Monday, March 31, 2014

A weekend for readiing

Every weekend comes with a to-do list. At this time of year, most of my to-do's are related to exterior maintenance of the house or yard. Some weekends there are trips to take, places to go, appointments to keep.

This past one was a weekend of altered plans. I had planned to be at work early Saturday on a new work project, beginning the construction of a house. But raindrops pounding the roof awakened me during the night, and I heard the rain falling as I awoke a second and a third time, when I got up, got dressed and looked at the weather forecast on the computer. The rain would last all day, with the chance of precipitation never dropping below 70%. My outdoor plans — not only the house construction but also the lawn maintenance and more ambitious projects such as sealing the wooden deck — would have to change.

I did some things I could do in the rainy weather, and then I settled down with a thick book and transported my mind back to 1943 and immersed myself in the Allies' invasion of Fascist Italy. I had been reading Rick Atkinson's three-volume history of World War II and was about halfway through the second volume. But my reading time was limited to a few minutes in the evening as I lay in bed and waited for fatigue to blur the words on the page and to loosen my grip on the book. To have an hour to sit and read was both a luxury and a therapy. To absorb the details of the Italian campaign without nodding off or losing my place was a gift that enlivened my mind. To read at length at a time of day when my energy level kept me engrossed in what I was reading was a rejuvenating tonic.

A day-long rain ruined my weekend. And rescued it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Declining counties and booming cities

Some places in North Carolina are growing in population, but most places are not. This latest census news should be a warning to state political leaders and business people.

Population growth is confined to the major, already industrialized and well-populated counties in the Triangle, the Triad and the Charlotte area, plus coastal counties that lure retirees. The rest of the state is either losing population or is stagnant.

The result is not only crowded cities with serious congestion on highways, higher demand for municipal services and increasing housing prices, but also declining towns and small cities that struggle to keep their young people in the face of a declining tax base as housing stock ages and jobs disappear. Compound this with the decline of agriculture and the loss of local retail to the big box stores and shopping malls of nearby cities, and you can see the dilemma of small towns and poor counties.

Keeping ambitious, talented young people in smaller cities with less nightlife and fewer high-tech jobs is not easy, but state policies could help declining counties adapt before it's too late. Because representation in the General Assembly is now skewed in favor of larger cities, after decades of domination by rural districts, the legislature has less sympathy for the plight of rural areas. But unless the state can bolster the rural areas, problems in the cities will grow as rural poor people migrate to the cities for aid and services.

First of all, state industrial development policy should be tilted toward poorer counties, and these counties must be able to provide the workforce modern industry demands. That means improving K-12 education as well as community college education. Luring 100 jobs to Charlotte or Raleigh won't make a lot of difference to the local economy, but luring 100 jobs to Scotland or Tyrrell County could reshape the area. The state has to look at local impact of its decisions, and it must do more to prepare less-populated areas for the future.

Looking at the state map of population changes, I see that every N.C. county where I have called home has declined in population in the past year — Anson, Richmond and Wilson counties are slipping to one degree or another.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Aches and pains remind me that my body is aging

One of the problems of aging is the slow deterioration of muscles and connective tissues, manifested in pain emanating from joints, muscles, skin and limbs. This morning, my right wrist is bothering me, a vague ache in the metacarpals just above the hinge of the wrist joint. I think back to yesterday and try to remember, did I strike my hand against a corner of a piece of furniture? Did I strain my hand by pulling at something? Did I abuse the ligaments by repeated motions? I cannot recall, but that dull ache remains.

Pains like this one are a common, nearly daily fact of life now, in my seventh decade (i.e., my sixties). One day it's my back, another day it's my left side, another day, it's my knee or ankle or neck. It's always something.

I live with this. An ibuprofen will help heal any swelling and dull the pain. The pain is not debilitating. I'm not on crutches or a motorized wheelchair. I climb stairs; I walk (but no longer run, except with grandchildren); I work out at the gym. But I feel these dull pains coming more frequently and more severely, and I don't like where this is headed.

In the times that I recognize what I did wrong to launch the pain du jour, I also recognize that these aches and pains last longer than they used to. An aging body takes longer to heal, whether it's healing from surgery, a broken bone, a cut, or a simple muscle strain. A tightness in my back or shoulder that might have kept me from exercising a day or two 10 years ago might sideline me for a week now.

This recognition helps me understand why professional athletes rarely compete past their early- or mid-30s. The human body has difficulty recovering from the daily grind of professional sports. The time of recovery lengthens as we grow older. This observation is true for professional athletes as well as for old guys doing yard work or some occasional exercise. Take my word for it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

General's mild sentence leaves his life in ruins

The news media had a difficult time with the court martial of Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair. There were the contradictory accounts of Sinclair's actions and the sordid, carnal nature of the accusations against him. These difficulties were in addition to the usual misunderstandings about the military criminal justice system. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is not familiar to most civilians, and even crime/courts reporters for most news organizations don't know the UCMJ very well.

When Sinclair pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors to lesser offenses than the sexual assault and threats his lover had accused him of and received a sentence far lighter than he had faced in the original charges, many critics were outraged. But this knee-jerk reaction deserves a more knowledgeable and thoughtful response.

Prosecutors were willing to accept Sinclair's plea to lesser charges because evidence presented in preliminary hearings showed his accuser, the only prosecution witness, to be unreliable, untruthful, perhaps even malevolently vengeful. The accuser, a captain under Sinclair's command, admitted to carrying on a three-year affair with Sinclair and continuing the consensual affair even after she says he forced her into sex act and threatened to kill her family. Defense attorneys would have shredded her testimony if she were put on the stand.

So prosecutors had good reason to accept a plea to lesser charges. Sinclair pleaded to misconduct charges, of which he was certainly guilty. His accuser, if she had not received immunity, could have been found guilty of the same charges. Under the UCMJ, adultery is a criminal offense. Sinclair was guilty (more than once) of that charge, but his accuser was also guilty. Because of her immunity, she will not face that charge.

Sinclair will not go to prison, but he will be forced to retire, and he will almost certainly be reduced in rank — a punishment that could cost him close to $1 million in retirement pay. His promising Army career is in tatters. His life's work is wasted. A man who might have worn four stars, had he avoided sexual temptations, will leave the Army in disgrace. His accuser, presumably, can continue her Army career.

Sinclair's wife, who has found the strength to forgive him, blames the Army's frequent deployments to hostile areas for her husband's criminal errors. Young men and women in their sexual prime are torn from their spouses and sent on year-long missions to dangerous places where their desires have no legal outlet. They cannot check their libidos at the deployment gate. With the integration of female troops into regular Army/Navy/Air Force units, the temptation grows as the isolation lengthens.

This is an age-old problem. Read the more recent accounts World War II. These histories, shorn of their contemporaneous patriotic whitewashing, reveal the prostitution, rape, venereal diseases and skirt-chasing that followed American GIs through the war zones.

And imagine for a moment if civilian law made adultery a criminal offense and prosecutors aggressively investigated every rumor of an affair. The UCMJ holds military personnel to a higher standard, but it's one too few can meet under the circumstances of repeated isolated deployments and plentiful temptations.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Taxes are done, and now you know

For the 43rd year in a row, I've done my taxes. I haven't filed them yet, but the heavy lifting is done. I feel a sense of relief.

For most of those 43 years, I did taxes with a pencil and a calculator, reading the forms and looking up the explanations for the obtuse language of governmental dialect. I remember being surprised the first time I filled out the full 1040 form, instead of the 1040-EZ that I had used in previous years, that the "long form" wasn't so hard.

About a half-dozen years ago, I switched from pencil and paper to over-the-counter tax software. The first time, I grew anxious not seeing the simple progression of filling in the little boxes with income and deductions, seeing how each new entry changed things. But I've resigned myself now to using software that prompts me for each new entry and does all the calculating automatically. Being able to filed electronically instead of waiting for the refund check to show up in the mail is an added bonus. 

It amazes me how many people I know who have reasonably simple returns, like mine, are intimidated out of doing their own taxes, even with the hand-holding provided by tax software. They pay accounts or tax-return professionals hundreds of dollars to do their work for them. Filing basic income tax returns is time-consuming and sometimes exasperating, but it's not arithmetically challenging. The paper returns ask basic questions and require you to fill in a lot of blanks, but it's not rocket science. Tax software (available for around $50) simplifies the process by allowing you to keyboard the entries, producing neat and complete returns.

No one enjoys paying taxes, but this exercise does provide a good review of the previous year's earnings and charitable donations. Did your charitable gifts reach 10% of gross annual income? How much interest did you pay on your mortgage? On property taxes? On child care expenses? On retirement savings? Did your federal income tax exceed your payroll tax (Social Security plus Medicare — FICA)? What did state taxes cost you?

When you're done with the 1040, you know what kind of fiscal year you've had.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Junk email clutters my inbox

When I changed jobs in 2012, I inherited an email address that was incredibly popular — with spammers. Going on two years later, I'm still receiving scores of spam and phishing emails every day. I think I must receive every spam message this side of Mogadishu.

These emails suggest some things about the vulnerability of people using the Internet. They suggest that people are overweight — thus, the emails proclaiming shocking photos of people (often celebrities) who have lost weight. They suggest that people have problems with erectile dysfunction — thus, the emails about "Men's Renewal," "male enhancement" and testosterone. They suggests that American men are sexually longing — thus, the emails from "Russian Brides" and "Ashley Madison," who promotes a website advocating adulterous affairs with other married men/women. They suggest that people are greedy — thus all the emails about lottery winnings, bank errors in your favor, and the hundreds of Nigerians who need a friend to deposit millions of dollars in illicit earnings into an American bank account.

And these emails suggest that people are gullible. A recent trend I've noticed involves enigmatic messages such as, "whassup?" or "Where did you go?" or "Why did you leave?" The senders of these messages often have vaguely androgynous names, such as Jordan or Harper.

Some of these emails have gone unchanged since I first logged onto the account. Their persistence suggests that they have been successful in luring in their victims. Unfortunately, the spam filters on my computer and my phone have been unsuccessful in removing these unwanted emails. They keep coming. Every day.

I could take the time to build filters in my Outlook account to corral the unwanted email, but the time hardly seems worthwhile. Deleting them from my inbox takes less time. And the spammers are nimble. If I succeed in removing one message, the spammers will simply modify the subject, the sender or other information that might be rejected by my filters.

Junk email is the price we pay for the convenience — the necessity — of using email. Like junk postal mail, it consumes our time to look at it and throw it away, but in our multi-device digitall world, we have to toss out junk email twice or more times. And your mail server might resend emails you've deleted when it detects that the deleted email is not in your inbox.

Once an email account becomes a target of spam, many people have found, there is no solution short of deleting the account and opening a new email account. I've not resorted to that yet because the email I use is on publicity and in the contacts of dozens of actual people who need to contact me occasionally. I plan to keep the account I have and just move the unwanted emails into the junk folder two or three times a day.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Russia understandably wants to keep Crimea

Despite all the rhetoric over Russia's seizure of Crimea, the situation is not simple or all black-and-white. Crimea has a complex history that is not fairly compared to other international power plays.

So far, at least, Russia has not played military bully, as it did in Georgia a few years ago, or as the Soviet Union did in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the "Prague Spring" was nipped in the bud.

For President Obama to say "this cannot stand," echoing the words of President George H.W. Bush about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, implies an exaggerated view of Russia's intentions. Russia has a history with Crimea, where many Russian-speaking people live. It also has a key naval base in Crimea that it worries might be threatened by a Ukrainian revolution. Russia's assertion that it was sending troops to protect Russian lives and property was little different from the United States' rationale for invading Grenada, Panama and Lebanon. And America's disproven rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 was more mendacious than Russia's motives in Crimea.

Vladimir Putin was wrong to use military force to halt or slow down the revolution in Ukraine, but his worries about protecting Russian interests are understandable. Like Russian leaders before him, he was too quick to use the military option when diplomatic efforts might have been more productive and less disruptive.

Russia will not give up its naval base in Crimea, which is essential to asserting its influence and protecting its interests in the Mediterranean. Short of annexation by military force, however, there should be way of guaranteeing Russia's access to its port through treaties. The United States, which will not give up its naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, cannot act too self-righteous about Russia's self-interest in Crimea.