A chance meeting with a passing soul

His name was Christopher, and he was sitting on the sidewalk outside of Trader Joes. I was doing a grocery run because Teri was busy with something, and I got off work early. One of the first things I learned about Christopher was he was going to the hospital. He had a hurt wrist, so he said, had a few possible broken ribs, and sclerosis of the liver. The second thing I learn about Christopher, before I even learned his name, was he was going to die.

“They told me I have 61 days,” he said to me, “I’ve been counting. I still have 40 left.”

When I came back out of the store, both arms loaded with groceries, I stopped to give him some cash. We talked about riding the bus and a few other things. His companion, very much not a homeless man, was named Pedro. Pedro was the kind of guy who ended every sentence with Praise God, or Praise Jesus. I knew the type, hell, I’d been the type. He seems to care, and was apparently going to take Christopher to the hospital, so I didn’t complain, although why they hadn’t gone in the time I was shopping I don’t understand.

Christopher was 51, and looked pretty good. His beard was long, but clean and well trimmed. His eyes were that color of electric blue that are startlingly pure. They were arresting eyes. His hair was turning from blonde to grey, but he had less grey in it than I do. Had his clothes been slightly cleaner he could have passed for an eccentric, and not a homeless man. His wore bright blue tennis shoes on his feet. One lay on its side on the sidewalk, the leg coming up at a strange angle from the foot, like he was woking on turning his ankle further so bottom of his foot could bend in more. The pose was both comfortable and awkward. He didn’t smell much of urine.

We talked about God and such. Christopher didn’t realize the meaning of his name, and when I told him, then Pedro wanted to know right away if I was a Christian or not. Somehow I seem to always do this with born-agains, I pepper the conversation with enough knowledge to make them ask, and then get to tell them I’m no longer a believer. It’s a stupid compulsion on my part. It stems in part from my need to be smarter than everyone else, and also possibly as a way to signal to them that their firm belief is not all that firm. A few times I’ve able to simply ignore Christians, or mouth the “christianese” enough to not draw attention, but today I didn’t.

Pedro wanted to know why I walked away from the faith. They always do. There’s no good answer to that, as least one a christian will understand. Knowing all about the faith, but not being of it doesn’t compute. It’s not a thought that fits within the christian meme. He asked if I was turned off by the church, but the truth is it wasn’t just the church. It was the whole thing. The whole memeplex is a mess. Too self-referential, and offering almost zero room for ideas outside of a very narrow set of beliefs. To me its like trying to build a giant apartment complex in a tiny sandbox with carefully guarded borders. There’s no room. It just doesn’t fit.

In any case I wasn’t there to discuss religion, and I wasn’t the main event. Sooner or later the conversations going to come back to Christopher, he was a drunk, this is how it goes. So I kicked the conversation back to him, and let it run its course.

We talked about a few more things, but I had frozen groceries in my bag, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for a long conversation. I wished Christopher well, and that he’d find sobriety. Then I give a mini lecture on the sacredness of work, explained how Jesus thought work important enough to even quote the OT on the topic (one of the few times he did), and wished him the desire to work hard on his life. For Pedro I wished him nothing, but left him with a pleasant greeting. Like me, Pedro is one of the lucky ones. Finally I wished Christopher luck. He’s going to need it if he wants to live past Christmas.

Then I drove home and put away my groceries.

Here’s the thing. We all have the knowledge that death can come at any moment. This week we had this concept strongly reaffirmed by the horrible shooting in Las Vegas. But the human mind naturally elides thoughts of death. If you try to force someone to pay attention to their future date with the grim reaper it will just piss them off. But occasionally one can approach the idea of their looming demise from an oblique angle, and not have a negative reaction. Christopher is a reminder that we all will die soon. I don’t mention this so you’ll be ready to meet your maker, since I don’t believe in one, but to point out the value of death is life. Death is a reminder to be what you want, to be who you are. If you were given 61 days would you spend it so drunk that you could trip on the sidewalk and break some ribs, or would you do something that made your life count?

Now here’s the real question, why wait?

On the nature of water and houses

Wimbledon Champions Park underwater. Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

As I write this, the city of Houston, and for that matter most of south east Texas, is getting hammered by tropical storm Harvey. Thousands of people have lost their homes to flooding, which is a terrible tragedy. Mind you, this is not a new thing. Floods have been hitting this region of years. There are reasons why Harvey could be seen as especially bad, but flooding is a way of life for some parts of the world, and it will always remain so.

Rather than talk about the tragedy of flooding, or attempt to point my finger in an area I know little about and understand even less, what I want to do here is offer a view towards a new and different future. A future in which I think has room for everyone, regardless of where you live, or the color of your political stripe.

One of the things we learned from hurricane Katrina, and we will learn from Harvey, is that flooding a house is expensive, Once water has reached the walls of a house, the cost of rebuilding it is staggering. Water is absorbed by almost all modern building materials, and once that material has been saturated it will either warp, become susceptible to mold, rot, fall apart, or do a variation on all four. On many houses, once it has been dipped in water, the costs associated with repair are so high that is it cheaper to simply tear down the home and start from scratch.

Now I’m not talking about shacks here, but houses. Homes that were, until the moment the river got a little too high, worth an appreciable amount of the owners net value. Literally, it’s like taking out $100,000 in bills from the bank, and tossing them in the river. Only multiplied by thousands and thousands of homes. The cost alone for replacement is enough to bankrupt most countries, and this from just one part of Texas. And this is not even taking into account the personal tragedy of people losing their property, mementos, and sadly their lives.

But what of there was a different path? What else can we do?

The single largest problem I see is that these houses were not built to be submerged. I’m not talking about the ability to face storm surges like what ripped out a lot of homes on the gulf coast from Katrina, but just being dunked for a few days in water. As long as the current forces aren’t all that high, and in a lot of flat areas that is all the kind of flooding most will see, a house that can withstand 4-6 feet of water, for 2-3 days, and can be livable again with just a few hours of repair, would be a huge cost saver for the state. Sure some of the items in such a house might be damaged, but replacing them is a small cost compared to loosing everything, and with a little planing could be easily remedied. For instance, if every room had special floats designed to hold furniture and equipment, one could inflate them, load them up with valuables, and let them ride out the storm high and dry.

Now this is not a new idea, flood proof homes have been designed and built for millennia. Do a google search for “flood proof houses” or see here, or here. What’s needed is not knowledge, but political will. What if the state of Texas offered a premium on houses rebuilt with flood proof materials or techniques? What if flood proof houses received a huge break on flood insurance? These are just a couple of ways to link the free market to less government costs.

Another idea would be to offer an X prize for flood proof houses, with the winner awarded a contract to rebuild homes in certain flood prone areas. Model homes could be built and tested, with all the data available to the public. People could see what works and what doesn’t, and the total costs would be pennies when compared to what we’ll be spending the next time this disaster happens. Because believe me, we’ll be seeing flooding in America again. There’s a long history of it.

Right now as I write this members of Congress are talking about passing a multi-billion dollar relief package for those effected by Harvey, so we’re sure to see a lot of money spent. Why not take the time and learn from our mistakes? Some places in Texas are going to flood, and there’s not much you can do about that, short of spending billions of dollars in large scale drainage systems, which themselves are likely to fail. Why not instead build houses with nature in mind? House that can be dunked, and then used over again without damage, mold, or loss. Why not spend a little now to ensure later success? That would not only be financially wise, but would also save lives. And isn’t that what our country should be about.

Lets be smart people. Lets spend our money well.

 

Actual evidence showing racism exists in America

Twice now in as many weeks I’ve run across a well meaning white friend who did not quite understand the nature of racism in America. I’m not posting this here to shame them, or for that matter to shame anybody, I’m putting this page up as a handy reference. My goal is to provide a single page with links to scholarly research (not reports, not news, and certainly not fake news) that indicates racial bias exists in America still.

Feel free to link to it if you wish.  (permalink)

For the most part the links go to original studies, not reports of studies. This distinction is important as I would like to present the data with as little slant or bias as possible. This is science, yo, not an opinion piece. Also, I respect that you came here, so I’ll try not to waste your time.

If you run across a good study that you don’t see here, feel free to email me a link. Likewise if you spot any errors please drop me a line. The goal is to keep this page as “objective” as possible with as little bias as I can offer.

 

An oldie but a goodie, from back in the early 1990s on how different races perceive each other:
Ethnic Images

This one is kind of surprising, especially the last part of the abstract. It’s about expulsion rates for children based on race (pdf link):
Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions?

This one is all about perception. It’s a Pew survey not a research paper, so consume with a healthy grain of salt.
On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart.

A paper using resumes and racially biased names. This paper is the one that started me down this path.
Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?

Even the police will not call you back as often with a black sounding name (pdf link):
Racial Discrimination is Local Public Services…

More about racially biased names and assumptions (pdf link):
Looming Large in other’s eyes….

A longer article that references the resume study above, but adds so many more that I’m just posting this here rather than fishing out all of the links.
Think you’re not racist?
Research uncovers our secret prejudices, and ways to overcome them.

One that came out as I was typing this. Apparently police cameras are useful for more than just video.
Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect.

I’m sure there is much more. I’ll be adding to this page as I find studies I deem worthy of your time.

On Dreams and Robust Systems

Last night I had the strangest dream, one that I think has a lot to tell us about the U.S. healthcare system.

I dreamed I was leading a team that was developing a robot. I don’t recall the purpose of the robot, but I do remember there were several teams competing for the same prize, and that my team was succeeding where the others were not.

Now, what you need to understand is that way back in the day (we’re talking the early 1990s) I came up with the idea of a robotic vacuum that I called the Yarn Shark. It was very similar in intent to a modern Roomba. I did a lot of booking up on robotic systems and architecture back then with the idea of making a sellable product. That robot never came about, but the knowledge remained.

So in my dream one of the things we’d done was run a string of LED lights along the inside of the wheels and mount opposite of the lights a single light sensor that could count them as they passed. This was an old school solution to help your robot know where it was at, what its speed was, and in what direction it was traveling. To give you an example, if the wheels on your robot are 3″ in circumference, and there are 8 lights along its edge, then if your sensor “sees” 8 flashes of light, it’s fair to guess your robot has moved forward 3″. Pretty basic stuff.

All of the robot teams in my dream had been using these LED lights to help them navigate. The main difference was that the other teams had very carefully wrapped their lights around the wheels so they were all spaced apart uniformly. But on our robot, we wrapped the lights any old way, not caring how exact the lights were spaced. Now that inexactness of our spacing should have lead to less accurate navigation, as you can imagine, and the other teams assumed. However, the opposite was true. Our robot consistently navigated far better than the others. This was not because randomly spaced lights are better than uniform ones, but because our software design was different.

The other robots relied upon their accurate spacing, and were programmed with the assumption that every flash of a light was a reliable indicator. Our system, by way of contrast, was designed from the get go with the idea that you could not trust what the sensors were telling the processor. In effect, our processor did not trust its sensors to be reliable, and therefore computed its location differently.

BTW this is largely true. In the real world a wheel moves forward and backward in ways that can be surprising, For instance, when a robot is turning the outer wheels roll a longer distance then the inside wheels. Which leads to the question, wheel is the reliable one? If a robot happens to back up and turn, then its possible a light will trigger the sensor while the wheel is going forward, and then backward. Your processor, not being able to know anything else about the wheel, might assume those flashes indicate consistent motion in one direction or the other, when in fact the wheel had gone both ways.

Our software was based upon the assumption that things could go wrong, and therefore it needed to ask itself more questions to be sure of its location. What did the other wheels indicate? What does the forward radar say? Etc. In engineering, this is called a more robust system. It assumes up front that things can go bad, and it reacts accordingly. Mind you, more robust systems are not perfect, among other things they require much more programming, and they take up more processing time than more simple systems. But they have one decided advantage, they’re not easy to surprise. Errors, in such a system, are expected. And this last part was the key to our robot’s success.

And now we get to the point of this essay. You see, I think Healthcare systems need to be designed more robustly. They need to assume from the get go that people are going to screw up, and have a solution at hand when it happens.

Mind you, I don’t go around assuming people are all screw ups, but when it comes to healthcare I think it fair to say us humans, even the most careful thinking of us, do not fully appreciate the inherent problems. For instance, one can be fully insured for medical problems, but if you’re in a bad auto accident, your health insurance will not cover your house payment that you cannot make because you’re lying in a hospital bed instead of at work. Or what happens if you meet the love of you life, get married, and then you both discover your partner suddenly develops a medical problem so severe it requires a transplant? (this is not an idol question, it happened to a family member) And most people do not worry that if they lose their job they will drink themselves to death, but this is happening so much that the life expectancy for white males of middle age has actually dropped in recent years.

Back before Obamacare our medical insurance system simply cut people off if they cost too much. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, eventually the person cut off would usually qualify for medicare. The problem is that last step was pretty steep, because medicare requires you to be broke before its cuts in. In realty, what happened is your insurance would stop making payments, while you continued to need medical care. Next, you’d go through your savings like poop through a goose, and eventually medicare would kick in right about the time you declared bankruptcy. So you would get your medical care, but only after you lost your house, your kid’s college fund, and your car.

This is stupid for more reasons than I care to count, primary among them is the loss of a good tax-paying citizen, replacing them with a tax liability. And all for a cost that would have been simple to fix at the time of the problem. It used to be that upwards of 60-100k people a year went through medical bankruptcies. That is 100,000 tax payers were reduced to welfare recipients, every year! Not only were we still footing the bill for their medical care, but then we all but insured that these people would never help pay for their bills out of their own pocket. Poor people being notorious for not paying taxes like the middle class do.

This is what I mean by not being a robust system. If your healthcare requires you to go bankrupt, it’s not really caring for you, is it? It’s just keeping you from dying. We need something a little more robust than ‘keeping us from dying”. That is not a good standard for healthcare.

And this is where I get back to my dream and robust systems. As we debate our future healthcare system, I think it imperative we keep in mind that humans get sick in unpredictable ways, and all of us need healthcare for the day when the unpredictable becomes the real. We know the unpredictable will happen–we know people will get cancer, or get in car accidents, become an alcoholic, or suddenly need a new pancreas–the problem is we don’t know who. Even worse, us humans are notoriously bad at assessing our needs. Every healthy human you meet between the ages of 16 and 30 are sure they don’t need medical care, which is true for all of us, but especially the young, right up until the moment that it isn’t. And when that happens, when young adult suddenly needs healthcare, should we penalize them for acting in a way that every healthy person does at their age? That seems pretty counterintuitive to me, and yet it’s a part of the proposed new healthcare.

A better system, that is a more robust system, would assume that they young are going to act like the young, and plan accordingly. Like the lights along the rim of the wheels, we can assume they’re all correct, or assume they are not. Which one is the more likely outcome? Well 90% of the time it will be that they are correct, but it’s that 10% error rate that is the most costly. The same thing applies to healthcare. Humans will mostly pick wrong, and mostly they will be okay. But when things do go south, because we know it does happen to somebody, if there is no system to cover that, then the person without coverage goes from an asset to a liability. A liability in which we all foot the bill.

The most important thing to remember while looking into changes to our healthcare, is that at the end of the day we all pay for everyone’s medical care. Something I think the Republicans are not fully aware of. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your skin color is, or what side of the tracks your family came form–at some point if you don’t foot your medical bills, then we do. We meaning ALL Americans. The cost either comes out of medicare, or it comes out of higher premiums for the healthy, but we do pay for it. Ironically, this is perhaps the single most egalitarian thing we do as Americans, we pay for each other’s healthcare.

Knowing that, doesn’t it make sense to pay for medical care in the lease expensive manner? I ask because emergency medical care is a lot more expensive than preventative care. We’ve all know this. It’s far cheaper to supplement a poor person’s healthcare, and have that care be pro-active, than it is to pay for their care in a hospital emergency room. It’s far cheaper to lightly supplement a middle-class family’s healthcare, than to wait for them to become bankrupt and pay for all of their healthcare. In terms of outcomes, one is far more expensive than the other. In other words, one is far more robust than the other.

And when it comes to tax credits verses subsidies, which is the more robust system? Speaking for my family I can say we’d do far better with a tax credit. But I run my own business and we’ve been playing the tax game for years. We’re used to setting a certain amount of our income aside, setting aside more for healthcare is not an issue. Bear in mind, we are very much the exception here. Most people, who are not used to setting money aside with every paycheck, absolutely suck at it. Every time I talk to a new freelancer I hear the same thing, they know they need to set money aside, but they don’t do it. When I first started freelancing I sucked at it too, up until I ran into problems with the IRS. So what’s the likelihood that people are goring to budget for their healthcare sufficiently for a tax credit to be helpful? Just about zero. Again, like the lights on the wheels, is it safe to assume this is going to work, or is it better to assume that people are going to fail, and plan accordingly?

And that doesn’t even take into account that the two systems (tax credits and subsidies) are simply using different words to describe the same thing. Both of them are the government giving money to the people. Sure one can argue that tax credit favor those who are contributing to the economy, but it completely ignores that it also greatly favors the wealthy and those who are good at managing their income, over the poor and those who are poor at income management. Moreover, it penalizes the poor, the very ones who can least afford the cost. That is a system guaranteed to fail.

I’m not trying to sell everyone on Obamacare, or on anything for that matter. What I’m trying to do is look at healthcare like a problem that can be solved, and then asking what the is more efficient, and failsafe way to accomplish it. I think worrying about things like whether healthcare is an entitlement is a poor place to start. If we’re paying for everyone’s healthcare anyway, and we are paying for it, then worrying about which bank account the money comes from seems rather silly to me, especially if it costs us more. Why not instead look at  the problem from the point of view of what areas are going to fail, and then plan accordingly? Why not ask for, and demand, a more robust healthcare system?

Isn’t that best for everyone?

My thoughts on 2016

As I write this it is the morning of December 27, 2016. For those perhaps reading this post in the future, this year has seen what feels like more than its fair share of stars and idols who have died. My Facebook account if full of many curses for 2016, and a lot of hue and cry, some of which I must admit is deeply entertaining on some level, but the general thrust of these posts has sparked me to make this comment.

We have been blessed with many heroes, and not too few villains, over the years, but they are not ours–they do not belong to us–and when they go it behoves us to send them off with the respect and dignity they deserve. We were blessed to stand in the shadow of their light–in what feels like, at times, a very dark world–but now it is up to us to make our own light, however pale it might seem in comparison.

We might say to them, “Goodbye dear friend,” and, “Thank you,” but we must also let them rest in the peace they have richly earned. They had their chance, now we have ours.

Hands

A new story. A fun one, me thinks. Short and sweet.
* * * * * * * * *

Gustavo worked the press on the 20th floor. Cold light slanted into the room from the overhead windows mixing with the dust and the smell of machine oil, and the sound of cars passing on the snow outside. The other machines lay still, the operators home with their families celebrating with lighted trees and fancy dinners.

Gustavo didn’t mind. Without the distractions of their constant chatter he could loose himself in the work. Press here, fold there, cut here, stitch there. It was the mindlessness of it, the way his hands took over and did all the thinking. It was deeply relaxing for him. His hands flew across the machine, pushing and pulling the fabric, sometimes surprising him by their deftness, and surety. Never in a million years could he do this work, his mind was too busy, too unsure, too afraid, but his hands, his hands had no problem. It was one of the things Gustavo liked most about working here, letting his hands go, watching them work the heavy machine creating something out of nothing. It was always a surprise to him., like looking into raw space and suddenly seeing a planet coalesce around a cloud of dust. Pants, shirts, coats, they formed themselves out of flat cloth, and thin thread, changing from raw materials into the something marvelous to wear. To him it was a miracle, every time.

Gustavo’s hands finished up a jacket, and pulled his eyes to the list, forcing him to see what was next on the special holiday rush. A part of his mind was wondering how much his boss made from such an order. Probably thousands of dollars, none of which would come to Gustavo. He didn’t mind though, he had his hands, and a small studio apartment two blocks away. Sure he lived alone, but really what more did he need? He had food, he had a place to sleep, and he had his work. Let the others be distracted by their families and their friends. His was enough.

Then he heard the sound of the workshop door opening, and without turning around knew it was Clarissa who had entered. Clarissa with her long dark hair, and her critical eye, and her stupid little gloves. She was the only one in the shop who did not like his work, the only one who was always critical of him, who could never be satisfied. He had been enjoying himself so much working by himself, but the thought of being trapped all day in the workshop with her made his shoulders slump. They slumped only a little, so little that no one would have noticed. No one, that is, except Clarissa.

“It’s good to see you too, Gustavo,” she said to his back, her biting sarcasm making him slump even more.

He heard the machine behind him start up, the computer opening and closing the valves, letting the steam work it’s way though the system, checking all the tolerances. Clarissa spent the time looking at the order and humming in her off key way. He could hear the sound of her gloves on the keys, the little rasping sound they made with each contact was like a knife to his back.

Gustavo looked to his own sheet, and went to the rack to pull more fabric. The order called for damask so he went through the storage room, his hands gliding over the row after row of draped fabric, sensing their warp and their wave with his finger tips, letting his hands chose the right cloth. They halted on bolt or damask that was light brown in color, and beautiful to the eye. A subtile but lovely pattern worked it’s way thought the weave that was faint to the eye. You had to look hard to see it, but it was there. This particular bolt held very little fabric. Gustavo knew without looking it was expensive. But his hands were insistent, so he pulled it out and carried it to his machine.

Just as he started entering the fabric into the back of his press he heard Clarissa’s voice. “You’re going to use that?”

Without turning, Gustavo shrugged his shoulders. This wasn’t enough of a reply for Clarissa. She stepped around her machine and walked right up to his order, reading the words out loud as if speaking them gave a different meaning. As she read she pointed at the words with her little gloves. The tip of her finger harsh and accusing.

Gustavo continued loading. Truth be told, he didn’t remember what kind of fabric was on the order. He had read it, and his hands had chosen. It was enough for him.

“That stuff is $50 a yard. Are you sure you want to use it?”

Gustavo turned, looking at Clarissa for the first time. She stared at him imperiously, her lips always ready to frown. Gustavo opened his mouth to say yes, his hands had chosen, but caught in her glare his resolve wilted. Wordlessly he waked over to the the front of his machine and read the order for a second time. All it said was damask slacks, with the measurements. Dully he looked at the matching coat he had already created, trying to capture the thoughts that had lead his hands to reach for exactly this type of damask, but under the sharp eye of Clarissa he felt his thoughts fall to pieces, like trying to put on a coat held loosely together with pins but no thread.

Slowly he walked to the back of his machine, and reversed the cloth out of the loading chute. As he carried it back to the storage room he could feel her cold smile. He hated working with Clarissa.

All morning and into the afternoon they worked together. Gustavo sewed, and Clarissa complained. “Are you sure you want to cut it that way?” she said. “Don’t you want a darker thread for that?” she said. “That’s not a good fabric choice,” she said. Nothing his hands did that day pleased her. Every complaint she spoke made his hands a little harder to hear, until finally at 4:00, the order almost complete, his hands gave out. Gustavo found himself standing before his great machine, completely still. He had no idea how long he had been standing there. All he knew is he couldn’t hear his hands. They were mute, they could not speak.

Clarissa came up behind him. He knew because he could hear her soft tread. “If you’re on the clock you need to work,” she said bitterly. Gustavo felt the words sting. There had never been a day where he didn’t work hard for the boss. He loved to work. He loved his hands. No one ever said different.

Then Clarissa placed a hand on his machine, right on top of the fabric he was supposed to be sewing. Gustavo felt the violation to his core. No one put their hands on another’s machine, especially when it was active. A machine could cut a hand to pieces, crush it until it was flat, and sew it into the fabric. All of these things and more. It was a dangerous place for anyone’s hands, even the operator’s. It simply was not done. Gustavo could not have felt more uncomfortable if she had pulled down his pants on a busy street corner, and shouted out loud.

He felt the anger and frustration boil up inside, rising up like the steam in his machine, but just as he was about to speak his eyes looked down. There was something about her hands that drew his eye. Always Clarissa wore her gloves. Always. It was a thing with her. She never touched anything with her hands, claiming they were too delicate. This time, however, he saw her hand was bare, and seeing her bare hand somehow stopped his rising anger like a hammer.

One glance and he could see the problem. Her hands were locked up, controlled, unhappy. No one spoke to them, they weren’t allowed to sing. Her hands were so unhappy they chapped, they bleed.

Without thinking Gustavo let his hands move. They reached out and landed like birds, gently onto the back of her hand. He heard Clarissa let out a gasp at the touch. He heard her inhale preparing to complain, but before she could say the words his fingers moved, they touched, they stroked. They said words to her hand in the unspoken language of caress, they spoke to her hand in the lost language of stroke, they flattered, they teased, they smiled, they loved.

Behind him Gustavo heard Clarissa make a sound. It was a sigh. Not a word, not a comment, just a sigh. It was the nicest thing she had ever said to him.

Then before he could think he had turned and she was in his arms, and his hands were doing things, and her hands were doing things, and he realized she had the most marvelous hands in the world.

After a moment their hands forced them apart. They stood there looking at each other in shock. Gustavo had never known how much his lips were like his hands. He felt a great desire to use them again, on her. To cover her face with his kisses–her face, and everything else.

But his hands, no their hands, were insistent. There was work to do and they were on the clock. They turned to their machines, and worked–she without her gloves, and he without a care. The fabric flew through their machines, the coats and pants came out the other side, perfect and without blemish, their hands doing all the work, their minds completely at ease. Until in very little time the special holiday rush was done and hanging on the rack ready to go out the next morning.

Then with nothing else to do they clocked out. Suddenly they found themselves standing next to each other at the back door, unsure what to do or what to say. Fortunately Gustavo’s hands knew what to do. They always did. Reaching out, they took Clarissa’s poor hands, still naked and uncovered, and guided her to his apartment. There his hands made her a simple dinner, and after both their stomachs were full, they let his lips take over. His lips and her lips. His hands and her hands. And when they were done, when the sun had come up the next morning, his hands fashioned for her hands a set of rings out of thread, one for each finger.

She cried, then he cried, then they went to work. Never again did she wear her gloves, and never again did he live alone. And always, through work, and tears, children, and sickness, their hands were happy.

A thank you letter

This is in response to receiving a new filter kit for our Falsken Water System that removes hard water deposits from the water before it enters our on-demand hot water heater. The text below was emailed to them. I’m placing it here because I thought it deserved more exposure.

 

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to you after receiving your tHT-20RF replacement filter for our Heater Treater 20. This is the third replacement cartridge we’ve purchased from your company. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the packaging. Previous replacement filters came pretty bare-bones, but this one was obviously a well-thought replacement kit. It included instructions, a new o-ring, and even a little silicon lubricant packet. Opening the box (which is also new packaging) was a wonderful surprise. A bit like expecting a Chevy and finding instead a Cadillac. So good job.

But here is the reason why I am writing. Upgrading a product like this is nice, but not always necessary. As your marketing director will no doubt tell you, I am considered a “captive customer,” that is I have already purchased your product (a heater treater, demanded by our plumber as a condition of installation for on-demand heater), and I’m not likely to purchase another. Short of buying a new home we’re pretty much heater treatered up. Sales of incidentals, like replacement filter cartridges, are probably not a big profit center for you, and they certainly don’t generate more profit by adding “goodies” in with the filter.

What this tells me is that someone in your company decided to upgrade your replacement filters, and did so against most of the advice they give you in business school. Even now I bet you have a bean-counter somewhere in your company telling you this was a bad business decision. Well I’m writing to you to tell you different. This was a brilliant move, one I hope more companies will emulate. Whomever made this decision should be congratulated. I used to be a captive customer, now I am a loyal one. This is an important difference, and well worth the extra money you spent on me. Dollar for dollar, this is damn good marketing.

Signed, a very thankful customer,

Eric Tolladay

On the morning after a major election.

So Donald Trump has become the President Elect. Congratulations to him for his victory. As you can imagine, I have a few things to say about this, as well as some predictions.

  1. First of all I want to acknowledge that I was wrong on this. I was pretty confident Hillary Clinton has this election wrapped up in a bag. Now, I wasn’t alone in my predictions, there were A LOT of others out there who had similar ideas about how the election was going to turn out. Some of them were giving Hillary a 95% chance of winning. At least Nate Silver at fivethiryeight was saying there was a chance the election could go the way it did. In fact, just a few days ago people on FB were claiming Nate was much too pessimistic. They’re not any more. If anything he was too optimistic, but at least he was wise enough to leave room for a Trump Victory. I think his tear-down of his own mistakes (believe me, he will), and of polling in general, will be instructive.But still it needs to be said, I made a mistake.
  2. For my many friends who are freaking out right now, please calm down. I can assure you the experience is survivable. I know this because we’ve been through this before. Almost exactly this experience. A Republican candidate winning the electoral college, but not the popular vote, after a successful eight years of a Democratic President, and the Democratic candidate loses because of a third party protest vote. Sound familiar? Well that was the 2000 presidential election. The only difference is this time we won’t have the Supreme Court stopping the recount efforts. So yeah, we’ve been here before. All is not lost. If our nation was big enough to survive a George W. Bush Presidency, then its big enough to survive a Trump one.
  3. To that end I think imperative that all Americans take a moment and find a way to come to terms with the will of the American people. Donald Trump won the election, He is the President-Elect. I think it incumbent upon us as citizens to respect the peaceful transfer of power that our country was founded upon. Come January 20th Trump will be President.To that end I am willing to cut him some slack. Hey, if I can be wrong about him winning the election its possible that I am wrong about his character flaws. So I’m willing to give him a little bit of rope. But only a little. I made the mistake of extending trust to George W. Bush, especially in terms of invading Iraq, and I will regret that to my grave. So President-Elect Trump will get my support, but only a small amount. He says he wants to be the President for all of America, which I think a worthy goal, so I will lend him enough support for him to make good on that promise. But if he fucks that up, I will be merciless.
  4. For my liberal friends, especially those who voted third party. I think it’s pretty clear this was one of the decisive elements at play in the election. From what I’ve seen Hillary could have carried a lot of the states that were close (Florida, Pennsylvania, etc.)  if it wasn’t for the protest vote. So pat yourself on the back if you want, but seriously do not be surprised at my contempt for you. You’re vote is more than how you feel. We’re all connected to it. If four years of Trump doesn’t bring home the ignorance of your position I don’t think anything I can say will.
  5. For my many conservative friends and family. First of all, enjoy. You won yourself a victory. It’s a great feeling. Enjoy it. I mean it. But when all the dust has settled, I expect you to be as critical and as harsh on President Trump as you were on President Obama. I think we all know Trump is not perfect, and I think it’s abundantly clear he’s not going to hear people from my side of the aisle complaining about his mistakes. So it’s going to be up to you to keep him in line. Good luck with that. I suspect you’re not going to like the job, but you voted the man in, so you get to deal with him.
  6. Curiously, I see a few hopeful things for a Trump Presidency. I think a President Trump will have a much better chance of getting a major medical care reform bill through Congress than Hillary would have. He has stated he wants to kill Obamacare, and God knows the congress will be happy to oblige him. The key question is what is he going to replace it with? If he just guts Obamacare, and doesn’t replace it with something similar, things are going to get ugly fast. If you don’t remember, we used to see something like 40k-100k of medical bankruptcies per year before it passed. All of the caused by the twin medical insurance demons of “pre-existing conditions” and “max. payout.” If those two horsemen of the apocalypse are let loose again expect to see serious push-back.
  7. As it happens my family and I are in a position to be fairly magnanimous about the election. For one thing we’re reasonably protected by living in a liberal state, for another we’re fairly wealthy. These two offer a great shield against anything a President Trump might do. But also I am white, and male. Two things that almost guarantee me a certain level of protection and freedom. No one is going to be pulling me over soon saying, “papers please.” Not all of my friends can say that. In terms of costs, a Trump Presidency will not be all that expensive to us.
  8. So what is it going to cost our nation? That is the $100,000 question. Judging by our 2000 election and subsequent Republican rule,  I’m going to make a few predictions. We’ll have to wait and see which one of these comes true, if any. Remember I was already wrong about Trump (see #1, above), so there’s no guarantee I’ll be right about these.I think that by the end of his first term, Trump will:
    a) See the economy rise to 4% GDP, and then drop down to 2% or less.
    b) See the deficit (right now predicted to be $590B for 2016) rise to $1T or even $1.5T
    c) Raise the National debt from the projected $14T to $20T or more.
    d) See unemployment rise by 2%
    e) Have at least one major scandal (personally, or on his staff) requiring a Special Prosecutor.
    f) See at least one very large terrorist act on U.S. soil. (which to be fair is not directly related to his actions, although he’s claimed differently).
    g) Cause at least one major rift in the Republican party.
    h) Involve us in at least one open conflict that involves troops on the ground (not just military advisors), for which he will not raise taxes.
    i) Cause our international standing to plummet at least once in a major way.
    j) Cause the Dollar to drop dramatically at least once.

 

That’s it for now. I might go and add more to my list, but I wanted it posted here for posterity.

Memorial Day, 2016

His name was Conrad G. Tolladay, and he was my uncle, though I never met the man. He was also a second lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps. Before today if you had told me his name I would have said, “Conrad who?” Nobody in the family used his first name, everyone called him Jimmy. I only found out about his “real” first name by searching the internet for a photo. That’s also how I learned that on January 17, 1944, flying a P-38 named “Oh Kay” over Burma, he was shot down and never seen again. He was 24 years old.

But that is the end of his story.

Jimmy’s story begins on the 18th of September, 1919, in Madera California. He was the first born son of George and Selma Tolladay, and by all accounts was a bit of a joker. On family gatherings his name came up often enough, but the stories about him were always colored with sadness. He was well loved, and deeply missed.

Jimmy was brave, fun-loving, and at times a little reckless. He was raised to be a cowboy on a working cattle ranch, like my father and my uncle. Among other things this meant he could ride hard and shoot straight; the perfect thing for a fledgling Army Air Corps in need of fighter pilots. He had just turned 22 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He must have signed up for the service immediately afterwards, like a lot of other brave men and woman.

When I was a kid I used to always think that Uncle Jim would one day show up at our house full of epic stories of survival, telling us how he clawed his way out of the jungle to come back and be with his family. Now that I’m older I can see that he must have been very lonely in India, fighting an enemy he barely understood, for a country (China) he barely liked, in an airplane that was at times both thrilling and terrifying to fly.

Now, when I think of Jim, or any of the other 404,000 Americans who died for our country in that horrible war, I often wonder what they would have said if they had known what we have purchased with their sacrifice. Would they marvel at pro Football on color television sets? Would they stand up and cheer at the civil right movement, or would it fill them with anger and disdain? What would they think of rock and roll, the Vietnam War, or President Nixon’s criminal acts? Would they love Elvis, the Beatles? What would they think of the atomic bomb, or the British New Wave? Would they think the cost of their lives was too high a price for such trivial things, or would they be proud of what we have done with their payment?

Short of heaven, these things are lost to us, like their very lives. We’ll never know what they would think of the coming world because for them it stopped the day they stepped into their plane, or their ship, or their foxhole. All we have to carry their memories forward a few photographs, and family stories.

Thus it is fitting that one day a year we raise a flag and take the time to remember the price that they paid. These brave American souls paid a heavy price so that we can sit, sipping our coffees and browsing the internet. Try to remember in the coming days that your life, your livelihood, and your lifestyle are not free; they were paid for by somebody else, at a great personal cost.

Thank you Uncle Jimmy for your life and your stories.

An Open Letter to the California Employment Development Department

The other day I had a conversation with an employee at the California Employment Development Department, which contrary to what the name implies is not strictly interested in developing employment. The reason we had the conversation was because a client of mine was being investigated to see if they had properly classified me as an independent contractor. The purpose of the call left me scratching my head. I’ve been working as an independent contractors since 1993. Why would it suddenly be different now?

Well, it turns out it is different now. Thanks to a law passed in 2011 (SB 459) the great state of California added new criteria for determining an independent contractor’s status, and as an added bonus included in the law fines for companies that knowingly misclassified employees as independent contractors. Hence the call from the EDD. The nice employee (I’m not being ironic here, the employee was pleasant on the phone and took great pains to help me understand the law, without ever leading me or telling me what to do. They are quite talented at their job.) lead me though a fairly informal interview and was careful to gather all the input I wanted to give. Finally the conversation ended, but I was left with an uneasy feeling as if I had forgotten something. I can’t be the only one here who remembers the right thing to say 20 minutes after the conversation has ended. After first writing my local state representatives asking for the Assemblymen and Senators who work on the appropriate committees, I sat around and thought about my position. The remaining paragraphs are the result of a weekend worth of pondering.

The name of the employee is intentionally omitted here, as any reference to their gender. Like I said, I found the employee talented and was obviously doing their job to the best of their abilities. In no way did I find fault with them or their actions. They don’t set the rules, our state legislature do that. If you have any complaints please take it up with them.

Dear NAME

I’m writing to you after our conversation the other day regarding COMPANY NAME. Over the weekend it occurred to me that I may have missed some points that could be pertinent to your investigation. I thought I would write in hopes of clarifying these points. Please excuse the length. I’ll try to keep this as quick as possible.

From our conversion I was left with the opinion that one of the defining characteristic of an employee (as opposed to an independent contractor) was whether the individual worked at  the office of the company and used their equipment. Since I often work at my clients offices and use their computers, I can see that this might be a determining characteristic. However, I feel like there is an important distinction here that may have been missed.

Most of my clients have dozens of computer stations set up around their offices. The computers are all similar if not identical in abilities, and all pretty much run the same software. They are as alike as the tech guys can maintain them.

Working on these computers will be a whole host of employees and freelancers, like myself. The value that each person brings to his or her computer is related to their knowledge and expertise. Broadly speaking, there are a few people who make about $15 per hour, a larger group that make around $50 per hour, and finally a few rare individuals who make over $100 per hour. When I say, “make” here I’m talking about what the individual directly charges the company, or the value they bring to the company. Because these people can move about the office, it’s quite common for a computer to have a $15/hour employee working on it one day, and a $50/per hour employee on it the next.

Now if a computer is on Monday making $15/hour for the company, but on Tuesday is making $50/hour, then it would not be accurate to say it is the computer that is bringing value to the company. Because the same computer should, if it was the source of the value, provide a similar value every day of the week. But it doesnt. In fact the computer’s value to the company varies in direct proportion to the person who is using it. That is to say the money the computer generates comes not from itself, but from its users. If they are all running the same software, and have very similar abilities, then the only difference must come from another source. That is, the users.

This is the nature of all work that is a craft; that is a type of work in which the individual “crafts” or creates an art piece. All craft is like this, be it sculpture, pottery, wood carving, or even the more abstract crafts like writing, playing guitar. Much like a potter making mugs on a potter’s wheel, or a sculptor carving images in stone, the value of the work comes directly from the value of the crafter, not from the tools. One would never praise a potter’s wheel for making finely crafted mugs, nor a chisel for carving excellent sculptures. No it is understood that the work comes from the hands of the wielder, not the tools. In the same way, one would never assume it is the computer doing the work of making quality advertising art. Like every other craft, it is the people wielding the tools that create the work, and create the value.

In this context, computers are not a source of value, they are an overhead cost, much like any other office expenses like air conditioning, desks & chairs, telephone systems, or copy machines. They may be a requirement to create the work, but they do not create the work themselves. They are no more important to the value of the work than the air conditioning system, or the type of paper in the copy machine.

So far, all of this is to argue that computers are merely office equipment, a point you likely already accept. It is this next point which I think bears greater scrutiny.

If it is true, as I have laid out above, that the greatest single value brought to any piece of craft stems from the individual doing the work, then it follows that the single greatest tool being applied to the craft resides inside the user. That is the say, the person doing the work is also the holder of the most important tools.

I know this might come across kind of crazy, so let me try to break this down for you. The worker in this context, the one doing the crafting, carries with them two essential things; their knowledge and their abilities. That is, they carry with them what they know, and what they do. These, I would contend, are the most significant differences between someone who does $15/hour work on a computer and one who does $100/hour work. The person doing the more valuable work, has more knowledge, more experience, and they have more tools. This is what I mean by tools. In this narrow context tools are ways of solving technical and artistic problems.

Some of these tools exists in the hands and the eyes of the user, but a vast majority of them reside entirely within their head.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Every computer I work on (and I work on a whole host of them) offers the exact same value when I am using them. This is because the value resides within my head. It’s not in a box I bring to the office, it’s not any special software I keep on a hard drive, it all resides within my head. Quite literally, every office I work at, I go there with my own tools. Not only are they my own tools, but they are the most significant tools in the entire process.

So when you ask if I work in my client’s offices, I will say yes. When you ask if I use their computers I will say yes, but the most important tool I use comes not from the client, or from their commuters but comes from myself. I literally am my most important tool. My head, my hands, and my eyes. It is from these things that my income flows, and nothing else.

So if the most significant tool is the one that resides in my head, then is it accurate to say I am an employee, and not an independent contractor? After all the most significant tool is not supplied by the company I work for, it is supplied by me. If I’m the one providing the most significant source of value, doesn’t that not make me independent?