-->

28 December, 2010

Seattle 520 bridge construction promises more bad transit decisions

For years, they've been talking about "fixing" the situation with SR-520, the "highway" that serves as one of the two commute paths across Lake Washington, connecting the Eastside to Seattle. Every time it appears in the news, I imagine the horror that is going to occur when that road goes under construction. But it fades from the news, and I forget for a little while.

This week, I was reminded once again that the tolls (Phase 1 of the insanity that will ensue) will commence in a few months. Even though major construction will not start for some time after that, the tolling is going to immediately disrupt the tenuous excuse for an "equilibrium" that currently keeps traffic at a manageable level. After much debate and deliberation, it appears that they have decided to only put a toll on SR-520 itself, and not charge drivers who go across I-90, located a few miles south. Makes sense, right? We should only make those who use the road pay for its improvement.

I'm hoping that you can detect the sarcasm in that assertion.

Apparently, those who make the decisions about such things must prefer checkers over chess, because they're clearly not in the business of thinking more than one step ahead. It does not require a doctorate in statistical analysis or civil engineering, or even a college education to know that if you only tax (I mean, toll) one of the two bridges across the lake, it will result in a percentage of traffic diverting to the other bridge to avoid the toll. On the surface (again, only one move ahead) you might think this is a good thing, because SR-520 traffic tends to be a bit worse on a daily basis than I-90. Fair, right? But if that flux of cars avoiding SR-520 is great enough, it will lead to a traffic nightmare on I-90. There are already issues with that road due to its lane arrangement, with frequent backups passing through Mercer Island, even when traffic would otherwise be moderate or light. If you throw 20% more load into that system, it is probably going to break. Similarly, the I-90/I-405 interchange is extremely poorly designed, with on-ramp and off-ramp positions too close together, resulting in unnecessary backups every day, even in light traffic, just trying to sort out the cars who are getting on the highway from those getting off the highway. If you add 20% more traffic, it will have a dramatic impact on those bottlenecks first.

I'm not even considering the fact that the construction itself (as it always does) will cause rubber-necking pandemonium on SR-520, likely nullifying the hypothesized speed-up of traffic due to imposing of tolls. In fact, maybe they are thinking 2 moves ahead. Maybe they know that SR-520 is going to be nuts, and they're trying to dump traffic onto I-90 just to keep things balanced. But if that's the case, they should not be touting expected increases in travel speed by imposing tolls. They should come out and say "For 2 years, it's going to be the worst imaginable nightmare. We know it. And the only thing we can do is try to distribute it evenly, so we're putting a toll on SR-520 to get the cars off that road." At least that would demonstrate some integrity. But politicians who make decisions don't like to make unpopular statements. They'd rather live now and pay later. One thing politicians are good are is apologizing and informing the public that said circumstances were unforeseen.

The last part of my rant relates to the utter selfishness of the whining residents of Mercer Island who, in their aloof upper-middle-class land of delusion, are under the impression that they should be protected from the ills of infrastructure improvement, unless it directly benefits them. These folks are insisting that tolling I-90 is unfair and will disrupt businesses, and unfairly tax them, and potentially impact their school system by making it difficult for their teachers to get to and from work. Seriously? I'll bet that if we look at the median income of a Mercer Island resident, and the number of hours per week that the average Mercer Island resident spends working and/or commuting, as compared to a Seattle resident, we'll see that a) they can afford to pay a toll, and b) they can afford to cover the cost of their teachers' tolls and give them a pay raise to compensate their inconvenience, and c) they can afford to spend a little more time sitting in traffic (which they'll do if we don't put a toll on I-90, for sure). If they want idyllic island life, without confronting the reality of being within a stone's throw of a major metropolitan area, let them pack their bags, load up their Lexus SUVs, and move to Whidbey Island.

A final note about the entire project. Apparently, the city has not yet settled on how they're going to finish the project. They haven't completely sorted out where the money will come from. And they haven't sorted out what the design will actually be for the section of SR-520 that connects Montlake to I-5. This is a rather shocking detail, considering that it involves major complicated connections, with political pressure from neighborhoods about where there should or should not be on-ramps. Beginning to replace the bridge across the lake without a plan for connecting up to I-5 is like launching the Space Shuttle without equipping it with the appropriate shielding for reentering the atmosphere.

Well, it's not exactly like that. But I'm at a loss for a suitable metaphor.

23 December, 2010

Foray into Windows Phone 7 ends with iPhone relapse

If you read my post below about the Samsung Focus, and my month-long experience with it, you probably won't be surprised to know that I caved and went back to the iPhone 4. Sadly, I realized that for a gadget geek, it just makes no sense to wait, dissatisfied, hoping and praying that Microsoft does enough to make their phones a viable alternative with updates over the coming year(s). The promise of "copy and paste" as the big January update just didn't cut it for me. And if one reads the available rumors on the internet, it sounds like there won't be much else significant to speak of until at least late summer or early fall when WP7.5 is supposedly scheduled to be released.

The thing that made it so hard for me to decide to leave the platform was that everybody else seems so happy with them. All the reviews online are talking about how fabulous it is. People have referred to it as at least a Droid killer, if not an iPhone killer. How could I be so out of alignment with consensus? Or is it just that I always have buyer's remorse over every decision?

Then, one day last week, my officemate came into work with her new Samsung Focus. She'd been an iPhone 3G user, previously. And the first words out of her mouth were "Oh my God! I am so incredibly frustrated with this new phone!" We talked about it a bit. And her description of the WP7 pretty much hit the nail right on the head: "All of the fancy, beautiful animations and fonts are impressive for like the first fifteen minutes. After that, I was like 'Where are all my apps?'"

Indeed.

Now, I recognize that it would be completely unfair to expect a brand-new platform to have a good selection of applications. Though, we should pause for a second and note that Microsoft is not really a brand-new player in the mobile device industry. Microsoft has been making operating systems for mobile/portable devices for between eight and ten years, depending on exactly where you start counting, with the first Windows Mobile smartphones in 2003. I recognize that Windows Phone 7 represents a new platform. But that doesn't change the fact that Microsoft has been in the mobile phone business longer than Apple or Google. The company chose to start over again with WP7, in the hopes that it will take them further in the long run. This is a bold move, and likely signals a commitment to becoming a real contender.

But the conversation with my colleague made me realize that, for those of us who have been enjoying the rich experience available on phones such as the iPhone or the Droid, it is a huge step backward to adopt a new platform. For some users, this may not be a problem; namely, those who really just use a phone for email, text, voice, and occasional directions or web browsing. But I'm a user who has typically pushed the phone to the limits, always wanting to have the coolest and most extreme functionality.

Long story short, I found myself on Craigslist, sent half a dozen emails, and found a seller of an iPhone 4 who worked on campus. He had just purchased his Samsung Focus, and was cashing in his iPhone. I paid him $500 cold hard cash for the privilege to reenter the comfortable world of iPhone. I'd sold mine 3 weeks ago for $450. I decided that a $50 penalty was an acceptable price to pay for a valuable lesson learned. Leave well enough alone.

I'm not really sorry that I experimented with the WP7. And I wanted to like it... I really did. Some of what it does, it does very well. I can't doubt that in a year or two, WP7 may kill the Droid. It is a little harder to believe that Apple will slow their innovation to the degree that it would fall behind WP7.

Now that I have my iPhone back in my hand, with the solid substantial feel of glass and metal, the gorgeous and tantalizing sensibly small icons for dozens of interesting applications, and the confidence that anything cool that is ever made, by anyone, will be available to me on this platform, I feel a sense of relief. And I also feel a lot more forgiving of the shortcomings of the iPhone. If you read way back through my posts (such as this one or this one), you'll hear me rant about the things iPhone didn't do right. But I can see now that I was selectively ignoring the 95% of what Apple did right.

Last week, my girlfriend's new HTC MyTouch 4g Droid phone seemed like a space-age wonder device. I was having such phone envy, I wanted to yell at her, because of my jealousy as she happily poked away at tiny cool icons of neat little apps. Now that I have my iPhone again, I look at the latest Droid, and have a slightly different take. The Droid now looks like a powerful, but slightly chaotic, glitchy, non-cohesive experience that emulates the Apple iPhone, but feels more like a story that's composed by passing a notebook around a campfire with each person writing one sentence. That's the place where WP7 has a good shot at overtaking the Droid, because Microsoft does appear to have a consistent experience so far, even across manufacturers and providers. That will go a long way. I look forward to seeing just how far, and hope that I'll find myself giving WP another chance, whether it be WP7, WP7.5 or WP8.

20 December, 2010

Free healthcare for children

The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend about healthcare for children.

Guess what? Healthcare isn't free for children. Who knew?

I'm being facetious, of course. Everyone with a child knows. And most everyone else knows, too. If you're dismally poor, then there are provisions in the government to provide. But otherwise, a child's healthcare is in a similar bucket to an adult's healthcare. It must be either paid for, at least to some degree, by some adult, or it is provided, at least in part, by some employer of said adult. This strikes me as "wrong." Children are not required or expected to work, of course. Nobody disputes that. Likewise, children are not expected to provide for themselves. It is expected that someone will provide for children. And proper healthcare might be imagined to fall under the general category of things that should be provided. And yet, it seems that parents are needing to make very tough choices about how much and what type of healthcare to provide, in cases where there isn't an employer-based plan to take care of everything.

I recognize I'm oversimplifying this issue dramatically. I recognize that someone needs to pay for it. I recognize that our taxes already have deductions for children that could be construed as provision toward healthcare costs, or other living costs associated with raising a child. It's a complicated one.

The problem I have is this: in much the same way that children are at the mercy of what their parents feed them, and how their parents discipline them, nurture them, provide for their education; children are also at the mercy of how their parents provide for their healthcare.

As I am writing this, I am recognizing the futility of my point. Healthcare is just one of many ways in which children are at the mercy of their parents' ability to provide. The truth is, children must enter the world, and develop in the world that is largely defined by the environment that the parents create. Children start off "innocent," and it would be nice to think that they have all the best things afforded them: great food, a great home, education, social opportunities, travel, healthcare, love. If they did, one can imagine that outcomes would be better in this world than they are. The part that is difficult for me is the idea that socioeconomic factors play such a major role in defining the nature of this childhood experience. It really comes to the question of "Is it the government's responsibility to level the playing field?" and if yes, the next question would still be "Is there an approach to leveling the playing field whose measurable success justifies the overall cost to society of doing so?" And the answers to those questions may define the fundamental difference between the left and the right. The left would rather see the effort made, even if it is a failed one, even if it is immeasurable or inconclusive, even if there is massive systemic abuse, in order to assert that the government takes responsibility for the welfare of citizens. The right would say that it is not the responsibility of government to do so, and furthermore, that there is not evidence that the cost to society outweighs the benefit.

Sometimes, I try to compare us to "the animals" and see if we're the same, better, or worse. The rationale in my mind is that we should at least be "the same" and hopefully "better" when it comes to how our civilization operates. Animals that are stronger, more genetically fit, more fortunate circumstantially, tend to thrive over those who are less so. And the animals that are more fit will have no hesitation whatsoever about exercising this dominance to provide for their own. For some animals, this occurs at the individual level. For some, at the group level. In most cases, a given species will exercise whatever actions it must, at the expense of another species, for its own survival. Humans don't really appear to operate at much different level, on average, than the animals do. The key differences are the presence of extreme outliers (altruists, barbarians), and the diversity of fashions in which one human or a group of humans may demonstrate "fitness." For humans, to be "fit" is no longer just a biological phenomenon. And fortunate circumstances can come in far more forms than exist in the animal kingdom.

I'd like to see society operate in a more altruistic fashion. Partly because I am idealist, I realize. But also, because I believe we have the capacity and the means to do so. But therein lies more idealism, I suppose.

16 December, 2010

Samsung Focus Windows Phone 7 Review

I hate to go "techie" in this blog, but I cannot resist the need to review this phone here. I am doing it for two reasons: (1) to vent my frustrations and (2) to counterbalance the overly positive reviews that seem to be appearing elsewhere online.

I've been using the Focus for about 1 month now. This is my second Samsung Focus, because I had to return the first one due to problems with the device.

Industrial Design

The Focus does not look as expensive as an iPhone and it does not feel as substantial as most other phones in its class, including T-Mobile's HTC HD7. The reasons for this are its light weight, rounded soft corners, and the lack of any metal on the body of the device. It just feels and looks flimsy. In the first week or two of ownership, I dropped the phone several times (which interestingly never happened with my iPhone in years of ownership). Each time, the cheap plastic back of the phone fell off, and the battery fell out. Cheap.

Continuing on with the ID flaws, perhaps the biggest problem is the button placement on this phone. Windows Phone 7 already (in my opinion) made some bad decisions by using all softkeys for the main controls on the face. I constantly find myself accidentally pressing the back button or launching Bing, because of my hands resting on the phone. While this is likely an issue with all WP7 devices, I suspect it's exacerbated on the Focus because of the extreme rounding of corners and positioning of the buttons very low. But the softkeys are not the worst problem. It's all of the other buttons. If you look at other WP7 devices (or the iPhone, or most Androids), the Power button is positioned on the top of the phone. And there's a really good reason for that: So you don't accidentally shut off your phone when you don't mean to. But Samsung messed this up. They put the Power button on the right side, opposite the Volume controls. Consequence? When you're trying to increase or decrease volume while gripping the phone, you're likely to press the Power button. Even worse, is that the Power button is on the same side as the Camera shutter button. Consequence? When you're holding your phone in various orientations and you want to activate the camera, it's easy to get confused and accidentally shut off your phone instead of launching the camera application. This was a completely unnecessary problem, and it was introduced because Samsung decided to do things differently than most of the other manufacturers.

Performance and Experience

The phone has great headphones. I will tell you that. Compared to the HTC HD7 or the MyTouch 4g Android (which my girlfriend just got), these are really good quality. The phone also has very good sound quality for calls and for music.

The camera in the Focus is great - from what I can tell, it takes better pictures than the iPhone 4. Of course, there is no front-facing camera, which deprives you of the self-portrait capability, but if you only have your phone with you for picture taking, you probably won't be disappointed with the Samsung Focus. Even when zooming in, the images do not become pixelated. And, comparing this phone with the other WP7 models that I've seen, it has far more features and controls in the camera settings menu, including some very useful things that make it a bona fide digital camera.

Now for the negatives... some of which may be WP7 issues, and some may be Focus-specific.

Facebook is painfully slow (usually 15 seconds to load, and then continues slowly loading pages after that). The internet browsing experience is absolutely abysmal. Sometimes pages don't even load, it just times out and sits there. If this is an indication of what we can expect the application experience to be, I think that WP7 is in for some big challenges, since they don't come close to competing with iPhone or Android at this point.

Maps are slow, awkward, and the GPS can be horribly inaccurate. With the iPhone, I always found that the "Current Location" parameter worked quite well for obtaining directions, and it would update incrementally with decent precision. In contrast, the Focus' GPS is routinely off by over 1 mile in a major urban area, resulting in the "My Location" parameter being useless for obtaining directions, since it will give you directions from somewhere other than where you are. If you are on Wi-Fi, this problem goes away, but I don't think we can rely on Wi-Fi connection for mobile mapping applications, nor should we be expected to do so. Final comment on maps is that Bing Maps are far behind Google in terms of quality, and for some reason they are not privy to the same data that Google has for satellite views - but that's a WP7 issue, not specific to Samsung Focus, of course.

Problems, Glitches, Defects

I had to return my first Focus because of an audio problem. I am not sure if it was hardware or software, but almost every day it was necessary to reboot the phone in order to listen to music. It seems like some other application (Bluetooth? YouTube? Other?) was stealing the audio path, such that when I played Zune, the counter would indicate that music was playing, but no sound would emit. Reboot solved the problem, but it was a daily occurrence.

My second Focus does not have the audio problem, but it does suffer from a number of freeze-ups and glitches, where the screen goes black, or flickers, or applications become unresponsive. Another frequent occurrence is that I will try to launch an application, and after about 5-10 seconds delay, it will return me to the home screen without launching. This has happened for Zune and Marketplace.

Summary

I'm stuck with a Windows Phone 7. That's the bottom line. I'm stuck for X amount of time with a Beta-quality phone, when I had a fully-functional, application-rich, fast iPhone 4.

I've thought about bringing this Samsung back and swapping for the HTC Surround, but I'm not sure it's worth it. From what I've seen, I'll be sacrificing in camera quality, and getting crappier headphones. The Surround does have a sturdier design, but it also has a smaller screen. There just aren't many good choices.

The phone will receive updates in January and February, we're told. Features will be added. But will the glitchiness and poor performance be addressed in any of these patches? That remains to be seen.

I don't think I'll ever get over my frustration with the button placement, both of WP7 (softkeys) and the Samsung Focus (Power button). Likely, I will "suck it up" and live with this for a year, until AT&T decides I'm eligible for an upgrade. At that point, I'm not sure what I'll do. I've never been a fan of AT&T as a company, and now that I've hopped off the iPhone bandwagon, perhaps Android is next? And if that's the case, I'll probably go to either T-Mobile or Sprint.

05 November, 2010

Couple in a kayak

It occurred to me yesterday that the best way to understand the dynamic between two people is to put them in a kayak together, and watch what happens. It's the perfect metaphor for the relationship dynamic.

You could really pick any of a number of types of activities, but the thing about a kayak is that you are tied enough to one another's "fate" that it models the interdependence of people in relationship; contrast that, for instance, with hiking, where people are less intertwined. At the same time, you are not so dependent on one another so as to be unrealistically associated, as would be the case with tandem cycling, for example.

The kayak is perfect.

When you get into a kayak, you are not fully in control of your own destiny. There needs to be cooperative decision-making, mutual effort, coordination, consideration, attentiveness to subtle details, patience, positive attitude. And when a couple is struggling in their relationship, the kayak reveals all truths.

I think back on various kayak relationships I have had. I remember bickering over the minutiae of planning a course, and navigating and executing the steering properly. What a fantastic metaphor for the kind of hypercritical battles that I had in that particular relationship! The big picture, i.e. "We are still moving down the river" didn't matter nearly as much as "But I told you not to go over there because of the rocks!" It didn't matter that we made it around the rocks anyway. It only mattered that there was a failure to follow specific instructions. I can recall being irritated with a partner who was not paddling as much as I thought they should be. All these angry feelings started stirring up in me, about how they just expected others to do all the work for them. It probably said more about my judgment and impatience than anything else because, honestly, there was more than one interpretation to their behavior. Perhaps they just didn't feel the need to turn the trip into work. Perhaps for them it was about leisure, and peace, and relaxation, as opposed to getting there.

When you see the healthy couple in the kayak, you see a silent, fluid rhythm. You see two bodies in harmony. Paddles switch sides without a word or a splash. Turns are gradual, and feel natural. Both people coast at the same time, or take turns coasting while the other maintains course, or halt to explore or observe something interesting or beautiful.

The kayak becomes a vessel symbolizing the connection between two people. In reality, there's always a kayak, even if it's an invisible one. The kayak holds us close to one another. Always within reach. Always with a subtle yet surmountable degree of interdependence. Capable of synergy. Moving through the world as one force. With one course, and one wake.

Yet also capable of drifting... listing... capsizing... sinking.

Together.

04 November, 2010

Conquering fear in the strangest ways

I am going to Hawaii. Alone.

That's it. It's that simple. But embedded in that simple plan is the intention and apprehension around conquering one of my biggest fears. Being alone. And it's not quite as simple as I stated it. The plan that is "locked and loaded" is the part about "going," and the part about "alone." What remains to be executed is the bigger part of the plan, which is "going alone with no iPhone and no internet connectivity."

Whoa.

Yes. That's the part that makes it even harder. Scarier. But potentially so much more important.

It's a retreat.

I don't know how to describe it in a way that connects the various dots that I've been trying to put together for 20 years. But I just know that it comes to this. And even if it doesn't, it still does.

The first time I heard of meditation was when I was a kid. My brother would come to visit, and he would sit in the corner of the dining room, in the dark, in a chair, with his hands folded on his lap. And he would sit silently with his head down. He was meditating. And I was not supposed to bother him or interrupt. Of course, this made it incredibly difficult for me to not bother him, because I wanted to know what he was doing and wanted his attention!

The next time I heard about meditation was when I was going through one of my first (of many) soul-searching periods in life, either as a result of therapy or some other emotional issues. I read a couple of  books about Zen, and thought it was amazing. The right stuff. Was going to solve everything for me! I was so into it. But I never meditated. Maybe I did for 3 minutes. Or 5 minutes. Or 3 days. But it never became a practice. I was not willing to let go. And for the past 20 years, still I have not. I always joke that I've twice made it halfway through "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" but never finished it. It's somewhat emblematic of my waffling on the journey.

Recently, I started thinking more and more about meditation. It came up in therapy. It came up in relationship. It was feeling more and more like something that was not a magic bullet, so much as a direction that I was meant to go. But still. Haven't gone. I know that my monkey mind is suffering from lack of clarity resulting from constantly diverting my attention to a million "pleasant alternatives" to whatever is right in front of me: work, cleaning, exercise, being present, pursuing various projects, relating to others. Just fill it up with stuff. Fill the bandwidth. Don't ever just be here now.

Of course, the iPhone is the #1 contributor to such things. It's the A # 1 mind-sink, ensuring that we never really need to be present. But all of the "benefits" it provides seem to outweigh the dumbing, numbing, disconnecting effect it has on all of us. On me.

This brings me to part two. A couple of years ago, I came to the epiphany that there was one time, one place, one situation in which I felt totally present. Totally in the moment. That place is snorkeling. Nothing but the sounds of the water, the rocks, and breath. What could be closer to a natural meditation than that? And, in fact, snorkeling seems to be one of the few activities that I am completely content to do alone (or so I think).

So, my substitute for a formal "retreat" is going to be this trip, alone. And it honestly terrifies me. I realize in advance just how reliant I am on the input from others, the presence of others, even just the knowledge that there is an "other" there to greet me, receive me, listen to me, react to me. In the same way that one might ask "If a tree falls in the forest..." I am asking myself now "If I see beautiful fish while snorkeling, and there's no one there to tell about it, is the experience still meaningful?"

And the fact that I am not sure what the answer is to that question is the biggest reason why I know I need to find out.

Truth is, it's really wrapping a few of my fears, habits, and personal challenges all into one. There's "being with myself." There's "being by myself." There's "being non-reliant on technology for every decision." The thought that I will actually need to write down addresses, or print maps is rather scary to me. In fact, as I type it, I am thinking "Maybe I need a cheap phone to take with me in case I need to call someone in emergency." But I know that there's always a phone that can be found in emergency, and that I will not have an emergency where a phone will make a difference.

I have never in my life gone 7 days without speaking to a friend, partner, or family member. And reality is that few of us do anymore, in a world that has become as connected as ours is. So this is an opportunity (pep talk ensuing). It's an opportunity to see what it feels like to have that separation. The hope? That it will amount to a more real and deep connection with myself, that will then lead to deeper connection with others and the world.

Of course, it will be whatever it will be.

27 October, 2010

Bacon & Eggs

I don't know his name. But I know that he likes bacon and eggs. The reason that I know this is because I asked him what he likes. That, in and of itself, is an out-of-the-ordinary interaction; probably for him, as well as for me.

The story begins over two years ago, actually. And has nothing to do with this man. But it does pertain to the corner on which he stands: Rainier & Dearborn, in Seattle. Every day for nearly three years, I have driven past that corner on my way to work. Most of the time, the traffic light at the intersection is red, which means that I spend a minute or two idling there. As a result, I have become very familiar with the corner. One fixture of the corner was the homeless man who stood there every day. He had scraggly, grey hair, on which he usually work a stocking hat. His face was tanned, and deeply creased, and he had a unkempt beard. He looked like he was of Scandinavian origin, and I imagined him as a fisherman. His hands, gnarled-looking, were adorned with a variety of rings. One of his most notable behavioral traits is that he would wave to passing cars by flapping the fingers of his gnarled hand, as opposed to waving with the entire hand from the wrist. It was as if it would be too much effort to do it from the wrist. He seemed tired and worn out, and he walked with a slow shuffle. It's really hard to say how old he was, but if I were to take the median of the oldest he could be if he'd lived a normal life (60) and the youngest he could be, presuming a hard life (45), that would probably put him in his mid-50s.

I always felt like I should be doing something for this man.

But I never did. On one occasion, I think I gave him a banana. But the kinds of thoughts that ran through my head were crazy ideas of bringing him to my home, and giving him a shower, and making him dinner, and asking him to tell me his story. I am incredibly fascinated with how it is that people become homeless. And I realize that my morbid curiosity is not a good reason for generosity. But I just didn't understand the transition. I guess what I really wanted to know was whether there was ever a time where things were better? Was there a normal childhood, from which one could never have foretold the future on the street? Of course, I think the likely reality is that it's a mixture of all imaginable possibilities. There are people who never had a chance from the beginning, with broken childhoods. There are people who were okay up to a point, and then mental illness unraveled their world. There are people for whom drugs or alcohol pulled them from a normal life, and gradually deteriorated their world until they could no longer maintain the lives they previously had. And there are people who, through economic or situational misfortune such as losing a job, debt, or other circumstances, were no longer able to make ends meet. There are likely other scenarios that I have not imagined.

But passing this man each day, I wondered what his story was.

One day, driving to work, I noticed that he was gone. And he never returned. I do not know, and may never know what happened to him. Much as there are myriad possibilities of his history, there are also numerous possible explanations for his disappearance; some pleasant, but most not. It would be nice to think that his situation improved, and that he was no longer homeless. Perhaps he received medical care, and then settled into housing that provided a better life. Perhaps more likely, events led to him taking up residence at a new corner in some other part of the city. But the darker thought is that his disappearance from that corner, where he was seemingly a permanent fixture, corresponded with his disappearance from the world.

I never even knew his name. I never asked. He was a person who was, to me, defined by a location, an appearance, and a situation.

The corner was "for rent," so to speak, for many months after that. There would be a variety of people who might appear, and sometimes the corner was vacant. In some ways, it is not dissimilar to when any establishment goes out of business. But, being a viable venue, eventually someone new comes along and takes up residence.

A few weeks ago, I approached the intersection, and saw a new person at the corner. It was a bright, sunshiny morning, and I was wearing sunglasses. The man was holding a cardboard sign that said something to the effect of "Peace. Love. Anything Helps," or some such typical message. He looked at me, safe behind the tinted windshield of a brand-new car, for which I momentarily felt a little bit of shame. He nodded to me. I nodded to him. But the impassive appearance of my sunglasses undoubtedly gave the impression that I had not acknowledged him. He continued looking at me, and I looked away, because it felt a little uncomfortable, for no good reason.

He walked over to his pile of belongings, and put down his sign, picking up another in its place. The new sign said "Mean People Suck," and he walked toward my car holding this sign, and waving it at me, while nodding his head. Of course, this I did not acknowledge. I felt uncomfortable. I was the mean person. And I sucked. And a fair part of me believed he was right.

The next time I approached the intersection, days later (I've been traveling a lot lately, so missing many days of this corner), I was not wearing sunglasses, and I made sure to fully acknowledge him with more than one nod, and a wave, and a smile. He returned the gesture. I am not even sure if he knew I was the same person, but it really doesn't matter. It felt better.

Last week, I arrived back in town from a trip, and was riding a taxi home from the airport, in the morning. The taxi approached the intersection. We stopped at the traffic light. He was standing on the corner, but on the opposite side of the street from usual. From the back of the taxi, I nodded to him, and he nodded to me. Still no idea if he's identified me as the same person, or if it's three different people, or nobody, in his mind. He's big on eye contact, so there are multiple exchanged glances, again almost to the point that I'm feeling uncomfortable. What I never stopped to wonder (until now) is that maybe he feels uncomfortable too. He speaks to me through the closed window of the taxi (without approaching). He says, "Don't look at my lip!" I gestured that I didn't know why he was saying that, but then I noticed that his lip was split. He says, "I got this from standing over there [pointing at his usual spot], so now I'm standing over here." It would appear that the guy on the other corner had battled him for the spot, and won. The politics and economics of panhandling. Is it first-come, first-serve? Or do people "own" a corner? Things I have never pondered. Until now.

Yesterday, I approached the intersection on my way to work. He was back in his usual spot (first-come, first-serve?) and I did the wave and the nod, which he reciprocated. Then something came over me that made me feel I needed to say more. His story from the taxi cab morning somehow gave me enough of a sense of him, perhaps, that he's now "someone I know," and I just had to say something this time. So I roll down the window, with no plan, and I say something stupid like "Looks like winter's here, huh?" He replies in agreement, and then informs me that it's been tough, but that he's happy because someone gave him a V8 and a cookie. And that he just wants some food. Again, without planning, the words that come out of my mouth, "Well, what do you like?" This took him a bit by surprise. "What do I like? I like bacon and eggs!" He said this with a bit of a laugh. "I'd like to just have a hot meal." He goes on to tell me (all in the span of the brief traffic light cycle) that he used to be able to go over to a place under I-5 where they would cook meals for people, but recently the Department of Health closed it down. And then the light turned green, and our conversation was over.

My entire morning, and day, and most of the time since then, my mind keeps coming back to the question of how it is that I'm going to give this man bacon and eggs. Because I asked him what he liked. I now know more about him than I ever imagined I would know. I have invited myself into his world, in a tiny, but undeniable way.

Bacon and eggs.

What's your name, sir?

19 October, 2010

The mirror

I think it would be fair to say that I do a lot of "projection." Enough so that I am not really sure even how much. Sometimes I catch myself doing it. But if you catch your cat digging in the potted plants, you can be damn sure that it's happening 20 times for every time you actually see the cat doing it. That's what alarms me. And there are a million reasons why it alarms me. Some of them are just plain paranoia, but others amount to something substantive about my perception of the world around me, and my place in it.

Let me give you an example.

Every time I go home to visit my friends from Boston, I always have a great time. These guys have made different choices than I've made in life. They've all got families, children, and live in the suburbs of the city where we grew up. In spite of the different path we've chosen, the connection is still there. And it feels like, essentially, we are the same people whom we've always been. That's not to say we haven't evolved. But just that we have not morphed into unrecognizable individuals.

But every time I go home, I experience the same anxiety. I think a series of thoughts...

They must think I'm crazy
They must think I'm a freak
They must wonder what my problem is
They must think it's pathetic that I can't keep a relationship
They must think I'm the kind of person who could never settle down
They must think I'm very unstable
They must think I'm inconsistent
They must think I am living an immature existence like some sort of teenager

The list goes on. With the central theme being "Things They Must Think."

But when I visit with them, I don't hear questions like that. I don't hear "What are you going to settle down?" or "How come you can't just pick something and stick with it like we did?"

What I hear is "How are things going with the band?" or "Are you seeing anyone new?" or "Do you still like living in Seattle?"

And occasionally, a comment comes at total odds with my inner talk: "We're living vicariously through you."

And it makes me stop and realize that the things "They Must Think" are not the things they think. Rather, they're the things I fear about my own life. Projected onto the people whose approval and respect I want. Sure, they know I'm different and maybe a bit eccentric, and unconventional. But, by and large, they look at it as something exciting. Because, in spite of the fact that they all seem to be happy with their choices, there's something interesting about still having so many questions unanswered, as I seem to have.

The real issue for me is the question of why I fear these things so much in myself. Obviously it's got to do with self-acceptance. On the one hand, I should be glad that I'm at least willing to make the choices that work for me. But it would be so much easier if I could go the extra step of accepting the choices I've made, rather than constantly beating myself up with a measuring stick.

18 May, 2010

U.S. Bank screwed up my auto loan (with some help from the WA DOL)

It seems that when all else fails to get a message across to Corporate America, the "blogosphere" is often the only thing that works. So, let's give it a go.

Six months ago, I purchased my friend's 2005 Honda Insight. Truth be told, I could have paid cash for it. But I thought it would be convenient to do an auto loan, just so I could distribute the payments over a period of time, rather than hit my account all at once for the $12,500 that I paid (which was a great deal, by the way).

After some brief research online, I discovered that US Bank apparently had very good auto loan interest rates; 3% actually, which was considerably better than anything else. And especially, better than other major banks. And the fact that I was already a US Bank account holder would (theoretically) make this very easy.

Right?

After choosing the bank, I filled out an information request over email, and was contacted by the Bellevue, Washington (Crossroads) branch of US Bank. I have done business at this branch before, and have been generally satisfied with them. Then why did I tell them "Oh, actually I think I'd prefer to do this with the Seattle (Capitol Hill) branch"? Well, because it was closer to my home, and also closer to where my friend (now my girlfriend) lives, so the loan preparation would (theoretically) be easier.

Right?

So I was put in touch with a loan officer, who shall remain unnamed, but let's refer to him as Brad Adamson, just for convenience. Brad and I spoke on the phone, and everything seemed like it would go smoothly. We got all the basic info down. He even drove from Seattle to Bellevue to meet me at work, so we could take care of some of the basic paperwork. Brad came to my workplace, we filled out all the papers. I made duplicates of them, so that we could sign both sets. Then Brad proceeded to depart with both sets of paperwork: mine and his. Inconvenient, and a little wonky for a loan officer to do this. But it's an honest mistake.

Right?

The next step in the process was that my (soon-to-be) girlfriend and I needed to meet at the US Bank branch to sign the official loan documents and transfer of ownership. This needed to be done on a Saturday morning, because neither of us could make it during weekday hours. Brad told us that he doesn't work on the weekend, but that everything will be ready to sign, and someone will be there who can help us. We arrive at the bank, and the only people working are the desk tellers. They have no idea how to process an auto loan. They do not understand any of the paperwork. We practically needed to explain to them what needed to be signed. Nonetheless, after much confusion, we sign all the papers. The loan is processed. And the ownership has been transferred.

Right?

Unfortunately, wrong. This is where things start really falling apart.

To make this long story somewhat shorter, here's what transpired.
  • Not all of the essential paperwork was completed, resulting in the loan not being fully processed - we needed to handle additional paperwork over email
  • Some documents were either not completed correctly, or possibly misinterpreted by the loan underwriting group, resulting in the paperwork being deemed insufficient for processing the transfer of registration (i.e. they didn't even submit to the Licensing Department). This occurred in multiple stages, result in at least 2 delays of submission for registration transfer. During this time, I engaged in many conversations with one of the senior loan officers or branch manager (not sure which) who shall remain nameless, but for kicks, let's refer to her as Sarah. Sarah is very nice, and repeatedly reassures me that she is on top of things. All evidence would suggest that she is - but unfortunately, she keeps encountering oddities and challenges in other areas of the process that make it hard to nail down a definitive solution.
  • Oh, forgot to mention that they failed to process the documentation for collecting proper sales tax on the vehicle purchase (here I must give them some kudos, because they decided to pay this for me - somewhere over $100 - as compensation for the inconvenience).
Time is passing by, and I am becoming increasingly concerned about not having my vehicle registered. Because I don't think I am going to have much leg to stand on if I get stopped by the police 4 or 5 months after purchasing my vehicle and try to tell them it's my bank's fault! I express this concern to Sarah. She says she understands.

About 2 weeks ago, I finally receive confirmation from Sarah that "Everything's all set!" with the registry, and that they should be mailing me my tabs and registration any day now. I am skeptical, but decide to be optimistic, and I thank her.

Within 3 days, I am stopped by the Bellevue Police for driving with invalid registration. I am not pleased. I explain my story, and they tell me that it looks like I am registered fine in the computer, and that I should just tell the police to check the computer if I am stopped.

A week goes by, and still no tabs or registration in the mail.

This morning, I have a ticket on my car. Expired registration: $42 penalty. The only way to appeal it is in person, which would mean that I either need to pay the ticket, or take time off from my job to deal with this never-ending issue. And still no tabs or registration in the mail.

I called the branch to inform Sarah of this situation. They've agreed to pay the ticket for me. But this has been going on for so long, and the frustration level is becoming so high (on both sides), that the kindness is starting to wear off. It's getting to the point that (I imagine) the last person Sarah at US Bank wants to hear from is me. Because every time she hears from me, it means more headaches for her. She is certainly not the one to blame here. But she's the one who unfortunately has to play "clean-up" for a bunch of other crap that has gone wrong.

To add more amusement to this story, it turns out that a big bottleneck has been the Washington State Department of Licensing. Apparently (Sarah told me just now), the licensing department has been receiving hundreds of calls about tabs not being sent. There is some type of massive system failure. This has gone on to the point that they are generating a special series of actions to remedy the tickets that are being issued for said missing tabs and registrations.

The moral of this story is two-fold:
  1. Perhaps you get what you pay for. I thought US Bank would be a great deal. But then I found out that they were new to the auto loan business. And the loan officer and bank simply do not have the process down. They also informed me that my loan was not the only one that incurred such mishaps. This is a major national bank, and the level of churn has been astounding.
  2. "Nice" doesn't cut it. Everyone whom I've dealt with has been very nice. Sarah is nice. Brad is nice. They're apologetic, accommodating, understanding. All those things are great. But my relationship with the bank is a business relationship. It's a financial agreement. I keep my end of the financial agreement by paying my loan payment every month. US Bank is supposed to keep their end of the relationship by ensuring that the loan is processed correctly, and ensuring that the commitment that make to transfer ownership and register my vehicle is executed smoothly. So "nice" isn't enough. It needs to be right.
Right?

02 April, 2010

Is Facebook Dead?

I hear rumors that it is.

There are still 167 people on my friends' list. And I just had a new friend request just this week, albeit from someone whom I have not seen in 18 years. But it is not the community it once was. I look at the comments that show up on my page, and for the most part there is a very small pool of people commenting. It may have something to do with the way I have structured my privacy settings. But still. It ain't what it used to be.

I don't know what the new cutting edge of social networking is. Are all the cool people already on it? If so, why haven't they told me about it? I tried to get into Twitter a number of times, but for some reason it does not feel like it is substantive enough, because all you've got, essentially, is the status update. No photos. No... well, I guess that's really the difference between Facebook and Twitter. The photos. And how often do I really look at the photos anyway? I almost never look at anyone's profile information.

I do like the entertainment aspect of being able to comment on someone's photos, and then see other people comment on my photos. But it's really all about the banter back and forth. Nonetheless, I don't hear people talking about Twitter either. It's weird. Everyone's on Facebook. But it's dead. Doesn't ring true.

Is it really dead?

10 March, 2010

Tea versus Coffee versus Random Acts of Self-Discipline (Deprivation)

I don't know why it is.

Until March of 2006, I never drank hot beverages. Honestly. I know that's hard to believe. I was 37 years old, and I had probably had fewer than 5 cups of coffee in my life. I had never been much for tea either. Heck, I am not even a fan of soup, except perhaps a good tomato cream soup, with lots of parmesan and some crackers.

In March of 2006, I went to Europe. The time shift, some latent depression that was lurking in the wings, and the cultural shift, led me to deem it appropriate to start consuming coffee. I needed it to function. And I suspected/knew, that with enough sugar and milk, anything tastes good. I recall the first time I had a cup of extremely strong Parisian coffee with my friend Lisa, I found myself running to the bathroom, not five minutes after finishing it.

It was my first experience with the age-old pearl of celestial wisdom: "Caffeine makes me poop".

Of course, so do Heritage Flakes, but on a slightly longer time scale.

After the trip to Europe, my coffee consumption was fixed into habit. I suddenly understood the social aspect of "getting coffee with someone". It became a bonding thing. It became a ritual that was apparently long understood by everyone else, yet somehow foreign to me. The drink of choice has gone through a few different permutations, depending on the degree to which I have allowed myself to indulge in the joyful part, as opposed to the purely stimulatory part.

2% Vanilla Latte... (joy)
Americano... (less joy)
2% Caramel Latte... (almost too much joy)
Drip... (self-deprivation, and/or thriftiness)

And eventually, it comes to... stop. No coffee.

It's happened several times now. I have either allowed myself to creep up from one cup per day, to one in the morning and another in the afternoon. And eventually, I have a cup (usually drip, usually bad) that turns my stomach and my spirit, just so, such that I decide "No more coffee".

And just like that, I am off coffee.

Usually for the first week, I will ply myself with ibuprofen so that I don't get any caffeine headaches. And then I'm fine. This has happened on at least four or five occasions. And I'm in the middle of such a "recess" presently. Well, sort of. Because part of my caffeine abstention always allows for the social weekend coffee. I'm not that into being miserable.

This last time was a bit more of an extreme withdrawal, because I decided to throw away caffeinated beverages of all forms. I had been augmenting my coffee intake with Diet Pepsi (which, ironically, I find kind of revolting, but it was more "interesting" than water, though seemed to have no real stimulatory effect). The soda was making me feel sickly as well. So I eliminated it all.

And in my last stride toward becoming completely feeble, I decided maybe I should drink tea. So now, it's 1-2 cups of English Teatime (with sugar), for the small amount of caffeine that it provides.

We'll see how long it lasts.

Goats gotten

We are all annoyed by things. Some of them, we're keenly aware of. Others, only subtly. Even fewer, completely unaware, yet their effects manifest themselves in various ways. Especially true when the annoyance is inconvenient or, even worse, unacceptable. There are even things that annoy us, of which we are not aware, until someone else points out "Wow! You seem really annoyed by that!" Well, yes. I guess I am, huh?

I started this blog, with the idea in mind of telling you a laundry list of all the things that annoy me. Of course, after re-reading just my intro paragraph, I am pretty sure I can say that the list would either be trite, incomplete, or perhaps offensive.

So let's not go there.

But the thing about annoyance that's most interesting is the realization that things which bother one person may not bother another at all. It's all about perceptions. It's all about individual reality. And thus, it's really about individual experience. Maybe even individual biology. For example, it really bothers me when the guy in the office on the other side of the wall from me has speaker-phone conversations, even though he's alone in his office. Speaker-phone calls make sense when you've got a few people in your office who all need to hear. But if you don't, then basically, the only reason you're using speaker is so you have both hands free, and you're not uncomfortable. The annoyance with such behavior is two-fold for me. The feeling that boils inside of me is the anger that this guy has a nerve putting his comfort and convenience above respecting the need for those in offices surrounding him to have a peaceful environment. That's the annoyance part. And it's where I tend to dwell. I sit here, righteously, thinking about his nerve. And in the end, I feel like he is doing it to me as opposed to doing it for himself. It ends up being an act of commission, instead of an act of omission.

The reality is that I am bothered because I have difficultly concentrating. I cannot listen to music and do work. I cannot read if someone is talking. I just need very quiet and controlled environment, probably because I have some attention issues - tending to shift to whatever other stimuli are around me. So that's the fundamental issue. But I don't dwell there.

And annoyances are often like that. We find some secondary feature of the annoying stimulus, and start making it personal. And that amplifies the annoyance. Then, instead of getting only a little work done, because my concentration is impaired, I get zero work done, because my concentration is impaired and I am mad!

I wonder if I could shed all annoyances? I wonder if "being Zen" would be to just let it all flow through me, and not assign value to it. But to see it simply as action and reaction, internal and external, with no judgment. Would it feel better? Or do I want to hold on to the annoyance because it protects me from something else?

24 February, 2010

Back to square one

In the same way that taking months off from exercise puts one back in that difficult apathetic lazy place of immobility, the same can be said for taking months off from writing. I don't want to do it. And it feels like a complete chore to put even these words down. Just as they leave my fingers, they're fighting internal judgment. Why bother writing this.


I keep waiting to have something interesting to say.


And it's not going to be tonight.

11 January, 2010

The Haves and the Have-Nots

Well. After posting my most recent entry, complaining about my inability to refinance my home, I received an anonymous comment. The comment made a few points. But the most important point that it made was that I have a lot more to be happy about, and appreciative of, in this life, than I have to complain about. And that maybe I should not spend my energy focusing on the negatives.

And I guess it's quite true.

I spend a good portion of my time on here complaining. Some of it is for entertainment value, sure. But plenty of the time, I am just lamenting the fact that this or that minutiae did not go the way I'd specifically wished for it to go. I've painted many things in the most negative of light. It may be true that 2008 was not a spectacular year for me, as I noted in an earlier blog. But it wasn't a terrible year either. I traveled, yes. I actually had a decent job, yes. I bought a home for the first time, yes. I joined a spectacular band, yes.

And that was 2008. The "bad" year.

2009, which I referred to (I think) as "slightly better", should have fairly been called a "great" year. I had a job - still - when many people did not. I did not lose all of my retirement, because I'd moved a lot of it out before the big market drop. I was still in the great band. I still had the great home. Oh yeah, what else was there? Oh, yes. I started a new relationship with someone whom I'd been interested in for years, and had the opportunity to do all sorts of exciting and adventurous things together. I have this habit of separating out relationships from the rest of my life, and treating them as entities that are to be analyzed, and usually criticized. But putting the pieces back together into the whole, last year was a really, really good year. The band released a CD, which was more successful than I ever thought I would be (even though its actual success was modest). I made a positive career change. I started getting back into shape again, not that I was ever too badly out of shape.

Anyway, the point here is that I am one of the haves. I am not a have-not. I have. I have always had. And, if I don't fuck it up, I will probably manage to have as long as I am.

Happiness is not a 4.75% interest rate. Happiness is not a 4.5% interest rate. Happiness is not a 20% raise at work. Happiness is not a bigger house. Or an older house. Or a newer car. Or nicer jeans. Or higher download speeds on your internet connection. Happiness is not taking 3 vacations a year instead of 2. Happiness is not being a songwriter. Happiness is not being invited to all the right parties.

Happiness might not even exist. In which case, it's nothing. But the pursuit of happiness, which I suppose is what we're usually engaged in, no matter how circuitous the route... it's not about any numbers or categorizations. It's about the obvious.

My mother used to paraphrase what was probably a famous quote by someone like Oprah or Rosie O'Donnell. It went like this:

"Happiness is not having everything you want. It's wanting everything you have."

Ironically, my mother wanted a lot of things she didn't have. And she wasn't particularly happy, though I think she was functionally content, if you consider complaining to be part and parcel of being an old Jewish woman. But she at least had the wisdom to impart those words to me in a fashion that I will always remember, and always associate with her.

What I've been wishing a lot lately was that I still had my mother.

06 January, 2010

Obama Home Affordable Program not for me

I feel left out right now.

And it's not fair. But there's nothing I can do about it.

My credit is 820. As you probably know, that's good credit. Better than good. I bought a home about 2 years ago, a little bit past the peak of the market. Prices had started coming down. At present, my house is probably worth just about what I paid for it, give or take a couple of percent. So I'm not in the red. I'm not "upside-down", as they call it.

But I can't get in on the refinancing fun. Everyone else got the 4.5%, the 4.75%. Not me. And the simple reason is that the loan that I was sold, which sounded perfectly good at the time, is a loan that is being excluded from consideration for virtually all refinancing plans. When I bought my place, I was only able to make a downpayment of 10%. There are two ways that this is usually handled. Option 1 is to have something called "PMI", or Mortgage Insurance, which is essentially a tax that the bank charges you for not being able to put down 20%. Option 2 is to do two mortgages; a primary mortgage for 80%, and then a secondary (sometimes called a Home Equity Line of Credit) for the 10% that makes up the difference of what you were not able to put down (in some cases, these were being issued for the entire 20% remainder - i.e. zero down mortgages).

The great offer that I was given by my mortgage broker was an Option 3, which was a 90/10 loan with "lender-paid" PMI. What this means was that I have a single loan for 90% of the value of the home (10% downpayment), and the mortgage insurance was folded into the interest rate, rather than being charged explicitly as a separate item. This was supposed to be a better deal for me, according to him. But now, I can see, for a variety of reasons, it was not a better deal.

First, if you do an 80/10 loan, then you could eventually pay off your 10% portion, and have a rapidly decreased effective interest rate, since those 10% portions are usually a crappy rate. Second, if you have PMI, you could always have your home appraised if it gains sufficient equity, and then you would be absolved of the PMI payment, and again, save a couple of hundred a month.

But with the option I have right now, I am stuck, because all of the money that Obama's plan is throwing at borrowers good and bad, is not going to anyone with loans such as the one that I have with GMAC Mortgage. If you've got PMI, lender-paid or otherwise, you do not qualify.

There's a massive amount of irony here, because there are people who have completely horrible credit, or have been missing payments left and right. They will qualify for this refinance program, even though they'll likely continue to miss payments. I have never missed a payment, have excellent credit, and will be stuck at 5.75% indefinitely, because at the point where I have enough equity to qualify for refinancing, the interest rates will likely be too high to justify doing it.