Archive for November, 2004

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Taxes

November 30, 2004

In an effort to “simplify” our tax code, president Bush wants to reduce or eliminate taxes on dividends, interest and capital gains. Can someone please explain to me why money gained by sitting on your ass is taxed less than the money I work for? And in case you were wondering where this lost revenue would be made up, fear not. The president has a plan. He proposes that we a) do away with the ability to deduct state taxes on your federal return and b) eliminate the ability for businesses to deduct the cost of employee health care.

So correct me if I’m wrong here but basically the investor class gets a big bonus while you and I get to file a larger federal return and maybe even lose our healthcare. Good deal, huh?

While we’re on the subject of taxes I want to share with you two things that I recently discovered. First, everyone gives around 20 or 30% of their income to pay for government. Even the poor. Even the wealthy. Everyone. Politicians love to justify tax breaks for their wealthy benefactors and corporate cronies by telling you that it is they – the wealthy – who actually pay all the taxes in the first place. So why shouldn’t they get all the breaks when there are breaks to be had? But what they’re talking about is federal income tax only. Not state, local or payroll taxes. When you add all that other stuff together you come up with a total bill for government at all levels. Here is the actual breakdown. I got these numbers from a pdf I found on the Citizens For Tax Justice web site.

Bracket Income Tax
lowest 20% $10,400 19.7%
second 20% $21,200 23.3%
middle 20% $34,500 27.0%
fourth 20% $56,300 29.8%
next 15% $96,700 31.6%
next 4% $201,000 32.2%
top 1% $978,000 32.8%

Flat tax? Hell, it’s already pretty flat. If we were to split the difference and make it an across-the-board 25% I bet people wouldn’t even notice that much. And president Bush’s current tax proposals will make the tax burden even flatter than it already is. Just like last time when his tax policies stuck the middle-class with part of what was previously the burden of the wealthy.

Here’s the second thing about taxes I discovered recently. Most American corporations don’t pay federal income tax. At all. It’s true. And 94% of them are paying less than 5%. So explain to me again why we’re all tripping over ourselves to give “incentives” away to these entities when they’re not really paying a whole lot to begin with? Contrast this stark fact with the rhetoric we hear constantly about how businesses are being crushed by their tax burden and how we all need to tighten our belts and give breaks to these businesses so we can all have jobs again. That’s always the big threat: give money to these guys or you won’t have a job.

Well apparently we’re giving some of these guys a 100% tax break and a lot of us still don’t have jobs. Perhaps we should look elsewhere for means to stimulate the economy. Like maybe policies that actually benefit the middle-class and the poor. When they have money they spend it. Isn’t that a stimulus, too?

Listen, I’m sure there’s some economist out there who can explain exactly where my reasoning has gone wrong, but right now I just don’t see the sense in any of this. I admit I don’t even do my own return! My wife does it all, so what do I know? But it just seems to me that we’re heading in the wrong direction. It seems to me that we need to stop flattening the tax burden and stop the corporate giveaways.

Tell president Bush what you think about his tax policies. I know I’m going to.

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Martial Arts And The Web

November 30, 2004

I am a martial artist and a nerd. In spite of stereotypes, these two facts do meet up at some points and I find myself seeking out martial arts resources on the web. While it is true that traditional martial arts is not a book-learned subject, neither is it solely about physicality; it encompasses both the body and the mind, action and ethics. Thus there are things to read and think about in addition to just doing, and it is not unreasonable to hope for good web-based discussions on the subject. I have, however, been disappointed time and time again in my search for them. Those discussions that do exist tend to be at odds with the values of traditional martial arts such as humility and respect. On the contrary, they are often characterized by bragging, aggression, self-aggrandizement and a general disrespect for others.

As you read further please understand that I am a novice martial artist; a student, not a master; a weekend warrior, not a ninja. Therefore I defer to those more experienced in all such matters. Furthermore, I do not presume to speak for my dojang (school) or my own kwangangnim (master instructor), but for myself only. I do, however, know a thing or two about the web and about being civil. I invite you to take what you like and leave the rest.

One of the worst experiences I had was on a widely known email listserv for Korean martial arts. I hadn’t been participating long when another member blasted everyone with a highly partisan tirade about gun ownership, the tone of which clearly indicated his belief that everyone on the list shared his opinion. I pointed out that being a martial artist did not necessarily make one a member of the NRA and that I myself had a contrary view. This inspired several members to join the debate against me. Some were politer than others, but not a single person came to my defense. After only a few exchanges, however, I soon found my posts stopped appearing. I was being censored by the moderator who was openly on their side in it. And by “on their side,” I do not merely mean pro-gun – I mean of the opinion that to be in favor of even modest gun control is antithetical to the practice of martial arts. The justification he gave was laughable and obviously an excuse to silence me. The level of aggression, dishonesty and the blatant lack of respect was disheartening to say the least.

I think it sad that a listserv dedicated to traditional martial arts must censor certain political views, but what really got under my skin was this: all the hundreds of participants on that lists thought I had backed down. How could they not? To them I had simply ceased to respond, letting others gloat over my apparent silence. Once started, I do not back down from a debate, an argument or a fight. It hurt my pride, frankly, that others might have thought so of me. Still, it is said that a virtuous martial artist avoids conflicts wherever possible and that the best way to avoid a fight is to not be present when it begins. Thus, after a candid explanatory note to the moderator, I unsubscribed from the listserv.

For a long time I saved the emails documenting the entire exchange. I bitterly nursed the idea that I would blog the whole thing and embarrass everyone involved, but in the end I thought better of it and deleted everything. This is the first and only time I have told this story and I have deliberately omitted the names of those involved and of the listserv in question.

Other discussions have been less political and more, well, adolescent in nature. Whether on martial arts-related communities on Orkut or the discussion forums on fightingarts.com, the discussions are almost invariably reduced to: my art is better than yours, my school is better than yours, my instructors are better than yours, and in the end, I am better than you. Even the best of threads tend to be punctuated by braggarts and verbal bullies.

Traditional Asian martial arts almost always involve bowing and other overt demonstrations of respect. My own school actually includes this as part of it’s oath: “I shall observe the unwritten rule of martial arts and only speak well of and never criticize other students.” The humility embodied in this oath, coupled with the overt demonstrations of respect in the dojang, leave me aghast at the tone and content found in most martial arts discussion forums. Can these really be the same people who bow to their colleagues and instructors when in class or at a tournament?

I have attempted several times to address the issue head-on:

Let us for a moment avoid discussions about who’s a bad-ass, who trains like a sissy, which art is better than which other art, or whether you can do 1000 situps. While many of these discussions contain invaluable knowledge and insight, many of them are also brimming over with vanity, finger-pointing and macho posturing. [more…]

But it is rather like sweeping out the tide. What is it that causes online discussions of martial arts to descend into testosterone-fueled pissing matches? Is it the subject matter? Is it the anonymity? Is it the web itself? I have no answer. All I know is that I have learned to avoid them now, as I’m sure have other like-minded people. And this is sad. The web represents such a wonderful and unique opportunity to communicate with people around the world about anything you mutually care about. It’s a missed opportunity.

Being a martial artist is about more than just self defense or the health benefits of a good workout. It is about the betterment of the whole person, mind and body. Anyone who rejects this idea is not a martial artist, but either a street brawler or an aerobics class participant. Neither of these activities seek to instill a code of ethics in its practitioners; traditional martial arts does just that. And this is why it is so disheartening to see the current state of martial arts discussions on the web.

If I knew how to solve this problem through a clever policy of moderation I would register a new domain and start my own martial arts forum in a heartbeat. But at the moment I have no idea how to prevent it from being as aggressive and disrespectful as the others.

Suggestions?

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Shoot A Portrait

November 29, 2004

Disclosure: I am not a professional photographer. Anyone who has looked at my photo gallery doesn’t need to be told that, I guess. But I wanted to give you this tip, one amateur to another. It’s some instructions for how to take a portrait with a digital camera. I think I’m on to something here and I thought I’d pass it along. (Most of this was pieced together from a half-dozen other web sites and field-tested by yours truly.)

  1. The Camera
    • Put the camera into “portrait mode” if it has one. Many consumer digital cameras do. Check the manual if you’re not sure, but it often is represented by a little icon of a person’s head. A professional photographer could no doubt explain to you exactly what this does in technical terms, by my version is this: it throws the background out of focus and draws attention to your subject.
    • Go to max telephoto. As in zoom as close as you can to your subject. Take a step back if you have to. Use the zoom all the way. This makes the background blur even more, throwing your subject into even sharper relief. (And please do not use “digital zoom.” That “feature” should in fact be the first thing you turn off on your new camera, never to be turned on again. Plain old optical zoom – or what I like to call “real zoom” – is what you want.)
    • Turn the flash on. Do not just let the camera flash if it needs to. (It won’t need to because you’ll be shooting in plenty of light – see below.) Force the flash to go off. The best place to use a flash is outdoors in plenty of light. It will soften the shadows on your subjects face and also ad a gleam to his/her eye. Forcing the flash is usually very easy to do and involves pushing the button next to the lightning icon until it gives you the “will flash no matter what” option. Check your owners manual for details.
    • Hold your camera steady and push the shutter release button halfway down. Many people who shoot digital do not know this, but pushing the button halfway down tells the camera to figure out the auto focus and auto exposure stuff. Once the camera tells you it’s done all that (usually with a green light of some kind) you can push the button the rest of the way down. Or not. You could tell your subject a joke to make him/her laugh and then push it the rest of the way down, capturing that perfect expression. Clever, huh?
    • Joke not included.
  2. Light
    • Go outside. Outdoor pictures almost always turn out better than indoor ones. I don’t know why. Just go.
    • Take the picture in the early morning or late afternoon. The light at these times of day make for exquisite photography.
    • Put the sun behind and to one side of your subject, not in front of them. If yo put the sun in front of them they’ll just squint and that’s not the expression you want to capture. Plus the backlighting looks really nice.
    • Overcast days are also good.
    • Remember to force the flash to go off.
  3. Composing
    • Frame your shot so you get just the head and maybe some shoulder. Really, the tighter you frame this the nicer it’ll look. You do not need to document the fact that your subject has pants on. People will just take that on faith.
    • Remember to zoom all the way in and then compose your shot. You may need to take a step closer to your subject or maybe take a step back. Do not frame the shot by adjusting the zoom: leave it at max telephoto.
    • If you can, try to shoot where the background is as far away as possible. This also helps blur it and draw attention to your subject.

Okay, one other tip: take a several shots! Nobody is perfect, least of all us amateurs. I take as many as my subject has patience for. That’s usually at least three. You might need even more shots if you forget to force the flash or your joke wasn’t that funny. Your mileage may definitely vary. Just remember to take more than one.

Speaking of remembering, how will you ever remember all this stuff? Listen, if you remember only three things from this list of suggestions let it be these: portrait mode, max telephoto and force the flash. Happy portraiting!

Here’s a few shots I’ve gotten using some of the methods above. Some are better than others, but I think I mentioned the non-professional thing, right?

Angela in the woods
Beth in a funny hat
Rocky and Tracie in the Black river
Angela in fall
Logan as a lifeguard
Logan again
Woman with feathers in her hair

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Day Off

November 29, 2004

vacation notice
I had Thursday and Friday off because of Thanksgiving. I had Saturday and Sunday off because I always do. I have tomorrow, Tuesday, off because Angela and I are supposed to receive some award or other from the Waukesha school district and we want to be there to receive it. I looked at those five days off and asked myself: who would want to go to work for one day right in the middle of all that? Nobody, that’s who. So I took today off as well. (And thanks to Microsoft Office I won’t forget what I’m supposed to be doing today. It even editorializes about how long it’s been since my last vacation! Microsoft is amazing.)

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Blogging in China

November 27, 2004

Blogs are important. I feel it. Not this blog in particular, but all of them together. It is the start of an unmediated global conversation which could have enormous impact on the future. With that thought in mind, check out this article about blogging in China over at newscientist.com.

As a gesture of solidarity with my Chinese brothers and sisters I want to invite any and all Chinese bloggers who may be visiting Southeastern Wisconsin over to my house for pancakes.

(Did I just invite China over for breakfast? Maybe I should warn my wife.)

But why limit it? Any bloggers living in, near or just visiting the greater Milwaukee area want to have a pancake meetup?

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How To Eat Pancakes

November 26, 2004

Those of you who know about the ketchup/mustard thing already appreciate that I can get pretty particular about things. And now I about to enlighten you all with my latest food epiphany. There’s a right way and a wrong way to eat pancakes. I bet you didn’t know that. But that’s what I’m here for – to tell you these things. Anyway, I think the erroneous pancake-eating practice is coming from the television. On television this is how you eat pancakes:

  1. Receive impossibly beautiful short stack of pancakes from a woman in an apron.
  2. Put a dollop of butter on top.
  3. Pour maple syrup over the exact center and salivate as it flows over the edges in several amazingly equidistant directions.
  4. Cut a small wedge out of the stack and eat it.
  5. Mug for the camera with a near-orgasmic look on your face.

Did you spot the error? Actually, there’s a few, but the chief one is this: you do NOT pour syrup on your pancakes before you cut them. They do that on television because it’s more appetizing to see whole pancakes getting syruped than a chopped-up mess. But television isn’t reality. This is the real way to eat pancakes:

  1. Fork some pancakes off the serving platter and shake them onto your own plate.
  2. Wipe some butter or margarine on the top cake. (Or if you’re clever, insert it into the middle!)
  3. Cut the stack in half. Make three or four perpendicular cuts, leaving more or less bite-size chunks.
  4. Pour syrup over them, letting it pool in the cut spaces.
  5. Take your first bite while arguing over how many slices of bacon each person gets.

Putting the syrup on after you cut up your pancakes may not be photogenic, but it does have some real-world advantages. Specifically, more syrupy goodness stays on your pancakes instead of pooling around the edges of your plate. That way you don’t need to go chasing syrup around with your forked bit of pancake before eating it because it’s already adequately saturated.

Now that you know the correct way, my brothers and sisters, shake off the bonds of television fakery. Go forth and spread the Good News about the One True Pancake Eating Method.

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Old Friends, Old Dogs and Good Fortune

November 25, 2004

It’s Thanksgiving Day here in the United States again. Time for us to get together with family, eat traditional food and reflect on our good fortune with gratitude. As always, I have a long list of things to be thankful for including my health, my wonderful family, my rewarding career and my fulfilling hobbies. Yes, all the usual suspects are here (thank goodness). But this years Thanksgiving holiday is being shaped by one unexpected influence: a man in Texas named Jeff whom I never met. By a curious turn of events it is because of him that we are having Thanksgiving dinner at my mother-in-laws home instead of mine. And it’s also why my dog Logan is coming with us.

Apparently Jeff and my mother-in-law Carol used to be friends years ago. Time passed and, as friends sometimes do, they lost touch. When they rekindled that friendship again not long ago it was tempered by one grim piece of news – Jeff was dying of cancer. I guess when you know your time is short you think about old friends and how long it’s been since you talked to them.

One of the things which worried Jeff as he put his affairs in order was the fact that he had no arrangements for his dog, Ebo. He asked Carol if she would be willing to take him. She was willing but her apartment did not allow dogs. She began to think about moving to a place that did. Before she could do so, however, Jeff’s health took a rapid turn for the worse and he passed away very suddenly.

Within weeks Ebo arrived, having been driven up from Texas by a member of Jeff’s family. Carol had no place for him so Angela and I took him in. Ebo is twelve years old. That’s twelve real years not funny dog years so he’s very old, indeed. Nevertheless he is pretty spry for an old fellow. After the first 24 hours he and Logan got along fine but Rufus and Ella never got used to him. They would hiss and threaten him whenever they crossed paths. Much to their chagrin Ebo stayed with us for about eight weeks while Carol arranged to move.

(It’s rather off the subject, but one other thing arrived from Texas: a laptop computer. Carol wasn’t sure how to use it and wanted me to put the software in order and show her how. It just so happened that Angela and I were in temporary need of a laptop to use for our Lego League team. Serendipitously, we got one. It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it? It’s one more thing to be thankful for.)

It used to be that Thanksgiving was an event which could only be hosted by either Angela and myself or by Angela’s sister Tracie and her husband Rocky, as we were the only ones with room for a gathering on that scale. And in truth I began to like having everyone over so much that I was loath to give up the privilege; let Tracie have Christmas, we’ll do Thanksgiving. Thus, more and more Thanksgivings were held here in my home, much to my delight. Now that Carol lived in a larger place, however, the equation changed. It was decided that she would host this year. I admit that I was disappointed. But because it means a lot less time and work for us I got used to the idea quickly.

So that is why we are having Thanksgiving at my mother-in-law’s place instead of mine. Logan is coming with us so he can visit with his old friend Ebo, a fact for which I am sure they will both be giving thanks.

If I were a better writer this is where I would pull everything together into a neat little circle and tell you why this story is the very epitome of Thanksgiving spirit. But I’m not a better writer and all I can offer is this reflection: it’s an incredible comfort to be surrounded by friends and family. Texan or Wisconsinite, old friend or new, canine or human – relish the ones that surround you and marvel at the serendipitous good fortune that brings you together. No matter how much you have, no matter how self-sufficient you may be, you would be very poor indeed if your life wasn’t intertwined with theirs.

This Thanksgiving I am rich. I hope you are too. Have a terrific holiday.