Friday, November 27, 2009

Two down, one to go

For more than a half dozen years I've been intrigued by what is called the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. When the Turnpike was built in the 1930s it was renowned for its abundant tunnels that cut through the rugged mountains of western Pennsylvania. In order to save costs, the original roadway featured tunnels with only one lane for traffic in each direction. By the 1960s, these narrow tunnels were creating choked traffic conditions and the Turnpike Commission began digging parallel tunnels so that two lanes could travel in each direction. However, for three tunnels, it made more sense to redirect the roadway, leaving three abandoned tunnels on two different stretches of dormant roadway.

Kendra, Matt, and I traversed the longest of these tunnels back in 2007. That one is known as Sideling Hill and it's the easternmost of the tunnels. Yesterday, Kendra and I convinced Zach and Stephen to travel to Rays Hill, the shortest of them, which is located near Breezewood.

Frankly, Rays Hill wasn't as fascinating an experience as Sideling Hill. It's much more inaccessible. There's no legal place to park at the eastern portal. The western portal is very close to a maintained road, however there's no safe place to park there.

However, the four of us got up on the old roadway and at least saw Rays Hill.

Next goals:

Be the first to post a photograph on Google Earth of the Laurel Hill Tunnel. Laurel Hill was the first to be bypassed and the roadway on which it is based is very short. It will be hard to get to it as it is far west of my Uncle Larry's home. Further the wilderness out there is even more rugged and unpopulated than northern Fulton County.

Travel the length of the abandoned section near Breezewood by bicycle. It's 8 miles long. Taking it from Breezewood to the eastern end and back should only take a couple of hours.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Health Care's Failure of Imagination

So I guess I've degenerated. I now mostly am viewing the health care debate in Congress through primarily partisan lenses. I am rooting for Democratic failure. I have fallen in for the point of view that Michael Gerson pointed out some time ago, that legislation like this would fundamentally shift political discourse in the country and put conservatives on the unpopular defensive indefinitely.

However, I've been trying to mull over the ethical elements of what the nation's leaders are deliberating. A New York Times columnist recently wrote of how the health care debate essentially is a struggle between quality and vitality in our society as well as a tug of war between the young and the old. His was a helpful perspective. Also, I'm looking for a columnist to articulate another struggle implicit in the health debate: namely that major reform like this can come at greatest cost to those who have been playing by the rules and who have genuinely benefited from a combination of effort, family legacy, aptitude, and luck. The greatest benefit is enjoyed by those who have lacked one of those factors in some abundant degree. Unaffected are the exploitative.

I guess what baffles me most is the cumbersome quasi-solution the Democrats are pushing. The goal of extending coverage to Americans who don't have it is laudable. The legislation won't even get coverage to all Americans, however. Further, the solution proposed is typical New Deal / Great Society Democrat boilerplate: fix a broken system by adding more elements, making the mechanism even more cumbersome and inefficient while bringing about mediocre gains. Further, special interest groups line up at the trough to benefit from the new legislation.

Therefore, my biggest objection to healthcare reform, setting aside my partisan lenses, is the complete lack of imagination with our system. Core problems aren't addressed, namely controlling the cost of medical coverage and making more explicit the costs of coverage to users. As long as medical care remains an opague rather than transparent system as far as costs are concerned, the costs will escalate.

A key question left unanswered: Is medical coverage a public good? If the answer is yes, then government needs to look at completely nationalizing it. If the answer is no, then a simpler set of new guidelines by which insurers must operate and consumers can find protection is all that is needed.

But why haven't we looked at models of somewhat similar industries (at least economically) for inspiration. Namely:

a) a board for governance of healthcare that resembles the local school districts we have in our nation - local, democratic, and able to boil down debate abstractions into tangible concepts for voters

b) the auto insurance industry and the concept of accident and catastrophe coverage vs. checkups and maintenence

c) the dental sector of healthcare where costs seem more reasonable and, most importantly, transparent; further, that sector is a model for client-friendly practices

Please, Congress, think outside the box rather than apply techniques that harken back to the 1960s or 1930s. Further, the opposition could advocate for the private sector by showing how the markets have solve similar problems.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Am I now a digital native?

Perhaps digital resident is more fitting.

I'm done with using paper to keep appointments. This feels like a profound step.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Discipline in the White House

Goodness, has it really been that long since I've written an entry?


The news of President Obama's winning of the Nobel Prize was a surprise. It took a good minute for me yesterday to prove to myself it wasn't a joke or piece from The Onion. I'm trying not to let my pessimism about the President's agenda cloud my response. It's an honor, though certainly a hollow one coming so early in his presidency. Had he earned it in year 5 or 6 or 7, we could consider it differently.

It calls most into question the Nobel committee. It looks like a reach for attention or an attempt to manipulate the big players in international diplomacy. It seemed like something of a lazy pick. Or, perhaps it was desperate. Either way about it, it's not a pick that will help the President much at all, either at home or abroad.

I also must question the honesty of the award. President Obama is the president and commander-in-chief of a nation engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and with significant troops still in Iraq. Regardless of one's position on the wars in either of those nations, it's involvement I can't characterize as "peaceful."

I'm sure there was ambivalence when the news hit the White House. One bit of commentary I saw today called it a "knuckleball" and I'm sure it was received as such.

If the administration is at all at fault, it's for not killing this nomination when it was originally made. This is something of a gift, after all, to Republicans and other critics who can mock how the president who all of a sudden can't seem to close a deal wins this. I imagine that the great players of international diplomacy will only scoff at the administration and its envoys. Therefore, the president's aides, advisors, and advocates should have had the good sense to tell the Nobel Prize committee thanks, but no thanks before Friday's awarding.

There is a disturbing lack of discipline within this administration: serious debate about the role of American forces in Afghanistan should have been kept private but is now very public, dismissing the sacrifice of America's troops over there. Hemming and hawing over the "Public Option." Nine months in and this administration still seems juvenile in how it handles public relations and appearance. We're either 20% or 10% of the way through this administration: the time of inadvertantly tipping your hand to opponents should be over.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ugly Math

I forget where I saw an op-ed wondering if this recession might just defy any sort of stimulus, but I wonder if the stubborn recession we now see might just be one that normal actions by government cannot resolve.

There are some greater forces working in the economy that have us in this persistent trough that are unlike things we've seen before. Namely . . .

1) the aging and retiring of the baby-boomers (with all sorts of implications on savings, household income, and consumption) coupled with . . .

2) . . . the relative paucity of the following generations into the workforce. Also, there is . . .

3) . . . Americans' awakening to burdensome debts, especially with homes and college education, and finally . . .

4) . . . the profit-margin-destroying transparency the internet and e-commerce has brought to the economy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


A few weeks ago I discussed the zen-like quality of this summer. Each day it's just me and the two kids. Until last week, it was relaxing in a way I hadn't known relaxation before.

Then came swim lessons. Who could know how that would upend the worldview of a 3-year-old. The teachers do a great job with him. The time and money is well worth it. I notice a huge change in how well Sam navigates the pool (and Caroline is benefiting too from being in the moms-and-tots class with her daddy). However, the daily routine of being separated from me for 50 minutes has been traumatic.

Which probably means this was good for him.

So, what am I learning:

a) It's good and healthy for your kids to be taught, trained, and nurtured by good people qualified to be with kids as teachers, coaches, and mentors. (Heck, that's why we love our kids' preschool so much).

b) I should never underestimate the awe with which kids look at their parents. There is such tremendous power we have in our kids' eyes. The love we possess is unlike anything else they know. Everything we do and say echoes profoundly in their lives.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Haunting Bits of Advice

Recently, I've thought a bit about the most haunting pieces of advice various folks have given me. What you see below is a listing of wisdom shared by people I know that comes to mind whenever I'm about to violate the lesson they shared.

"You get one flip." - My wife (she meant it in reference to pancakes, but there's broader applicability)

"Every year you delay your graduate work means another year of money you will never see." - Barry Arner, a mentor

"You can run your car all you want without gasoline, but you daresn't run it without oil." - My grandfather (I chuckle at the wisdom)

"Don't send a boy to do a man's job." - My grandmother (Smith), usually invoked in the midst of card playing

"Money goes on the big pile." - My grandmother (Johnson)

"Paint doesn't cover up flaws, it just reveals them." - Gary Buck, a good friend

"Why would someone buy the cow when they're getting the milk for free?" - someone I know and love who wouldn't want to have this quote attached to him

"You either have time or money, never both." - Mary Koster, a good friend

"Sometimes I feel like anything in life I want costs either $50 or $5,000." - Doug Koster, another good friend

"A profession isn't about guarantees. It's about making a certain outcome more likely." - Jackie Fife, a mentor

"Every hour of sleep you get before midnight is twice as good as any hour you get after." - Dad

Sure sign of a bad piece of music: key change. - Dr. Grotto (director from college - it's a paraphrase, not a quote)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Education and Entitlement

An interesting op-ed in today's Washington Post caught my attention. In it, E.J. Dionne wrote about the crisis facing present-day American higher education. He was mostly pointing to problems of cost that are hampering Americans' opportunities to achieve all they can. You can read it on the Post's website.

He shared an anecdote at the beginning, however, that prompted me to think in a direction than I think Dionne intended. He talked of how the young Sonia Sotomayor studied with her brother and mother together in their cramped Brooklyn apartment, ostensibly invoking how her mother's example guided the young Supreme Court Justice-to-be.

Good example.

But it highlights an attitude that has largely left Americans' mentality concerning education. As a child in the 1950s, when K-12 education was in its first generation of normalcy for American children, there was more of an emphasis on children seizing opportunities available in education. Not all parents pushed their kids to achieve, for sure. Yet compared to today, there was considerably greater emphasis from home about seizing opportunities.

Today, the mentality I see most commonly toward school is one of entitlement. Parents, kids, the community think in terms of what the school owes their children. And certainly we owe those kids a lot. But there is little emphasis on what kids' stake is in determining what they get from school. Parents want absences to be excused without consequence, kids want teachers who will be "cool" and laid back rather than ones who insist on work. In the academic (versus honors and AP) sections there is an attitude that teachers need to arrange the path of least resistance for their kids to earn their diplomas.

Parents, the courts, legislation, a culture that emphasizes leisure and comfort over rewarding hard work all contribute to the ennui. As for colleges' steeply rising price tags, waves of parents and prospective students insisting on the best facilities (apartments, not dorm rooms; new science labs, not good labs in older buildings) have driven tuition and fees up. The approach with which too many parents and students take toward schooling is a strange mix of passive and activist. But missing from that mix is the notion that hard work is necessary for but not in and of itself sufficient for true success. That was something the mother of the current Supreme Court Justice nominee (and many, many of her contemporaries) grasped.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A different place

I don't know if I've ever been as relaxed as I find myself now, on July 15. I quickly de-toxed from a very difficult school year, gained the perspective on how to learn from and build on it. I've spent nearly every day at home with my kids, playing, tending to a garden, going swimming, and just being a parent. I've never had the opportunity to slow down this greatly.

I try to follow the news, really I do, but I don't find myself getting as angst-ridden as I did last summer. Not that I'm happy about what's going on in Washington and Harrisburg, but more resigned than enraged.

I try to move on working toward some schoolwork but can only get as far as working out ideas in my head. I just cannot get serious about academic matters.

I haven't tried to read any non-fiction, but I'm actually committed to reading some mediocre historical fiction. Oh, of course I'm keeping up with The Economist and The Week.

More than ever, I see the wisdom of becoming a Social Studies teacher.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Values I'd Like to See the Republicans Rally Around

1) Fiscal Responsibility

2) Free Trade

3) Free Markets

4) National Defense

5) Equality Under the Laws

A party built around these ideals, and leaving moral issues to the States, could actually challenge the Democrats.

What We're Seeing

I watched a few minutes of Bill O'Reilly tonight and found it dreadful. Then I watched a few minutes of Keith Olbermann. Just as dreadful. Dogmatic, too. Can't newscasters do better than attacking one another.

Something I cannot help but conclude from the auto bailout . . . President Obama has simply intervened to make sure that the costs of Chrysler's (and GM's) collapse fall more heavily on capital than on labor. Is it without precedent? Probably. Is it against the long-term interests of the nation? I think so. (As George Will opined, what investor in his right mind would invest in the arbitrary environment we have now?) Yet the political brilliance of it is pretty shocking to look at. This subtle repositioning of the state's shield over labor (rather than creditors, who in a normal bankruptcy have a higher pecking order) is happening beneath the hue and cry of commentators.

The president is positioning himself nicely for 2012 - organized labor won't forget what he has done here, the Organizing for America (OFA) network will continue to motivate the young and idealistic. The Republicans, until they can figure out some message, are helpless unless teh economy fails to reverse.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday, April 26

It's hard to imagine a weekend being much better than this one. The weather was beautiful. The kids were wonderful. My parents watched them Saturday evening so my wife and I could enjoy a dinner with just one another. And on the way back, we spotted a Dairy Queen (so we could enjoy ice cream that wasn't pretentious Maggie Moos).

I think if I did not have my wife I would be one half as happy. That's a sad thing to contemplate. But I'm so glad I've had these ten years with her. This weekend would have been only half as good without her.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

More quick hits . . .

Again, the news leaves me bewildered. I can't figure out why the federal government extended a lifeline to GM and Chrysler only to shepherd them to bankruptcy. And now it would seem that Chrysler's government-authored bankruptcy plan will protect the UAW employed by Chrysler. What use is a bankruptcy reorganization if one can't clearly tackle labor costs? Either it's conflicting government priorities or it's making sure the costs of this faltering company is felt by the creditors (capitalists) rather than labor.

I'm going to stop with this line of commentary. George Will could finish it so much better than I.

Since my wife and I can't seem to finish a conversation without interruption, we've decided to park the kids with grandparents and enjoy a dinner this weekend. Good.

I can't believe how quickly I got over being without a print newspaper. I like the e-edition I'm getting from the Inquirer but wonder if even that is something I truly need. I'm getting used to navigating Yahoo! news and Google News, yet I miss the analysis and op-ed where I expect it to be. I can see a gradual, painful, bankruptcy-judges-as-copilot slide into oblivion for print daily press over the next few years. What I wish, however, is for some newspaper to make the jump boldly. To be blunt, the money spent on paper, printing, and distribution would be more wisely used on quality reporting which we sorely need and which we can't completely source out to the wire services.

Is the NFL draft this weekend? I can remember a time when I would have known even who the Eagles were likely to predict. But life is so much richer now, and angst over the draft nothing more than energy displaced. Moreover, it's all so damned predictable. I'm seeing some journalism on the bursting sports bubble. I think my bubble has popped. Not that I don't care. I just know enough about the teams for whom I care that I can drop in and fly out with the rhythm of their success.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Getting back up on the horse . . .

Boy, it's tough to restart something like this after a three-and-a-half-month hiatus. so, let me offer some quick thoughts to prime the pump:

I'm disappointed at my president's contrition to friends and foes overseas. I'm all for owning up to past mistakes, acknowledging errors of one's ways, yet diplomacy is about nuance after nuance after nuance. Our president is appearing too much the eager newcomer trying to win over people's hearts. I'm too much a realist to think they'll respond in the way he hopes.

I'm disappointed at the Republicans' two-dimensional criticism of Obama as a socialist. The party needs to start forming a positive identity and set of core, distinct values that Americans can associate with them. Right now, they're only an entity that opposes the commander-in-chief of the United States.

I'm not at all missing my newspaper. The switch to the Inquirer's e-edition has been splendid. A subscription to The Week along with The Economist is keeping me up on top of the issues I need to see. I'm finding the links to opinion at Washington Post on Yahoo! most satisfying.

I miss Battlestar Galactica tremendously. Bill Adama's last line to Lee, "I don't have much time left, son," still echoes in my ear.

I am astonished at how little interest I have in the Flyers' post-season. Is it parenthood, or is it the hangover of the Phillies' campaign in 2008.

God bless Harry Kalas for how wonderful he made baseball sound.

My children are beautiful.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Inevitable Slide

I see that the framework for allowing Roland Burris to take office is under way. The media is starting to put out quotes from experts and members of the Senate wondering whether or not they can legally deny Mr. Burris his seat. Senator Dianne Feinstein has started the charge of Democrats shrugging and saying "let him come on in."

Rather than facing down Mr. Burris, Senate leaders had the secretary of the Senate stop him on a technicality. Flimsy.

From what I understand, Article I of the Constitution allows the Senate the right to refuse a new Senator his seat. I don't see why the Democrats in Washington just can't make that call and follow through on what they threatened.

This party could be its own worst enemy. Oh, wait, the directionless Republicans have that distinction.