Archive for 2011
On Wednesday, I visited Puget Sound Community School. It was a bit odd for me, because my fellow visitors were mostly prospective parents and students, whereas I was just curious. I’d like to adopt kids at some point, and PSCS will be on the plate as an option for their schooling, but at the moment I don’t feel like my life is stable enough to care for a kid. (Hell, I don’t think my life is quite stable enough to care for me, but thats a different story.) In hindsight, I also realize that I didn’t fully answer my questions because I visited the classes I was interested in, not the ones that might elucidate my knowledge of PSCS.
Some of the happiest people I’ve met have been ones that excel at and love doing jobs that many of us think of as grudge work. I’ve come across many people in this position in my life, but two of them stick out in my mind:
- Sherita – She was (is?) a bus driver for TANK driving the 8 and 25. (The 25 was through-routed with the 8 and vice versa) I rode the 8 all the time as it took me home, and the 25 sometimes as it picked me up at school and took me right home. She first came to my attention because she had the most boisterous and fun announcements of where we were on the route. We’d have lots of little discussions, but it was always clear to me that she loved what she was doing. It was always a joy to get on her bus, versus some of the other drivers who we doing the job because it paid them.
- An server at this Bob Evans whose name I forget. I ate there several times. (it was also on the 25/8 and it was near the spot where I got my hair cut..) The fact that she enjoyed her job was obvious; it wasn’t something that I had to spend time staring at her to divine. I remember asking her about it once, and she said something along the lines that this wasn’t her first choice, but she decided to enjoy it, and did.
When I think about things I’m passionate about many things pop into my head, but one long running one is playing handbells. I first played handbells in 1993. For many years it was simply a choir that I performed in. (Although, I remember one week when I was in handbells as a non-academic activity, as an academic performing choir, and we were playing handbells in music class as well. I was spending three out of seven periods a day playing handbells!)
When I was planning my senior year of high school there was a conflict between the Handbell Choir and AP Stats. I had always enjoyed math, and I made the decision to take Stats. I think this would’ve been a good decision if life was going well.
But, life wasn’t going well. I was dealing with the fall out from having had undiagnosed clinical depression for three years. In addition I accumulated enough baggage from being in the closet that I couldn’t and didn’t want to keep the closet door closed anymore. However, given the atmosphere of Southwest Ohio in the late 90s, I felt I had to keep the closet closed with all my might. Given everything that was going on in my life, I really didn’t give a shit about school. As a result, I got really good coasting my way though classes; I did enough work to get by and that was it.
Coasting through classes is something that partially works in normal classes, I also managed in honors classes, but I got killed in AP classes. I couldn’t get my head into AP Stats, and after realizing the futility attempting advanced level studies with a lack of motivation, I decided to drop AP Stats and take up handbells.
I still took the AP test and getting a 2 without a cram study session. I took a quantitative studies class (e.g. Stats taught by the political science department.) which was more or less a breeze, but after I transferred schools it ended up as one of the sixty or so elective credit hours I had, well in excess of what I needed.
Twelve years later, I’m still using what I learned in handbells, but I’ven’t touched stats in quite some time.
Its really amazing what you can learn when you want to learn something.
I spent twelve hours or so on a Friday night researching the federal debt which has given me a nice background on government debt in this country.
When I started playing in a handbell quartet I realized that I didn’t have the ability to look at a note and instantly tell what note it was, I put daily effort into flash cards to learn this, because it was something I needed to play in a handbell quartet. (Whereas when I was playing piano, it was like pulling teeth to get me to use flash cards.)
I also find that it is quite amazing what people can do when they’re going after something they love or are fascinated by. GPS has its roots in nerd heaven tinkering and geeking out over Sputnik. (The GPS story starts at 12:30.) They were just fiddling at first.
I want people doing what they’re passionate about. I despise that people “hate their job” although they keep working at it as if they have no choice. I find it disheartening that hordes of people went into Wall Street (including those who had studied something completely different) just because there was a bunch of money there. We spend so much time at our jobs, why not make it something that we enjoy even if we can’t make it something we’re passionate about?
PCSC is really about pulling kids passions at the forefront from a young age in high school, instead of them struggling to pursue them on the side or not at all. People do amazing things when they’re passionate about what they’re doing, and even moreso when they have a mentor (a boss, a teacher, a friend) who helps them move obstacles in their way, and pushes them onto greatness.
Setting then, missing customer’s expectations is the worst way to displease a customer. I’d argue that Starbucks is one of the better companies with having consistent expectations from store to store. However, they recently missed my expectations on a colossal scale. Below is my letter to them:
On March 6th, 2011, I had a friend drop me off at Roy St Coffee and Tea. I’m a regular there, so I know that usually they’re open until 11 pm every day of the week. I got upto the door, and I noted that there was a sign on the door that said it was closed for a special event.
This was disappointing as I follow the Roy St Twitter feed, @RoyStCoffee, and would’ve expected any early closing, especially a planned one, would be listed on the twitter feed. I had previously seen early closings (such as holidays and the like) listed on the twitter feed, but the closure on March 6th wasn’t listed. (While I’m touching the topic, the @RoyStCoffee twitter feed has been dead Roy St needs to either commit to it or just declare failure and close it down.)
I was miffed at this, but I decided to take it in stride, and visit the E. Olive St store, which I haven’t been to since it was remodeled.
I arrived at the Olive St Store at around 9:15, and was settled in and sitting down at 9:30 or so. The service there was acceptable.
I had thought that the store was open until 11 pm that night, I was informed at 10:20 pm that the store was closing in 10 minutes. I had checked the store hours a few weeks before on the Starbucks iPhone app and this is what I noted, but even if I had checked that night it wouldn’t have mattered since the app shows the store closing at 11 pm. (Even today it shows the store closing at 11 pm on Sunday.)
Simply this pissed me off. I wanted to get some work done, and had just settled into a nice rhythm when I was kicked out of it because the store was closed. This was the second time that night that Starbucks had hindered me in my productivity that day due to their lack of information.
I’m very concerned that the store hours facility on the Starbucks App and website is almost useless as there doesn’t appear to be an established procedure to update this information. I’ve found multiple stores that have incorrect hours. This simply is unacceptable. If Starbucks is going to provide this data they should ensure that it is correct. There needs to be a procedure to update this information as store hours change. This is a failure either properly designing this system, communication about this system, or proper closure of this project by the project manager.
I hope that both of these issues will be rectified systemwide.
I completely left out the list of problems that the the early closure caused me as I didn’t want to go into the minutia of the shit that annoyed me with having to piece together a good bus schedule, because part of that was my fault, although I would’ve planned better if I had known when they were closing..
It has been interesting watching the meltdown of the mortgage and housing markets from the sidelines. So the tax deductions, the mortgage driven financial meltdown, and all the associated social costs has given us a higher level of homeownership, right? Not according to Dwight Jaffe. “All of the money and all of the tax benefits and all of the Fannie and Freddie costs … have come to zero in terms of having any observable effects on our home ownership rates,” Jaffee says. “Our rates are the same as countries that have never put a penny of government resources into it.”
In fact owning a home reduces workforce mobility and people’s ability to pursue their careers and dreams. Not to mention that it can wipe out people’s financial planning when the market tanks.
So where did this fetish for owning a home come from? I’d argue that its been good marketing by many parties. The US Government has had a stake in increasing home ownership for at least seventy three years. Fannie Mae was founded in 1938 by the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression. Sure Home Depot, Lowes, and Best Buy have had their hand in pushing homeownership over the past decade or so, but its the feds that have been pushing this. (Best Buy’s marketing doesn’t show that awesome home theatre system in an apartment, they show it in its own room in a house.)
Successive Presidents including Bush and Obama have done their part to promote and preserve homeownership. But Why? “The Dream of American Homeownership”? This is just a slogan. I’d argue that homeownership might be people’s way to claim a piece of the world as their own. My mother’s habit of remodeling and repainting houses is a testament to this. For some, including my mother, owning a home is a great way to claim a part of the world their own. But for everyone? I don’t think so. So why do we have this fixation with homeownership? Marketing. Anyone who watched television during the 2000s couldn’t have missed the plethora of ads for mortgages, or the flood of home focused television shows on TLC.
But marketing can’t drive us to go spend hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars or can it? NoYes. I had a really interesting term in college where I was taking both a service marketing class, and a philosophy class on desire. Within the space of a week the marketing professor declared that marketing cannot create a desire that people do not have, and the philosophy professor declared that marketing can create desires out of thin air. I think the reality is down the middle. The marketer takes an unmet desire and co-opts it for their own ends. Lets say you have a desire to be comforted emotionally. A marketer can approach this in many ways. Häagen-Dazs for instance would emphasize that they’re a comfort food, whereas a Lazy-Boy would emphasize that their chairs make you feel protected and supported. Houses prey on the need for people to have control, stability, and other things while not delivering on these promises. Stability? Sure as far as having somewhere to live it satisfies this need, but it also pushes people to their financial limits in many cases, and can destabilize their finances if they need to move (for work or other reasons) and the housing market is down. As for control? You gain responsibility for a significant number of variable risks: roofs needing replaced, water heaters, furnaces, the list goes on and on.
I’ve watched the sizes of houses grow and grow. In 1975, the average house size was 1,645 square feet and the average family size was 2.88. By 2005, the average house size was 2,434 square feet and the average household size was 2.6 people. (Sources: Household Size, 2005 household size, 1975 household size.) So as the number of people living in together has declined the size of houses has increased. Why? Bigger houses are more profitable for builders.
So how does this relate to the class warfare that has been going on in our society? The housing market has functioned because there were buyers. This allowed buyers who were reasonably well off to sell their house when it was worth a large amount, and purchase another home with a large amount of equity, and to continue on “flipping” homes, even those which they lived in for a while. When the music stopped those at the bottom of the market were left with homes which were too large, overpriced, and for which they could no longer pay for.
The housing market was supported on the backs of the middle class and poor, but was most beneficial to the rich.
So I did a pretty poor job on my last entry of making my argument.
I’ve decided to take a look at the home I spent a bunch of time growing up in the Dayton Ohio area.
Lets take a peek at it, courtesy Google Street View:
So things to note:
- The sidewalk in the front yard.
- The house is pretty far set back from the street. About 50 feet from the street.
- There is no space to socialize in front of the house. (e.g. there isn’t a porch or somewhere to sit.)
- You can’t see it in this photo, but the road is about three car widths wide.
So lets compare this to the house of my mom’s divorce attorney. This house is in a much newer part of the development, probably about ten years newer. But it is less than a mile from my house above. Again, courtesy Google Street View:
- No sidewalk in the front yard.
- The house is even further set back from the street. About 100 feet from the street.
- There is still no space to socialize in front of the house. Not that you could talk, you’d have to yell, since the next nearest front door is about 200 feet away!
- The road is only two car widths wide, but it is completely unadorned. It is just a strip of asphalt.
One final picture. This one showing the lot sizes and shapes.
So I’ve done some drawing on this. The pink box to the right is my house off of Woodbluff, the pink box to the right is my mom’s lawyer’s house. The red line? Thats showing where the division from the older and newer development. The change in lot sizes is pretty damn dramatic. I lived here for probably a total of eight years, I rode my bike through both of these areas, and it still surprises me.
So I’d argue that this big change hasn’t really done much for the community. Hell, its even hard to have a community when you’ve got a huge piece of grass separating you from everyone. The owners of these houses probably paid more, and I’d argue got less! If you’re buying a home simply because of square footage, and not the community or lack thereof, why? Just like money having square footage of a house is important up to a point, but beyond that it doesn’t do much except show off the fact that you have square footage. If anything its a negative as it costs more to maintain and more to heat.
So, if I had to choose a house to live in instead of a nice condo or something along those lines, I’d like to live in on a street like this one in Seattle:
- Aren’t too big.
- They’re pretty closely spaced, so you can easily talk with your neighbors.
- There is a little bit of space to congregate up front
- They’re close to the road, sparing a big field of grass that doesn’t get used.
- Alas, there is no sidewalk.
- The street width (which you can’t see) is just about two cars wide.
This housing development in Wedgwood in Seattle has a fair chance of developing actual community. Whereas, the neighborhood I lived in Dayton didn’t have as much of a chance and my mom’s lawyer’s house? Well its laughable to even consider the matter?
So this brings me back to the blog’s theme. Communities build resilience and allow for people to network, which further more allows them to eschew having to purchase as many things and push the cogs in the consumerist machine. This manifests itself in situations like when you need to use a pressure sprayer, you’re much more likely to be able to borrow it from someone in your community, the larger and more connected you are, instead of having to buy one for that single use.
By having resilient communities you’re able to do the same with less, lessening the effects of class-stratification, and mitigating the results of class warfare.
A strong community is more important than being wealthy, a community can provide the things that wealth does, and more.
Just over a month ago, I gave a Pecha-Kucha presentation at church titled “How to get a 14 trillion dollar line of credit, what the hell is a lockbox, and are we going broke? The ins and outs of the Federal Debt and Deficit”. This was inspired by, and was an updated version of my Borrowed Friday Night blog entry.
So, without further adieu: A review on my petcha-kucha’d view on the US Federal Debt a doo.
So the amount of money the US Government is huge. I they borrowed it in pennies, it would be over 37 BILLION tons of pennies. That is if all those pennies were made after 1982, because the pennies made before then are 0.4 grams heavier than the ones made after that time.
But what may surprise you is that the Federal Government has a Debt Limit. This basically is a function of the balance of the branches of government. Before modern times Congress would authorize the Executive branch to issue a specific amount of bonds for a specific purpose.
This eventually became cumbersome, so Congress passed a law saying that the Executive branch could borrow up to $X million dollars for whatever reason.
The debt limit is adjusted periodically, and generally the debt limit is only raised. In the data I’ve reviewed its been lowered a few times, but I surmise that is simply a function of a law expiring, because shortly thereafter the limit is raised again.
Through much of the country’s history the debt limit remained reasonably stable, but in the past thirty years, the debt limit has increased incredibly.
But a dollar today won’t buy the same amount as a dollar ten years ago (or even a year ago!) So it makes more sense to compare the debt limit versus the Gross Domestic Product, a measure of the annual economic output of the country. By this measure it was high right after World War II, but got much smaller and reached its smallest point in the 1970s, then went on a growth spirt.
Again, if we look at this in the past 30 years, the debt limit has gone from about 30% of GDP to almost 100% of GDP. The only time this happened previously was a direct result of World War II.
So where do we borrow all this money? The government loans itself about a third of it. I can hear you now, “Wait the government loans itself money?!?” Yup, up until about a year ago the Social Security Administration took in more money in taxes than they paid out in benefits.
Whatever they didn’t send out as benefits, was put into a lockbox. Yup, as a result of Congress’s schanagians, the bonds go into an actual lockbox. But why not invest it in stocks? Well, if the government did that we’d have government owning a large amount of the American economy, and that’d be socialism, which is, ummmm… bad.
So who loans the government money? The first source, is the American Public. The government sells bonds, a form of debt, to individuals, banks, insurance companies, and anyone else who wants to buy them.
But the American public simply doesn’t have enough to loan the Federal Government. So about half of the money the federal government borrows is from overseas. About a quarter of the foreign debt is held by China, the next third is held by Japan, a sliver is held by the United Kingdom, and the remainder is held by a mix of countries. No I’m pretty sure the United Nations doesn’t hold any US Federal Debt.
So its not cheap to borrow $14.26 trillion dollars. The Federal government spends about $400 Billion a year on interest, or about 7.4% of the Federal budget. About half of this interest goes to those foreign debt holders.
So the question that should be asked is this level of borrowing sustainable? I honestly don’t think so. There are concerns about other country’s willingness to continue to lend money to us, but there is also the simple fact that we spend a significant amount of our annual budget simply to pay interest on that debt.
So how does this relate into class warfare?
This is simple to explain. Let us pretend that everyone for a moment is taxed at exactly the same rate, say 10%. If Jane makes $30,000 she’ll pay $3,000 of her income in taxes. If Joe makes $300,000 he’ll pay $30,000 of his income in taxes. But, Joe also decides to loan the government $30,000 of his income to the Federal government so he’ll get interest back, which will lower his effective taxes to say $25,000 or 8.3% of that back in interest. Jane on the other hand can’t loan even $1, let alone $3,000 or $30,000 to the Federal government, because she has to feed herself and her family. She will continue to pay 10% of her income in taxes, some of which goes to pay Joe.
Can someone please explain to me how this is fair?
To top it off, this also means that as we borrow more money, it gives some people ammunition to Starve the Beast, a.k.a reduce the size of the federal budget. While it is unclear where this will come from, recent history shows us that the most likely spot will come from the dismantling of the safety net. Also <tone type=”sarcasm”> known as folks that don’t matter, such as like young children without health care and the mentally ill.</tone>
Seriously though, this is where we’ve made cuts to the budget. Taking services that provide some shrivel of humanity to those who are barely able to get by as it is. That is immoral no matter what value system you personally hold.
I really think I was the kind of kid that would’ve flourished at a school like PSCS.
I was and still am the kind of person who will go digging through a topic because it interests me. Learning it and regurgitating it for a test is something I suck at. But regurgitating something that I loved to research? Yikes you can’t shut me up! I can tell you loads of information about the airline business, elaborate how the federal budget works, and where we borrow that money from, or explain the structure and operation of a variety of Internet protocols. (and I can hold my own with professionals in those fields.)
This isn’t to say I didn’t go to a good school, by standard academic measures it’s probably the first or second best school in Ohio. But it’s awfully competitive, that combined with poor time and task management skills really made it tough for me to succeed. In some ways I came out of there thinking I was mediocre. In the last ten years or so I’ve come to realize that, in the words of my precalc teacher that I’m “smart, but a bit lazy for her tastes.”. Realistically she was describing a symptom, not the cause. I was stressed, poor at managing my time and motivating myself. (An aside, in that class the lessons were taught discovery style, it wasn’t about conveying information, it was more about guiding you to discover what is known.)
I’m now tackling that time management problem, but it’s tough shaking out 20 years of bad habits.
If anything, today is more about cooperation than competition. Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Mozilla all work together to improve the web. No company makes a product all on their own. They’re always working with partners, vendors, governmental authorities, and oh yeah their customers.
I don’t want the guy who is at the top of their class working for me, I want the guy who did well, but also took the time out to help out his classmates, will go research and learn something because he’s interested in it, and who will spread the success around.
I’ve been discussing homeownership off the blog with my friend Cindy, in an extension of our discussion from my thoughts on the Irrational Attraction to Homeownership.
I wrote her an email today explaining why I think the desire for homeownership, and especially “The American Dream of Home Ownership” is as manufactured as the idea of a diamond engagement ring as a symbol of love.
I think its interesting and instructive to compare what Jonathan Larsen thought of the American reality of the early 1990s and to compare that to John F. Kennedy’s vision of an American Dream. So, if you would please indulge me with a few quotes:
Don’t breathe too deep / Don’t think all day / Dive into work / Drive the other way / That drip of hurt / That pint of shame / Goes away / Just play the game / You’re living in America / At the end of the millennium / You’re living in America / Leave your conscience at the tone / And when you’re living in America / At the end of the millennium / You’re what you own
Just tighten those shoulders / Just clench your jaw til you frown / Just don’t let go / Or you may drown / You’re living in America / At the end of the millennium / You’re what you own
Alexi – Mark / Call me a hypocrite / I need to finish my own film / I quit!
Dying in America / A the end of the millennium / We’re dying in America / To come into our own / And when you’re dying in America / At the end of the millennium / You’re not alone / I’m not alone / I’m not alone
&emdash; Jonathan Larsen through his characters Mark and Roger in “What you Own” from Rent (c. 1994)
Contrast this with John F. Kennedy’s description of the American Dream from the early 1960s.
But why, some say, the moon? Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
&emdash; John F Kennedy, Rice Stadium on Sept 12 1962
When did we move from the American Dream being pursuing your wildest visions and hopes, to measuring ourselves by what we own?
I’m where Mark and Roger are when they’re singing What You Own. I cannot and will not play the corporate consumerist American game. I agree with George Carlin’s statement from his CD Explicit Lyrics: “Pointless careerism? Pointless careerism? … To take a job in a criminal corporation that’s poisoning the environment and robbing customers out of their money? This is the worthiest thing they can think of? Isn’t there something nobler they can do to be helping this planet heal?” This isn’t to say that corporations in and of themselves are by definition immoral, but the demands placed on the managers of those corporations drive them to decisions that are less and less moral.
When I kick around what I’d like to be doing with my life, the real bottom line is simple: I want to create something. It is even better if it changes our world.
There have been so many ways this has manifested itself in my life. I love theatre because you’re part of making something, even if you’re only watching. But the process of collaboration and creation is simply one of the most joyful things I have experienced in my life. Handbells have been a huge part of this past year for me, and the joy of creating music with a group is wonderful.
So, now its time to create the hardest thing I’ve ever aimed to do: start a company and change an industry. Its one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, fraught with an huge amount of personal risk, but also a huge potential for joy and a space in which I believe I can engage my signature strengths.
This my friends is An American Dream. A real one, not one handed down from Madison Avenue or Washington DC. This is why people sailed across the oceans, to pursue their dreams fully and head on.
The American Dream is not a house, or what you own. The American Dream is one made of individual hopes, fears, and vision.
I’m sitting at the waterfront looking out over Elliot Bay, the sun shimmering across the water, and I’m feeling I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
But really, luck had nothing to do with this. Issac Wilkins calls for a focused used of aggression. I’d perhaps compare my move to Seattle as an aggressive move, but it was too unfocused, too unplanned.
I’ve gotten where I’m at through a unique blend of blind drive, stupidity, and a great support system of friends, family, and my church community.
I’ve had the blind drive to get where I’ve wanted to go, but it is community that has really pushed me higher toward achieving the dreams behind that blind ambition.
So, I was grabbing my bedtime snack, extra large curd cottage cheese (Don’t judge, its good shit), when I got buzzed by a moth. George immediately picked up on this, and went meowing after it and attempting to catch it.
Now the moth, being a moth, was attracted to the brightest light in the apartment, which was hanging from the ceiling, completely out of the reach of George. Now, I being a good cat servant, went about turning off all the lights, except one which I put near a chair, so that the moth would become accessible.
I’m not quite sure what happened, but somehow George got the idea that the moth had hid under the mat upon which his food bowl sits. Not one to be deterred by a simple mat, he took to exploring under the mat. I by this time had gotten my extra large curd cottage cheese, and instead of staring at the computer screen, decided to watch the cat, for a good five minutes as he went spelunking under the mat for the moth.
While George was doing this, George’s brother, Shaun, awoke from whatever uninterruptible slumber he was in, and walked up to his brother and decided that George was not clean enough, and he needed a bath behind the ear. (How Shaun decided this at that very moment I don’t know, as I generally tend to think George is not clean enough; He’s the only cat whose ass I’ve needed to wipe.)
Through all this hubbub I managed to lose the location of the moth, so I don’t know where it is…