You get what you pay for.

I’ve been thinking about the so-called the “democratization of information” or “right to information” or just the plain old adage that we went to the moon with less technology than what sits in my pocket and catches emails for me; if I want to know the answer to something then Google is there for me (or Duck Duck Go — browse privately, friends).

This is the same world where we see quips like “Please do not confuse your Google Search with my medical/law/etc. degree.” The same world where one has to look for and describe what “peer reviewed research” means. The same world where “alternative facts” and “fake news” are lobbied in counterpoint.

We have an information pricing problem.

In a conversation with a colleague we were discussing school adventures — ours — and up came terms like “microfiche” and “card catalogue”. Back in my day (with overtones here of “get off my lawn you kids”) if one wanted information one had to go to the library to get it — you went armed with your topic (say, Earthquakes) and went to the card catalogue and first searched by subject and then narrowed it down to one or more books/items that had information about that subject. Each item was printed on a card, with the name of the item and the author(s) and publishing information (in fact, cribbing from that card is what typically got you your bibliography). You then followed the Dewey code for that item and went looking in the stacks to get the item in question, and then you had to actually read the whole item even if you were for example going to cherry pick things to meet your needs. (Card catalogues have been around as “the way to find things in the library” for over 100 years, so what was true for me was true for my parents and theirs and theirs and so forth).

Microfiche was even more involved — if your item was microfiche then you had to take it to the librarian or look through the drawers for it, put it into a special machine, and scroll through it until you found the article or print you were looking for. Microfiche has not been around as long as the card catalogue, but it’s coming up on it’s 85th birthday in libraries. Microfiche (and film) is still in use, but it wasn’t as snazzy as this when we had to use it. It looked like this. Somehow everything in the 70’s was beige.

This was “pull method” of information – you made the investment and went to the library and invested your nontrivial amount of time to go and get the information and glean it for whatever purpose.

“Push method” — ingestion of information in a someone-else-does-the-bulk-of-the-work-way — was mostly TV (nightly news, from 6:30-7:30) and radio (mostly public or talk radio). This was before blogs and user-based journalism which have largely changed the landscape of the form and presentation of journalism (far less stuffy but far more opinionated). Journalism has a code of ethics that most journalists follow, rando persons on the internet (such as myself, hi/hello) are not bound by those ethics. (I mean, I try, but I’m not formally trained and this is not a professional blog, this is just where I spit things out that are in my brain). It’s important to note however that the “push method” of nightly news and radio, along with relative lack of choice (when I grew up there were at first 3, and then 9, channels) meant that the news you were getting in your home was the same news that everyone else got. The same leading stories, the same local color, the same news from Washington and the world. The accessibility of the news, even with the “scheduling war for news” we saw with the Gulf War, was still relatively uniform.

Which is all a very long way to say that, for the previous 100-odd years, the foundation for information was roughly uniform and the amount of investment one had to do to get it, past that initial uniform bit we got with Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather (or before them, the nightly newspaper), was relatively involved.

My offspring recently graduated high school and he has never known a world where information wasn’t searchable locally at home: every “paper” (for most of them never made it to paper) was researched via internet.1 Everyone I know has a mobile phone that has internet search functionality on it and can quite literally “look up” the answer to any question at any time for any purpose. The *investment* to procure information is drastically lower, information is now astonishingly cheap – and I do mean cheap.

Quick digression – I’m a fan of good diction, this comes from how I operate in the world (very explicitly). If one has a reputation for being specific and direct, one has to choose one’s words carefully because the amount of thought that goes into receiving them is ostensibly higher. When I say “cheap”, I do not mean “inexpensive”. There are a variety of definitions for “cheap” and the fact that “inexpensive” routes to “cheap” according to Merriam Webster is a tragedy. I think someone cut a corner there. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary gets closer to the nuance I’m looking for. “Cheap” comes with an inference of low quality as to the reason for something’s low price, whereas “inexpensive” (for me) does not.

Here we return to “Do Not Confuse Your Google Search with my XYZ Degree”: The seventeen seconds you spent online “researching” your symptoms do not equate to the years of study (and practice) a good MD has (always get a second opinion, though). How many times have we heard the joke that one goes to google with one’s symptoms and they’re either dehydrated or dying? The issue at hand is while the access to the information has been greatly simplified, the investment required to get to it has also been removed: the knowledge isn’t earned and the context is absent.

I can go watch endless YouTube videos about solving household plumbing problems (e.g., how to clean out your P-trap, remove drain flies, even replace a toilet). This does not make me a plumber. If I elect to attempt any of these things on my property it’s my problem but I sure as heck should not be advising you on yours (nor should you take my advice there except as maybe a prompt to go talk to someone who actually has been trained in this). I do a lot of home cooking and watch a lot of food recipes, this does not make me a professional chef. I read up a lot about the things I contend with (thyroid, cardiological, etc.) but I do so in preparation for an intelligent conversation with my MD’s about it and not *instead of* those conversations, and absolutely not to “guide” others. (Or to suggest to them that “doing their own research” will arrive at the same conclusions.)

The cheapening of information combined with an elevation of User Generated Content to Journalism (a loosening, in my opinion, of how journalism operates — a lot more opinions and editorials) and the breadth of information and information targeting (my “news fix” may not be the same as my neighbors) has led to extreme polarization and, worse, a willful ignorance to information that may not align with our inclinations. (This exists, incidentally, in scientific exploration which is why peer review is so important and why you should always get a second opinion). This polarization is not only political, it extends to our societal behaviors when it comes to medicine (e.g., vaccines in general — not just for COVID) and how we view things like Climate Change (regardless of political affiliation, or perhaps exacerbated by it).

I am not suggesting we somehow lock down information (I mean, that would create a scarcity which in turn would increase the price as supply goes down and demand ostensibly goes up, but that’s a little more 1984 than I think anyone wants). I *am* suggesting, as with any (relatively) newfound2 privilege or boon, we do our homework. Specifically, we elevate the role and investment of critical thinking (in our schooling and as a foundation of education), The information tsunami (and its accompanying hurdles) will not go away and so, much as we should be teaching financial literacy and scientific literacy in schools, we should be teaching critical thinking skills. In a world where information is cheap and easy, the filtration and identification of information of actual value is not.3

The “good” news (?) is that educational standards are set at the State level. Meaning the curriculum requirements for your state are owned by your state Superintendent of Public Instruction (or equivalent). In a world where all politics are local, this can be influenced by your local state representative and local state senator (again: not Federal. You’re not writing to the person that goes to DC, you’re writing the person that goes to your state capital).

Yes, writing. This is the sort of topic that would not come up (or only come up cursorily) during election season, likely drowned out by the myriad of other agita that happens at that time. The very best way to get action on anything from an elected representative is to visit them, which can be impractical (in terms of investment), so the second very best way to get them to look at a thing is to write a letter (like… the kind that gets mailed). Email is your third choice here. Don’t want to go through the pain of finding your state’s legislative site and then figuring out who represents you? Go here — you can find your state (and federal) representation. Here’s a guide on writing legislators. As to your State Superintendent of Schools — sometimes these are elected, sometimes they’re appointed, you can find that out here. (You can also use that link to find your State Superintendent, their office, and their office mailing address and email). In addition, you can get involved through your local school *district*, either directly with the district or via a PTSA council (if you have that kind of time, and not all do).

There is a contingent of folks who will read this who either 1. do not have children or 2. whose children (like mine) have already graduated and are off to their next endeavor. The inclination here is to say “this does not affect me” and therefore no investment is needed. I argue that that is shortsighted and obtuse: you as a taxpayer are paying for the education system and you are paying for the product of that system (its current and future students), who in turn are going to be your future co-electorate. If the purpose of public education is for a well-informed and productive public, then you should be very much incentivized to ensure your investment is well spent.

  1. The teachers explicitly stated not to use Wikipedia as it is not considered a credible source; we taught him to check out the footnotes to find the credible sources and use Wikipedia as a coalescing function.
  2. Let’s just wave a hand at it and say it started with the internet in the 90’s. That’s 30 years, and so we’re at least one and likely two generations behind here already. “Relatively newfound” is overgenerous. We are late.
  3. In a sad turn of events, searching for “critical thinking” (in quotes deliberately to get that phrase), plus curriculum plus legislation, all I got was the never-ending debate over Critical Race Theory, which is a different thing altogether. That and a WaPo article about how Texas doesn’t want to teach critical thinking skills but I couldn’t find a second source.

Algorithm

“It’s all just/an the algorithm.” We hear it a lot: bandied about in media coverage of, well, the media; used as an explainer for why Facebook knows you like teacups with dragons on them and why Amazon suggests you purchase tissues and why you see those ads in your Gmail about bulbs or deer or survivalist stuff. (All true, btw). I think there’s a decent size of the population that has a context-specific definition for algorithm (e.g., I know that this means a black box in which things are magically done and then Instagram *just knows* that I like fitness videos) but not an *actual* one, which means when I hear that “the algorithm knows” I have no problem with GMO’s but do prefer organics and less-processed foodstuffs, I think that it “just knows” without really understanding what that means.

So here’s a primer of algorithms, because this is what goes through my overcaffeinated brain of a Sunday morning. If you’d like to understand more about them, or if you’d like to explain them to someone you think should understand them more, this one’s for you.

Super-Basic Basics

The first thing to know about algorithms is they are not smart. They have no intelligence whatsoever. They’re basically an equation, a formula, a set of rules by which one or more pieces of data (“Bobbie likes pie”, “Bobbie tracks her food on MyFitnessPal”) gets “looked at” and then somewhere checked against a list of criteria (“People who like pie like junk food”, “Women who track their food are on a diet”) and then a “logical” conclusion is spat out. You actually can use algorithms in your day to day; you probably already are. Just like the algorithms in your brains, algorithms in computers are built by humans.

Example

For example: up until 2020, I drove about 20,000 miles per year. For those non-drivers in the world or those who are based metric, that’s more than average. Most dealerships will assume, for their “bring you in for maintenance purposes”, that you’re driving about 12-15,000 miles per year. Because I had a relatively new car up until 2020, and because it was covered for maintenance through some package deal I bought, I was bringing my car in every 5,000 miles. However, the dealer had an algorithm for every 5,000 miles based on what they considered “typical use”. This means that they’d always want to schedule my next maintenance 4 or 5 months from my current one; and I’d frequently have to bump it sooner, because at 20,000 miles/year, I’m driving 5,000 miles every 3 months. I know this and because it was nice simple round numbers, I didn’t have to have a spreadsheet on it. My driving mileage has been pretty consistent for 15 or so years. So the *algorithm* we’re looking at here, to predict when my next appointment is, is Number of Miles Per Year Expected / 5,000 = How many Times Per Year my car gets serviced. Then it’s How Many Months Per Year / How many Times Per Year my car gets serviced, to how many months between each service. If I wanted to be fancy, I could write that as (Months Per Year)/(Miles Per Year Expected/5000). The reason the dealer and I get different numbers is that while we both agree on how many months there are in a year, they are working with a different Miles Per Year Expected. The *algorithm* isn’t wrong, because it isn’t *right*, either. It’s all dependent on what goes in, to determine what comes out.

What Happens When Things Change

Now that we are in COVID restriction, I still drive quite a bit to go visit immediate family every 2 weeks, but aside from that I’m working from home and I’m working out at home and so I don’t drive nearly as much. The *algorithm* still hasn’t changed — but the Miles Per Year Expected has. So now, my number looks a lot more like the dealer’s number — I’m driving about 12k miles/year, and so I would come in every 4 or 5 months. If the *dealer* changes their expectations, though, thinking “oh wow people aren’t driving with COVID we should bump that down to like 5k/year”, then our output of the algorithm will once again differ.

Slightly More Sophisticated Stuff

Simple algorithms are like the one above, it’s got one or more inputs (expected miles per year) and at least one output (Bobbie needs to get her car serviced in June). You can add more inputs, though, and some “checking stations”. These can be what are called “if” statements (If Bobbie likes strawberry pie then assume excess calorie consumption from April to July; if Bobbie likes blueberry pie then assume excess calorie consumption from July to August) which in turn can be on other “if” statements (If strawberries then In Season = April, May, June; If blueberries then In Season = July, August). You can take these “if” statements, or conditions, and sprinkle them in all of the parts of the algorithm: at the beginning, middle, and even with the ending to determine the ending.

Again, you probably do this all the time. Say you’re at Costco. I don’t know about you but I like to limit my Costco trips because crowds are not my thing; also because I like to limit my trips in general (I’m the sort of person who has a categorized grocery list). Most folks have a grocery list, and most folks have a Costco list. You’re at Costco, and they have special pallet stacks of stuff on sale (the pricing usually indicates how much off). And you’re in front of the toilet paper, which was not originally on your list. This is a more sophisticated algorithm you’re running in your head:

Inputs:

  1. Toilet Paper is On Sale
  2. Toilet Paper is 36 rolls
  3. Sale is only good for about 1 week
  4. I am not coming back to Costco for at least 3 weeks.
  5. How much toilet paper do you have at home

Evaluation: Here you need your algo to check a few things:

  1. Do you have the money in your planned budget for the extra toilet paper that was not on your list? – this is an evaluation that you can do with only one of the inputs – the Sale Price
  2. Do you need toilet paper between now and the time you *think* it will next be on sale? – this evaluation is done with the input of the volume of toilet paper you have at home, plus the amount of time between now and when you think it could be next on sale. (You know the next time you’re coming to Costco, in at least 3 weeks. But it may not be on sale then.)
  3. Do you have the storage capacity for the extra 36 rolls? – this evaluation is done independently of 1 and 2 — straight up can you stock 36 rolls or not?

As you evaluate each of these, you spit out the “result” of your algorithm, perhaps as these steps (remember, these assume you didn’t need toilet paper right now, and that this was just something to evaluate on top of your regular list):

  1. If I have money for this, then go to step 2. Otherwise, keep rolling my cart.
  2. If I think toilet paper will be on sale the next time I am here,
    1. *AND* I can last that long until I need toilet paper, then keep rolling my cart, else
    2. *AND* I cannot last that long until I need toilet paper, go to step 5
    3. If I think it will not be on sale next time, then go to step 3
  3. If it is worth it to me to delay purchasing the toilet paper for next time at the expense of the sale price (e.g., is 3 weeks wait better than $4 off?), then keep rolling my cart, else go to step 4
  4. If I can store the toilet paper, go to step 5. Else, keep rolling my cart.
  5. Buy toilet paper.

Here’s the thing: this evaluation happens in the space of a minute or two in your brain, standing at the endcap of toilet paper in Costco while trying to avoid getting sideswiped by carts and small children running to get the free food. You probably spent more time reading through that list than you would actually doing the evaluation in your head, at Costco. You’ve just run an algorithm, because you could easily have replaced “toilet paper” in this decision, with say, “steaks” or “beer” or “high-end whey protein shake mix” or “kale” or “salmon” or “bread” or any of a number of consumable goods. You could replace the windows of your visits to Costco with different figures (I know folks who go every week, every two weeks, only when needed, etc.). You could replace the amount of the sale price in the evaluation (e.g., $4 trade off for your visit window may be enough. But is $2? Or would $10 be a good trade off of convenience for a 2-month window? etc.). The *steps* are the same, the kinds of things that you are checking in the steps are the same, but the specifics differ from situation to situation.

Algorithms In the World

When we say “Facebook runs an algorithm and so they know you like Argyle Socks”, we mean that Facebook has a HUGE volume of inputs (ones you give it and ones it infers and ones it purchases) and a HUGE volume of conditions it evaluates.

It can for example extrapolate from the data you give it (say, photos, comments on friends’ posts, clicks you do *on Facebook*, etc.) that you like socks.

It can infer from things your friends post, or from cookies it drops (think: little text tracker that sits in the background of your computer that, when you leave Facebook.com, gets “looked for” by other websites that Facebook has deals with. That rando website checks to say “hey computer you got a Facebook cookie?” and your computer says “yup I got a Facebook cookie, it’s cookie number bla-bla” and that website says “cool beans thanks I’ll make a note of it”. Because Facebook *made* the cookie, it knows that bla-bla belongs to you. And because there’s millions of sites that Facebook agrees to check for cookies with, that sites that Facebook does not own or operate, Facebook can know that you went on Target, for example, and shopped for argyle socks.).

Facebook also straight up purchases data. “Hey argyle sock company, let me know the typical demographic by zip code of people who buy your socks!” When the argyle sock company comes back and says “ok so like in 98074 the typical argyle sock purchaser is female (we infer this because they bought women’s argyle socks) and over 30 (we infer this because she didn’t use pay pal or apple pay she used like an old school credit card)”, Facebook can marry that up with marketing data that says the average 98074 female over 30 also is also married with an income bracket of XYZ and likely owns and doesn’t rent.

Facebook can then take all of *that* data and run it through *another* set of checking stations and say ok so if she likes argyle socks then with this other data we have about her *what else* can we market to her? Maybe there’s a high correlation of female argyle sock wearing disposable income homeowner to coffee consumption. Let’s try that. Oh, did she click it? Our checking stations were *right*, let’s use them more. Oh, did she not? More data for the checking stations.

This is just one (very tortured) example: nearly every site you interact with (not just Facebook or its properties), every company that you purchase goods or services from (e.g., banks, insurance companies, etc.), and most especially every company you work with that gives you something “for free” (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc.) collects this information, and has their own special list of algorithms they chug through and spit out ideas as to what you like or don’t like, what you do or do not want. Sometimes they sell these ideas, sometimes they purchase other’s ideas and marry them up with *their* ideas to get super-specific ideas about you. The more inputs they can get, the more outputs they can test, and the more testing they do, the more accurate they can get. This isn’t just about argyle socks either: they can suggest or infer political preference, disposable income, sexual preference, charitable leanings, religious leanings, and so forth. They can then market to you based on what they think you want to hear, or want to read, or want to buy.

All just an algorithm.

Assisted Living, Part II

(This is a continuation of a previous post, Assisted Living Part I).

If your parent is going IN to assisted living right now/today/really really soon

  1. Take a copy of your parents living will and any instruction they gave you about how they want things to be. Take your power of attorney with you. You’re going to need it. let the facility scan it, or make a copy of it, but keep the original.
  2. You’re going to sit down with an intake nurse and probably another specialist – one for the business end, and one for the medical end. Watch what they write like a hawk. Remember that “no feeding tubes” story? Yeah that’s a thing.
  3. Be super-clear on expectations:
    1. If they’re doing your parents laundry, make sure everything is labeled, and inventoried.
    2. If you’re doing it, make sure it is clear where dirty laundry goes (it helps to provide the hamper if you can) and how often you’ll be coming to get it, as well as where the clean laundry goes.
    3. If your parent has instructions that they only want to eat dessert if that’s what they ask for, make sure the nurse (and the kitchen) is clear on that. (Mom pretty much ate just egg salad sandwiches and then just dessert and then opted out.)
    4. If your parent has instructions that if they don’t want to do PT they don’t have to, make sure that the nurse (and the PT) is clear on that.
    5. If your parent has instructions that hygiene is important to them, make sure that the nurse (and the bather) is clear on that.
  4. If your parent has any cajoling tricks you can use with them if they are reticent, like TV time, or getting to use their own conditioner, etc. etc. , let the right folks know! The “right folks” are the head nurse, the person who cleans the rooms, the person who delivers the food, the person who bathes your parent, etc. — in short, *everybody*.
  5. If folks with long hair have specific rules (e.g., please use lots of de-tangler/conditioner, please braid, do not use elastics) let those folks know and make sure it’s written down.
  6. Bring lots of familiar stuff:
    1. Their own toiletries (including any electric conveniences like shavers, toothbrushes, etc. that the home will let you).
    2. Their own blankets, clothing, linens, etc.
    3. Paintings, pictures, albums, alarm clocks (if they’re the punctual type), puzzles, craft/hobby things
    4. Knitting needles and sewing scissors may get taken away from folks if they’re in memory care.
    5. If they are technologically savvy, a e-reader or an tablet is a great thing, too. You can load it up with books, pics, etc., and you can facetime.
      1. Most places are really good about security, but I’d also get it labeled.
    6. Some places will let them bring their credit cards and ID, but maybe quietly cancel them – or replace with a dollar-affixed debit card or pre-paid card if those are actually usable in the facility (e.g., vending machines).
    7. My mom’s window had birdfeeders outside it, so whenever I visited I filled them with birdseed.
  7. Ask if you can bring outside food – bringing in a special treat on admitting day can help relieve all the newness.
  8. Re-define/nail down the visiting hours, when you get to meet with the doctor, and what the next few days look like. Use the whiteboard or posting board in the room to write down the date and time you plan to visit next if you know that.

When your parent is in assisted living

  1. When you visit, sneak in Starbucks gift cards for the folks who do the heavy lifting – bathers, laundry folks, food deliveries – they aren’t supposed to accept them but they will and your parent will benefit. YES, they’ll be awesome to your parent even if you don’t or they don’t accept them – but the gesture goes a long way. And you’re going to feel helpless so that can help you feel like you’re doing something. Alternatively, bring in a bakery tray or something for the nurse’s station. Or a box of candy.
  2. Bring food, if your parent is eating, that they like – treats, chocolates, snacks, soda.
  3. Bring things to read (if they are readers, magazines are good because new content) and share news (focus on the positive if you can). Unless they’re the type that loves good drama in which case, share the drama. 😃
  4. Eyeball their care—is their bathroom clean? If they are incontinent does it smell like they need to be changed or does their room smell fresh? Ask what they got to have for dinner last night/breakfast that day, and if they liked it.
  5. If your parent has doctors appointments outside of the care facility, the care facility usually sets up all of the transportation to/from the appointment, as well as the appointment itself – so if mom or dad has an optometrist, or an oncologist, or a cardiologist, etc., make sure they all know where mom or dad is going/has gone, and that they can coordinate with the care facility.


If your parent is having any major medical procedures as part of this process (surgeries)

  1. Many assisted living facilities do NOT have staff on hand to support things like wound care (which you need if you’re recovering from surgery). So your parent may have to go to a different facility to recuperate. That will be one of the more expensive ones, but good news! Medicare covers 20 days of the recuperation part (including room and board) for 100% (or near enough), and then the next 80 days at 80% (near enough).
  2. You should know that the medical community wants to make everyone better, either because they are that way by nature or because most medical care is for-profit by nature. But telling your parents’ doctor to knock it off, that mom or dad doesn’t need another surgery when they’re already going downhill, is hard. You need to evaluate if the thing the doctors want to do will prolong the life and what kind of life it will prolong. If your parent has written any decisions about THAT in their living will, take heed of that.
  3. My mom was on hospice – which is what happens when you have six months or left to live, and offers all kinds of palliative care benefits (that are covered by Medicare, by the way) – and her doctors were insisting that with just one more surgery they could Do a Thing. We had to tell them it didn’t make sense to put her through that risk, and that pain, for dubious benefit. We asked them to honor her hospice care and keep her as comfortable as possible. “Hospice” is not a specific facility, but rather a layer of care on wherever the patient is (even if the patient is at home).

Last but not least – this whole process will be frustrating, abstruse, process-laden, and generally a pain in the ass.  Find a friend who has bandwidth and use them to vent, do NOT vent at the healthcare professionals as it won’t help you (or them). 

Assisted Living, Part I

I’ve thought about writing this blog post off and on, for about the last six months; the only thing that prevented it is that it’s going to be long. There’s too much to encapsulate in a few paragraphs, so this is part 1 of 2. Know that while this entire thread is using “parent”, this could hold for a sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc. We’re all going to need some kind of help at some point.

If you want to skip to the part about “what you need to do now” without the backstory, skip down to “What you should do right now“.

I’m part of Generation X, and our parents are elder boomers (for the most part). Aside from the political and socioeconomic differences (particularly heightened recently what with the elections and COVID) between our generations, I also find a difference in willingness to ask for help, and to talk about health issues. My mother was the perfect case in point: she’d announce she visited the doctor and then just as quickly announce that it was no one’s business what the doctor said. (Or she’d lie and say “everything’s fine.”)

It comes to us (the kids) to try to have these conversations with our parents about preparations and planning and wants and preferences for when they (and we) need help; what that help looks like, who administers it, and what happens when it’s not enough. I would love to say that for all four of my immediate parents — and six parental units total — we had these conversations with grace and aplomb. Unfortunately, we lulled ourselves into a sense of security because “dad says it’s all taken care of” or “mom has a will and living will and healthcare power of attorney and gave us copies”. The basic checklists that I found online, after the passing of my father in law (vowing to have the conversation with all of my parents to make sure this sort of cockamamie bullshit didn’t happen again), didn’t cover what I should’ve been looking for. I found this out just about a year ago, the day after Thanksgiving 2019, with my mom.

My mother was a drinker from at least the time I was 7 — and drank more heavily as she aged. For me it was noticeable as “more than just mom’s generation of drinkers” when, after she retired and became incredibly sedentary, she’d start drinking at noon every day and her glass would drain and refill until 10pm (every day). I later discovered she would drink up to the equivalent of 3 bottles of wine a day. A lot of erratic behavior (including falls, repeating herself, etc.) would get swept away under “mom had too much again”, and despite multiple attempts to reason with her she would not stop. There were other signs I did not get to see and that were not shared (to spare me), things like hallucinations and incontinence, and on Pearl Harbor Day 2019 Mom was admitted to the hospital with hallucinations and, it turned out, a need for near-immediate surgery due to complications from her drinking. She was discharged to a recovery facility shortly after Christmas, diagnosed as not-really-recoverable shortly after New Years’, and lived four more months in the facility as vascular dementia, successive mini-strokes, and a general disinclination to cooperate with anything or anyone accelerated. COVID struck during this period and we weren’t allowed to visit for about six weeks, by the time they granted us a special exception we knew why.

This process was a lot more painful than it had to be, because there were things I didn’t know and questions I didn’t know to ask; and so as with most things legal and health care in this country there were added hoops to jump through when I was already dealing with complicated things. Which is what brings me to write this all down, so hopefully if and when someone else needs it, they don’t have this added layer of administratea (or are better equipped than I was).

What you should do RIGHT NOW (regardless of stage)

  1. Get a healthcare power of attorney.  Most attorneys have this as boilerplate with a bunch of questions you answer to get it done, but the thing is you have to have this.  No one will talk to you about your parent, or not really, without it.  And no doctor or nurse will listen to you unless you do. (If your parent wants the other parent to have this, fine. Make sure they do. And then make sure there’s one for that parent. And make sure there’s a backup).
    1. True story – mom had specifically written DO NOT USE FEEDING TUBES in her living will. The nurse checked the box for using feeding tubes if needed (right in front of me, her having read that NO FEEDING TUBES directive in moms living will, and having had me point it out) in front of me anyway.  I made her re-do it. Her explanation was that she “always checks that box”. If I hadn’t had power of attorney, I could not have spoken for my mother in that situation.
  2. If your parent still has their marbles:
    1. Have them write a living will about what happens while they’re still ALIVE but otherwise incapacitated (mentally and/or physically)
      1. Do they want to be resuscitated?
      2. Do they want to use feeding tubes if they can’t (or won’t, because they’re “not hungry” for days on end) eat? (This is common!)
      3. Do they want to just eat junk food if that’s what they’re asking for?
      4. Is hygiene important to them? Do they want their hair washed regularly and their nails kept trim, even if, in their crazy-state, they say they don’t want it?
    2. Have them write a will about what happens when they’re not still alive:
      1. Do they want a funeral? An obit? Cremation? Spread ashes somewhere?
        1. Believe it or not, a lot of people specify cremation but not “what next”. 
      2. Walk through all the steps.
        1. It helps to use a story (real or fake) about someone else’s experience about a parent who didn’t have one or more of these things and then how the family didn’t know what to do and gosh isn’t *that* awful?
        2. Feel free to use mine. My mom *had* a will and a living will; but she didn’t say what to do with her ashes when she went, she didn’t say what to do if she refused to have her nails trimmed or bathing, she didn’t say if she refused anything but dessert that that should be okay, she didn’t say what to do if she refused physical therapy. We spent months “guessing” what mom wanted because we couldn’t decipher between genuine obstinance, dementia, and what was best.

If your parent clearly needs help and you’re running out of the ability to provide it for them

  1. First, *objectively* assess your parent:
    1. When faced with authority – specifically, medical authority like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists – are they compliant? Friendly? Acquiescent? Combative? Do they shine it on and do whatever they want anyway?
      1. This is important to address realistically, because any prospective healthcare environment (read: assisted living, etc.) will evaluate your parent – usually a nurse practitioner or therapist (or sometimes both) will both interview your parent *and talk to existing caregivers*.  And they take notes.
      2. If you have the combative/argumentative type, do they have an easy “key” – e.g., they can be bribed with food, or TV, or such?
    2. Do they have substance abuse issues? You must be clear about those, because it can impact medications and can complicate transitions.  A beer or glass of wine here or there is not really a problem.  A bottle of wine every day is a problem.  Most care centers do not allow alcohol at all.
    3. Do they get along with others?
      1. This will help you determine if, going to a facility, they need one that has lots of “community” events, or ones with lots of alone time or “anti social social events” (e.g., TV room).
      2. It will also impact how likely they are to receive the idea of having a roommate.
  2. What kind of care do you think they need?
    1. If they need someone to check on them once or twice a day, to make sure they took their meds, ate, bathed, etc., then you can probably use home health care – someone who visits (usually a team).  Sometimes they do Physical Therapy as well.  This may be more cost effective than a home, and can help out folks who are already living with mom or dad but just can’t do it all themselves.
    2. If they need more regular care – they have incontinence they can’t self-manage, they are a fall risk, they are in later stages of dementia, or a couple of visits a day just won’t cut it – consider Assisted Living. There’s a lot of varieties of these:
      1. Ones where the parent gets what looks like an “apartment” of their own, with some furnishings but can bring some from home, and they get “visitors” to check up on them. (Some of these facilities have in-house doctors, others have docs that visit but in-house nursing). They get to go to a cafeteria for food (restaurant style), there’s group TV and crafts and  posted schedule of things, there’s field trips, etc.
      2. Ones where the parent gets their own *room*, but it’s more in a corridor situation, with a private bath.  In this case they get a specialized bed (usually), nurses visit daily and take vital signs, they are on a special diet, etc. etc.
      3. Ones where they share a room (usually a function of cost of #2 above)
      4. Ones where they are in effect in “lockdown”, aka memory care; they have their own room but they have a monitoring wristband or such that means they can only move in certain areas of the facility, and people check up on them more often.  This is for the later stages of dementia.
        1. You might start with home health and branch slowly into assisted living, depending on what’s better for mom or dad, or what’s more cost effective.
      5. A doctor may recommend one or the other based on medical condition (do they need physical therapy? Are they hooked up to an IV? Do they have post-op healthcare they need to heal up from?) and the ability of the person living with mom/dad to physically lift them in an emergency (for example, my stepdad could not lift my mom, so she could not come home, because if she fell – and she had a history of doing that – there was no way to get her up).
  3. How much do you/they have to spend?
    1. Medicare does NOT COVER ASSISTED LIVING (or home health care)
      1. Medicare will cover specific physical therapy and post-operative recuperation stays at a rehabilitation clinic, for a max of N days (I think it’s 100), and only the first 20 are covered 100%
      2. And, if Medicare declines things that should be covered, you get to fight them (a lot) by using an appeals system (like described here).
      3. Most insurances do not cover assisted living (or home health care)
    2. Medicaid covers assisted living, but you usually have to blow through half (or more) of your cash assets FIRST.  Some elderly couples have divorces of convenience so the wife can keep the house so the husband can go to the assisted living place.  Medicaid’s coverage varies by state.
    3. Assisted living costs vary wildly, depending on what the facility offers and (frankly) how well-trained their staff are.  We wanted to get my mom into a really nice place, but they didn’t have wound care (she was post op and because of her vascular disease wouldn’t ever really heal). The really nice place was about $5500/month.  Where she ended up staying was about $11k/month, because they had wound care (e.g., the right kind of nurses available). 
    4. Home health care visits vary wildly as well, but it’s basically an hourly rate for two people and can range from $60-100 per visit, depending on what they do per visit.  That sounds like a lot, but as compared to $300/day, it may not be.

Next post: when it happens NOW.

That’s How it’s Done

I use Flipgrid to consolidate inbound tech and economics news; along with a few podcasts and my weekly Economist that represents the bulk of my news media intake.  This time of year it’s a particular minefield, of course, with politics. But for the most part it’s my regular vegetables of tech and economics that get me what I want to know.

I was reading an article about how Amazon is launching an Alexa service for property management — e.g., the property manager pays for/owns the Alexa that lives in the residence with the renters, using it as a de-facto localized presence to control smart home things and, essentially, as an “added service/feature” of renting the place. (So much as you’d look to see if there was that extra half-bathroom or if there was a walk-in closet, you’d see if they included Alexa, too).

For the record, I read articles, because a pet peeve is when you get the poster who forwards an article that they clearly haven’t read (e.g., using the article to make a point that the article actually counterpoints). This is a case of me reading two separate articles, coming to a conclusion, and that conclusion was wrong.  It’s a better case of a colleague gently educating me.

Firstly, to the other article.  Granted, this NYT article is about a year old but we all remember the news that made the rounds about how Alexa is always listening. It’s true, she is: she *has* to.  Obviously she can’t start your timer or add your biodegradable pet waste bags to your Amazon cart if she can’t hear you.  In the NYT article, it’s about what she has done, and where that data goes, once she hears you. There is a sentence from that article, however, that did not stick in my brain from last year, so when I read the TechCrunch article, I made a comment on Twitter/Linked In.

My comment, quoted, is here:

“Two things: 1. interesting way to make IoT accessible to a broader base and 2. I would not at all be reassured the data is truly deleted (and isn’t, say, shipped off in snippets for “logs”/“troubleshooting”, for example). Also, the hand waving over who’s data it is needs to stop. Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

For the record, I still think #1 is true, and most of #2 is still an open question for me. I’m not at all clear on what happens to the data (yes, deleted at the end of the day, but… is it? What part of it is deleted? Is it every command, every call; or for example is there a record still in the smart thermostat (or a downstream reporting service) of all the changes I made, for example? And so forth.) Or who owns it (e.g., if something happens in the home, and the home belongs to the property manager, and the Alexa belongs to the property manager, but I’m the one renting the home, is that day’s data mine or the property managers?)  However, this post is to talk about someone who reached out to address the last point:  “Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

Now, it’s true that she does have to listen. However, a generous colleague reached out — privately, via LinkedIn messenger — to reassure me that Alexa does listen in for her name, but that listening happens only on the device… she doesn’t “trigger” until she hears her name, so no data leaves her until she does.  Or put the way they put it (bold is mine):

“Wake word detection is done on device in a closed loop, that is no audio sent to Alexa (aka. the cloud). Only when the on-device model detects the wake word with a high confidence, the audio of the wake-word it sent to the cloud for additional verification (besides false-positives this handles for example “Alexa” being said in ads).  No audio is ever sent to Alexa without a visual cue (the blue light).”

(Incidentally, the NYT article has this in a sentence that didn’t stick in my brain at all (bold is mine):

“…it’s true that the device can hear everything you say within range of its far-field microphones, it is listening for its wake word before it actually starts recording anything (“Alexa” is the default, but you can change it to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “computer”). Once it hears that, everything in the following few seconds is perceived to be a command or a request, and it’s sent up to Amazon’s cloud computers…”)

I wanted to share my colleague’s message because *this is exactly how it is done, folks*.  While I would’ve been just fine with them pointing this out as a comment to my LinkedIn post, they’re being polite and careful, because not everyone would be and frankly, they and I had one lunch at one time and that’s about all we know of each other.

My larger point — because I know that not everyone is in to public correction and many could find it disconcerting — is that we need to be better at private correction, at accepting new data, and at assimilating it or at least making the sincere attempt.  You will read articles and they will be carefully constructed on the part of the author — either attempting to be scrupulously fair or attempting to sway you one way or another — but what you don’t get to see is what was omitted, either via editorial jurisprudence or a required word count or assumed common knowledge.  What you don’t get to realize is what your brain has omitted, either via convenience, or simply the wear of time.

So thank you. I happily sit corrected :).

Eat Your Vegetables

Let’s take a moment and talk about Podcasts, shall we?

(Author’s note: I had to do a check to make sure I hadn’t posted about this before, because I had thought about posting this a bazillion times. Clearly never did.)

I rely on podcasts for the bulk of my audio entertainment. I probably spend 2-3 hours a day listening to them: the morning run/workout, the commute to work, the commute from work; then there’s weekends driving 75 miles each way to/from my son’s father’s house.

I have three tranches of Podcasts:

  • Podcast Vegetables
  • Podcast Main Course
  • Podcast Dessert

The largest group, of course, being Podcast Vegetables.

Podcast Vegetables

Understand that I like Vegetables.  As a kid, not so much, but as an adult, I recognize them as a tasty low-calorie low-fat low-carb way to fill my stomach.  My absolute favorite are roasted broccoli, followed by roasted carrots and then pretty much roasted every other vegetable you can name.  Don’t give me your sauteed stuff.  Gimme your charred-end-bits, slightly-salted, roasted-in-the-oven veggies. They’re good for you, they take up (relatively) little attention, and did I mention they’re good for you?

In the podcast world, I give you:

  • Up First With NPR News: 10-12 minutes of encapsulated news, alive and in your feed by 5am (yes I checked), personable.  Few interviews so Steve Inskeep doesn’t interrupt so many people.
  • Marketplace Tech with Molly Wood: 5-7 minutes, up to 10 if you include the “Related Links” section (my fave), of tech-related news.
  • Marketplace Morning Report: You get three (3)! of these, one or two from London (BBC partnership) and one from New York (usually with David Brancaccio), each is 7-15 minutes long and spans from the morning markets to the news of the day.
  • Marketplace with Kai Rysdaal: 20-30 minutes each afternoon, a good mix of what happened and what to think about. Also: listen for the market song (“We’re in the Money” for a good day, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got That Swing)” for a mixed day, and “Stormy Weather” for when it’s down.  One thing I really appreciate is Kai interviews folks on the ground who really have to deal with the brunt of economic choices. And he’s unfailingly polite.
  • The Indicator by Planet Money: a daily 5-7 minute podcast revolving around some statistic, indicator, or other numeric thing in marketplaces and/or economics and an exploration therein.
  • Planet Money: a weekly (ish?) 15-30 minute podcast that started right around the 2007 crash; super useful to understand why some things work the way they do (or don’t) in economics, trade, and monetary policy.

Main Course Podcasts

But Bobbie! I hear you saying.  Bobbie, I need some real deep-dish, filling, main course!

I give you:

  • Hidden Brain with Shankar Vidantham: 30-45 minutes, roughly weekly, of why we act the way we do, with studies and experts.
  • The 538 Politics Podcast: 30-70 minutes of what the F happened in politics from a data scientist’s view (and or political analyst’s view).  Incredibly un-partisan, hyper-logical, almost infuriatingly so.  Claire Malone is my fave.
  • Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt: although it’s more Dubner these days. The authors of the book series (Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics, etc.) have a podcast about… economics.
  • Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell: Not just accepting what your history teacher taught you, Malcolm Gladwell looks at what we thought happened and what probably happened.  Example: the great Toyota acceleration problem, or why LA has a lot of golf courses and very few parks.
  • Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly: The Host of Marketplace and the Hostess of Marketplace Tech spend about 10-20 minutes with an expert in the field on a current event (or movement) and then discuss.
  • This American Life with Ira Glass: 60 ish minutes weekly (drops Saturdays or Sundays). Usually features stories with a common theme, broken up as “acts” (e.g. Act 1, Act 2, etc.)

Something Sweet?

Of course, there are the ones I save for the long slog to go and get my kid (and return).  Often an aggregate four hours in the car, I reserve these for my Sunday dessert.

  • Factually with Adam Conover (NEW): 60 minutes of Adam Ruins everything crossed with interviewing  an expert on the thing he’s ruining.
  • Radiolab with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwitch: Science for ears.
  • Every Little Thing from Gimlet Media: How did Cheerleading start? Why are flamingos badass? Why do we reserve blue for boys and pink for girls?
  • Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me: 45 ish minutes weekly, dropping Saturdays, of a news quiz with 3 guests (usually comedians).
  • No Such Thing as a Fish (the QI Podcast): 45-50 minutes on Fridays of four brits talking about facts unearthed for the QI show and riffing off of each other’s discoveries.
  • Science VS. from Gimlet Media: Common debates of the day (is alcohol good for you? what about colonics? what about juice cleanses or intermittent fasting or keto diets?) on a roughly weekly basis for about 40 minutes. Hosted by Wendy Zuckerman.
  • The Nocturnists: I have to admit I only listen to the first part, which is about ten minutes, where the doctor in question is relating a pivotal story from their practice.  After that the host interviews the doctor but I find that less interesting.
  • Reply All from Gimlet Media: a 45 minute fortnightly delve into the latest internet meme, concern, or drama.
  • Invisibilia: All the things that surround you that are intangible but you have to deal with.  Like differing opinions, psychosomatic pain, and how we perceive things. But it’s fun.
  • More Perfect: Jad Abumrad investigates different stories of the Supreme Court.  It’s a lot better than that sounds.

Some Ephemeral Notables:

 

Eat Your Frogs

“Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

The relative cholesterol of frogs notwithstanding* this has been my mantra for the past several days. As part of the seasonal reorganization of things here at my company, I have a new boss and new coworkers (sorta) and so there’s a bit of an administrative tax associated with that: the PowerPoint that describes your products. The weekly update email on how those products are doing. The monthly update PowerPoint on how those products are doing. The one-off PowerPoint to discuss the ProblemChild in your product, and the one-page Word docs to describe the individual projects of your Product. Then of course there’s the emails about each of these items.  It was a rough three weeks getting all of that in order, but now I think we’re there and it’s time to eat another frog.

America needs to eat a frog. Actually, your average American citizen needs to eat a *lot* of frogs, because it is Election season. Whatever their opinions are about the candidates for the Top Office are, and how much they do or do not like said candidates, that is (frankly) the least of the frogs Americans need to eat.

*All* of the 435 House of Representative seats are up for reelection this year. Thirty five of the 100 Senate seats are, too. One hundred and sixty three ballot measures are up in 35 states, and 72 citizen initiatives. In my home state we have some pretty big decisions to make, including the possibility of a carbon tax (the Economist covered it last week). There are initiatives about pot, about gun control, about taxes, and about minimum wage; I guarantee the average American has an opinion about some or all of those. I equally guarantee there are no simple choices.

Let’s take my home state: Washington. We have the aforementioned carbon emission tax on the ballot, which economists love but I guarantee you local businesses will not. Ditto the Minimum Wage initiative (actually economists are split on that one, depending on who you talk to regarding artificial price floors, etc.). Firearms make another appearance, this time around risk protection orders. Another initiative asks you to weigh privacy risks against proper compensation for home health care workers. There’s also not one, but two advisory votes (where we get to let the State House/Senate know how we feel about taxes they approved without subjecting them to vote). You may think we have a lot in our state but it turns out California and Alabama voters will have a much thicker pamphlet to read through.

All of these frogs to eat and yet, while the states are doing their best to saute them in butter and garlic (or is that braise them in red wine and tomato sauce?) our election year coverage seems largely devoted to the biggest frogs who, depending on the status of the Congress they are rewarded with, may be stuck in the mud anyway and unable to do much other than croak for the next two years.

Because of the howling cacophony over those “biggest frogs”, it’s rare you find an intelligent, balanced conversation over the little frogs (and possibly tadpoles) we need to consume. It’s almost like the sheer dread of that first big frog negates the fact that once we’re done chewing that one and swallowing it, we have to eat another fifteen, or twenty, or thirty frogs.  Unlike college, there isn’t going to be some sort of machismo pride on the line for chugging your frogs; there’s not going to be a team of your brothers and/or sisters cheering you on as you eat your frogs.  This is probably because they’ll be busy with their own frogs. Stopping to discuss the balance of flavors in the small frogs, or cooking method, seems ridiculous.

It is, however, the platefuls of small frogs that await us are what we’ll have to subsist on for the next two years (at least — remember Senate terms, for example, are six years), and they are not getting the attention they deserve. I’d argue the biggest frogs are over seasoned and will be cooked to a crisp, leaving little taste on the palette and not otherwise making any long-term impressions. It’s those carefully prepared, home-grown frogs we need to fill up on. On voting day,  you get to pick your frogs.

*50mg per 100g of frog meat, in case you were wondering, vs 88 for chicken. There may be a missed opportunity here.

Amphigory & Discovery

In 1992, I was in my second year of college and caught between a love of English (Literature), and Marine Biology. Naturally, then, all of my humanities credits were embedded in literature. My college offered a course in British Literature, and I took it.  I had had the instructor before (Dr. Linda Leeds) and I would have her again (in a custom course in which I spent it studying the Vita Merlini), and she was most judicious in her judgment.

In my time with her, she remarked that:

  1. My journalism teacher had succeeded in curing me of writing “cute” but not killing writing for me, and
  2. That I really should have stuck with English as a major (true, I use it more than Marine Biology to date)

I remember that in our Brit Lit class we thought we were so smart. There were 30-odd of us, and we “convinced” her to let us watch “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” as part of coursework.

The joke was, of course, on us. Have you watched the movie? I cannot, to this day, without being able to dissect Every Single Joke into a commentary on English Literature or historical fact. There is a reason there is a killer rabbit. There is a reason there are irritating French soldiers, there is a reason there are wanton harlots and questionable witches and messed up science. There is a reason the guy who is being carried to the “Bring out your dead” collector isn’t really dead, and why Dennis was considered “old” and mistaken for a “woman”. There is a reason the professor appears halfway through, the monster had 3 heads, and Robin has a divergent experience and minstrels. There is a reason a cow is thrown, a rabbit is the “Trojan Horse”, and there are no actual horses. There is a reason for the shrubbery, the Castle Aaaargh, and Wicked Newt. (If you are willing to dive deep and view askew, there is even a reason for the “Swedish”subtitles in the opening credits).

The joke was on us and I cannot speak for the others in my class, as I do not know any of them anymore, but I watch this movie with my son and smirk both in the pure joy of a Monty Python movie and the knowledge that it’s so much more well conceived than anyone thinks. It hasn’t killed the joy of watching for me, and here I am some 23/4 years after the fact fondly remembering an English Teacher.

That is power.

I do not know what has become of Dr. Leeds.  She was extremely effective as an instructor and I really do wish I had listened to her more often. I only know that I am not the only one who benefits from her wisdom and generosity.

And I am not the only one who cannot watch this movie without winking at the Black Knight, who always triumphs, regardless of the circumstance.

Give

Today, I was an adult. I got up early (even for me). I wore professional business wear (not jeans). I wore heels for more than 9 hours. I paid for parking, in downtown. I held meetings. I followed up.

And I spoke in front of 250-odd people on the reason why I work with Team Read.

Here is the text of my speech. I flubbed it in a couple of spots, but the sentiment is there. If you can, give: http://www.teamread.org.

Good morning. Thank you all for coming to our Annual Fundraising Breakfast. I know it takes some effort to get up and presentable and into downtown at 7:30am, so well done all of us.

Being, as I am, a technologically minded person, and surrounded, as I am often, with technologically minded people, who all agree on the importance of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – in education, it may have been a surprise to some of my friends and family that I chose to invest in, and support, Team Read. After all, this is about reading, right?

Right. Step one, in a long list of steps to a robust and complete education. Without reading, and specifically without quick and thorough reading comprehension, no student will survive that hallmark of third grade math: the word problem. We all remember – a train leaves Chicago going 40 miles per hour, and so forth? Only now they’re multi-step problems in third grade, like this one:

Ashley is 61 inches tall. Adam is five feet four inches tall. How many inches taller is Adam?

So we help students improve their reading fluency and comprehension, paving the way to use reading as a tool for all and any disciplines they need to pursue through the course of their educational careers.

That is only half of the story though, and only half of why I support Team Read.

About two breakfasts ago – I measure these things in food – Kiarra Thomas, a Team Read tutor, spoke here about her experience being a tutor. She talked about how she learned very real job skills – dealing with her charge, budgeting time, being responsible for this student. She spoke about how these skills and this experience helped form her educational and career path, and how it helped her get other jobs. Too often we are given to looking at our teenagers as “just teenagers” – oh, those kids – whereas Team Read provides, to qualified and eager teenagers, a real job, with real experience, and real impact. These teenagers are equal to the task.

And that’s why I am here today. And that’s why you are here today, too.

Team Read relies on the support of volunteers and donors, and I want to thank you for being here this morning, and learning about the good work of Team Read, and sharing your enthusiasm for this organization with others.

So thank you.

Freedom

It’s that time of year again, where kids are out of school and we all forget about the responsibilities and management associated with education. School’s out for the summer!

Here in Washington State our legislators have come up with a budget (after two special sessions, for which, may I remind you dear voter, our congresspersons get paid). It got signed in, but doesn’t include the funding for the recent education bill that got passed, which totals slightly over $2 billion. Out of $38 billion, that means we’re missing about 5% or so of our budget. As much as I want to look at that and still give us an “A”, I’m a pretty harsh grader.

This little rounding error is for reduced class sizes, voted in by the constituency. The reason why there’s no funding for it is the measure didn’t include a funding resource, which is like saying “Do you want to have free groceries?” as a voting item. Of course you want free groceries, or reduced class sizes. When we don’t address how it’s going to get paid for, however, we end up with extended sessions and bickering and our very own elected officials trying to delay a measure we elected to have.  A funding measure wasn’t included, though, because as soon as you mention the possibility of raising taxes — of any sort: real estate, business, sales, or (eek!) instantiating an income tax — people lose their collective shit.

Here’s the thing: we can get mobilized around *some* social progress. We have gay marriage and subsidized healthcare and it only took Donald Trump one speech to ignite and unify the Latino vote (hi, I’m one of ’em, Donald) and get NBC, Macy’s, etc. to drop him like a hot potato. We are a country moving towards better social freedoms, recognition of our needs as a society, and intolerance of intolerance.

“We” (and by “we” I mean our dear, elected officials) do this because of one very simple reason: those movements represent votes. They get the Latino vote. Or the gay vote. Or the elderly vote. Or the African-American vote. Or the women’s vote. They love those voters! Those voters will help them *win*. It will be great.

As long as those voters aren’t educated.

We live in a country that is 14th in the world for education — and a state that is 20th in the US. Those figures are dropping with each year.  You don’t have to be smart to vote, and when you have your Legislative Branch playing games with numbers to “pass a budget” that doesn’t include all of the things that it is required to pay for, it’s better if the voters aren’t smart.

I live in a good school district. Our kids get issued laptops.  One of the more common rejoinders to this is: if the school district can furnish laptops, why can’t it pay its teachers (or reduce class sizes)? Great question.

Local school districts augment federal and state money (because it’s not enough) by levies and bonds. Here in our county it’s not uncommon to see an education bond measure every two years — for this district or the one down the road — to cover a given thing. Technology levies are separate from operating levies are separate from capital bonds (the latter used for building new schools). So if the tech levy passes but the operating levy doesn’t, you get computers but no one to administrate them.

Let’s take a look, then, at the operational cost of a teacher — that’s really what it comes down to, right? The teacher is who your child interacts with on a daily basis, they’re the ones that “take all summer off” and “Only work like 6 hours a day and get multiple in-service days and spring break and such”. Let’s look at a “Schedule C” teacher, who has either a BA and 90 credits or a Master’s Degree. We will take one who is 5 years in. That teacher makes $43,607/year. (Note to those who go look up those hourly rates — those are based on in-class hours. They are not based on hours worked).

Let’s further say the teacher doesn’t work at all during the 10 weeks of summer (they actually go in a week early, but it makes the math easy), or spring break (1 week), winter break (2 weeks), and holidays (Veteran’s day, Day after Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, Mid-winter break adds up to a week). I exclude Thanksgiving and Memorial day because they are typically off for everyone.

OK so 52 weeks/year, minus 10 for summer, 3 for regular breaks, and another for miscellaneous days == 52-14=38 weeks. That translates to $1147/week, before taxes, or an hourly rate of $28.67. Woo hoo! Riches behold!

Well, wait. Do they really work 40 hours?

My son’s school starts at 7:4oam and gets out at 2:10pm. Teachers are expected on-campus by 7:10am. So let’s assume they hightail it out of there with the kids and do not stay late to cover detentions (they do), test retakes (ditto), clubs (which they do and it’s usually on their own time, but it’s a choice so we will ignore that). That’s 7 hours. Oh, they get lunch, for 40 minutes. That means 1 hour, 40 minutes short of an 8 hour workday.

Except there is no room in there for lesson planning, grading, etc. Six classes at 30 kids/class is 180 kids worth of papers to grade, tests to grade, and lesson plans. Fine. Let’s be super-generous and say that is used up with that 1 hour and 40 minutes. (Note: my kid averaged 3 hours of homework per night in 6th grade. Each class had one graded item per night, roughly, not including major projects and papers. Translation: go through roughly 180 pieces of math homework and check the answers and they showed their work correctly. At one minute per paper you have used up all of your 100 minutes and then some).

Great! We’re done.

No, we’re not. These days, your dear teachers are expected to answer email from students and parents. This averages 30-50 per day (I am not exaggerating, I asked a bunch of different teachers — and I know I contributed to that count more than a few times). Call it 30 per day at 1 minute to read and 1 minute to respond– that’s another hour. Then add in IEP meetings (teachers with a student in their class in an IEP attend one or two of these a year — and there’s about 2 per class, so 12 per teacher) and those add up to another 15 minutes a week. Then add in staff meetings, call it another 15 minutes per week.

With me? Your 40-hour per week teacher is now at roughly 48 hours/week. Let’s go back and do that math again: $24/hour. Looks great! Except remember we removed all those weeks off the teacher gets — we assumed s/he didn’t get paid for that period.

Now lets look at how much “life” costs.

  • Take off 20% for taxes.
  • The cheapest 2 bedroom apartment I could find within a 20 minute drive (because there is a gas/transportation trade off here) is $1200 ($14,400/year).
  • $300/mo for food
  • $100/mo for transportation — bus and/or gas money/insurance
  •  $150/mo electric/gas
  • 10% for retirement

That’s $2294-(20%*2294)-1200-300-100-150-(10%*2294)=2294-458-1200-300-100-150-229=and guess what we’re in negative numbers. Because after I take out electricity/gas we have only $86, and that’s what the teacher can put to retirement.

As long as they don’t have kids. Or pets. Or hobbies. Or unforeseen medical expenses. Or mandatory union dues. Or chipping in for the kid who can’t afford school supplies. Or student loans, because our higher education system is horrifically messed up, too.

Today we celebrate our independence from a government that wanted to give us taxation without representation. We need to look at our government today and understand our responsibilities, and theirs. We pay the taxes. We may need to pay more. In turn, we need our legislators to represent: not just because they “let” us have the freedoms we were already granted (my 12 year old was shocked to find out gay people couldn’t get married already) in our constitution, but because we put the legislators where they are today.

If they don’t represent what we need, then we need to put others in there who do. That is the ultimate freedom we have as Americans, and we need to remember it, and use it.