Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ogden Canyon Realities

Ogden Canyon is one of the many beautiful mountain locations near where I live. The canyon connects the Greater Ogden Area with Ogden Valley, which is home to Huntsville and Pineview Reservoir. Three ski resorts are accessible from Ogden Valley, including Snowbasin, which was a venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Prior to the construction of the Trapper’s Loop Highway, Ogden Canyon served as the most improved road between Ogden Valley and the more populous areas of the Wasatch Front, including Ogden City.

The naming of the Ogden City and of Ogden Valley is confusing, even to residents of the area, because Ogden Valley is six miles over the mountain from Ogden City. Peter Skene Ogden headed a company of trappers in 1824-25 that trapped in the area that came to be known as Ogden Valley. Apparently other trappers started to call the valley by that name, and the name stuck when the valley was later settled. Ogden and his company didn’t spend much time in the valley, and records seem to indicate that Ogden never entered the area where Ogden City was later built.

Fort Buenaventura was purchased from trapper Miles Goodyear by Mormon settlers. The settlement was then named Brown’s Fort and later Brownsville in honor of the group’s captain, John Brown, who lived there only for a couple of years. Four years after settlement, the name was changed to Ogden City at the encouragement of Brigham Young, the President of the LDS Church at the time.

The Ogden River runs through Ogden Canyon. In the mid 19th Century, settlers cut a wagon road that ran along side of the river. Eventually the entire canyon was re-graded during the construction of a rail line. And in the early part of the 20th Century, an improved automobile road was constructed. The WPA built a low rock wall along the road in many places in the 1930s. Remnants of this wall still line the road. In the days before air conditioning, the wealthy and elite of Ogden built summer retreats in the canyon, which was markedly cooler than the city. Many of those homes still exist. You can see a fun photo history of the canyon on the walls of Dylan’s Drive Inn Restaurant.

The bottom of Ogden Canyon is very narrow. In many spots along this six-mile stretch, there is barely enough room between the rocky canyon wall and the river for a two-lane road. In the broader portions of the canyon where homes exist, the road usually runs on the narrow area on the other side of the river from the homes. And on the side where the homes are built there is usually only one to three hundred feet of real estate between the river and the canyon wall.

During my life there have been projects to improve the Ogden Canyon road, and for the most part, those projects have been quite helpful. But driving in the canyon can still be hazardous, especially when people speed or pass in no passing zones. One rarely drives through the canyon without encountering large vehicles, including semi trucks, motor homes, and vehicles pulling recreational vehicle trailers.

Every so often when there is a serious accident or a spate of accidents in Ogden Canyon, people write letters to the editor of the local newspaper complaining about the lack of proper traffic enforcement. This letter is representative of those kinds of letters. The writer complains, “I see speed traps all the time on quiet city streets where no one has ever been killed, but never in Ogden Canyon where there have been many fatalities over the years!”

What many of the writers of these letters seem to dismiss is the sheer physics of the situation. There are very few spots throughout Ogden Canyon where police could safely and effectively radar or patrol. There are only a couple of spots where drivers could be safely pulled over without creating a greater safety hazard than is caused by their bending of the traffic laws. The road is like a luge chute. Once vehicles enter either end, it’s very difficult to safely get them off the road. Traffic enforcement officials are in a Catch-22. Enforcing traffic laws in Ogden Canyon can be more hazardous than tolerating traffic law violations. Motorists seeing violators can’t even call 911 in many parts of the canyon due to spotty cell phone coverage.

Ogden Valley is following in the path of Heber and other communities surrounding Park City. It is transitioning from a sleepy agricultural area to a resort area. It is now common for million-dollar homes to be built in Ogden Valley. As the valley’s population increases, the pressure on Ogden Canyon also increases, despite the availability and quality of Trapper’s Loop. Trapper’s Loop is great if you’re headed to points south, but for access to the Ogden area, Ogden Canyon is still the best route.

While road officials can and do work to keep the Ogden Canyon road well maintained, there really isn’t a whole lot more they can do to make the road safer. It simply can’t be widened. And all of the curves that could reasonably be straightened out have already been straightened out at great cost. Concrete barriers have been added on the river side where necessary. Road officials have pretty much maxed out their capacities in Ogden Canyon.

Any further steps would require traffic regulation that many travelers would consider oppressive, such as prohibiting larger vehicles during certain hours or having traffic lights at either end timed to promote safe distances between vehicles (which would cause long lines). Utahns have strongly rejected photo-cop systems as an infringement on the presumption of innocence.

The fact is that there are no seriously good options to improve the safety of access between Ogden City and Ogden Valley. Ogden Valley has a number of outlets, but there are no remaining places to build more outlets. We can’t construct a road over the top of the mountains and we can’t blast a new canyon. What you see is what you’ve got. Whining and complaining about it won’t change anything. If you deem Ogden Canyon too unsafe to traverse, then use Trapper’s Loop instead. There is an alternative. Your use of Ogden Canyon says that you’re willing to accept the risk of doing so. It’s harsh, but that’s the way it is.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Feasibility of Biofuels

The October edition of National Geographic Magazine includes a very interesting article on biofuels. I always have to insert a disclaimer when referencing NGM. Several years ago its editor openly stated that they were giving up on attempting objectivity when it comes to environmental issues because “the stakes are too high.” So, while we can’t expect objective reporting in NGM, we can at least derive value by seeing it for what it is.

The article’s author, NGM staffer Joel K. Bourne, Jr. does a very good job of exploring the various possibilities of using biofuels to reduce or replace our dependence on fossil fuels. He examines corn ethanol, sugarcane ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, and even algae ethanol. The illustrated chart side panels accompanying the print article help you wrap your mind around and compare the feasibility of each of the fuels explored.

While corn ethanol is enjoying great popularity in the U.S. at the moment, Bourne says that “even if we turned our entire corn and soybean crops into biofuels, they would replace just 12 percent of our gasoline and a paltry 6 percent of our diesel, while squeezing supplies of corn- and soy-fattened beef, pork, and poultry. Not to mention Corn Flakes.” The problem is that you only get an output ratio of 1.3 to 1 for corn ethanol. You expend almost as much energy producing the ethanol as you get out of it. Also, the production process turns out to be less than environmentally friendly.

Brazil has enjoyed substantial success with sugarcane ethanol, which has an output ratio of 8 to 1. But the U.S. can’t grow sugarcane like Brazil does. The production of cane ethanol in Brazil takes both an environmental and human toll; mainly it seems from the article, due to archaic harvesting methods and expanding croplands. One public official in Brazil is quoted as saying, “If alcohol is now considered a 'clean' fuel, the process of making it is very dirty.” Not to mention the fact that Brazil was only able to develop an ethanol production and distribution system under the heavy hand of its former dictator.

Biodiesel comes from soybeans in the U.S. and from canola in Germany. Biodiesel is derived from a chemical process rather than a distilling process. It has an output ratio of 2.5 to 1, so it’s better than corn by double. But it’s awfully expensive.

What we could grow in the U.S. that might produce well are perennial prairie grasses like switchgrass. These grasses can grow on marginal lands and could be used to improve soil health. Production methodology is still developing. The most common methodologies have a 2 to 1 output ratio, but developing processes promise a ratio as high as 36 to 1. It “could produce as much ethanol per acre as sugarcane.” But, like most other biofuels, they still have to learn to make it a lot cheaper for it to work.

The big pie-in-the-sky resource that the article discusses is algae. They’ve been able to use algae for smokestack carbon dioxide scrubbers, but nobody has quite figured out how to feasibly produce ethanol from it. Oh, they’ve produce algae ethanol, but Bourne doesn’t list the output ratio and he suggests that the process is currently just too expensive. But some keep working on it because the potential is massive. Algae can be grown in any U.S. climate, and unlike annual crops, can be harvested continuously.

Even with all of these possibilities, Bourne says, “There is no magic-bullet fuel crop that can solve our energy woes without harming the environment.” He also quotes one scientist that is a critic of biofuels as saying, “Biofuels are a total waste and misleading us from getting at what we really need to do: conservation.”

Bourne is more careful on environmental evangelizing than many other NGM authors. He carefully weaves it into his writing rather than bashing you over the head with it. He writes more like a reporter than an editorialist. Bourne concludes the article by noting that “the United Arab Emirates has launched a 250-million-dollar renewable energy initiative that includes biofuels,” and then he opines that this is “perhaps a sign that even the sheikhs now realize that the oil age won't last forever.”

Our fossil fuel industry enjoys massive government subsidies, ostensibly because our national economy relies on fossil fuels. But this type of protectionism raises the barriers for entry into the market. Subsidies stymie competition, so they are ultimately counterproductive. The same holds true for the subsidies currently being thrown at corn ethanol production.

Government has a role in encouraging competition rather than discouraging it. Alternative fuels seeking to compete with fossil fuels already face huge barriers to market entry, including a deeply entrenched and ubiquitous distribution system. Rather than trying to improve the chances of alternatives through subsidies, government should discontinue its programs that artificially stymie competition and promote monopolies in the fuel industry. We might be amazed at what kind of presently unanticipated developments would result from this freedom.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Civically Disengaged

As a kid, I remember seeing Fred and Barney go to their fraternal lodge meetings on the Flintstones. Our community was filled with a broad variety of groups that cheerfully did volunteer work: the local Civic League, Kiwanis, Elks, Jaycees, Shriners, Lions, Rotary and a host of others. There was a smattering of home-grown volunteer groups as well. Many of these clubs/organizations were exclusively for males or for females.

Many of the volunteer organizations that were around when I was a kid are still around today. But almost all of them have seen declining membership as well as significant aging of remaining members. It’s not just fraternal organizations that have seen declining membership; it cuts across all kinds of organizations, including bowling leagues, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and labor unions.

This phenomenon is not new. American demographer Dan Frost reported at length on this issue in 1996. Frost cites Robert Putnam (who recently made the news with his study that shows the serious impacts of diversity on society — see here) as saying that the loss of vitality of these civic organizations constitutes a serious loss of “social capital.”

Putnam notes that those born prior to 1945 were substantially more civic minded than those born after that time. He cites a general trend toward disengagement.

Why has this happened? Part of it has to do with the mass movement of women into the workforce. Americans have become uncomfortable with single-sex organizations. Although women still do most of the work at home, men have accepted many more domestic duties than their fathers did. Thus, they have less free time to devote to pursuits outside of the home and family.

The whole of our society has become less formal as people have sought out more flexibility. People are less comfortable with conformity. People of the boomer generation and younger aren’t into special handshakes, funny hats, and mandatory meetings.

Another factor is mobility. People are far more mobile than ever before. It takes time to sink roots in any new location. Increasing diversity, as Putnam’s recently released study shows, decreases interpersonal and communal trust, even among people that are most alike, resulting in people drawing inward and away from social connections. The tendency increases with population density.

Putnam says, however, that the biggest factor in civic disengagement is TV. He said that back in 1996 before many people were connected on the Internet. Going online can be far more interactive than TV. It can even lead to civic discussion and coordination. But certainly not in the same way or at the same level as involvement in traditional civic organizations.

People also have more offerings competing for their discretionary time than ever before. And people have more capacity to take advantage of those opportunities than ever before. But every such opportunity competes for a finite resource: personal free time. And by extension, that means family together time.

All of this leads to a diminution of the sense of civic responsibility that was dominant among the pre-boomer generation. Consequently, people have turned JFK’s request on its head. They continuously ask what government can do for them rather than what they can do for their country/state/city. No, that’s not quite right. They demand that government satisfy their whims rather than being pro-active in bettering their country.

Politicians respond by campaigning on expanding government, much to the delight of their constituents. And then they raise taxes to cover those expanded services, always couching the increases in terms of discretionary things. They claim it’ll only cost as much as one Big Mac a week or one can of soda pop a day. They never say that it’ll only cost two weeks of groceries or a month’s dosage of a critical medication.

Voters, too busy with other matters, often go along or aren’t informed enough to even know that taxes are being raised. Regulatory agencies get into the act by raising taxes as well in the form of fees with no debate whatsoever.

A properly functioning democratic republic requires citizens that do their civic duties. Civic disengagement ultimately leaves a political class in charge of more of our lives than we ever thought possible, and without adequate checks and balances. We need to teach citizens both the importance of doing their civic duties and how to go about doing them in every possible venue. Otherwise we bequeath a faulty legacy to the next generation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why Should I Care About Sports?

Yesterday morning I glanced at the Bathroom Bible (aka Reader’s Digest), splayed open on a horizontal surface adjacent to the commode so that both the front and rear covers were visible. The rear cover of the current edition, like most others over the past several years, features an illustration by C.F. Payne.

Payne is famous for his distinctive style that over-emphasizes certain human features, often in a comical way that drives home a certain point. (See some of his RD cover illustrations.) Some think of him as the latter-day Norman Rockwell, whose popular illustrations of Americana graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for more than four decades. While both artists’ works demonstrate a knack for capturing features and emotions that strike close to home for Americans, Rockwell is known for his realistic portrayals, while Payne works in caricatures and excels at good-natured lampooning.

The illustration I saw on the magazine yesterday morning is entitled Odd Man Out. Centrally and prominently featured in a crowded subway car is an arrogant-looking young man wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey and hat. He is broadly smiling like the cat that just ate the mouse. He is surrounded by a variety of dour looking New York Yankees fans. This plays on the renowned long-standing bitter rivalry between the two teams. I guess the assertion is that Boston is perceived to be on top of the rivalry at the moment.

My take on this is; so what? I’ve made it clear before that I’m not a sports guy. I watch sports when one of my kids is involved. Occasionally I see some event for the sheer spectacle of people trying to do their athletic best. I prefer individual or small team sports where contest results are clear. For example, there’s nothing quite like those people that fly off the end of a ski jump and sail through the air further than the length of a football field. It is immediately apparent who is winning.

Similarly, I can enjoy many track events (not long distance runs), rowing, luge, bobsled, cycle races (shorter ones), skeleton (you’ve got to be insane to do that), etc. When I see stuff like this, I want each participant to do his/her best. I want each team to do its best. I enjoy a good performance, regardless of which person or team accomplishes it.

But I’m not personally invested in the success or failure of these people. In fact, it’s very difficult for me to comprehend investing oneself in the performance of a sports team, especially a professional sports team, unless I have a personal relationship with one of the players. I mean, why should I care whether the Utah Jazz wins a game? Already I hear people answering, “Because it helps bring economic development to Utah.” You can argue that line all you want, but let’s be real: that’s not the reason you’re sitting on the couch and cheering during a Jazz game. And why should I care who wins between BYU and Utah, which so many people around here seem to care about with such religious zeal?

Seriously, folks, why should I give one hoot in a holler about the performance of any professional sports team — or college team for that matter? Most of the players are recruited from outside of the area, so I don’t even understand thinking of them as my hometown (or home state) representatives. Why should my self worth be tied to the performance of any sports team? Why should any sports team command my allegiance?

Perhaps this is something genetically ingrained. In junior high and high school, I avoided school sports events, except for when I attended as a member of the school band. Even then, I didn’t really pay attention to the game, nor did I much care who won or lost. It just didn’t matter to me.

I have family members that are die-hard sports fans. I grew up with this sentiment all around me. But I didn’t understand it then and still don’t understand it. My wife has always known that my schedule was never beholden to “the game.” Heck, when guys in the office talk about “the game,” I usually don’t know what teams they are talking about, and I am only remotely aware of what sports season it is. I know basically nothing about the individual players.

Even when I watch my kids play sports, I’m not that enamored of a win, nor am I very disappointed at a loss. I want my kids to do their best and to demonstrate good sportsmanship. I want them to win only if they earn it. I want them to pay the price to win. If they play lousy, I would prefer that they lose. Those are good lessons to learn early in life.

But my interest in sports diminishes substantially if my kids aren’t involved. And it diminishes even further when it involves a bunch of adults that play a children’s game as their profession. I understand that these people are all very talented and have all made significant sacrifices to get where they’re at. But frankly, I work with people who are talented and have made many sacrifices to perform fantastically in their professional lives. And they don’t promote a bad-boy culture or entice my kids to engage in risky behaviors. Talent and hard work should be appreciated in any ethical pursuit. Our society goes way overboard in focusing on sports figures.

I’m sorry if you sports fans out there think I’m criticizing you. All I am saying is that I don’t understand what drives you to be sports fans. And because I don’t understand that, I don’t find personal value in it and I live my life accordingly. It's kind of like being on the outside of a tent revival looking in. I can see all of the excitement, but it just doesn't do anything for me.

I realize that sports is a huge business, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world. I’m very likely in the minority in my non-sports orientation. I’ve come to accept that I just don’t get it when it comes to sports and that I likely never will. I’m fine with that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Purpose of National Political Conventions has Changed

Eminent political wonk Michael Barone discusses in this WSJ article how the purpose of national political conventions has changed. Barone recounts the history of U.S. national political conventions. Candidates were once selected at conventions, he asserts, because that was the best medium for political operators to exchange information and to deal. That is, conventions used to be primarily about communication.

Barone discusses how the communication world has changed. As recent as the early 60s, long-distance phone calls were rare because “they cost about $1 a minute at a time when factory workers earned $100 a week.” Political operators still relied on mailing letters as a significant form of exchanging information.

Not long after those days, however, the communication world started to change. An increasing number and variety of communication channels have opened up, and communication costs relative to earnings have plummeted. In this day of cell phones, ubiquitous long-distance calls, easy air travel, Blackberries, the Internet, blogs, etc, exchange of political information is open and easy.

Conventions are no longer needed for the exchange of information and deal making. That happens on an ongoing basis. Today, national conventions are spectacles that “can be (though aren't always) effective advertisements for [party] nominees, who have of course been chosen months before.”

But isn’t there a chance in both parties that no candidate will emerge from the primaries with a majority of delegate votes? Yes, that chance exists, says Barone. But he insists that in that case, deal making will occur on the fly. Regardless of how the votes fall, Barone says that each party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees will have been selected long before the national conventions.

The mystique of the national convention is something now relegated to a bygone era. Instead of smoke-filled rooms, deals are cut today in conference calls and net meetings. It’s a similar process, but it happens in real time with participants scattered across the nation.

Consequently, few people nowadays tune into more than a few minutes of the political conventions. Most people that show any interest at all are content to catch a few sound bytes. If the day comes that political parties no longer have any hope of national conventions being effective advertising, we will see those conventions disappear altogether.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rambling Stream of Consciousness

This past Saturday dawned very beautiful in my neck of the woods. Having finally recovered from a minor but persistent ankle injury, I saddled up my bicycle for the first time in weeks and went for a serious ride.

The weather was perfect. There was no breeze. The temperature was perfect. The road conditions were perfect. Even the color of the sky was perfect. The mountains around me blazed with a smattering of red and orange where some of the leaves have taken on their autumn colors. As I rode, I considered the thought that people pay a lot of money to go on vacations to places like this, and somehow I am blessed enough to live here.

The only drawbacks were that there was a minor squeak on my bike that I have yet to diagnose and fix, and the battery on my speedometer finally failed, so I couldn’t tell how fast I was going. I had to guess based on my level of exertion. I suppose that’s OK. The speedometer just lets me measure my performance against past rides.

Oh, and I had to fix a flat before getting started. My son borrowed my bike the other day to do his newspaper route when his bike had a flat tire. That kid has flattened tires on four of our family’s bikes over the past few weeks. He’s a one-man tire-flattening crew. And he’s just doing street riding. What’s up with that?


Later on Saturday I was at a store that has bicycles and I found myself coveting a nicer model than the one I have. My bike is really just dandy for the type of riding that I do. It’s not an expensive thing, but it performs just fine for my use. I ended up standing by the bike display and found myself checking out a bike with nicer front forks and disc brakes. I shook my head at my silliness. I doubt the difference in performance would be more than minimal. My current bike will continue to serve me well for some time to come.


Summer is waning and autumn is in the air. Fall has always been my favorite time of year. A friend of mine dislikes autumn because it reminds him of the onset of winter. But I kind of like having four seasons. Early autumn as the summer wanes but the winter is not yet here just feels good to me for some reason. I love the crisp mornings, the ripe, warm afternoons, and the earlier sunsets.


Sunday morning we found out that a lady that lived around the corner from us had passed away from a heart attack a few hours earlier. We’ve lived in our neighborhood for 19 years and we’ve known this lady quite well. Linda was mother to a large family, all of them now grown and raising their own families. She taught at a local junior high school. I’m sure that her students are shocked at the news this morning. Linda was always serving others. She had a marvelously calm but rye sense of humor. She was an educated lady with a down-home demeanor.

Linda’s husband is currently our town’s mayor. Gary retired from a career as an architect a couple of years ago, but Linda needed to work a bit longer before she could retire. They had plans for post-retirement that Gary will now have to retool. Linda will be missed. I wish Gary and his family all the best as they go through the grieving process. They believe their family ties are eternal. Godspeed, Linda.


One of my sons has just surpassed me in height (by a quarter inch). He’s immensely proud of this fact, as if he had something to do with his physical height. I knew from the day he was born that he’d be taller than his older brother. For years, this son wore my older son’s hand-me-downs until the boys got to be the same size. Then in the past year, he just kept getting taller when his brother had pretty much stopped.

My growing boy has been having my wife measure the two of us every few weeks since he got close to my height last spring. But then he seemed to hit a plateau. The other day we were both standing on the kitchen tile and neither of us was wearing footwear. I looked at my son and said, “I think you might be taller than me.” My wife measured us, and sure enough, he is. He’s still growing, so I suspect he’ll eventually be several inches taller than me.


I have been teaching my 16-year-old son to drive. In Utah you can get a learner permit at age 15 by passing a written test. Then you can drive with a 21-year-old licensed driver sitting next to you. To get a diver license, you have to get 40 hours of driving under your belt, 10 of which must be nighttime driving. (You also have to complete classroom training, pass a written test and a pass a driving test.) The idea is to make sure newly licensed drivers are sufficiently experienced. This is a relatively new thing, so I’m not sure if there are any statistics on how it’s working out.

My son was not particularly motivated to get a learner permit until a couple of months before his 16th birthday. I got him out driving a few brief times last spring, mainly in large vacant parking lots, but then he went away to work at Boy Scout camp all summer. When he got home, he couldn’t remember which pedal was which. He was pretty nervous behind the wheel.

Over the past several weeks we have gotten my son out driving a number of times. He started driver education classes a couple of weeks ago. He is slowly improving and getting a little more comfortable. Oncoming traffic on narrower roads still freaks him out, but he’s overcoming his tendency to pull to the right. He’s still got some work to do on learning how to multi-task, such as managing the gas pedal while doing everything else he’s got to do to safely change lanes.

We’ve been having my son drive three different vehicles. His grandparents have offered to take him out driving in their two vehicles as well. But none of these cars have manual transmissions. I learned to drive a little red Volkswagen bug, as well as an old 4-door Chevy Impala and a new Buick Regal sedan. The bug was loads of fun. I’d like my kids to learn how to drive a stick-shift, but I don’t currently have such a vehicle.

I’m sure we’ll make it through the whole learning to drive thing. Then comes paying a heavy bounty for insuring a teenager on the auto insurance. My boy’s going to have to cough up the money to do that from his own earnings.

While my 16-year-old has warmed only gradually to driving, his 14-year-old brother anticipates getting a learner permit the moment he turns 15. He plans to get as much driving under his belt as possible between then and the day he can get his official driver license.


My 14-year-old son has been ill for a month. He ran a low-grade fever, had aches and pains, occasional chills, and a cough. He generally felt lousy. But he was mostly able to carry on with life. After about 10 days of this, we figured it was abnormal enough to take him to the doctor. They ran a variety of tests, but nothing jumped out. One test showed a somewhat higher rate of inflammation. So they did more tests, looking for less common things. Nothing.

After three weeks of this routine, even the inflammation test came back normal. That evening, my son’s low-grade fever climbed to 101.5°. Then to 102.5°. And then to 104°. We hauled him to the nearby urgent care center. They took a chest X-Ray and took more tests. They said there was a slight spot in one lung, but that it was nothing to worry about. This time, however, my son’s white blood cell count was high enough that they had us haul him to the emergency room.

In the emergency room, they did a CAT scan of his head and neck and ran more tests. Like every other medical practitioner that had seen my son, the doctor and nurses said that his lungs seemed clear. But they knew he had some kind of infection, so they gave him antibiotics and painkillers intravenously. They said to take him home to rest, and then to bring him back for another dose when he woke up.

The next day, the ER doctor that checked out my son pulled together all of the data they had on him. After carefully reviewing it, he came in and asked a number of very specific questions. He then added those answers to his data and looked at it some more. He said that this all pointed to a diagnosis of walking pneumonia, or more specifically, Mycoplasma pneumoniae. In fact, the doctor said it seemed like a classic case of the disease.

The doctor was shocked that nobody had taken a chest X-Ray until the night before. He said that the spot on the X-Ray would be nothing to worry about if you were only looking for typical pneumonia, but that it was definitely something to worry about if you’re looking for walking pneumonia. To be sure (and to get more money), they ran more tests, which included a CAT scan of my boy’s lungs. This allowed the doctor to confirm his diagnosis.

Unfortunately, the IV antibiotics my son had been getting are ineffective for the illness he had. So he was prescribed a 10-day course of two different antibiotics. Within a couple of days, the fever abated. But my son continued to feel lousy. He had stomach pain, occasional nausea, lack of energy, and a nasty headache that got worse when he got upright. Unfortunately, the strong antibiotics my son has been taking can cause some of these problems.

After more than a week away from school (which kills my son because he’s an academician), he went to school for half a day today, but then he felt too lousy to make it through the rest of the day. It looks like full activity will return only gradually.

Bacterial walking pneumonia occurs most often in children ages 5-15 and in the elderly. It is often contracted at summer camps, in dormitories, and in places where people have sustained close contact. The symptoms my son experienced are classical. It can take two to five weeks to develop symptoms after exposure. The victim will then have two to three weeks of feeling run down, having low-grade fevers, body aches, sniffles, cough, congestion, etc. And if the condition isn’t remedied in that amount of time, it will often rapidly blossom into a full-blown case, such as my son’s.

At least one of the boys at the summer camp where my son worked had walking pneumonia. My nephew roomed in the same tent as my two sons. After camp he started with the same symptoms. After my son’s diagnosis, he was taken to the doctor and was immediately prescribed antibiotics to take care of the problem before it got worse.

I realize that medical practitioners are faced with dealing with many different types of conditions and that it’s difficult to be well versed on everything. But I have to wonder why it took a week and a half to diagnose my son’s condition when he had a classical case of this illness. I guess the lesson is to be as well informed as possible and to be persistent.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Best Way to Fund School Choice

The Cato Institute’s Adam B. Schaeffer has a series of four articles on school choice funding that were published this week in the National Review Online (1, 2, 3, 4). The entire series is worth reading.

The gist of Schaeffer’s series is that tax credits are a far better vehicle for empowering parents with functional and sustainable school choice than are vouchers. I don’t get the idea that Schaeffer is completely opposed to vouchers, but he thinks they are not as good as tax credits.

Tax credits simply let parents keep money they spend on private schooling instead of paying it as taxes. That is, their tax assessment is reduced by some of the amount they pay for their children’s private school tuition. Vouchers, on the other hand, are money that government disburses to parents to help cover the cost of their children’s private school tuition. (In some voucher programs it is paid directly to the school of choice as directed by the parents.)

The big difference between the two programs is that in the case of tax credits, the money never goes through the government. Even school choice opponents agree, says Schaeffer, that tax credits are not technically government money. As voucher proponents in Utah have discovered, it’s difficult to get past the idea that vouchers are a form of government handout.

But Schaeffer argues that avoiding the use of direct government money is just the beginning of the advantages tax credits offer. He notes that tax credits are substantially favored over vouchers in pretty much every study. He writes, “Even current and former public school employees support education tax credits by a margin of nearly two to one.”

Popularity aside, Schaeffer argues that tax credits (when businesses are permitted to participate by creating scholarship funds) end up spawning robust, self-sustaining institutions that support and help expand the program. “Tax credits establish a self-implementing form of school choice that relies on the private-sector alone,” he says. “Voucher programs,” on the other hand, “do not create these institutions, and thereby their beneficiaries have difficulty overcoming collective action barriers to organize and defend school choice.”

After reading Schaeffer’s articles, it would seem that proponents of school choice should be ready to dump vouchers and jump on the tax credit bandwagon. But there seems to be a significant issue that education tax credits fail to address. What about those that are less well-off?

One of the major complaints by school choice opponents is that programs that help parents pay for private school tuition help mainly wealthier families that can already afford to send their kids to private schools. Those that can’t afford to send their kids to private schools without the programs, they argue, would still be unable to afford to send their kids to private schools with the programs.

While allowing businesses to offer scholarships probably answers some of this, tax credits seem to favor those that pay more taxes, which happens to be those that make more money. A tax credit of up to $4000, for example, wouldn’t be very helpful in paying for private schooling if your total state tax assessment (and therefore your total credit) amounts to $400. And if you’ve got three or four kids, the disparity only gets worse. Schaeffer seems to completely ignore this problem.

Utah’s voucher law would pay a maximum of $3000/child and a minimum of $500/child. But this is on a means tested sliding scale, with the poorer folk getting the most and the richer folk getting the least. Opponents argue that even a $3000 voucher wouldn’t be enough to help poorer people afford private school tuition, so only the rich will take advantage of it. That’s poppycock. The largest private school in my area (a Catholic school) draws a significant number of its students from families that earn below median income. And yet these people somehow make enough sacrifices to send their kids to private school. Think of how many more families that are less well-off could make it work with the voucher system.

My point is that education tax credits would benefit the rich far more than the poor, and that this is exactly the inverse of how Utah’s voucher system is designed to function. I think that most Utahns that favor school choice favor a progressive system that provides more aid to those that need more aid. I realize that this goes against pure libertarian philosophy, but I also believe it to be a political reality.

Those that oppose any kind of taxpayer funded school choice as a matter of principle will completely disagree with me. (And don’t give me any of that guff about parents having plenty of choice within the present public system.) But it seems that a combination of education tax credits and vouchers could be designed to create a school choice program that would maximize opportunities for the greatest number and broadest spectrum of school children. I see no reason that both vehicles can’t be pursued or why one of them should be excluded. The idea is to provide the highest quality of education for each student.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why I Am Not a Pure Libertarian

I occasionally catch snippets of the unruly Glenn Beck radio show. Rarely is Beck short on entertainment value, but I frequently find myself disagreeing with his overly simplistic take on issues. Some of his one-sided pronouncements ignore facts to the point of crossing over into the realm of propaganda. He’s good at evoking emotional responses by citing things out of context. But Beck can make me laugh.

Among Beck’s regularly stated positions is his occasional discussion of his lack of affinity for pure libertarianism. He seems to quite enjoy goading Ron Paul supporters over certain libertarian stances that he finds either immoral or impractical. The other day he went on an anti-libertarian tirade that had me laughing so hard that I nearly had to pull over.

But within Beck’s raffish romp I found a good description of why I can’t bring myself to be a rock solid libertarian. Beck said that part of him wants to be a libertarian and that he agrees in principle with libertarians on 80-90% of their positions. But he just can’t go all the way and accept the remaining 10-20%.

It comes down to morality, Beck said. Our Founders were libertarians, but even the most libertarian-minded of them understood that none of what they were establishing would work without a strong moral framework. Libertarians argue for a laissez-faire approach, not only to economic and political matters, but to moral issues as well. There is a strong amoral (not necessarily immoral) tendency in libertarianism; although, libertarians will argue that freedom from moral strictures eventually creates its own morality. Like Beck, I just can’t go that far.

Kay S. Hymowitz captures this sentiment much more eloquently in this Commentary article (reprinted in the Wall Street Journal). Hymowitz begins her article with a humorous look at the libertarian stereotype of “a scraggly misfit living in the woods with his gun collection, a few marijuana plants, some dogeared Ayn Rand titles, and a battered pickup truck plastered with bumper stickers reading "Taxes = Theft" and "FDR Was A Pinko."”

Hymowitz says, “The Libertarian Party's paltry membership has never reached much beyond the 250,000 mark, and polling numbers for Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination, remain pitiable.” She also discusses trends that libertarians must find appalling.

“[A]ntistatist ideas like school vouchers and privatized Social Security accounts continue to be greeted with widespread skepticism, while massive new programs like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit continue to win the support of re-election-minded incumbents. A recent New York Times survey found increasing support for government-run health care, and both parties are showing signs of a populist resurgence, with demands for new economic and trade regulation.”

Conversely, Hymowitz also notes that libertarian principles have become more ingrained in economic and personal choice matters than at any time in modern history. But Hymowitz also argues that libertarians have gone overboard in the arena of personal choice to the point of even advocating for immoral behaviors that, left unchecked will completely destroy the basic framework required for principles of liberty to exist. She calls this “the cultural contradictions of libertarianism.”

Research shows, asserts Hymowitz, that the natural (ostensibly middle class) family is absolutely essential to creating and maintaining the economic structure in which liberty can thrive. And yet libertarians have willfully ignored the indispensability of the community and the natural family in their support of policies of “freedom” that have contributed to and are contributing to community and family breakdown.

Bizarrely, “do whatever you want” attitudes with respect to morality have led to substantial growth of the type government dependence and government intrusion that “libertarians reject on principle.” Divorce and out-of-wedlock births have created “an increased demand for state-funded food, housing and medical subsidies.” And due to liberal divorce policies, family law courts “are forced to be more intrusive than the worst mother-in-law: They decide who should have primary custody, who gets a child on Christmas or summer holidays, whether a child should take piano lessons, go to Hebrew school, move to California, or speak to her grandmother on the phone.” This is the antithesis of liberty.

Hymowitz writes, “The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital--that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.”

But the family is of necessity a very undemocratic institution. A good family requires a level of constraint, intrusion, sacrifice, dedication, and compulsion that we would not tolerate in other social institutions (outside of prison, perhaps). And yet the family is also the laboratory in which principles of liberty are introduced, taught, and fostered in ways that our finest public institutions cannot come close to matching.

Thomas Hibbs writes in this NRO article that “religion, skepticism about government in economic life, strong families, and personal entrepreneurism” are essential to fostering vibrant communities that take care of themselves and require less government intervention. That is, strong communities are required for liberty to flourish. But like strong families, strong communities require the limitation of some individual freedoms for the common good. Libertarianism seems to recoil that the phrase, common good.

Some of the elements mentioned by Hibbs, such as entrepreneurism and being skeptical of government resonate well with libertarianism. But other elements actually limit maximization of personal freedom. And yet all of these elements are needed to create and protect liberty. What is needed is a balanced approach that maximizes liberty without killing the goose that lays the golden egg. But pure libertarian ideology, at least as far as my exposure to it, refuses to give any quarter to reasonable limitations on personal freedoms.

The libertarian refutation of a societal moral framework that fosters the kinds of families and communities that produce individuals that can create and sustain liberty stems, claims Hymowitz, from a radical search “for absolute freedom.” She says, “It is a quest that has left little room for the confining demands of family and other unchosen social bonds.” In other words, it is yet another attempt to create utopia that carelessly leaves destruction in its wake.

Many libertarian principles ring true to my heart. Like Glenn Beck, part of me longs to be a libertarian, but the excesses of libertarian amorality prevent me from going there. I believe that John Adams was correct when he said, “Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.” Amorality is modern libertarianism’s Achilles’ heel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

North Ogden Yawns Over Primary Election

North Ogden is a community of about 18,000 residents. Since it is a bedroom community with a large number of two-parent households and larger than normal families, minor children make up about 35.2% of the population (see here).

This means that there are approximately 11,600 adults that could qualify to vote in North Ogden. In the 2005 general election, North Ogden had 10,561 registered voters, but only 30% of them bothered to vote (see here). Today, North Ogden has 9,532 registered voters. So, 82% of North Ogden residents that could qualify to vote are actually registered to vote. That’s a good thing. But not very many of these people actually vote.

Yesterday’s primary election narrowed down a field of 10 candidates to six that will vie for three city council seats on November 6 (see results). 2598 votes were cast in the election. Each voter was to vote for three candidates. That means that about 866 people voted in yesterday’s primary election. 9% of registered voters in North Ogden bothered to turn out to vote yesterday.

Frankly, that’s pretty pathetic. In June the city held a special bond election that would have paid for building a cover over a small portion of the city swimming pool at an exorbitant cost. In that election, 2438 ballots were cast (about a quarter of registered voters); 71% of which were votes against the bond (see my post on the issue). People were pretty hot about the swimming pool bond, which would have amounted to a property tax increase of about $31 per year on the average North Ogden home.

But the city council primary election comes along, and it’s a yawner. People can’t bother to find time to even think about it, let alone vote. Yet, the people that end up on the city council will have a far greater impact on the lives of city residents than a mere $31/year property tax increase. Where are people’s priorities?

I’d have to say that part of the problem is a general lack of enthusiasm and information. I received campaign literature from exactly two candidates — on the same sheet of paper. It was a very amateurish production, complete with spelling errors. It was apparently produced by someone that had little experience with a word processor. Even high school student government campaigns produce better stuff than this. Exactly one candidate had a smattering of yard signs throughout the city until the day before the election. Then a couple of other candidates managed to get two or three signs out. The two incumbents, each of whom garnered votes from about half of the ballots cast, didn’t bother to do any campaigning as far as I could tell.

The Standard Examiner published a short article with very brief info about each of the ten candidates a week and a half ago. I am grateful that the local Kiwanis club sponsored a meet the candidates night last Thursday. Unfortunately, I had other commitments and was unable to attend. In short, most of the candidates didn’t seem very passionate about their candidacy and North Ogden residents had little information upon which to base an informed selection.

Perhaps I had somewhat of an advantage over most residents, since I am personally acquainted with five of the ten candidates. All five of those people now advance to the final round, along with one individual that I do not know personally. I personally sought out some of these people and discussed issues with them, since I had so little other information to go on.

Knowing some candidates gave me some insights others might not have, but it still left me feeling unprepared to vote in an informed manner. Even politically active people do not feel good about voting blindly. I’m sure that this led to yesterday’s general voter apathy.

Another factor might be that for most voters, narrowing a field of ten to six isn’t very meaningful. They figure that the selection of any six of them will likely yield a field of at least three they could feel comfortable supporting in November. Since any grouping of six would be fine, why bother to vote, especially when there is so little information available?

Some pundits are extremely alarmed about our nation’s low voter turnout rates (although the rate has been trending higher for three decades in general elections). Others think that it’s just fine that only those that care enough to become informed actually vote. Why should we want election outcomes to depend of people that are ignorant of the issues?

But I believe that it is important for people to want to become informed enough to vote in an informed manner. This should be an integral part of what it means to be an American (as noted in a previous post). To preserve our liberties, it is simply not enough for people to be born Americans. Each citizen must become an American. And fulfilling our civic duties is part of that process.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

WWJD — Really?

A common acronym used among Christian worshippers is WWJD, which stands for, “What would Jesus do?” As is common with anything Christians consider sacred, this acronym has been wielded as a cynical weapon by critics of religion and it has been mocked by comedians. But even Christians occasionally have fun at their own expense.

One of my favorite stories in this respect tells of a person standing in line behind an older man at a Christian bookstore. Near the register was a display of ball caps with the letters “WWJD” embroidered across the front. The older man was not familiar with the acronym, and asked what it meant. The clerk replied that it meant, “What would Jesus do?” The older fellow seemed thoughtful as he looked at the price tag, and then he said, “Well, I don’t think he’d pay $18.95 for that hat.”

Believers in Christ tend to embrace the WWJD acronym because they believe that doing what Jesus would do will yield eternal joy. But eternal joy does not always equate to earthly happiness. It seems to me that Christians sometimes lose sight of this fact.

Darla Isackson reminds us in this article that “Jesus wasn't always nice” and that he wasn’t always happy. “But,” writes Isackson, “He was always true to Himself and His high purposes. He was perfect in His integrity.”

Isackson discusses how she had spent a portion of her life confused about this. She thought that it was her duty as a Christian to be happy, and especially to be nice. But she eventually came to realize that she had sacrificed her integrity on the altar of niceness. She now advocates an approach that reminds me of the saying Ezra Taft Benson used to keep on the wall of his office (see here): “Be right, and then be easy to live with, if possible, but in that order.”

Since Christians believe that “God is love,” (see here) they believe that Jesus was the physical embodiment of love on this earth. A friend of mine experienced several exasperating years of conflict with her teenage daughter (as if that’s an uncommon thing). After studying Christian doctrine, she figured that if she only loved her daughter more that her daughter would treat her better. She spent several months withholding criticism, doting and fawning over her daughter, but her daughter’s behavior only became worse.

The problem was that my friend misunderstood what Christ taught about love and charity. Jesus loved Peter, his chief apostle. Yet on one occasion he roughly said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” If you’re Christian, you believe that Jesus loved even the guys that were profiteering in the temple, and yet he whipped them, dumped out their money, and drove them out of the place (see here). Although Jesus surely loved the scribes and Pharisees, he was often extremely harsh with them. Jesus even once suggested with racial overtones that a woman seeking his aid had about the same status as that of a dog (see here).

But Jesus also showed love by being mild. His careful action allowed a woman caught in the act of adultery to escape capital punishment (see here). He took time to bless little children (see here). He healed many that came to him seeking miracles. And, of course, Christians believe that Jesus, although he was God, humbled himself to be tortured to death so that our sins, pains, and burdens might be relieved in the eternities.

Jesus always loved, but he was not always fawning over people. He wanted the very best for each individual and he did what it took in each instance to work toward that end. When he was chastising Peter and when he was beating on moneychangers in the temple, he was fully in control and knew that what he was doing was for the best. That’s a lot different than when I get frustrated and yell at my kids.

Another lesson my friend had to learn with respect to her teenage daughter is that no matter how much you love someone, you cannot make them treat you nice. You may sacrifice a great deal for someone you love and they may still treat you badly. Christ loved those that crucified them and even asked his Father in Heaven to forgive them (see here). Yet his love did not stop them from killing him.

In Christian doctrine, you don’t love someone to get them to behave a certain way; you love them because it’s the right thing to do. And until you do that, you don’t really love them at all, because charity and manipulation are not very compatible. Sometimes love calls for social niceness. Other times it calls for somewhat anti-social behavior.

It’s also important to note that Jesus had periods of depression. But these instances seem to be more about his concern for others than about his own problems (see here and here). His sorrow seemed to be more about his foresight of the eternal problems that would be endured by people rather than about his personal challenges.

My point is that the answer to WWJD can only be understood when one understands how Jesus actually behaved. We sometimes glibly throw this acronym around as a way to make our point — as a way to suggest that Jesus agrees with our point of view on one matter or another. I’m not sure He appreciates our attempts to use Him in that way.

The question, “What would Jesus do?” is meant to be an introspective search that can only be properly answered when one has sufficient information to serve as a premise for formulating an appropriate answer. You can’t correctly answer the question without adequate study. WWJD is intended as a platform for a personal counseling session, and not as a cudgel for bashing others. Each of us should study and then privately ask ourself WWJD on a regular basis.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sad, but Not Necessarily Necessary

I’m very grateful that family and friends of Camille Cleverley now have some closure (see D-News and SL-Trib articles). Those outside of Utah probably haven’t paid much attention to this story, although, it has made national news (see AP story). Although police are still investigating, surface appearances do not seem to indicate foul play. Rather, Cleverley appears to have fallen while climbing in the Bridal Veil Falls area. This whole sad affair might have been avoided had basic principles of outdoors activities been followed.

Cleverley was about to start her senior year at BYU in Provo, Utah. She was last seen riding her bike on Thursday, August 30. Records indicated that some sports drinks and donuts were purchased using Cleverley’s debit card on Friday, August 31 from a convenience store, and that her PIN was used to authorize that purchase. The store clerk remembered a young lady, but could not confirm whether it was Cleverley.

By the next day, Cleverley’s roommate had notified Cleverley’s family that she had not been to her apartment for a couple of days. A search was soon initiated. Police and volunteer searchers investigated every lead and the story became the headline in Utah news reports. Searchers looked in the area where Cleverley’s body was later found, but they apparently missed it because the area is very rugged and wooded.

This whole thing might have been solved days earlier had not some dirtbags stolen Cleverley’s bike from a bike rack at a trailhead near Bridal Veil Falls on Sunday, Sept. 2. Late last week the evildoers came forward with the bike, which police were able to verify belonged to Cleverley. Searchers concentrated their search in the area where the bike had been stolen. They were about to call it quits for the day yesterday when one team came upon Cleverley’s body in dense brush at the base of the cliff down which they were rappelling.

A question that has been on people’s minds has been whether the Aug. 31 purchases were made by Cleverley or by someone that had stolen her debit card. That question now seems to have been answered, since Cleverley’s debit card was found with her body, and her backpack contained some of the items purchased.

What now seems to have happened is that Cleverley engaged in a risky outdoor activity and ended up falling to her death. Not only do her family and friends have closure, but the entire BYU community and the Utah news viewing audience also have some closure.

This is particularly important, because people expect college campuses to be relatively safe places for young adults. Colleges and universities depend on an image of safety to attract students. Since BYU is a religious university that restricts certain risky behaviors associated with moral teachings, parents anticipating sending their young adult children there seem to have a somewhat higher expectation for their safety. Rarely does a BYU student simply disappear without a trace. Police and searchers necessarily were required to consider the possibility of foul play with Cleverley’s disappearance.

However, this whole episode might have been avoided had basic rules for outdoor and back country activities been followed. The first rule is to be prepared for the type of activity in which you will be engaging. For example, hikers frequently find themselves in trouble when they fail to bring adequate water, food, or outerwear.

The second rule of outdoor activities is to let someone know your plan. You don’t have to kill off all spontaneity, but you should have a general plan that includes the general area into which you are headed, the types of activities in which you expect to engage, and a time range for when you expect to return. If you don’t have someone that lives close by with which you feel comfortable leaving this information, call a responsible friend or family member and let them know this information and tell them you will call when you return. That way, if you don’t call, they can assume you are in trouble.

If this second rule had been followed, Camille Cleverley’s disappearance might not have become a major news event, family and friends might have had closure eight days earlier, an entire university’s faculty and student body might not have unnecessarily have been put on alert, and a great deal of resources (law enforcement, volunteer, etc) might have been saved.

A final rule for outdoor activities is to implement proper risk management. This is closely related to the first rule of proper preparedness. But the point of this rule is to properly mitigate the risks of the activities in which you engage. For example, about the same time Cleverley went missing, a high school exchange student drowned in Causey Reservoir while trying to swim across the reservoir (see here). Signs posted in the area prohibit swimming there without a personal flotation device, however, nobody in the student’s group was using one. While free swimming might be perceived as more fun, no one would have drowned had the swimmers been wearing PFDs.

Many will say that no one should ever go hiking alone. While this would likely have mitigated much of the problem with Cleverley’s disappearance, I am reluctant to make this a hard and fast rule for everyone in every situation. Much depends on the terrain and remoteness of the area, as well as the training and preparedness of the hiker. I sometimes hike alone, but I follow the three rules stated above and I am careful to avoid unnecessary risks. Frankly, not many hikers are as gutsy and resourceful (and insane) as Aron Ralston, who amputated his own arm that was pinned by a boulder when he was hiking solo in 2003. After cutting off his arm with a dull pocketknife, Ralston rappelled down a slope and hiked out until he met rescuers. Valient? Yes. Unnecessary? Absolutely.

Utah County search and rescue teams are quite familiar with the Bridal Veil Falls area, since it is popular for hiking and climbing. It is not uncommon for them to be called out to rescue the victim of a climbing fall or to rescue someone stuck on a ledge.

Climbing can be a relatively safe sport if you follow safety precautions, such as climbing with a buddy, using proper gear and techniques, and avoiding climbs that are out of your league. Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of free climbing. While free climbing does not preclude the use of safety ropes and equipment, many solo climbing enthusiasts avoid such for the exhilaration of pitting themselves against nature. This kind of thing might be exhilarating, but it is extremely unwise, especially when one is alone.

It’s great to have fun engaging in back country and outdoor activities. It can be done relatively safely. All you need to do is follow three simple rules: 1) Be prepared. 2) Have a plan, let a responsible person know what your plan is, and check in when you get back. 3) Properly manage risks.

For those of you in the “I don’t need no stinkin’ rules” crowd, please consider your family and friends. You might not care if you die, but someone else out there does. Don’t leave them in the lurch by your selfish actions. Even if you don’t care for your own safety, follow these simple rules so those that care about you can have peace of mind.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Need for Speed

“There will be a constant pressure for [wireless networking] speed and it will never cease.” —M. Kursat Kimyacioglu of Philips Electronics NV

We have four computers in our home. One desktop is connected to the router by cable. The other desktop and the two laptops are connected to the router wirelessly. The wireless networking on the laptop that is in the same room as the router works at least as fast as the wired networking on the desktop. But the other two computers are three rooms away and half a level down. The wireless networking on the distant desktop is somewhat slow, despite a high gain antenna setup. The old laptop … well … it’s so slow (not just with respect to networking) that we hardly use it for anything. I probably should sanitize it and dispose of it.

My current home network setup was the stuff of futuristic fiction only a few years ago. We would have thought we were in paradise had we been able to wirelessly transfer relatively small files back in those archaic days of the late 20th Century. But, as has been the case with almost all computing technology, once users get a taste of something, they only want it to do more, and to do it better and faster.

I have seen this throughout my computer programming career. When I first started programming, everyone was using various 3GLs. The buzz was that 4GLs were going to revolutionize software development. Users would be able to develop their own solutions and developers would no longer be needed. But the 1990s found the developer world flocking to Java, which was another 3GL. 4GLs turned out not to be all they were cracked up to be. Most 3GL development requires trained programmers.

Various other developments over the years have promised to eliminate the need for programmers, allowing users to develop their own solutions. What has happened to all of these promises? Surprisingly enough, many of them have come true. How many non-programmers accomplish tasks today that were once solely the domain of programmers? How many people develop and use spreadsheets and simple database systems? These things have become ubiquitous.

Rather than eliminating the need for programmers, however, the advent of these tools has only created a more insatiable desire for increasingly complex solutions. However large the circle of capabilities available to users today, they continuously yearn for something just beyond the edge of that circle. And the development world continually works to cater to those desires. Thus, the only thing that remains truly static in computer development is the desire for more, better, and faster.

The same is true in the hardware world. Every couple of years I read an article claiming that we’re about to max out on the technological ability to provide yet faster processing. But the tech industry continually finds new breakthroughs that prove the pessimists wrong. Users want faster processing, and the tech world provides it.

In networking, the next great thing that users want is the ability to wirelessly and instantaneously transfer large files. Say, for example, movie files. Users have become used to downloading high quality audio files from remote locations and immediately using them. Many users do this with low quality video files as well, but it takes longer.

Why can’t we decide we want to buy a movie from an Internet site and be watching it on the big screen seconds later? Why do I even have to pull out a DVD and pop it into the DVD player? Why can’t I just have all of my video files on a central server in my home, where I can select them and watch them anytime I want from any video device in the house?

As one would expect, the tech world is working hard to turn these concepts into reality. This AP article reports on efforts to use extremely high radio frequencies for small wireless networks. They can already transfer an entire standard DVD movie file in about five seconds. Right now the technology is brittle, as “signals don't penetrate walls very well and are too easily disturbed by passing people and pets.” Developers hope to overcome these problems within a year. They figure that they have to get their chip down to $5 to be competitive in the market.

But if this effort ultimately doesn’t pan out, that’s no big deal, because there are others that are working on accomplishing the same thing using different technologies. If we end up with competing technologies, the market will ultimately sort out which one (or ones) will be most useful on a broad scale.

And once we get to this point, we’re going to be in permanent nirvana, right? Wrong. Once users have the capacity to wirelessly and instantaneously transfer large files, they will want the capacity to do something else that is just beyond the then-current scope of technology. As it does now, the tech world will be busy working to deliver.

To paraphrase the quote at the beginning of this article, there is a constant pressure for better technology, and it never ceases. And the tech world never ceases stepping up to the challenge of responding to that pressure.

Monday, September 03, 2007


We were fortunate enough to spend a good portion of Labor Day with extended family members at a private swimming facility. It was a glorious day for swimming. At one point when I was working on helping clear away meal items, I looked up when my second-grader son called to me. He was standing on the diving board. He waved and excitedly yelled, “Hey, Dad, watch this!” He then ran and jumped off the board feet first into the water.

There was nothing particularly unusual about this action. He splashed into the water and swam to the side of the pool. But a feeling swelled in my heart that I find difficult to describe in words. This little boy was showing off for me. My attention was important to him because he knows that I love him. And this little episode also made it clear that he loves me.

It is impossible to describe in words the exchange that took place between my son and me in those few seconds. I know in my soul that it transcends the boundaries of this sphere. I suppose that it’s only something that a parent can comprehend. My son has likely already forgotten this incident. And yet there’s no worldly thing that could possibly equal the value of this event.

It’s little things like this that tumble together like sands falling through the narrow neck of an hourglass to create a conglomerate treasure that is beyond all the money, gold, power, and other baubles that this world has to offer. I am truly rich.