After Life

(Note: This is the last one of these I’m going to write for a while. Not because they’re particularly depressing for me, but they can be a bit of a downer for others. Still, I’ve had a couple of people ask about “what happens next”, so without further ado, here’s what happens next.)

(Also note: this isn’t about the spiritual afterlife — the one that happens to your spirit when it leaves the body, if that is your belief. This is about what happens to others who are still in this life, when that happens, in a practical tactics sort of way.)

I once had a break of a whole week between two jobs — a real break, I had left company A and was moving to company B. In preparation for that I started a checklist of all the things I was going to do during that week — various house stuff, crafting projects, probably catching up on filing, reorganizing the pantry — and it grew. The checklist started about four weeks before the break, and about one week before the break, it was complete.

I had done all the things on the checklist.

It has taken me years to allow things to sit on a list for their appointed time, because my instinct is to do the thing if it can be done. This has historically resulted in manic cleaning fits, late-night papers, insomniac email, and associated unhealthy behaviors; I’m working on it. Still, I typically craft my resolutions for the New Year around Thanksgiving and start addressing them around mid-December.

I’ve had a will, and the standard, boilerplate living will/healthcare directive since I had my son. I felt like I had done all that needed to be done, things were addressed, and so if something were to happen to me, the “work” left to my estate would be trivial. My mom also had a will, a healthcare directive and healthcare power of attorney (that specifically named me). It took seven months from the time of her passing to the last bit of paperwork/administrative work to be complete.

(NOTE: I AM NOT A LEGAL PROFESSIONAL AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TALK TO ONE). In the interest of preventing others from going through this same hassle (inasmuch as it can be avoided), I’m going to share some specific experiences and some guidance for you as you think about your own paperwork or guide a family member through theirs.

When my mom got put on hospice, the hospice team suggested reaching out to make pre-arrangements with a funeral home. We did do that, a local place that was hugely sympathetic and understanding (I had to do it virtually thanks to the viral outbreak), and walked me through the process. They had a lot of questions that were not answered in mom’s documents: did she want an obituary? Did she want a full or partial viewing? What kind of container did she want her remains in? Did she want them interred in a cemetery or to come home? And so forth. Learning: go talk to the local funeral home/investigate their site and look at their intake forms. It will give you an idea of the questions you should either have answered in your will or separate letter to whomever you want taking care of that.

When it happened, the home walked us through the initial administrative process, and we notified mom’s lawyer that she had passed. Both the home and the lawyer walked us through next steps, which included such things as “let us know” (the home) “how many death certificates you need”, and “get me a death certificate and the most recent bank and title statements of the joint properties listed in the community property agreement” (a thing my parents had in addition to their will, that was supposed to streamline the process and avoid a lengthy probate). Learning: each financial or legal institution you will deal with will want a *certified* death certificate. So each life insurance, bank, etc. Start with five if you can, or if things are super-tight, start with the one and then ask each office to send it back. (In Washington State, death certificates are about $20 each, and your funeral home can get them for you as part of their service).

About a month or so in to going through mom’s papers, we discovered not one but two ancient life insurance policies – one opened up as a “savings account” for her by her father when she was born (the kind you pay each year and then cash out at 21, except she didn’t) and one she opened when she was still married to my dad, her first husband.

The savings account one wanted not only a death certificate but receipts from the process, and when they made a copy error (I am not making this up) and copied the receipts over the death certificate they held up progress for FOUR MONTHS while they sent me form letters saying they hadn’t heard from me. (I’d call and they’d tell me the form letter wasn’t as specific as it could be and that they wanted a new death certificate. When I pointed out they already had one and that their copy error shouldn’t be my problem, they agreed and said they’d handle it. The next month I’d get another form letter saying they hadn’t heard from me. Repeat.) Learning: the Insurance companies aren’t just going to let you file a claim and receive the paperwork and have it be all fine, be prepared to spend some phone time and (in my case) know who the OIC (Office of the Insurance Commissioner) is in your state, the state the life insurance contract was opened in, and the state the insurance company operates in. (In my case, I ended up opening a complaint in California, Pennsylvania, and with the BBB).

For the one opened in her first marriage, the insurance company did NOT care that there was a will, that my mom had divorced my dad, and that my mom had remarried. The beneficiary in this policy was my dad, and so to my dad the payment would go. (Dad mailed the payment to my StepDad because my dads are cool). Learning: Check your beneficiaries, especially if you have had a life change. Those can override any sentiments in your will.

Additionally, with Life Insurance, the appreciation you get on it (e.g., if the policy matured N years ago and therefore has been collecting X interest since then) is taxable. Learning: Talk to an accountant/estate planner about how that works and/or talk to yours if you are on the receiving end about the tax implications so you’re ready. (Also, not every insurance company withholds anything from this payment. I have a letter from the “savings” insurance company saying they did. The actual check stub and accounting does not show this. I’m not saying that insurance company sucks, but I won’t be voluntarily doing business with an insurance company whose name rhymes with Detrimental).

(Incidentally, the local banks and mortgage company, the department of licensing and the social security office all went easy as pie.)

Dollars and cents aside, there’s then the physical artifacts: what do you want to become of your stuff? I’m not talking about the stuff you name-check in your will — the family opal ring or the signed print or such — I’m talking about your *stuff*. Your clothes, shoes, etc. mainly. In my mom’s case, she had a lot of nice, barely worn things from a stretch of cruising. The nice things got donated to a local women’s shelter, as did unopened extras of toiletries and such. There were also some not-nice things, and those went into the trash. (I don’t think my mom ever considered it but I think she would have agreed with a women’s shelter and would’ve disagreed on the “not nice” label). Learning: if you have a preference, spell out where you want your stuff to go. If you don’t, spell out that it’s up to the person executing the estate.

It probably comes as no surprise that I processed this grief the way I process most everything — there was an Excel spreadsheet, a detailed One Note; there was lots of productive activity, there was lots of avoidance of the icky, emotional deluge (which didn’t turn out to be much because, as I sorted out with my therapist, I’d been grieving since she got admitted to the hospital)– but I hope that the learnings from this will help you and/or yours in how you approach your preparations, perhaps as a New Years’ resolution.

Giving Tuesday

It’s Giving Tuesday, and while this is but one of many opportunities to donate to the charities that have meaning for you, it’s the one that’s here right now, nestled between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

A couple of weeks ago I reached out to family and friends to find their favorite charities. It’s not that I don’t have an idea of where my money can go, it’s more that I usually see these folks during the course of the year across a banquet table with elaborate, biddable centerpieces and carefully-folded linen napkins and dubiously fresh rolls and frozen butter. If your thirties are spent at soccer matches and theater practice, your forties (at least mine) are spent at fundraiser breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; at auctions and pop-up shops and cookie drives and popcorn sales.

I don’t get to see my friends much these days, we’re all disinclined to collect a new health concern (being in our forties we save discussion for “what’s the latest part of my body to go south” until after dessert). There’s no dessert lately, because we’re all staying home; so there’s no emotional guest-speaker, no witty and quick-moving emcee, no carefully (or not) placed nametag over the ubiquitous scarf-of-the-season.

So I reached out to my friends and asked them about their local charities, the ones they like, the ones for which I should’ve got an email invite to a downtown hotel that would make me mentally calculate my parking options, except that there are no said events. I got replies, some expected, some not, and in case you’re looking for some places to give, I hereby give you the List. It is a working list, I’ll keep adding to it, but here’s the list, this Giving Tuesday.

If these aren’t for you, I encourage you to reach out and find the one(s) that are, and see what you can do; COVID has hit not only the predictable health, homeless, and food security spots, but also there are downstream education and childcare impacts, disenfranchisement, etc. You can also reach out to me if you’d like to add to the List.

Moral Support & Technical Leadership

I was fortunate enough to grow up with four parents — while most divorce stories in the late-70’s/early-80’s were full of the (very real, very ugly) drama of how divorce could be, for me, I netted a couple of extra parents and double presents on holidays and my birthday. Sure, when I screwed up I had twice as many people on my case, and they got along (at least in my youth) so it meant grounding at house A was continued at house B, but for the most part this was a good deal for me.

My step-mom (heretofore to also be referred to as mom, because she is; this is not the same mom that recently passed) did a lot of the raising (period) but especially at my dad’s house. My dad, who is awesome, was a Corporate Dad and had to travel a lot and stay late at the office and is probably the reason why I don’t really let work go (and why it’s important to me that work be good enough to not let go of). He would joke sometimes about providing moral support and technical leadership when it came to parenting, but to be honest he did exactly that and it was, for me, exactly what I needed. Sure, it took until I was about 27 to “grow up” but hey, better late than never.

I myself became a parent at 29 (very much planned, very much awesome) and then became a single parent at 32 (very much not planned, very much not awesome — at the time). As such, there I was, at 32, with a Real Big Person Corporate Job of my Own and an *almost* three year old, a mortgage, and a dog.

The three year old, who is now nearly 18, was a handful. In his early teens he was loathe to hear about his exploits but now we can all look back on them and smile; let’s just say my kid was *that* kid and the principal at his elementary school and I were on a first-name basis. I became intimately aware of how school administration functioned and how things got documented. Someday I’ll write up all about that — when I’m not on the PTA or affiliated with the district anymore. This is all to say that I got a call from the school, on some thing or other, at least every other day until he was five, at least twice a week until he was seven, and about once a week to two weeks until he was 9. He was a fireball of energy and had a low BS tolerance (as remains so), is intelligent and a big fan of the minimum effort for maximum return (which, as we all know, can get radically problematic if the initial effort is misjudged). Imagine having this parenting challenge while trying to work.

I owe *a lot* to two managers I had during this period, both of them men, for the trust and flexibility they extended to me. The work got done, absolutely, but I had the benefit of managers who understood if I had to leave *right now* because I just got a call, or if I needed to work from home here or there (before it was common or, as now, required). I was able to keep my job, and my *career*, because these folks understood that I would get the work done somehow (even if it was in the middle of the night while the kiddo slept) but just not right here or right now.

The fact of the matter is that while the calls came and when I’d have to go and get the boy from school, for the most part he was *in* school and so, as a single mom, I had the benefit of that “childcare” (the primary function of school is not child care — but I had the benefit of knowing my kid was in a safe place while I worked, and that safe place happened to be school). That plus this flexibility on the part of my management meant I was able to continue my career and find myself (as I have been these last few years) in what I would call a really good place.

Slightly over two million women in the United States have had to leave the workforce since COVID slammed onto these shores. Just under one million of those left in *September alone*. It’s not that these women didn’t also have super cool understanding bosses, it’s that trying to work from home and moderate your kids’ online learning — something *I never had to do* — is pretty much impossible. You can’t pay attention in the team meeting or edit your queries or write your spec if you are also on deck to make sure the kid isn’t also playing CoolMathGames on his computer (true story, my kid did this *in school* when he was in elementary school — and if you’re a parent of a kid between 5 and 15, chances are yours did too) and that she’s listening to the teacher and that they are using all the tools correctly and hey how’s that bandwidth going for you? The reality that in a dual-income household it’s typically the mom who takes on the rearing duties — either because of economics (dad makes more) or social placement (that’s the way it is in some families), women are facing a choice and the choice isn’t pretty.

For those whose initial response is “who cares, people have to do what is important for them, this doesn’t impact me because I’m not a woman/not a mom”, we should all care. We should all care, because:

  1. We (in the US) are likely to see a $1 trillion loss in GDP by 2030 because of this brain drain — for those fretting on the money we’re “spending” on battling the economic effects of COVID, understand this is money we’re “losing”, despite existing expenditures.
  2. Workplace diversity will reduce, which in turn has negative effects on productivity, financial targets, and employee engagement.
  3. Female-dominated industries, such as education, healthcare, services, and hospitality, impact not just women — a reduction in healthcare professionals for example means your elderly grandpa’s assisted living facility may have trouble hanging on to CNA’s (or nurses or doctors).
  4. This disproportionately impacts black women and further hinders racial equality and justice which further impacts everyone.

Those are just the dollars-and-cents/what’s-in-it-for-me reasons, ignoring those that center around “let’s not be assholes” and “life has enough drama already, let’s not add on to that”.

There’s two things we need here, then: firstly (and most obviously) we need a coherent pandemic response strategy that is comprehensive (addressing both the fiscal impacts of the pandemic but also the structural impacts), *and* we need better support structures and systems for working parents. Paid parental leave (as most countries have — this is not just a socialist country thing), federal support for child care costs (for those who ask “who pays for it?” — the answer is we already are *losing* that money (and possibly more) by the workforce drain) are two good first starts. (Childcare.gov already exists to help in this area, it just needs to be better-funded and expanded).

With the elections “over” (I put that in scarequotes because elections are a constant thing — your state will have more elections next year on all kinds of local issues, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking elections on even years are the only ones that matter ) the temptation is to say “well the incoming administration will just take care of it”. I mean sure, yes, let’s be optimistic but let’s also put some realism in our optimism. Here’s how one can be informed and move things along:

  1. Check out how your state uses the CARES act funding for child care. (You can see how much they got and how it is distributed). (You can get a review of the CARES act funding, en-toto, here (handy pdf on the site)).
  2. Check out how your state is approaching child care funding and distribution outside of the CARES act (Washington state example here)
  3. Write to your STATE and FEDERAL legislators.
    1. ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL. I cannot emphasize this enough. Your state legislature is more agile than the federal one.
    2. You can find your state government websites here, which you can then look up your state legislators on. For Washington State, it’s here: House Senate
    3. You can find your federal legislators here: House Senate
    4. You can find a great guide on how to write to these folks here.
    5. You can ask your federal legislators what they are doing in addition to funding efforts such as this.
    6. You can ask your federal and state legislators what you can do as a citizen to help (guess what? You can start a dialogue with these folks. After all, they work for you, not the other way around).
  4. See what your workplace is doing. I am super-fortunate to work for a big company that is doing many productive things in this area, but engagement and reinforcement socially in the workplace is important.
  5. In preparation for the next election, pay attention to the stances (and voting records) of the people you are voting for. Don’t vote straight ticket.
    1. You read that right. Voting for a person simply because they are the party you tend to affinitize to does YOU a disservice. When you do that, you are making the assumption because their well-shared opinion on Topic X matches yours, that their not-so-well-shared-opinion on Topic Y matches yours. It may not.
    2. You can check out your federal legislator’s voting history here: House Senate. You may find it illuminating.

You may not be a mom, or a woman, or a parent; but we are all capable of moral support and technical leadership.

When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.

I have voted in every election (and I mean every election, even the weird February local initiative ones where you’re wondering why they saw fit to bring this up *now*), since 2000. I read the book that comes out, I do fact checks, and I vote.

There are some things I wish I could wave a magic wand and just have go away:

  1. Opinion Journalism. How you say what you say matters, and you can take a statement of fact and either amplify the parts of the statement that suit your need to sway an audience and/or de-amplify the ones that don’t suit you. We have forums for editorial journalism — they’re in the Editorials section, cleverly enough — and they should stay there. Since the dawn of “alternative facts” this has become more and more sketchy, and it feeds the hysteria.
  2. Speaking of hysteria – can we have a round of applause for the Hysteria Machine? No? Good. Because the Hysteria Machine is exhausting. Yes, I know s/he said the thing. It’s on tape, I saw it. I do not need you to reinforce to me how awful the thing is. All I need is the fact that s/he said the thing (or did the thing). Let me have my own disgust, or anger, or sadness, without imparting a healthy layer of *yours* on top of it. (By the by, I’m referring to articles, blog posts, radio, podcasts, etc. If you are my friend and we talk socially and you want to commiserate over the whatever — or even *healthily debate with facts and reasoning over differences of opinion* — then that’s cool.) I just don’t want a national news syndicate telling me where my outrage should come from. It’s insulting (it implies I don’t understand things and so wants to dumb it down to an emotional reaction) and it’s exhausting.
  3. Armchair data science. I love data. I love data science. I love everything about data including tracking it from where and how and under what rigors it is collected to the pipelines in which it runs to the output in which it is consumed. I love data even — and perhaps especially — when it disproves an assumption or bias I have, because learning is hard and sometimes un-fun and that means you are exercising your brain. Go brains! Armchair data science is none of these. Armchair data science is like this:

Let’s play a game.  What’s wrong with this poll?

Firstly, it sits in a very popular media entry site, sandwiched between international news and Latest Video (of… stuff, I guess), below an article about free pastries at McDonalds and above local news (predominantly about COVID). The context is negligible or confusing at best. In what context am I being asked how I feel about polls? Apparently one in which I am also interested in a McDonalds Apple Pie while self-isolating and reading about how things are going far away from me.

Secondly, look at the nature of the question: “Do you like taking polls?”  The question can be answered 3 different ways:

  1. Yes, I like taking polls.
  2. No, I do not like taking polls.
  3. No, I do not like taking polls, but I do anyway, because I can’t help myself.

The first one is easy – yep, like taking polls, so I’m going to check that box.

The second one has got to be facetious – if I do not like taking polls, I’m not going to take your poll. The results you get with this poll will not reflect the actual population that likes or does not like taking polls, and will skew heavily towards those that like taking polls.  You’re not going to get the volume of “No’s” that reflect reality, because your poll does not have ESP and can’t read my mind as I register what it is asking me, reflect that I don’t like polls, and therefore do not engage. (The fact that I’m engaging this much on my blog and yet still won’t click your damn button illustrates this).

The third one is even better — I do not like taking polls, but I am unable to stop myself from grasping my mouse and clicking that button (or taking my finger and poking at it). What is being measured here is the impetus of the user to click a button because they like the little dopamine rush they get when they click a button; and likely has nothing to do with polls per-se.  

The results of this poll will be useless — they will be heavily skewed towards the first and third answers, and, if the respondents who would represent the second one actually behave in the manner the poll suggests they behave, they would not be represented at all. What’s wrong with a useless poll?

This useless poll will probably drive someone’s decision, somewhere.  It will either drive a marketing choice (have more polls! people love taking them!), an editorial choice (we should make polls on the front page every day!), or a behavioral choice (people love clicking things, let’s add more clickable content!).  Which then will drive other behaviors and choices, and what you end up with are ad-filled, click-bait-filled pages of no material use for those of us who just wanted the facts.

This is just an innocuous, stupid little poll about polling.  What happens when it looks like it’s a legit poll about how people feel about COVID? Or the economy? Or healthcare? Or personal freedoms?  The output of that drives more of the hysteria machine, of course, because now we know how to cater to our clickers– they care about the economy so let’s tell them what is happening with it, but not objectively — let’s not share specific data points with a holistic view; let’s instead concentrate on the Stock Market. Or on the jobs data — but not all the jobs data, just the ones we think will drive the most clicks. 

Ironically this means that those of us who would like all the data, so we can make informed choices, absent of editorial sway and anxiety exacerbation, have to click *more* … to dig it all out.

 

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 :).

Goodbye, Facebook

I’ve been on Facebook for the better part of 11 years. In that time it has afforded me the opportunity to keep in touch with friends, old and new; to see the immediate impacts of world events through a local lens; to ensure my family knows I haven’t fallen into a puddle of stress. In return, Facebook sold my data to various marketing endeavors, so I’d get served up “relevant” ads for Stitch Fix, Starbucks and You Need a Budget. I was fine with this arrangement.

I am not fine with them selling my data to a firm that will target ads to me in order to change my voting behaviors or my social views. I’m fully cognizant that they already have my data, and my deletion of my content on Facebook the site – which I’ve mostly done thanks to a script referenced in this article – is an academic exercise for those wishing to mine it from Facebook. The deals are done, the data is out. (Note it’s not technically a data breach, because Facebook gave the data freely away.) This is me, voting with my keyboard: they don’t get any future data.

Not directly, anyway.

Facebook still creates ghost profiles, still uses cookie drops through scores of sites on the internet, leverages publicly available data and sells the cooked product. It will still sell the cooked product. I will not help them do it, though. I am deleting my Facebook entirely March 30th. I have already deleted WhatsApp and Instagram (two Facebook properties). I am retaining Twitter (for now) and LinkedIn.

Things I Recommend:

  • If you remain on Facebook, I recommend using FB Purity.
  • If you want to delete your content (after downloading) I recommend Social Book Post Manager.
  • If you want to keep the cookies at bay, I recommend Ghostery.
  • If you want to listen to some great podcasts about the latest Facebook data sharing issues (because this has happened before), I recommend this and this.
  • If you are more of an article-reading person, read this and this and this.

Keep in Touch:
If you have my email, or we’re linked on LinkedIn or Twitter, that works. If you have my phone number we can totally text. My friend K has set up a private photo sharing process in his family that I will be pinging him shortly on how to do the same, to make sure my son’s grandparents get the latest photo evidence that he’s still growing and healthy and making bland sartorial choices. And if a more responsible photo-and-update sharing platform arrives on the scene, I’ll have a look.

Fight Enough

One of my favorite movies this time of year, for sheer shlock and Americana, is Holiday Inn.  Holiday Inn is a Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire vehicle, full of musical numbers (the premise is a musical act that moves to rural Connecticut and opens a dinner theater that is only open on holidays), and that 1940’s vibe of “wow, things were so much simpler.”

Things were not, in fact, simpler then. Objectively: technology was ruder, and there was that whole World War II thing: families back home were just as invested in the war as the soldiers abroad — meatless, sweetless, and wheatless days, for example. Nevertheless, Bing kept singing and Fred kept dancing, and all in glorious black and white.

My very favorite routine of the whole movie is Thanksgiving. Because Thanksgiving is when our hero (Crosby) has been “cheated” of his girl (by Astaire) (and no he hasn’t been cheated, he was a dick and she caught him at it), and so he’s alone on Thanksgiving listening to his own recording of his musical number, “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For”.  During the number he savagely cuts into his dinner, clapping back at his recorded signing self, and has to get told by his “Mamie” (an African American housekeeper. So much can be said here but you know it already: not how it should have been, not how it should be, caricature, racist, etc.). “Mamie” tells him off and tells him to go “get his woman” because otherwise he doesn’t “have fight enough to keep her”.

Well.

I like Mamie and all but the reason I like this piece has to do with before she enters stage left (oh I like that she tells him off, too.) It’s the two Bings: Bing one is sitting and eating dinner, all pissy and whiny about his circumstance, and Bing two is looking at the bigger picture (gee, I have food and health and I’m not busy fighting a war on two or three fronts that we don’t know when it’s going to end.)

The two Bings remind me that I have two Bings too: I can choose to focus on the negative (and like most privileged people I can manifest a series of bullshit reasons my life is so hard: yet I have food on the table and a roof over my head, etc.) or I can choose to focus on the positive. So when I look at the bevy of things I can be upset or disenchanted about, I can either mope or I can figure out what I can do to address it.  I’ve got a slew of things to address: work stuff, home stuff, “political” stuff.

Well. I’ve “fight enough”, as it were.  And  I think we all do. So if I can give y’all a belated Thanksgiving message: don’t let the Turkeys get you down :).

 

*edited to update the name to Mamie instead of Mammy.  Thanks Stan :).

 

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.

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.