and presto: He has a CDO whose top tranche is rated AAA, rock-solid, good as money. If this seems too good to be true to you, you're in good company. Guys like billionaire investor Warren Buffet said the very logic was ridiculous. But back in 2005, 2006, the global pool of money couldn't get enough of these things. And the CDO industry was facing the same pressures everyone else was at every other step of this chain-- to loosen their standards; to make CDOs out of lower and lower rated pools.

6. From 2003 to 2006, more people were qualifying for bigger mortgages, and the increased demand for housing drove prices up, creating a bubble.

Alex Blumberg: The problem was that even though housing prices were going through the roof, people weren't making any more money. From 2000 to 2007, the median household income stayed flat. And so the more prices rose, the more tenuous the whole thing became. No matter how lax lending standards got, no matter how many exotic mortgage products were created to shoehorn people into homes they couldn't possibly afford, no matter what the mortgage machine tried, the people just couldn't swing it. By late 2006, the average home cost nearly four times what the average family made. Historically it was between two and three times. And mortgage lenders noticed something that they'd almost never seen before. People would close on a house, sign all the mortgage papers, and then default on their very first payment. No loss of a job, no medical emergency, they were underwater before they even started. And although no one could really hear it, that was probably the moment when one of the biggest speculative bubbles in American history popped.

7. And now that the bubble has burst, no one wants to take a risk on any mortgage-backed securities.

Alex Blumberg: Tonko Gast estimates that most of AAA rated mortgage-backed CDO's that the industry created since 2006, are now worth less than half their value. Some are worth close to zero. But remember to all the investment managers in the global pool of money who bought them, AAA meant safe as government bonds. AAA was called a cash equivalent, money in the bank. It's as if the global pool of money put trillions of dollars in a savings account, came back one year later, and found out that half was gone. Put another way, it's as if the global pool of money thought it was putting trillions of dollars in a savings account, but really, half of it was going into a furnace. The money is gone, burned up, never to come back. And that's what's led to the new term you've been hearing.

Adam Davidson: Maybe you've noticed that the press and others don't call it a sub-prime housing crisis as much anymore. They call it a credit crisis. The global pool of money still has no idea how much money they lost. How much went into the furnace. And because of that, they’ve totally changed their thinking. They used to be obsessed just with getting some profit, trying to make a slightly higher interest rate return. Now the global pool of money has the exact opposite obsession. It wants no risk whatsoever. It just wants safety. Suddenly, those US government treasury bonds-- still near historic lows of 1 and 2 percent-- are beautifully attractive. Because they're safe. They won't blow up like sub-prime CDOs did. The global pool of money is avoiding anything with even the slightest hint of risk and that affects everybody, no matter who you are. It's harder to borrow money to buy a house, or build a factory, or bring your country boldly into the 21st century...

This freezing of credit all around the world is something new, the world has never seen anything on this scale. When the crisis hit, last August, central bankers and finance economists couldn't figure out how bad things might get. There was this question people would ask: will things get like the 1930s or the 1970s? There was real fear that, just like in the '30s, hundreds of banks would collapse, there would be massive unemployment, there was talk of a new Great Depression.

So that's how we wound up here...

(Thanks to E!! for pointing me to Culture11, where I found the link to the NPR story.)

Facts of the Debate

So I watched the Presidential Debate last night. (Mostly for lack of anything better to do.)

Debates are known for being full of facts. Unfortunately, facts aren't the same as truths. Here are some basic truths:

  • All politicians have voted to raise taxes at some point or another.
  • (Because...)
  • All politicians are in the habit of spending more than the amount of revenue coming in.
  • (Because...)
  • The only way to get funding approved for their pet projects is to approve funding for everyone else's pet projects.

  • Everyone supports the troops and wants to bring them home as soon as possible. (Definitions of ASAP vary wildly.)

  • No one is especially happy with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran, or North Korea.

McCain claimed that he would try to eliminate wasteful spending by the government. I'm all in favor of that. Obama claimed that he would continue Bush's tax cuts for households making less than $250,000 per year. I'm all in favor of that too.

Like Obama, I think we should make changes so that more people have access to affordable health insurance, but I strongly agree with McCain that the government (aka the least effective way to do almost anything) should not be in charge of our healthcare system.

Overall, the debate included a lot of senseless bickering, accusations, and half-truths being thrown around at random, which doesn't help resolve anything. In a nutshell, the debate was exactly what I was expecting it to be.


I was kind of hoping for something different.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wind Power

Here's a short list of things I've seen in the past week, in approximate order:

  • Tornados of mulch, accompanied by the sensation of being inside a very dusty hairdryer

  • Traffic lights bouncing like popcorn

  • Our patio furniture sliding around the deck

  • Trees split in half down the middle, trees broken off at the trunk, trees uprooted from the ground, trees covering houses, tree limbs everywhere

  • Lots of houses with siding and roof shingles ripped off

  • Broken power lines, draped across streets and lawns like bedraggled party streamers

  • A couple of street signs bent over and/or uprooted from the ground

  • Gas stations with cars lined up around the corner

  • Mounds of tree limbs piled up along every street, waiting for the city trucks to come turn them into mulch

The official weather report and some photos can be found here, and there are plenty of other photos here.

Some basic stats about the effects that the windstorm had on Cincinnati:

  • By Sunday night, 90% of the greater Cincinnati area had lost power-- More than 700,000 homes and businesses.

  • By Monday night, that number stood at around 580,000 homes and businesses without power.

  • On Wednesday night, more than 15% of the homes and businesses in the Cincinnati area still did not have power.

  • All of the Cincinnati Public Schools were closed for at least 3 days. Some schools were closed for the entire week.

  • As of Friday afternoon, 5 days after the storm hit, 125,000 homes were still without power.

Whoever thought we'd spend a week recovering from Hurricane Ike?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Math, in the Blink of an Eye

As someone who has studied a lot of math, I find this article intriguing.

Be sure to check out the fun little "blink and you'll miss it" counting test that is referenced in the article.

I believe that our ability to do math probably involves several different areas of the brain. I can do calculus, but for me, it mostly just involves following the rules. On the other hand, anything involving geometry has always been very intuitive for me-- I can easily visualize Statics, Kinematics, and Dynamics problems in 2-D, or even 3-D.

SIDEBAR: For the non-engineers in the audience:

  • Statics = How loads are distributed through (hopefully) non-moving objects like bridges.

  • Kinematics = How mechanisms (like levers and gears) move.

  • Dynamics = How things accelerate and impact other things.

My master's thesis involved developing a computer program to calculate the forces and moments generated at the shoulder due to dynamic, 3-dimensional arm movements.

But I can't do basic math in my head to save my life.

My husband can do all sorts of calculations in his head, while I'm lucky to be able to add one two-digit number to another. An average fifth grader could easily beat me in a multiplication time-test.

It only makes sense to say that there must be several different types of "math" which are processed by different areas in the brain. Surely everyone has strengths and weaknesses in different areas.

Unfortunately, lots of kids get turned off by math at an early age. (I hated math in 4th & 5th grades.) Maybe there are people who would have discovered an unexpected gift for calculus, but they gave up after struggling through algebra and geometry? It makes you wonder...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hurricane Ike

We got pounded by the remnants of Hurricane Ike yesterday. We had virtually no rain, but a furious windstorm all afternoon, which brought down trees all over the city. As of last night, 90% of the greater Cincinnati area was without power, and the statistics haven't improved radically today.

Frankly, I'm not sure why Cincinnati isn't being mentioned on the national news, except that it may be just too hard to explain how a hurricane can do so much damage in the Midwest.

Obviously, we're pretty happy to have power back on at our house, but there are still plenty of other areas that are waiting. (We lost power from 2:30pm yesterday afternoon until about 3:30pm today.)


In Hamilton Country, the "tornado" sirens are activated anytime there's a Severe Thunderstorm Warning in our area. The sirens are also activated if the conditions are upgraded to a Tornado Watch or a Tornado Warning.

Now you might be asking, "How do you figure out what the sirens mean?"

Well, we turn on the TV (assuming that we still have electricity) to see what the weathermen are saying.

You might say, "But if it's a Tornado Warning, that means that you should be heading for the basement. IMMEDIATELY."

That's a very valid point, and I have no good answer to that, except to say that it would be extremely silly and pointless to run to the basement every time the siren goes off.

You might suggest, "Maybe they should only activate the 'tornado' sirens if there's actually a Tornado Warning."

Another very valid point. Hamilton County says that the sirens are meant to act as a warning that conditions aren't safe outside and people need to seek shelter indoors.

Here's my thought: If there's thunder and lightening and a torrential downpour outside, I would hope that people would have enough sense to come in out of the rain. (And if not, they're probably good candidates for a Darwin Award, and who are we to interfere with their destiny?)

Now returning to the main topic...

So yesterday, we had a swirling, howling windstorm. Gusts were frequently in the 60-80 mph range. I was outside for maybe 20 minutes of it, and let me just tell you that the flying dust and debris alone were potentially blinding, literally, not to mention the risks of being injured or killed by falling trees and limbs.

The storm went on for five hours, and the emergency sirens were never activated.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Donald Miller - To Own A Dragon

Today I read To Own A Dragon by Donald Miller, the author of Blue Like Jazz.

It's an awesome book. Wonderful in every sense of the world. The first three chapters blew me away. Funny, profound, and beautiful prose.

Here's a paragraph that I can especially relate to:
I say this because there aren't many pleasures I enjoy more than sleep. I sleep till I am done, normally, and haven't set an alarm in years. I'm not lazy, mind you, I just find it odd anybody would program a machine to wake them. God made the brain so it would wake on its own, and as a follower of Jesus, I am a strict adherent to His system. Call me a fundamentalist if you want.

The book was written for guys who have grown up without fathers, but everyone should read this book-- If you had a difficult relationship with your father, if you have a friend who has grown up without a father, or if you are in a position to be a mentor to a fatherless child, then you will be inspired by this book.

In addition to being a great author, Donald Miller is also a founder of The Belmont Foundation. Their goal is to establish long-term mentoring relationships for fatherless boys.
In the United States, there are more than 11 million children being raised by a single parent. Of those, roughly 85% are being raised by single mothers.

According to the information in the back of the book, children from fatherless homes account for:

  • 85% of all youths in prison (20X the average)

  • 71% of all high school dropouts (9X)

  • 63% of youth suicides (5X)

They're also 20X more likely to show behavior disorders and 9-10X more likely to wind up in a chemical abuse center or state institution.

Mentoring can change these odds dramatically.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Seven Years

First off, let me just say that I don't agree with most of the things that Ann Coulter says. Ditto for Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, etc. As a general rule, I have a strong distaste for shock-jock mentality, including inflammatory news and radio programs on both sides of the political divide.

That being said, I have to admit that Ann Coulter's column for 9/11, BUSH 7, TERRORISTS 0, raises some pretty good points:
As many have pointed out, the reason elected officials tend to neglect infrastructure projects, like reinforcing levees in New Orleans and bridges in Minneapolis, is that there's no glory when a bridge doesn't collapse. There are no round-the-clock news specials when the levees hold. You can't even name an overpass retrofitting project after yourself -- it just looks too silly. But everyone's taxes go up to pay for the reinforcements.

Preventing another terrorist attack is like that. There is no media coverage when another 9/11 doesn't happen. We can thank God that President George Bush didn't care about doing the safe thing for himself; he cared about keeping Americans safe. And he has, for seven years.

If Bush's only concern were about his approval ratings, like a certain impeached president I could name, he would not have fought for the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. He would not have resisted the howling ninnies demanding that we withdraw from Iraq, year after year. By liberals' own standard, Bush's war on terrorism has been a smashing, unimaginable success.


The ferocity of the left's attacks on Bush even scared many of his conservative allies into turning on him over the war in Iraq.

George Bush is Gary Cooper in the classic western "High Noon." The sheriff is about to leave office when a marauding gang is coming to town. He could leave, but he waits to face the killers as all his friends and all the townspeople, who supported him during his years of keeping them safe, slowly abandon him. In the end, he walks alone to meet the killers, because someone has to.

That's Bush. Name one other person in Washington who would be willing to stand alone if he had to, because someone had to.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again--

I respect politicians who are willing to take a stand on an issue because they firmly believe that it's the right thing to do, even though I may disagree completely with their opinions.

I believe that both Obama and McCain meet this criteria. I may not agree with either of them on every issue, but I do believe that they're both trying to act in the long-term best interests of our country. (And the reason why I have never had any respect for either of the Clintons is because they constantly pursue only their own short-term self-interests.)

So given the fact that I actually respect both of the Presidential candidates, I just wish that they would campaign based on a constructive dialog about real issues. It would be nice to see candidates demonstrate this kind of dignity all the time, and not just on momentous occasions.

Obama is not a celebutant, and owning a CrackBerry isn't a prerequisite for being a good president. That's just silliness. Why can't they see that these kinds of snide attacks are demeaning to both the attacker and the attackee?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Evolution of English

The pastor at my church is notorious for accidentally using non-words during his sermons. Or, to put it another way, he's very adept at constructing new words.

(It all depends on your point-of-view about the evolutionary nature of the English language.)

So today, he came up with the word "correlarities." As in,
noun: Things that tend to be associated with each other.


What's not so obvious is why this word doesn't already exist. It's a pretty useful word, and its construction is consistent with other "real" words. So why not?

Several years ago, I met a student from Germany who just raved about how much he loved the flexibility of English.
"You're free to turn any noun into a verb, and any verb into a noun. You can say something like, 'This book is a real page-turner,' and you know exactly what that expression means. If you wanted to say something like that in German, it would be 14 syllables long!"

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Importance of Mentoring

From a Newsweek article called The Trouble With Boys:
One of the most reliable predictors of whether a boy will succeed or fail in high school rests on a single question: does he have a man in his life to look up to? Too often, the answer is no. High rates of divorce and single motherhood have created a generation of fatherless boys. In every kind of neighborhood, rich or poor, an increasing number of boys--now a startling 40 percent--are being raised without their biological dads.

Psychologists say that grandfathers and uncles can help, but emphasize that an adolescent boy without a father figure is like an explorer without a map. And that is especially true for poor boys and boys who are struggling in school. Older males, says Gurian, model self-restraint and solid work habits for younger ones. And whether they're breathing down their necks about grades or admonishing them to show up for school on time, "an older man reminds a boy in a million different ways that school is crucial to their mission in life."

In the past, boys had many opportunities to learn from older men. They might have been paired with a tutor, apprenticed to a master or put to work in the family store. High schools offered boys a rich array of roles in which to exercise leadership skills--class officer, yearbook editor or a place on the debate team. These days, with the exception of sports, more girls than boys are involved in those activities.

In neighborhoods where fathers are most scarce, the high-school dropout rates are shocking: more than half of African-American boys who start high school don't finish. David Banks, principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men, one of four all-boy public high schools in the New York City system, wants each of his 180 students not only to graduate from high school but to enroll in college. And he's leaving nothing to chance. Almost every Eagle Academy boy has a male mentor--a lawyer, a police officer or an entrepreneur from the school's South Bronx neighborhood. The impact of the mentoring program, says Banks, has been "beyond profound." Tenth grader Rafael Mendez is unequivocal: his mentor "is the best thing that ever happened to me." Before Rafael came to Eagle Academy, he dreamed about playing pro baseball, but his mentor, Bronx Assistant District Attorney Rafael Curbelo, has shown him another way to succeed: Mendez is thinking about attending college in order to study forensic science.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Images of God


I have to say that I love reading absolutely every article that Rabbi Marc Gellman writes.

Here's a quote from his article on prejudice that was just published in Newsweek:
A story: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was walking down the street one day trailed by many of his students. Suddenly he stopped, looked across the street and asked his students, 'Who is that walking there across the street?'

They looked and said to him, 'Rebbe, it's no one. That's just Moshele, the water drawer, walking across the street. He's nobody.'

Reb Nachman shouted at them, 'You are no longer my students until you can look across any street and see any person and say to me, 'O that is the image of God walking there'.'

Talk about a challenge...

We all have prejudices. We all devalue other people for various reasons.

I'm not prejudiced against John McCain because of his age, or Barak Obama because he's black, or even Hillary Clinton because she's a woman. (I don't respect her, but it's for the very same reason that I don't respect her husband, so clearly it has nothing to do with her gender.)

However, I am quick to pre-judge the people in the cars in front of me. Clearly, he's a jerk for changing lanes like that. Obviously, she's an idiot for talking on the phone and not paying attention to where she's going. And surely I'm not seeing them as being made in the image of God.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Rust Belt

I spent 5.5 hours in the car today, and here are two things that I realized along the way:

  • I established a new personal benchmark for the western-most point that I have driven to. And I'm really not all that far west-- I'm in Chicago. (But until today, the farthest west that I had ever driven was Indianapolis, which is a scant 1.5 hours from Cincinnati.)

    I've been here a couple of other times, but I've always flown before. Ditto for every point west of here.

  • I have a special place in my heart for Rust Belt cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. (I'm sure it stems from the 5 years I spent in Cleveland.)

There's just something unique about Rust Belt cities-- They're unpretentious, but they have a sort of sturdiness and just a hint of swagger to them. They have a confidence that comes from knowing their purpose:

They make stuff.

These cities weren't built on marketing, finance, government, entertainment, or tourism. They were built on a foundation of manufacturing. And even though the foundations have crumbled in some areas, the Rust Belt cities retain the special traits that they developed along the way. They're still proud of their solid work ethic, and they've accumulated a rich cultural diversity from centuries of immigration. In my opinion, these are some of the best qualities of America.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Demotivational Favorites

Saw this comic in the newspaper today, and it reminded me of something that my friend T would say.

It's also a very appropriate introduction to some of my favorite posters from Despair, Inc.

  • Motivation - I wonder if they have motivational posters in India?

  • Government - Or, as I like to say, "Government is the least effective way to do just about anything."

  • Beauty - Because everyone knows at least one person like this.

  • Pressure - Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt.

  • Teamwork - My all-time favorite, and so completely relevant to being on ski patrol.

  • Destiny - For Hubs, because I know he's reading this!

P.S. Their t-shirts are also brilliant.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

An Age of Lies

So let me make sure I've got this straight...

Over the course of 25-30 years, Mao's lies caused the deaths at least 40 million of his own people and now we're supposed to be shocked by the idea that the Chinese government might have fibbed about the ages of their Olympic Gymnasts?

OK, that's what I thought.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A pig-lizard kind of day...

I love Galaxy Quest. It's such an underrated classic. There are so many great quotes that it's hard to pick a favorite. But today, I'm going to have to go with the pig-lizard scene.

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, Tim Allen's character is on an alien planet, about to get killed by a rock monster, while the rest of his crewmates have returned to the ship. They want to rescue him by teleporting him up to the ship, but they've never used the equipment before. So they decide to see what happens if they teleport the pig-lizard animal that was used as bait for the rock monster...

From Wikiquote:
[Fred has tested the "digital conveyor" teleportation device on a pig-lizard that was chasing Jason Nesmith, but the pig-lizard has been horribly mutilated by the process.]
Jason Nesmith: [over the comm] What was that?
Alexander Dane: Uh, nothing.
Jason Nesmith: I heard some squealing or something.
Gwen DeMarco: No, everything is fine.
Teb: [cheerfully] But the animal is inside out.
[Gwen quickly tries to cover Teb's mouth]
Jason Nesmith: I heard that! It got turned inside out?
[The pig-lizard bursts, spattering the area with gore. Some of it lands on Teb.]
Teb: [unphased] And it exploded...
Jason Nesmith: Did I just hear that the animal turned inside out and then exploded!?!
Gwen DeMarco: [distressed] Um... hold, please.

So I've been working on a kinematic model for several weeks now. It's supposed to be a sales demo for a potential customer. They provided me with CAD files and information on their spring properties, etc. For some reason, I just haven't been able to get realistic results from the model.

After several rounds of back-and-forth with the Design Engineer, I finally learn that they're in the middle of changing vendors, and the information that I've been given is a mish-mash of data from the "old" design and the "new" design. So I've spent most of today rebuilding the model. When I tried to delete one of the "old" components and replace it with the "new" component, the model turned inside out.

And then it exploded.

And of course, as I was in the middle of making the change, I thought to myself, "I should really make a back-up file, in case this doesn't work correctly." The problem is that I had that thought just one minute too late. So I lost several hours worth of work, and now I get to do it all over again.

And it's my own damn fault.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Pandora's iPod

This is brilliant.

I got it on my iPod touch, but it's also available on your computer. Now I've just got to figure out how to get it in my car!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Working from Home

Back in June, I started working for a small engineering software company.

Really small. I am Employee #7.

My salary is much lower than what I was earning at my Corporate job, by a factor of about 1/3. But there are some key benefits that are worth far more than money ever could mean to me:

  • I'll own a stake in the company, and I can see how my hard work will contribute to the company's success.

  • I have the rare privilege of doing meaningful work for an ethical manager.

    After my own work experiences and witnessing all the struggles that several of my friends have gone through in the past few years, I started to believe that good jobs just didn't exist. So now I'm especially grateful to have a job where my boss respects me and I actually enjoy the work I'm doing. I get to do real engineering, without the paperwork and bureaucracy and politics that consumed 80-90% of my time at my previous jobs.

  • I get "six or seven weeks" of vacation!!! (My boss wasn't worried about the details when he offered me the job.)

    When I was working for the big Corporation, I had to use some of my precious vacation days to run errands or even to take a nap. Now that I have a flexible work schedule, I have no real need for six or seven weeks of vacation. My husband gets four weeks, so that's pretty much the upper limit for us to travel anyway. The real beauty of the whole situation is that I'm free from the stupid pettiness of tracking and hoarding half-days of vacation.

  • I get to work from home!!!

    In fact, the company has no central headquarters. Everyone works from home, and we're scattered across the country-- Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa, and Colorado. (Future-Employee #8 lives in California.) We communicate with each other mostly by email and IMs, and our weekly staff meetings are on IRC. Sure, there are times when it would be easier if we could communicate face to face, instead of using GoToMeeting. But the upside of working from home is that there are fewer distractions-- no coworkers talking on their speakerphones, no need to trek to various ends of the building several times a day, and no mandatory meetings consuming 10-20 hours every week. I feel far, far more productive than I ever did living in cube-land.

    SIDEBAR: In my not-so humble opinion, cubicles may be one of the most evil, demoralizing inventions of all time. And don't even get me started on the new trend toward lower walls...

I've got to tell you, I really LOVE working from home. There are too many benefits to list them all, but here are some of my favorites:

  • I finally have an office with a window and a door. It's comfortable in a way that a cubicle could never, ever be.

  • I get to bring my dog to work with me. She naps under my desk while I'm working.

  • I sleep an hour later every day, and now I don't wake up every morning feeling like I've been hit by a truck! (I never realized how chronically sleep-deprived I really was.)

  • I can wear comfortable clothes, and I don't have to put on make-up or do my hair if I don't feel like it.

  • I eat healthier food for lunch, because now I'm not choosing between fast food or the cafeteria. There are no french fries in my kitchen, so I don't have to deal with that temptation at lunch time!

  • I have the flexibility to volunteer more of my time for things I feel passionate about (like getting 60 inner-city kids organized to go to camp) and I can go to yoga classes in the middle of the day. In fact, I usually work at my church on Thursdays-- Free coffee, free wireless, and free yoga!

In thinking about working from home, it occurred to me that for thousands of years, people worked in or near their homes. Whatever their trade or profession might be, they worked within walking distance of their homes. For many workers, it was normal to go home in the middle of the day for lunch and maybe even a siesta. So why on earth did we ever accept that a "normal" day should include an hour or more of road-rage and 8-10 hours spent sitting in a cube?

In the immortal words of Peter Gibbons:
We don't have a lot of time on this earth! We weren't meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Generation X turns to Generation Y and says, "Quoi?"

Great article in Newsweek: When Should Parents Stop Paying the Rent?

According to Wikipedia, Generation X includes people born between 1965 and 1980. Generation Y covers the years between 1980 -1994.

Sometimes a few years make all the difference. I am clearly a Gen Xer, while my younger sister (1980) and brother (1981) fit the Generation Y profile.

The difference being: My peers don't have parents subsidizing their lifestyles. Instead, Gen Xers are overwhelmed with debt-- from credit cards, mortgages, car payments, and the last few years of payments on our student loans. A completely different form of financial irresponsibility.

I blame it all on the Baby Boomers.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Nerds & Geeks

There's an Op-Ed article in The New York Times that begs the question: What's the difference between a nerd and a geek?

According to the article (and my dictionary), "nerd" was originally used for someone who was book-smart but lacking in social skills, while a "geek" was just socially inept. But the author suggests that the terms have shifted somewhat in recent years, and based on my personal experience, I have to agree.

My spin on the difference between the two is that a nerd is intelligent but boring, and therefore often solitary. A geek, on the other hand, is smart and yet "differently abled" in the social arena. i.e. Geeks have passions, which they share with other geeks. It's just that our areas of interest are not the same as mainstream culture.

Regardless of the subtleties, it's obvious that the guy who wrote the article knows my husband:
At first, a nerd was a geek with better grades. The word described a high-school or college outcast who was persecuted by the jocks, preps, frat boys and sorority sisters. Nerds had their own heroes (Stan Lee of comic book fame), their own vocations (Dungeons & Dragons), their own religion (supplied by George Lucas and “Star Wars”) and their own skill sets (tech support)...

Among adults, the words “geek” and “nerd” exchanged status positions. A nerd was still socially tainted, but geekdom acquired its own cool counterculture. A geek possessed a certain passion for specialized knowledge, but also a high degree of cultural awareness and poise that a nerd lacked.

Today, my husband and 4 of his friends are camped out in our kitchen, playing BattleTech for 8 or 10 hours. My husband is wearing the t-shirt that I gave to him for Christmas:

'Nuff said.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Correlation, or Causality?

(Just wanted to share another brilliant gestalt from indexed!)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

100th Post

According to Blogger, this is my 100th blog post.

That's a pretty big milestone, so I guess I should mark this occasion by writing something significant. I should expound on some important humanitarian topic, or summarize what I've learned about Life, the Universe, and Everything, or maybe talk about how blogging has changed the world.

But instead, I think I'll quote from my very first blog post:
So here I am. Now what?

Because, after all, that quote is as true today as it was 3+ years ago. I still have no idea why I'm writing this blog. It's certainly not to attract mass readership, since I suspect that only 3 people in the world (counting myself) read what I write here.

And that's OK.

What I have discovered along the way is that I write for myself. I use this blog to recognize wonders and celebrate special occasions, to mark moments in time, to mourn losses and vent frustrations, to clarify my own thoughts, and to integrate interesting ideas from other people into my own perspective. Sure, there are times when I want to share these things with other people, but those moments are the exception rather than the rule.

I think that most bloggers, if we're being honest, would have to admit that, at its heart, blogging is a self-centered activity. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dang. I just realized that I really screwed up. I was intending to make fun of the "100th Post" milestone by writing something short and flippant.

Oh, well, maybe next time...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Education is a Passport

Don't get me wrong— I like Cincinnati, and I think it's a great place to live. But to make my case today, I'm obligated to present some unpleasant facts about our city:

  • Crime - Cincinnati is significantly worse than the national average for almost every type of crime. We have more prisoners than we have jail space, so we farm some of them out to another county. We don't trust our local government to spend money effectively, so we vote (repeatedly) against a tax levy to build a new jail.

    When police patrol high crime areas, people complain that innocent people are being harassed or harmed by the police. When police don't patrol high crime areas, people complain that the city doesn't care about victims in poor neighborhoods.

  • Poverty - Cincinnati has been ranked as the 3rd poorest big city in the United States, with 28% of its residents living in poverty. We have a higher percentage of people living in poverty than Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago. Two-thirds (66%) of the students in Cincinnati Public Schools are classified as "economically-disadvantaged."

  • Racial Issues - Cincinnati is a black and white city; African-Americans aren't really a minority group here. The racial breakdown for people living in the city of Cincinnati is approximately 43% African-American and 53% white. In Cincinnati Public Schools, 75% of students are African-American or multi-racial, and 21% are white.

    However, Cincinnati neighborhoods are generally segregated by race, and in this instance, separate is clearly not equal: The median incomes for Mt. Adams, Hyde Park, Mt. Lookout are roughly ten times the median incomes for Winton Hill, the West End, and Over-the-Rhine.

  • Traffic - OK, so I'll admit that, in the grand scheme of things, traffic is not one of the most significant problems that Cincinnati faces. In fact, it's way down at the bottom of the list, in tiny print. It's easy to get frustrated by traffic, but we really ought to be ten times more frustrated by the tremendous waste of human talent that is embedded in all of the statistics about poverty and crime in Cincinnati.

A few years ago, I happened to overhear a local talk-radio program. The hosts and the callers were bemoaning the problems with Cincinnati. I don't remember if they were talking about poverty, or crime, or racism, or some combination, but I do remember thinking, "Yeah, so you've got a strong opinion and a loud voice, but what are you DOING to make things better?" At that moment, I became 100% convinced of one thing:

An opinion is worthless unless there are actions backing it up.

I believe that you shouldn't complain about a problem unless you're willing to be part of the solution. (Admittedly, I fail to live up to this belief on a regular basis, but nevertheless, there it is.) It's both arrogant and irrelevant for me to take part in intellectual debates about all the things that are wrong with Cincinnati, unless I'm actively trying to do something to make things better.

So what are some potential solutions for crime, poverty, and racism? And how can we participate in those solutions?

  • We can expect our government to solve these problems. They'll continue to hire more police officers, build more jails, and lock up more people. They'll pass out more welfare checks, subsidize more housing, and pass more laws and quotas for affirmative action programs. We participate in this solution by paying taxes and complaining about how much money is being wasted. Because this method has worked so well in the past...

  • We can hope that non-profit organizations will scrounge up money from somewhere, so that they can pay their employees to solve these problems. Our participation could consist of [grudgingly] allowing our employers to withhold a pittance from each paycheck as part of their corporate United Way goals, or maybe we send a check to a particular agency once a year. The NPO's build lots of roads paved with good intentions, which certainly help lead some people out of poverty. Yet somehow the statistics continue to show that a little bit of ground is lost each year.

  • We can try to influence the hearts and minds of adults who have given up on all of their personal dreams, who don't have hopes for their kids, and who don't see any point in trying to improve their neighborhoods and communities. I believe that this approach could work, but personally, I haven't seen very many opportunities to get involved in this way.

  • We can step up and get involved with kids and try to change the path of their lives, so that they grow up to help solve problems, instead of following the statistical trends for crime and poverty. We tell them that education is important, and we show them where it can take them.

Working with kids just seems like the most obvious choice for me. At the very least, it's a solution that I can easily participate in— I can personally effect change by getting involved in a kid's life, and I can encourage other people to do the same. Even if we don't see 100% improvement, we will certainly see some progress in every kid, and that's just got to be better than doing nothing at all. And it's easy to get involved in these sorts of programs. Here are three examples I can recommend:
So if you agree with my conclusion, please don't use "But I don't know how to get involved" as an excuse. Contact one of these agencies and they'll quickly get you hooked up with a kid. I promise, it's easier than you think.

This is a long post, and I've been working on it for about a month now. An article on thug culture got me thinking about what I wanted to say, and then I stumbled across some quotes from Bill Cosby's speech on the 50th anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education:
I mean, this is the future, and all of these people who lined up and done, they’ve got to be wondering what the hell happened. Brown V. Board of Education. These people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education, and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English.

I know that you all know it. I just want to get you as angry as you ought to be.

When you walk around the neighborhood and you see this stuff, that stuff’s not funny. These people are not funny anymore. And that‘s not my Brother. And that’s not my Sister. They’re faking, and they’re dragging me way down because the state, the city, and all these people have to pick up the tab on them, because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education...

...I’m telling you Christians, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you hit the streets? Why can’t you clean it out yourselves? It’s our time now, ladies and gentlemen. It is our time. And I’ve got good news for you. It’s not about money. It’s about you doing something that we ordinarily do— Get in somebody else’s business. It’s time for you to not accept the language that these people are speaking, which will take them nowhere. What the hell good is Brown V. Board of Education if nobody wants it?

In addition to giving several speeches along these lines, Bill Cosby has written a book with his friend Alvin F. Poussaint, who is a Psychiatry Professor at Harvard Medical School. The book is called Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. I picked it up at the library last week, and I think it's very good. Not funny, but definitely honest and challenging.

The book contains a quote from former Cincinnati mayor Dwight Tillery:
The high school graduation rate in Cincinnati for black males is 25 percent, compared to 43 percent for white males.

Those numbers shocked me, so I did a little bit of research and found out that there's been some significant progress for Cincinnati Public Schools in the past 7-8 years. According to the latest data, the overall four-year* graduation rate has increased from 51% in 2000 to 79% in 2007.

[*NOTE: Four-year graduation rates don't reflect kids who drop out before 9th grade. Tillery's statistics are specific to males, and they may or may not include boys who never made it to high school.]

While a 20% drop-out rate leaves plenty of room for improvement, Cincinnati Public Schools (and the Gates Foundation) deserve credit for the overall progress that they've made in a relatively short period of time. They also managed to eliminate the gap in graduation rates between blacks and whites, which is a huge accomplishment.

Bill Cosby's book also includes this quote from Malcolm X:
Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.

I think that's a great metaphor. What happens if you arrive somewhere new and different without a passport? Customs agents will turn you around and send you back where you came from.

Many of the kids in the Cincinnati Public School system know all about poverty, violence, and drugs, but they don't know anything about the world that exists outside their neighborhoods. They may sense that there is a gateway out there, but they also know that there are guards who are waiting to turn them away at the door. They need a passport to get through.

What we can do for kids is show them views of the big world that's out there waiting for them: interesting jobs and careers, opportunities to travel, healthy communities, stable families, comfortable homes, and financial security. And then we show them how to get a passport that will open doors for them: learn how to study, stay in school, work hard, develop technical skills or earn a degree, start a career.

I believe that education is a passport into a world of opportunity, and I believe that every kid needs someone who can show them how to get that passport.