Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in San Antonio

I have often read of peaceful and quiet Christmas interludes. One person, alone, in the still of a late Christmas eve or an early Christmas morn surveys a still and serene landscape. Often the ground is pristine white with snow and the heavens are clearly ablaze with brilliant stars. A time for introspection, for remembrance, for reverence.

Christmas time is generally different here in San Antonio. Our sub-tropical clime very rarely brings us snow; warm, muggy, and misty is often the natural backdrop for our holiday celebrations. The bustle and crowds of a city and dense suburban neighborhoods can push away the serene and the quiet. Still, the holiday season and Christmas time are a time for celebration, a time for family.

This evening I got a rare treat. A Christmas-eve cold front has brought a crisp, clear night to bless us. My dog and I walked our neighborhood at about 7:30 tonight and found the sky alight with stars; the heavy vehicle traffic on the freeway, one mile away, muffled—barely there; yards and eves ablaze with Christmas lights and decorations.

It was still. It was peaceful. For a few moments I could enjoy the chill weather, remember northern Christmases past, reflect on the heavens and the love and sacrifice of God’s own son for us. In this spirit, as we, my dog and I, returned to our home and the cozy Yule-time fire, Christmas future seemed very bright, indeed.

Merry Christmas to those who share my faith. Whatever your faith, I wish you all a Happy New Year and the very best for you and for yours. May peace be with you, now and always.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The U.S. Senate Health Control Plan...I mean Health "Care" Plan.

The only "entitlement" is life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equal treatment under the law. We PAY for everything else: police to protect us, highways to drive on, the FAA to monitor air safety, the schools that educate us, we that pay taxes pay for it all. The representatives who pass our laws? They are our employees, not vice-versa, we pay their salaries and expenses. When I show up sick at the ER and cannot pay, the rest of you will pay through taxes or higher insurance. There is no free lunch. I think health care is something that we, as a society, should choose to pay for. An online acquaintance put it to me this way through a quote from a renowned American Jurist: "I like paying taxes; with them, I buy civilization." -Oliver Wendell Holmes

Seems my opinions are considered strange by both extremes: I'd like to see a national single-payer system available for all (and I do mean all) which would include good health maintenance (including encouraging people to take appropriate responsibility for their own health -- liberal social engineering at its finest that this near-libertarian loves) as well as routine, emergency, and catastrophic care. This should be paid for through taxes, and it should be administered by a not-for-profit agency accountable to congress. All this, while at the same time allowing people who can and choose to do so to pay for care above and beyond -- like for purely cosmetic, experimental, or luxury-spa-type clinics and hospitals which are allowed to operate on a for-profit basis--call it a hybrid between public and privately funded systems. Our streets and highways are an analogy: The government (local, state, national) builds and maintains the roads with our tax money where we as individuals could not do so. Each person then can buy the compatible transportation module of his/her choice and means from many for-profit sources. I can drive my eco-friendly ultra-low-emissions econobox or a scooter while a person who can and wishes to pay more for the vehicle itself (and more in highway costs through sales taxes and fuel taxes) can drive the luxury boat of their choice. States run their own highway programs, meeting Federal standards. One difference from highway funds -- I'd like to see the states collect ALL the tax money for health care and manage the single-payer health care within their states -- meeting, of course, Federal standards. On the plus side, this builds incentive (and competition) for efficient management. On the minus side, it opens up more opportunities for fraud and would have to be closely monitored as we do now with the collection and management of employment taxes and sales taxes.

How about the Constitutional issues of requiring everyone to have coverage and the issues of how to fairly collect the taxes that would pay for universal health care? These are two topics worthy and needful of discussion on their own merit but are much too involved to touch here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Are we all racists?

The House has rebuked South Carolina's Republican U.S. Representative Joe Wilson for a breach of decorum. Not, apparently, simply because he broke decorum, but because he refused to publicly apologize to the House. Never mind that Mr. Wilson had apologized personally to the man he called a liar, and that man had graciously accepted his apology. Never mind that liberal House members have never apologized for booing our last president.

The Congressional Black Caucus has branded Mr. Wilson's act of calling President Obama a liar as an act of racism. Former president Jimmy Carter says that Mr. Wilson's comments are "based on racism." What is racist about one man calling another a liar? Would it have been an act of racism if President Obama had called Mr. Wilson rude, as did nearly everyone else? (Even Mr. Wilson admitted his act was rude). Would it have been a racist act if Mr. Wilson had called Kanye West a "jackass" as President Obama apparently did? Why must every unpleasant interaction between two people of different color be labeled a racist incident with assumed motives of hate when the same interaction between people of the same color is just a disagreement? Why must insecure and paranoid people imagine motives? And why do we, as a nation, allow them to make political hay of their own ignorant brayings? In the words of Rodney King, "Why can't we just all get along?"

Meanwhile, testing the truth of Brendan Behan's statement that "There is no such thing as bad publicity...", Mr. Wilson may be wearing the House's rebuke as a badge of honor. We note that his home state campaign contributions have surged by well over $1,000,000 in the past few days. Living in our society surely is not EZ.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Odds of dying...

Yahoo! News today published a story from about a "death calculator." Apparently a Web-based tool that allows you to enter various age and life-style data and the system will calculate your odds of dying. I'm sure there are disclaimers.

I don't need a calculator or computer to compute my odds of dying. Don't need any disclaimers. I'm confident that my odds of dying are 100%, and I'm fine with that! Why make things less EZ than they need to be?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Worse than not EZ, technology, I thought my friend, has let me down! No, worse, it has double crossed me -- all these creepy half-sentient entities ganging up!

I posted earlier about how my Garmin misled me and tried to get me lost in middle-America. Upon return home from the driving trip I have found:

My garage door remote has quit. Just quit.

We have three battery-operated clocks in the house. They were all dead when we got home.

My Facebook account has been "compromised" so was deactivated. Wish me luck in getting it back.

X-Marks decided to (first) delete all my bookmarks and dutifully synchronize the loss across all my PCs, then (second) decided to duplicate all of my re-entered bookmarks and dutifully synchronize that across all my PCs.

Tonight I tried to order a Pizza online. First, AT&T's DSL line gave me no service. An hour later, back online, neither Domino's nor Pizza Hut's web sites could find a store near my address. I have accounts with both companies and have ordered (successfully) pizzas from their web sites many times in the past. Domino's is 1 mile from my home. Pizza Hut is four blocks.

In my attempt to post this blog entry, I find that the Blogspot will not allow me to enter any labels (tags) for this post except ones that I have used in the past. So don't blame me if the tags make no sense.

Aaarrrgh!! What is going on? Why can't anything be EZ?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

More on speed enforcement and driving styles.

Tennessee takes the prize for the most troopers seen per mile. I counted up to a dozen and then lost count. There was a trooper in the median every few miles, unless they had a car pulled over. We did not see much enforcement in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, or Kentucky. Entering Arkansas, there is a sign posted that states that the speed limit is enforced and there is "No Tolerance." Well, the one trooper we did see in Arkansas seemed to tolerate my 78 in a 70 zone just fine. We'll be back in Texas tomorrow, so it feels like home turf.

On driving conditions and driving styles. The worst part of the drive so far: I-94 Southeast of St. Paul and into Wisconsin. Two lanes each way, horribly heavy traffic, speeds constantly cycling between a dead stop and the maximum limit. And that went on all the way to Madison, WI. I-40 out of Memphis to Little Rock was not fun either: very heavy truck traffic, only two lanes each way most of the way, and all the trucks have to pass each other at 0.5 mph faster than the other and at least 8 mph below the speed limit. Until you go downhill--then they are eating your back bumper at 85 miles per.

We were not far into Arkansas from Tennessee when enough Texas-plated cars were visible on the road to remind me of the characteristic Texas driving style. In other words, "What right lane?" I'm in the left lane, and I'm darn sure going to stay there. The Texas car that moves to the right after passing is a rarity.

Driving at highway speeds in a mix of styles and heavy traffic is anything but EZ!

My Garmin Nuvi 260 sucks....

I may have more on this later, but, in a nutshell: I purchased and installed an updated version of the map software (for $119.00) just before I started our current 19-day 5,000 mile road trip. Prior to the upgrade, my "broad in the box" was pretty reliable--I trusted her based on two years of near-flawless performance. After the upgrade, she can't guide us to addresses in her own database. She advises us to turn on streets that don't exist; leads us to restaurants that have been out of business for 15 years; advises a 90-mile-plus detour off the interstate as the "shortest time" route (when it clearly is not); can't tell the difference between 9th Street East and 19th Street East; and seems to be generally confused; chimes, "Now arriving at destination on left." when we are more than a mile from the destination; and advises critical exits 200 or 300 yards AFTER we have passed them on the interstate. Just let me say that Garmin is going to hear from me...

Meanwhile, Google Maps on my Palm Centro has saved us a couple of times with current and accurate information that the Garmin just does not have. Why did I pay $119.00 for an update?

Why cannot anything be EZ?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

An EZ day in mid-America.

We drove west to east today from central North Dakota to halfway across Minnesota. Through Fargo? Yah, you betcha, eh?

They have this strange phenomena here where water seems to simply fall from the sky! So much so that grass, trees, and fields are green, not brown as we have become accustomed to. More water falls from the sky than is actually needed by the plants, and the remainder settles into low spots in the earth providing numerous spots for water fowl, other small animals, and reeds. What a concept! I wish we could export it to South Texas!

The lush, rolling land provides habitat for a great variety of wildlife, and we did see a LOT of wildlife in North Dakota: dead deer, dead skunks, dead raccoons, dead rabbits - enough roadkill to stock many a freezer!

Clouds do funny things here, too. While it was mostly sunny where we were at today, we were ringed about by clouds. They were the most varied collection of clouds I've ever seen, and ran the gamut from high, wispy cirrus clouds through towering billowy cumulus to near-black thunder-heads. All mixed together in a swirling horizontal to vertical and back mix--seemingly in the same place at the same time. A sign, I guess, of very unsettled weather, certainly more Spring-like than late summer in my experience.

Nothing at all to report on the drivers and driving styles today -- very mid-American and normal.

This drive follows two days at Minot, ND, taking in the State Fair with two grandsons. What a great event! The fair was fun, and reminded me of the county fairs that I attended each year, as a youth, with my parents. There were displays of everything to do with livestock, agriculture, equipment, and the farm-home, as well as living history and nature displays. There was, of course, a carnival and midway and more fair-food booths than I could count. Glenda and the grandsons drove go-karts and we played putt-putt-golf (2 under par, thank you!--on the front nine that is--the back nine more than made up for my low score.)

We also saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was a half-good movie, but the grandsons enjoyed it.

Dinner tonight at Sawatadee Thai in St. Cloud. A bit above average, I'd say, and a fitting end to the day in central Minnesota, as they had a Thai-spiced Walleye filet on the menu. Seems kinda' local, to me, eh? All in all, today was pretty EZ.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

State & regional driving styles.

On Friday we drove east to west across the state of Nebraska on Interstate 80. This is what I have observed: Car in left lane at 7 miles per hour below the posted limit? Ohio plates. Car blasting past us at 90 mph plus? Nebraska plates. Wandering from lane to lane and changing speed for no apparent reason? Wyoming plates. Driving EXACTLY the speed limit and signaling each lane change for at least 1,000 feet before the move? Iowa plates. Two bicycles on a rack on a Subaru going 3 mph over the limit? Colorado plates. I wonder what other drivers noted about the driving style imposed on our sedan with Texas plates?

Obviously, we cannot claim to have results of a scientific study of driving styles from observation of a few drivers on one road on one day. And no offense is intended to the fine drivers of any state. The observations, above, are based on a small sample one summer afternoon. Still, the characteristic styles were noted often enough to form an impression so I believe there is some substance to my opinions. And besides, there really was not much else to look at!

For example, I have often pointed out that my home-town drivers tailgate horribly, do not know how to merge into moving traffic on an expressway (don't have a clue about matching speed), and they have no comprehension for what a "yield" sign means. Half think it has no meaning and the other half think it means "stop." This would be less troublesome if there were signs on the back of each car declaring the driver's (lack of) understanding regarding the "yield" signs. I hope I've not picked up those habits.

One other observation during this trip from San Antonio to South Dakota (so far.) Highway speed enforcement activities vary tremendously. We saw eight officers running speed radars within the city limits of Austin, Texas, on IH-35. Three of those officers had cars pulled over. Further North in Texas, we saw a few state and local troopers, but not a concentrated group as we had seen during the 30-mile or so transit of Austin. Continuing North, the state of Oklahoma had a few state troopers on the freeway--I did not see a county or city officer while we were in the state. In Kansas we did not see a single officer--not one, although a camera of some kind took our picture at 67 in a 65 zone as we entered Kansas from Oklahoma. Nebraska also did not show us a single law enforcement officer while we drove across the state. So far, I have seen one state trooper in South Dakota.

Driving well is not EZ!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

2009 Continues...

My last post explained some of the automobile-related losses suffered in the family during 2009. Well, since then: Late on June 18th, my son, Derek, while returning home from some evening work, hit a deer with his Acura. Not totaled, but quite a bit of damage. That's three. Then, in early July, driving home from work, my daughter, Jenn, was involved in a three-car pileup when a driver on the freeway stopped, just over the crest of a hill, apparently to read a map. That car was not hit--it was the panic avoidances that brought my daughter's car and two others into the same physical space. Her car was totaled. That's four. Again and still, no injuries. So we count our blessings while digging deep to pay our deductibles. Modern life is not so EZ.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

2009, so far...

Let me tell you about 2009 so far.

Everyone knows about the economy. Nothing need be said, here, about that, except to mention that we have not been immune from cuts in income and losses to our retirement plans.

March 2, 2009. My wife’s mother passed away. She was 79 and had been ill and declining for some time. While not a big surprise, you can never be truly prepared. My beloved wife of 40 years, called G here, and our youngest daughter flew to Idaho for the services. G still grieves and occasionally becomes very blue and weepy.

April 10, 2009. G had a stroke. While driving. After her loss of consciousness, she struck another car. Her car slewed to the right and rolled 1 ½ times, coming to rest on the roof. Amazingly, no one was seriously injured in the accident, although our car was totaled and there was damage to two other cars and some minor injuries. My wife’s injuries from the accident were limited to minor bruising from the seat belt. She is recovering well from the stroke and has no paralysis or loss of speech, but she has suffered some loss of vision and of skills and memory—and these losses are painful to her. She cannot drive now and has had to close her business, with the loss of income and pride in self-determination that brings. Our insurance paid off the loan on the car. All in all, it could have been so much worse.

She was hospitalized for a week after the event, mostly for follow up of the stroke. During her medical care, the doctors found an enlarged thyroid which may be cancerous. We are still working on the follow up and tests for that. Many medical appointments have been on our calendar. Since she cannot drive any more, I have had to take time off work to drive her or arrange other transportation. We don’t live on a bus line and a one-way taxi ride to our medical facility is about $50.00. Thank God for our good medical insurance.

Also April 10, 2009. G’s step mother fell on her front step and hit her head on the concrete. She had to be air-evacuated 160 miles to a hospital in Boise where they operated to remove clots from her head and relieve pressure on her brain. She required several weeks of in- and out-patient convalescence. She is 85, and is doing well now. I hope my Father-in-law has good medical insurance.

While G was in the hospital, between visits to her and my work, I struggled to complete our IRS forms. Last year I had under-witheld and had to pay a large amount when I filed my taxes. So, I increased my withholding in April of 2008. But not enough. This year, even though I’ve not had a raise, the additional amount I had to pay was even greater ($3500 on top of what had been witheld) plus I had to pay a penalty for underpayment. So I called my company’s HR department and again increased my withholding. The very next day: the Obama administration announced reduced withholding as a “benefit” to workers and part of the Stimulus Plan. My withholding has actually gone down as a result. So next year will probably be a replay with underpayment and penalty.

On the first of May, we received a letter from the State informing us that we had been accused by an un-named party of sexual abuse of two of our grandsons. The letter explained that an investigation had been completed and the charges were found to have no merit and that we could write to request the records be destroyed. We don’t know who filed the false charges, but we have our suspicions, and, if true, the scurrilous action, taken as revenge for imaginary wrongs, does not bode well for family harmony. We have not seen those grandchildren nor their mother since the end of March. G has taken this especially hard, and we are now seeing a counselor to learn how to deal with the grief of our losses this year and this hateful false charge against us. Had the investigator not had the integrity to publish the true findings, if she or he had had an axe to grind or a name to make, the false charges could have literally destroyed our lives. I wonder if the person who filed the charges has any idea of the potential impact?

On the morning of May 5, on my way to work I stopped at a stoplight. The 20-year-old girl, texting as she drove the car behind me, did not. She was doing about 30 when she hit me. I was on my motorcycle. The 1-year old customized 1300 cc V-Twin was totaled. But it could have been so much worse. I was not hurt at all—did not even have any stiffness the next day. But I miss my bike. Her insurance paid off all but $432.00 of the loan, so the debt is gone, but so is the bike. After nearly 45 years of driving with only a couple of minor accidents, we have totaled two vehicles in less than a month.

In mid-May, we had our home air conditioner serviced before its summer workout. The technician found a Freon leak in the inside air handling unit. So that had to be replaced. Another $3500 gone.

At the end of May, G received the settlement from her Mother’s estate: $12,000 from her Mother’s traditional IRA. Now since it came out of a tax-deferred IRA, it becomes a “taxable event,” meaning we would owe taxes and penalties on the total amount. To avoid having to give the IRS about a third of her inheritance, we chose, at the advice of our broker, to put $6,000 dollars each into our own IRAs, thus canceling out the taxable event. I gave the broker a personal check for $12,000 having deposited the cashier’s check from the estate into our joint checking account. At the time of deposit of the inheritance check, the teller said they would make an exception to the 5-day hold rule for deposited checks, since we have been with the credit union for nearly 40 years and have a good record, and it WAS a cashier’s check, after all. Guess what. When my personal check for $12,000 was presented for the deposit into our IRAs, it bounced because the $12,000 deposit was on hold. Result: who knows? So far fees and embarrassment and no resolution. This was the biggest check I've ever written--by far--and it bounced! Oh, the shame. The credit union did refund their fees on my account (after I complained) but we don’t yet know what the other financial institution is going to do. It’s been two weeks and I’ve not yet heard from them. Our broker is not returning my calls.

Still, we have so much to be thankful for. We have each other. We have our faith and a God we feel good about praying to. We can still pay the mortgage and utilities. We have one good working vehicle and it is licensed, insured, and inspected, and has good tires and a full tank of gas at the moment. The pantry is full and the (new) air conditioner keeps us comfortable. We sleep soundly at night, comfortable and relatively secure. We launder our clothes and bathe in fresh, clean, heated water. We even still have 200 TV channels of nothing to watch, internet, and a Netflix subscription. We are breathing, upright, walking and talking. We have many loving family members (and maybe one that is not so loving) and a number of very good friends at work, in our neighborhood, and at church. As tough and frustrating as this year has been, so far, our lives are still better than most alive on this earth today.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Taxing businesses.

If I accomplish nothing in my life but to open the eyes of a few U.S. citizens to the truth of the nature of taxing businesses, I will be satisfied that it was a life well lived. A life lived, I may add, as a worker and not as a wealthy business owner.

On TV last night a senator called for higher taxes on businesses to ease the burden on the average citizen. This senator, supposedly an educated man, proved that he is either sadly ignorant or that he is a purposeful liar--misleading the very average citizen he claims to protect.

Here is the truth: No business has ever paid taxes. No business ever will. Set the "business taxes" high or higher. Punish the businesses. Still, no business will ever pay taxes. Businesses may collect taxes and pass those monies on to the government, but, trust me, businesses don't pay taxes; their customers pay the taxes. Taxing businesses does more than indirectly take money out of the pocket of the consumer: It hurts the economy overall.

When a government wishes to collect taxes through a business, there are at least two basic ways the tax may be assessed, through a consumption tax, such as the new dollar per pack for cigarettes or a gas guzzler tax on thirsty autos. This method has the disadvantage (to a tax-hungry government) of being obvious. Consumers easily see who is paying the tax. The second method is to tax the businesses revenues or activities regardless of the consumer's choices. (If we consider fees, there are actually dozens of ways governments penalize the average consumer by taxing businesses.)

This is more oblique and less obvious to the consumer. But consider: If a tobacco firm sells 1,000,000 packs of cigarettes, a dollar per pack collects for the government one million dollars. And the consumer easily recognizes the cost as a tax and knows who is paying the tax. But if the government, instead, places a tax on the company's activities or revenues that will yield one million dollars in tax, what is the result? Assuming steady sales, the price of the pack of cigarettes has to go up one dollar per pack in this case as well. But since the tax is not obviously per pack, it is less clear to the consumer (who is paying for the cigarettes [and the tax]) exactly what it is that makes up the extra cost. The company collects one million dollars at a dollar a pack either way and passes the money to the government as a tax. But in the second case, the consumer likely thinks the business is gouging them and making great profits. Ask yourself, in which case did the business "pay" more taxes?

Answer: neither. The result is the same, consumers pay one dollar more per pack.

Now do you see why I say the good Senator is a liar? the business has no money except for the money paid to them for the products or services they provide. The only source of their money is from their customers. Who pays the tax? The customers.

If our elected representatives really wanted to protect the consumer, we would not have taxes on business revenues and activities nor on reasonable corporate profits. We should tax businesses only on their excess profits. Anything over, say, maybe 12% of gross revenues in profit. If a business is generating excess profits, they could either pay very high taxes on the excesses or they could lower the profits by reinvesting in the business (good for the economy); paying the employees more (good for the economy-and employees pay more income taxes); lowering their prices (which may increase sales volume: good for the economy); or, more likely, if the profits are really good, competition will move in and force the profits lower (again, good for the economy).

If our elected representatives do NOT care about protecting the consumer but are only concerned about short term personal gain and power, they would likely favor harming both the economy and the consumer by misleading us about the impact of taxing business revenues, activities, and all corporate profits. This form of taxation takes money out of the economy (and away from you, the consumer); it discourages and artificially limits business development and growth (bad for the economy); it encourages businesses to take their operations to a more favorable tax environment (bad for the economy). Worst of all, it hides from the taxpayers the true extent of the government's taxation of its citizens. Not even discussed here is the fact that it costs businesses money to collect and pass along the taxes, which increases costs to the consumer and hurts the economy even more.

Another way that the government collects monies from businesses is through employment taxes. Do you think the business really pays these costs? The business does not. Who does? The employee does. Now these taxes may be for a good cause, federal retirement and health benefits, unemployment insurance, etc. But we should be smart enough to know who really pays the costs. The costs come out of the total compensation the business pays for the employee's services. Were they not paid to the government, the business could pay more to employees in salary. Would they? Well, if the corporate tax structure only taxed excess profits the business would be motivated to leave more money in the employees checks or to reduce costs to consumers or grow the business. In each of these situations, everyone eventually comes out better.

For every penny of tax collected, more than a penny has to come out of the citizens' pockets. How we collect and allocate those monies is a societal decision. Perhaps we want to tax consumption in a way that raises revenues and impacts behaviors (like a “sin” tax or an excise tax on luxuries). Perhaps we want to tax all transactions, as most European countries do. Any and all taxes and fees on businesses (except for taxing excess profits) is, in effect, a consumption or transaction tax anyway, since all money to pay the taxes ultimately comes from the pockets of the citizens (and out of the economy). How much better off we would all be if our politicians would just be truthful to us about these matters.

So the next time you hear a politician calling for more and higher taxes on businesses so that you, the consumer, will get a break--ask yourself: Why is this politician not telling me the truth? What else is he (or she) misleading us about?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Almost random thoughts.

Today IH-35 reminded me that it is, and I am not, in charge of my schedule. After several days of an easy morning commute, even through rain, today was a mess. It took an hour and ten minutes to make my 14 miles. That's an average of 12 miles per hour, in case you wondered, on a U.S. interstate highway.

I generally listen during my morning commute to NPR's local member station, KSTX, of which I am a member. In most things I find their reporting interesting and accurate and at least somewhat balanced. But locally their traffic reporting is less than worthless. This morning, as the traffic reporter discussed the accidents on IH-10, on Loop 1604, and on various surface streets around San Antonio, he reported delays on IH-35 "from the intersection of Austin Highway all the way to Walzem." Well. Austin Highway does NOT intersect IH-35. It does intersect Walzem one-half mile west of IH-35. See my note, above, about this morning's commute. IH-35 South was packed and stop and go from north of FM 3009 to well past the split onto IH-410 South near Walzem. And on IH-35 North there was a passenger van sideways near Loop 1604 blocking two north-bound lanes. This caused the north-bound traffic to be backed up several miles to beyond Walzem. As I switched off the frustrating traffic report at about 8:50 AM there was still no mention of the traffic woes on IH-35 in which, by then, I had been snarled for 70 minutes. Thank you, KSTX. Accurate traffic reporting has the potential to ease our commute, reduce idling (which causes extra pollution), and improve our economy directly through less lost time. I wish KSTX could give me reliable reporting that would let me effectively adjust my commute time or my route.

This morning's headline in the San Antonio Express News noted that Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter had "Jumped to the Dems." It is fitting that he should jump to the Dems, since he's been dancing to their tune for several years anyway.

Our local UPS driver told me this morning that business has been steady through March. Maybe the worst of our economic slump is over. I trust our UPS driver more than I trust Timothy Geitner (or Henry Paulson, or Paul O'Neill, or Ben Bernanke, et. al.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Thoughts on life and death.

The president of Pakistan thinks that Osama Bin Laden must surely be dead by now. Ironic, as the government of Pakistan is very nearly dead, itself.

GM tells us that Pontiac is dead, following Oldsmobile to the great automotive brand resting place. Killed, I think, by 20 years of automotive "quality" that depended almost solely on the tacking-on of plastic body cladding just in case the car was not ugly enough on its own. Dressing a pig in lipstick? A front lower lip, a spoiler a wheel flare: Tack it on. We'll make the damn think ugly one way or another. Pontiac's proudest moment in design history: The Aztec. It did not need any plastic tack-ons to make it ugly. They added some anyway. I had become convinced that GM's Pontiac was the Ottawa tribe's revenge on American society for the damage the white settlers did to their tribe and their lands. R.I.P. Chief Pontiac.

In the meantime, our economy, if not dead, is surley on the critical list. The medicos have told us for years to lay off the red meat, fat, salt, and sugar--confine our diets to the nutrients we need and kick obesity. Our economy has the same health problems - a bloated morbidity brought on by too many years of excesses. One of the first questions posed by my economics professor, low these many decades ago, was, "What would be the state of the world economy if people suddenly decided to spend only on basic needs?" What? No cell phones or Wii games? No meals out or convenience foods at home? No increasing credit card limits? No designer jeans? No speedboats or RVs? Hah! That'll never happen!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Washington D.C. cherry blossoms.

I'm in D.C. for a couple of days and the cherry trees are in full bloom. It is truly an awesome sight. I've been here many times but always missed the bloom season by a day or a week or two early or late. I have not had time to play tourist, plus, today was darkly overcast, but I got a couple of quick snapshots yesterday. If anyone cares to look at them, you will find them at


Quick update re: the cloud.

Well, I did it. Signed up for Gmail, and so far, so good. I have consolidated my work and personal emails into Gmail, have it filtering using tags, adding action items directly from email into My Tasks and My Calendar then archiving the emails. That keeps my inbox clean and the tasks and events link right back to the originating email for reference. Neat. And with the addition of a widget that gives color tags, finding things in my archived mail is a snap, and, if it isn't the powerful search feature is great. I like the way Gmail lets me send and receive as if I were using the "native" email account, and allows me to automatically reply from the email address the original was sent to. So, the move to cloud computing has been good. Not perfect. I would like to be able to sort by sender or topic. I don't care for the way Gmail handles replies and the action "buttons" are in places that seem less than logical to me, but, still, good. One of the biggest advantages I see is that I'll have a copy of my sent emails available (so long as I can get to Gmail) from anywhere, regardless of which email I sent from. That can be big for me.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The cloud is winning.

Seated in front of the PC in my home office just the other day, I started MS-Outlook to check my email. As the program started, it flashed the Outlook-2000 banner. It had not occurred to me until that moment that I was using 9-year old software to handle one of the most critical communication tasks in my life.

That flash screen got me to thinking about my email use, needs, and the systems that provide the essential services. I use at least five different computers in my daily work and personal life. Three of them are Win-XP PCs. One of those is a laptop. The other PC is an iMac. The XP machines are: (1) My work PC - a five-year old Gateway; (2) My laptop - a three-year old Gateway on which I write this post at 24,000 feet above Arkansas; (3) My home-office PC - a home-built machine of undertmined age. I think the oldest component is probably over ten years old while the newest (the flat screen monitor) is about two years old. This machine has been "upgraded" one piece at a time for so long that I simply don't know its heritage. The fourth machine is an iMac 24" at home. I love it for its great display, for iPhoto and iTunes and streaming NetFlix. I hate it for how clumsy I am at using the Apple differences when I've become so smoothly practiced with XP. I am not ready to migrate for all home-office uses, and won't be until Quicken and my genealogy programs provide the same functionality on the iMac as on XP. In the meantime, I'm working toward a virtual XP machine on the iMac. The fifth is my Palm Centro smartphone.

For this menagerie of machines and systems, there is a similary diverse set of software providing email client servies. As I mentioned above, the home machine uses Outlook 2000. At work I have Outlook 2003, while I use Mozilla Firebird 2.0 on the laptop and the iMac Apple Mail program on that machine. The Centro uses VersaMail 4.0. Each of these email clients interfaces across the Internet with two mail servers. My company has an Ability server which handles my work email. My personal email resides on a Go-Daddy server somewhere. The three XP machines, the iMac, and the Centro all access those emails using the Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3), itself an antiquated protocol. Let's add one complicating factor: I also maintain a Yahoo! email account as a backup and to use for registering software and Internet shopping sites. (Yes, I know I'm Bloggin on Google, but I don't use GMail simply because I've had the Yahoo! address for so very many years.

I mentioned earlier that I'd been thinking about my use of email. And here's what I thought: Why does this need to be so complicated? Why keep email clients on my PCs? Why not just access the email in the cloud Netbook-style as my daughter does on the Netbook I gave her for Christmas? This leads to another step: Why not simplify one step further and consolidate all of my email into one cloud system, like, for instance, GMail.

I need my work email address with its "professional" domain address and I like having my personal email using my vanity domain. It has been nice to keep my Web registrations and such on Yahoo! mail as that keeps a lot of spam and such away from my POP3 email. But I can access the Internet from nearly anywhere (Delta tells me I can even do it from here at 24,000 feet, soon.) If a Web email can consolidate all of my email in one place, still tell me which system received the email, and send and reply from the preferred domains, why, that would be nice.

I alread use Google Docs and have found it to be a wonderful way to share documents and to collaborate on work. A large client I work for is moving all of their documents from PCs and small networks into MS Sharepoint server. My early experience with the system has me impressed with the possibilities the system represents. Think of it as Google Docs on steroids and inside a fence.

So I'm considering moving more of my work and my information to the cloud. I'm not sure whose cloud it will be, yet, but I don't think it will be MS's OfficeLive. I've looked at it and have not seen much that impresses me. I know that some companies and local governments are getting great mileage out of Google applications (for an example, see Where will it be? I'll have to look and learn, and I'll keep you posted as I learn enough to start making some decisions. Maybe the main point here is that PC applications do not currently seem to be the future of computing. Several years ago, there was a move to the "dumb terminal" for personal computing. What a dumb name. But the concept seems to be winning, we are just calling it cloud computing now.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First impressions of a city.

I am in St. Louis for a few days attending a training symposium and trade show. It is the first time I've been to this city on the Mississippi for quite a few years, and my impressions are quite mixed. My hotel is very old but recently renovated. My assigned room on the 17th floor is small but nicely appointed. I have a view east to the river and the Veteran's Memorial/Martin Luther King bridge. The view of the famous Arch, though, is blocked by a tinted-glass and steel office tower. Just across the street is the impressive America's Center convention center. People I've dealt with so far, in the hotel, convention center, restaurant, at the airport, have been friendly and helpful. Much of this part of St. Louis seems to be modern and vibrant and based on a foundation more than a century old. The city has a website that offers convenient services to the citizens (including a way to report potholes) and there is even a link on the website to a map of free wi-fi spots in the city. From my window I can see public art, a small park, and things seem clean and well maintained.

But these are kind of secondary first impressions, and quite different from the FIRST first impressions. After claiming my bags at Lambert Field, I travelled the 13.8 miles from the airport to downtown on the MetroLink light rail. Inexpensive, but impressive for all the wrong reasons. Getting to the airport's East MetroLink stop was an adventure in itself. The path led across streets, through parking garages and tunnels, up stairs, down stairs, inside, outside, inside again, and finally up two levels on an elevator. The route was, at least, well marked with signs pointing the way. I'm not sure how well lit the area is at night. I don't think I'd want to take that route at night. Had there not been clear signs with arrows indicating the way to the MetroLink, I would never have gone there in the daytime. It is hard to describe how ugly and uninviting everything looked along the way--how inconvenient it seemed. The floor in most places was wet and/or oily (the weather was warm and dry). The ceiling, when indoors, was low and the passage way narrow. For distances of 10s of meters at a time, the passageway was not wide enough for two people to pass in opposite directions without turning sideways to each other. On one ramp, the walkway was so narrow I could not carry my bags at my side, but had to drag them behind me. When indoors the smell was rank. And everything, walls, ceilings, railings, bannisters, stairs, were all unpainted (except for grafitti) concrete--much of the concrete was stained or crumbling. The feeling was that of an abandoned (hopefully!) war bunker. One's imagination could cause palpitations here! At the elevator, signs indicated two higher levels, "Ticketing," and "Platform." I boarded the elevator and pressed the button for Ticketing. The elevator rose, stopped, the doors opened...onto a completely empty and open area with no attendants, booths, or vending machines visible. I got back onto the elevator and pressed the button for Platform.

Upon arriving at the train platform I found ticket dispensing machines. Cash only. When was the last time you saw that? There were a variety of tickets listed, each with a button to push: One hour; two hours; day pass; week pass, etc. But nothing that told me how long it took to get from the aiport to downtown. I chose the two-hour pass, figuring that to be a good compromise between overspending and not having enough fare for my destination. The machine did, at least work well, and gave me back a quarter in change from my four dollar bills.

I'm glad the weather was nice. The exposed and un-roofed platform was in the middle of two open train tracks, one for an eastbound train and the other for westbound, and I'll bet it can get very uncomfortable here in windy and cold weather. There was no signage or maps telling a passenger which train to get onto to go downtown. A lady at the information desk in the airport had told me to be sure to get on the right train. A loudspeaker did make occasional announcements. For instance, it told the few waiting souls that the westbound train would arrive in 5 minutes and that the train would be out of service on Sunday, sorry for any inconvenience. From a paper map I'd picked up in the airport terminal, I determined that I needed to go East, so I let the westbound train come and go. I asked another waiting person if she knew how often the trains came by and she said she thought every 10 minutes. I did not tell her that I'd already been on the platform for over 20 minutes. Perhaps every 30 minutes is the schedule, for within another 10 minutes an eastbound train was announced and arrived. The train was labled "Shilo/Scott" with no mention of downtown, or of any other intermediate stops, for that matter. Once again, the paper map from inside the airport was the only source I found for the information that I needed. Did I mention that no copies of the paper map were available at the platform?

Once on board, I found the train was clean and relatively comfortable. A map of MetroLink stops posted inside the train did identify the intermediate and ultimate stops. As we rumbled along the driver announced stops, which side the doors would open on, and which bus lines served the upcoming stop. As the train prepared to pull away from each stop she would announce that the doors were closing and you were aboard the eastbound Shilo/Scott train. At least I think that's what she was announcing. I really could never clearly understand the announcements due to a combination of accented dialog, background noise, and a static-y loudspeaker system. During my 40 minutes or so on board many of her announcements were repeated often enough that I managed, I think, to figure out what she was saying. I still don't know where, or what, Shilo/Scott is, since it does not show up on the paper MetroLink map that I got, which ends its coverage at the Missippi River, while the MetroLink apparently goes on eastward into Illinois for some distance.

After we left the airport, the landscape rolling by was striking in the visible blight and decay displayed. Burned-out, tumbled-down, boarded-up, litter-strewn, a nightmare scene of former industrial strength. Right there, naked, in living color for all visitors and natives alike to see. Kabul looks cleaner, more modern, and better maintained. This part of St. Louis truly looked like the aftermath of a war. Perhaps much of our nation will look like this before the current economic crisis ends. I pray not. An old cemetery, headstones askew, seemed to speak of decades, centuries, of human dreams and disappointments. The scenery did improve a bit as we passed UMSL and some medical centers.

Passengers came and went with the stops. Working men and women, some perhaps homeless, college students, college professors, one very well-dressed and distinguished looking man on a power scooter, one young attitude-bearing urban male wearing the lowest sagging pants I've ever seen. As we approached my stop, the rail went underground. Leaving the train, I exited the station over wet tile floors and up concrete steps into the sun, and found myself disoriented. I knew I had to walk west about two blocks to my hotel, but I had no idea which direction was west. I looked for clues on the street signs but did not find anything helpful. I looked for street numbers on buildings. None visible. So, I flipped a coin, turned left and walked that way along Washington Avenue, dragging my luggage along, noisy with its well-worn wheels against the rough concrete.

Now, in an attempt at fairness, I should mention that the St. Louis MetroLink has a helpful website where you can plan a trip in advance. You tell it where you are and where you want to go and the website will provide a detailed itinerary with times, stops, train and bus IDs, and costs. I had not preplanned the trip. I've used light rail in Japan, Europe, other US cities, and the Middle-East and have never needed to pre-plan a trip to get from the international airport to a local convention center. Signage and announcements are generally well designed and posted for the convenience of a stranger. My trip on the red-and-cream colored St. Louis MetroLink was not an unpleasant experience, but, for this stranger, neither was the trip EZ.

Partial update on storm door.

Well, the manufacturer did respond to my email, and quickly, but not with an answer to the problem. They provided a toll-free number and suggested I call during business hours. I've not taken time to do that, yet. And here I was hoping it would be EZ. More as (if) it happens.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Quality products

Seems like "they just don't make 'em like they used to."

My mother, rest her soul, always told me to buy quality, buy once. Now that I've reached a point in my life where I can buy quality, I wish the old saw were still true. Case in point: We recently replaced the storm door at the front of our house with a relatively expensive new storm door manufactured by one of the leading brands. A company, which shall remain nameless at the advice of counsel, that claims to, "...create a timeless combination of durability and beauty." Apparently my definition of durability is somewhat different than this firm's definition.

We could have bought a less expensive storm door. We could have bought about four less-expensive doors for what we paid for this door. I specifically sought out this brand and bought one of their top-of-the line models because I wanted a durable door that would provide a good first impression for guests to our home and have a screened window that could be opened. The door we bought does look nice, but I'm having a durability problem caused by the manufacturer's use of inexpensive materials and a less-than-durable design.

This storm door has a horizontally split-glass window and the top portion can be opened by releasing latches on either side at the top and sliding the glass down. As the glass is lowered, a "disappearing screen" follows the glass and provides an insect-resistant opening for breeze and fresh air. The glass is held in place and guided on its downward slide by channels on either side of the door into which fit tangs from the window frame. It works beautifully, except... The channels are of a flimsy plastic construction and are not securely held to the enameled metal door frame. In fact they simply "snap" into place in a secondary channel in the door frame which is hidden behind the plastic channels when they are in place. The real problem is that they won't STAY in place. In fact they pop out of place every time that the door is closed, even gently, when the window is in the closed position. Then the window won't open until I snap them back into place. From the inside as one leaves our home, the plastic strips flapping loose look cheap. You can see the left side channel flopped out over the door handle in the photo above. I expect it is only a matter of time until one or both get broken off completely--then I won't be able to snap them back into place and the opening window feature will be unusable with nothing to hold the window in place. How frustrating!

I have written to the manufacturer asking if there is a fix. Now we shall see if their customer service better lives up to their advertising than their product. I'll keep you posted.