Friday, February 24, 2017

New Laptop, woohoo!

I've been lugging around my reliable, but tired, MacBook Pro for seven years now. While I love the real estate of the 17 inch screen I've grown weary of the heft that comes along with it (I estimate the weight somewhere between twenty and thirty pounds, for those who are wondering.) I've been thinking about a new unit for a couple of years now, having never had a laptop survive past the 5 year mark, I've been a bit wary for some time. I'll point out that my old MacBook is the first laptop I've ever had with a metal body, and that seems to be the difference-maker in reliability. Yes, it costs a good bit more, but I've hauled it from Munich to Ushuaia, on planes, trains, and automobiles. It's been to board meetings and horse shows, and it's never skipped a beat. I upgraded the hard drive a few years ago and replaced the battery at about the 5 year mark and it's still chugging along - but my shoulders aren't getting any younger and I'll hope to have plenty of opportunity to haul a laptop around in the future, so I took the leap.

Apple is offering special financing with Barclays if you get an Apple credit card, so I decided having many months to pay without interest was a compelling reason to order, along with having the time to get everything swapped over before an upcoming trip. I opted for a 15 inch with most of the whistles and bells. Since the late 90's (when CPUs passed the 300MHz mark) I've never gone for the fastest processor available, I've always chosen to invest those dollars in more RAM or storage. This time was no different. The incremental difference in processing power (less than 10%) for nearly 10% of the total system cost just doesn't add up for me. While I do a fair amount of video editing, it is on an occasional basis, so the impact of any time savings would be barely noticeable over the long term. I'm also not a gamer, so there wasn't anything to be gained there. I am a bit of a digital hoarder, so I did go for 1TB of storage.

Side note - my first "real" computer was a Gateway 486/66 with 16MB RAM and a 1GB hard drive (the largest available on a consumer basis at the time) My new laptop has a 2.7GHz processor, 16GB RAM and a 1TB SSD drive, for about half the dollar spend before inflation adjustment. What a difference (nearly) 25 years makes! It may not strictly adhere to Moore's Law, but it certainly comes close. Yes, I still have that 486 and it still boots an early version (kernel 1.2?) of Linux.

The new laptop is nice so far - the keyboard has larger keys (thanks to the virtual row of function keys) and a nice feel - they're slightly recessed instead of being raised, so hopefully they will stay a bit cleaner. The predictive text display in some apps is pretty useless for me, as I'm looking at the screen as I type and I'm not inclined to look above my fingers to see what the computer thinks I'm typing. When it comes to more challenging words I may find myself looking there for assistance, but that remains to be seen. It is nice when emojis pop up, especially when using Messages or social media.
Being able to unlock the screen with a fingerprint is quite convenient and after just a few hours of use I'm starting to use that feature out of habit. Other than the virtual 'escape' key I'm having difficulty imagining any potential pitfall of having virtual function keys (and frankly I have yet to identify a failure mode that the 'escape' key would play part in.)

The new trackpad is HUGE and it seems that there may be a bit of a learning curve with the click-hold behavior, but I'm not sure yet. (No, I haven't looked for any documentation, that would remove some of the mystery!) SSD storage means it's slim and weighs about the same as 3 credit cards (estimated) Overall I'm well pleased and getting everything moved over from my old unit has been relatively painless. I was initially concerned that the pads of my hands might wreak havoc as they rested on the upper corners of the trackpad, but now that I've relaxed and allowed my hands to rest naturally I can't detect any issues there, either.

The display is amazing, the weight is incredible (approximately six drams, by my estimation, YMMV) and the entire package is responsive. I look forward to dropping it in my Timbuk2 backpack and hauling it around a bit to see how it feels in transport.

Yes, you pay more for a MacBook, but in my opinion it is worth the investment if you're looking for something to haul around for a period of years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Success or Failure?

If you know me at all, or follow me on any social media platforms, you're well aware that I didn't vote for President Trump. Not that I owe you an explanation, but my opposition was based more on his lack of character than his policies. The list of boorish behavior is long and has been well documented elsewhere, so I'll not reproduce it in this space. Google is more than capable of producing any number of articles on the topic if you need clarification.

That's not to say that I'm OK with all of his policy proposals. There are many that raise serious concern. This is where the success or failure question generates a conundrum. Let me start by coming at it from a slightly different angle by asking another, related, question.

Do I want the United States of America to fail?

Certainly not. With all of our shortcomings and misgivings we've got a pretty good thing going here. We're still young, as countries go, so there is ample room for growth still before us. To think that we've seen the best we'll ever have is a bit shortsighted. Two hundred thirty years ago a bunch of guys got together and decided they were tired of being ruled by a guy on the other side of the ocean and decided to do something about it. I've got a hat made by a shop in London that was founded one hundred years before those guys told King George III to get stuffed. As a country we've just exited our teens and I don't think we've hit our stride yet. We've had highs and lows, but have yet to figure out how to maintain a slow and steady upward trend for the entire country.

Now that we've cleared up that, let's look at the original question:

Do I want President Trump to fail?

In many ways, yes. In some ways, no.


Hold your horses. Let's look at some specifics. What could I possibly want him to fail at?

Simply stated, I'd like for him to fail in his social agenda. He made promises and mentions throughout his campaign concerning marriage equality and women's health. I'd love to see him fail miserably in this regard. Equal rights are not special rights and a woman should be able to make decisions on healthcare with her provider and her partner, as she deems appropriate. He spoke of a muslim registry, this comes dangerously close to violating the First Amendment and reeks of the tactics used by the Third Reich in the 1940's. We have freedom of religion in this country, and that doesn't come with qualifications. Either we're all free to choose our religion or none of us are free. It really is that simple.

I'd like for him to fail with respect to eschewing alternative energy research and his assertion that climate change is just a conspiracy being perpetrated by the Chinese (as I sit here on a January day and the air conditioning kicks on...) We will run out of fossil fuels, fracking is causing seismic destabilization and groundwater pollution, and coal emissions have caused significant problems from the London fog of 1952 to modern day China. Germany produces a significant fraction of their energy needs from solar and continues to extend those initiatives. Research continues on ocean-based generation systems using tidal and wave energy, efforts to minimize the impact of harvesting wind energy are ongoing, as are advances in nuclear technologies. But we now have Executive Orders pushing Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines ahead, both projects riddled with potential conflicts of interest from Trump as well as members of his administration. The fleecing of America has already begun and his Presidency is less than five days old.

I'd like for him to fail in his plans to sell off our public resources to private interests. These range from our schools to our National Parks. With significant irregularities surfacing in the local Charter school program it's not unreasonable to assume that similar issues are surfacing in other areas.

I'd like for him to fail in placing an extreme right-wing justice on the Supreme Court. A moderate conservative would be acceptable, but the troglodyte he's mentioned so far is outrageous. Maybe he's being floated as a false-flag and the intent is to pull his name back and nominate a more moderate person to insure a "win." Let's hope that's the case.

In other areas it's not so much that I'd like to see him fail as much as I think he's not making any sense. He speaks of "rebuilding" our military. Military spending already accounts for ~57% of the Federal budget. How much more do we need to spend? I think the more critical issue is for our lawmakers to actually listen to the Pentagon. When they say "We don't want the SuperMissle 5000" then Congressman BigGuy should honor their input and not insist that the SuperMissle 5000 be funded just so he can curry favor with his district. We need to be pragmatic and reduce (I don't think we can ever eliminate) the political influence of Pentagon funding. To be succinct, I don't think we need to rebuild the military as much as we need to reduce wasteful spending on budget items that the military has specifically rejected.

He's all over the place (mostly too extreme) on immigration and border security. The wall? Are you kidding me? That's an excellent way to waste billions of dollars for little or no return.

Where would I like for President Trump to succeed? There are many areas, the problem is I think my definition of success differs significantly from his definition of success.

The Affordable Care Act has been advanced by various names and in various forms since 1972. As originally intended by the Obama Administration it was modeled on the highly successful program they have in Massachusetts (commonly called RomneyCare.) Don't let the irony of the name of that program get lost on you. Due to partisan politics and the general opinion of the GOP cabal on Capitol Hill the ACA was the epitome of evil and had to be stopped at any cost, mainly because the guy who proposed it was brown and the old white guys on The Hill resented the hell out of him. Frankly, I think he could have had a provision to give every member of Congress a golden goose and they would have still fought tooth and nail. I'd love to see President Trump work with Congress to fix ACA. It wouldn't surprise me if they fix it quickly (not repeal, fix) just so they can bask in the glory of having done something that Obama "couldn't." Yes, Ryan, McConnell, & Co are just that petty and small-minded.

I'd like to see him reform campaign finance as well as the lobbying system that exists in Washington. Our Congressmen and Senators should not be for sale to the highest bidder. Likewise, we need to eliminate the practice of politicians spending decades in office. With the current districting guidelines our elections are an abomination. The greatest democratically elected legislature should be elected in a free and fair manner, not with districts gerrymandered down to the address. Contiguous and compact districts should be the law, not the exception. Our elected officials should be public servants, not lifelong Senators and Congressmen. Lobbyists should be heavily restricted and relegated to an advisory role.

So, it's not that I want him to fail on a wholesale basis, but there are limited portions of his platform that I'd like to see succeed. As the situation exists today I have grave concerns over the tenor of communication between the White House and the Press Corps. "Alternative Facts" are simply lies and we have a contingent in the White House that have absolutely no experience.

This isn't likely to bode well. Perhaps it's all part of the reported GOP master plan to use him as long as possible before impeachment, at which point they'll have the guy the Koch brothers really want in the big chair, the human Q-Tip. Such is life in Trumplandia.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

I'll be fine.

I'll be fine.
I’m a heterosexual cisgender male WASP with a decent job that provides health insurance. As an added bonus I’ve even got a life membership in the NRA and a pickup truck parked out front. I've been shooting guns and driving boats longer than I can remember and flying airplanes since I was fifteen. I'm perfectly capable of shooting, cleaning, and cooking game and it is rare that anything mechanical or electrical keeps me flummoxed for long. I enjoy my whisky neat and my beer dark.
But it’s not about me.
It’s about everyone who isn’t me.
My LGBTQ friends, families, and acquaintances. Young and old. Single, married, and committed. (There are even some of them who don’t agree with or desire same-sex marriage, just to mix things up a little more.) The ones who are securely hidden in the closet because their generation didn’t tolerate their sexual orientation. The ones who have recently come out, the ones who have always been out, and those who are still trying to figure it out. The ones with families now living under the ominous threat of their marriages being nullified. The younger ones now faced with a VP-elect who is an advocate of “conversion therapy.” (Note - For years I’ve asked every non-heterosexual person I've met if they could tell me when they “chose” to be gay, I have yet to find anyone who can give me an answer.) This group has more than ample reason to be fearful.
It’s about females who have found themselves marginalized in the past and the ones concerned about dealing with the possibility in the future. It's about those with gender ambiguity, and those who are transgendered. I won the lottery in this regard from a socially normative standpoint. I was born male and I’m quite comfortable being male. As I get older there are some annoying body hair issues I’d love to dispose of, but that’s a small price to pay for pretty much having the world designed around me. I really don’t have to worry about being groped, grabbed, or having someone force themselves on me, but others do, and that’s simply wrong. You can love women, appreciate the female form, and even participate in “locker room talk” without catcalls or whistling, much less advancing to the level of intimidation, physical assault, or rape. (Note - admission of any form of sexual assault is not "locker room talk.") No one should feel threatened in the security of their body, especially in the United States of America. Now we have a President-Elect who has openly boasted of getting away with sexual assault because he’s a celebrity. Casual sexual assault has been normalized, and women are fearful.
It’s about my friends of different complexions and ethnicities. I can walk down the street with a significant degree of anonymity, assuming I’m dressed in an unremarkable fashion and don’t do anything to draw attention to myself. No one is likely to confront me or, for the most part, question my right to be anywhere I choose to go. Again, assuming I’m not being deliberately provocative nor overtly trespassing. I take advantage of this quite often. As long as I present an air of authority and “belonging” I can go places others are turned away from, without ever being questioned. I don’t have to defend who I am or how I chose to worship. I’m of (mostly) European descent. Just an "average white guy” with ancestors primarily from the UK, sprinkled with a touch of German, Swedish, and Native American I’ve got brown hair, hazel eyes, and I’m pretty average height. More invisibility. The recent campaign has given a voice to the most extreme elements of society. The KKK marched openly in North Carolina the morning of November 9. People are already threatening others on public transit who “don’t belong” with weapons as well as words. Children in schoolyards are chanting about building walls. Those who don't look like me are fearful, and rightfully so.
It’s not about me, it’s about people having the option to make safe, appropriate, personal choices about reproductive issues. How in the world do you move past a VP-elect who thinks condoms are “too modern” and a President-elect who says there should be “punishment” for terminating a pregnancy? Someone in my extended family was faced with a horrific choice recently when it was determined a pregnancy wasn’t viable and the mother was at significant medical risk. Thankfully they were able to make the best decision for their situation and had access to safe and appropriate treatment. Overly-intrusive state laws still limited their options, so they were forced to abandon their support network for a short time, but everything worked out in the end. This isn’t a political issue, nor a religious issue, it’s a medical issue, and as such the decision should be between the parties involved and their health-care providers. The incoming administration has vowed to make extreme modifications in this regard. Many don't have the option to travel (if required) for treatment in these situations, and people are fearful.

It's about those who are developmentally different. Those with physical, mental, or behavioral impediments who have been mocked and ridiculed by the person who will soon hold the titles "Leader of the Free World" and "Most Powerful Man on Earth." A 19th Century Masonic publication bears this quote;
"He cannot act on their judgment, but must be governed by his own. As he has great responsibility, he has great power, and is bound by the strongest obligations to maintain that power and the dignity of his office." Until such time as we see evidence to suggest that the power and dignity of the Presidential Office will be maintained and that the President-elect is motivated to care for "the least of these" then those among us who care for the differently abled have every right to question and fear their potential treatment under the coming administration.

Thankfully I have health insurance (excellent health insurance, actually) that covers my wife’s pending kidney transplant. I’ll not bore you with the costs involved with this process, except to say that it is outrageous (tens of thousands of dollars just in testing and screening of potential donors) and we haven’t even gotten close to an operating room yet. In the long term dialysis is more expensive (and more taxing on the patient) so we’re hoping to avoid that. I can’t imagine how anyone with marginalized health due to chronic disease could manage the kinds of bills we see without solid insurance. When the top line is well over $15,000 and the bottom line is less than $500 if gives me pause and I give thanks for our good fortune. For many the choice is, simply, life and death. For us it's a slight inconvenience. We’re an inherently unhealthy nation for a variety of reasons, but no one should be punished for a congenital issue any more than they should suffer for the color of their skin. All my children are now adults. One has a solid entry-level position that provides good insurance benefits. Another is in graduate school, but who knows how long I’ll be able to keep them on my insurance if the ACA is ditched (we have no idea what the replacement might look like.) My third child has coverage under the ACA, so what happens there, is coverage just going to disappear? I’m not saying the ACA is ideal, but doing away with coverage for over ten million people is no better. I’ve got friends who went for years and years without coverage until the ACA because of cost. They're trying to figure out how they'll afford necessary medication without insurance coverage. I’ve got other friends who are paying through the nose for coverage because of the fractured implementation of the ACA and that’s not acceptable, either. Years and years of effort have been wasted whining about the ACA instead of trying to improve it. Now people are faced with having what little protection they have stripped away, and they are appropriately fearful.
Good solutions aren’t easy and easy solutions aren’t good. You can’t fix the problems with Washington overnight any more than you can clean out your car with a flamethrower. Well, you probably can, but the results in both situations are going to leave you with a gutted, smoking, worthless hulk.
So don’t confuse fear with whining. People are only reacting to what they’ve been told these many months, and they have every right to be fearful based on the evidence presented.

*Please accept my apologies for any errors with respect to pronouns or adjectives as used to reference the rainbow of people I discussed above, they are purely unintentional.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Student Visa Adventure

When my son applied for graduate school in London earlier this year I assumed the process would be simple and straightforward. A US citizen who has traveled a respectable amount of Europe who holds undergraduate degrees in German and Political Science going to a UK university for a Masters in International Relations - could it be any simpler?

  1. Pick University
  2. Apply to University
  3. Receive Acceptance
  4. Do paperwork
  5. Pay fees
  6. Make travel plans
  7. Complete coursework
  8. See Europe during breaks
  9. Come home
Well, it turned out to be much less simple than I thought it would be. The first snag came at item #3. The first acceptance was a "Conditional Acceptance" which doesn't get you very far. The Golden Ticket comes in the form of an "Unconditional Acceptance" and that is when you are supplied with all the tools you need to complete the process of applying for a student visa. The conditions placed on his acceptance were quite minimal: graduate the current course of study and meet minimum GPA requirements while doing so. No problem! Upon graduation all the conditions were met and a copy of his final grade report was dispatched to the university admissions office, thus satisfying the requirements.

Or so we thought.

If only it were that simple.

After weeks and weeks of emails and phone calls we were eventually (read: the end of July) informed that they needed an official transcript to make the switch to "unconditional acceptance" from "conditional acceptance." So we scrambled to have an official transcript delivered, which only takes a day thanks to the miracles of the digital world. Now they can make the change from "conditional" to "unconditional" - right? In theory, yes. Unfortunately the time to complete this daunting task was quoted as approximately two weeks.

So, we wait.

As we close in on the two week mark we call and are told to anticipate a CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies) in a couple of days. The CAS is required to complete the student visa application; no CAS, no visa. It takes about two weeks for them to process a student visa application and return a decision. We're just over four weeks from departure, so things are starting to get a little interesting. (Yes, tickets were already purchased, as we knew when orientation began and buying tickets last minute is less than affordable, plus the whole Brexit ordeal resulted in a sharp drop in prices to London, so I rolled the dice.)

But that information wasn't completely accurate. You see, after the Unconditional Acceptance is issued you have to pay a deposit before they will issue the CAS. After finally speaking to someone on the phone who could provide information instead of platitudes the urgency of the situation was communicated. The deposit was paid through their online system and we made a return call with the confirmation number in hopes of moving things forward at least a little faster, since it generally takes two to three days for the business office to inform the admissions office that payment has been received. These were days that we could not afford to lose.

Five days later the magic email arrives with the CAS number included. In a flurry of activity (which includes a comprehensive list of seemingly everywhere you've traveled in the last three centuries) the visa application is completed and submitted electronically. However, the system is in transition between the hard-copy and electronic world, so you must forward the hard copies after your biometric data (photo and fingerprints) has been collected at your local enrollment center. Our "local" center is 130 miles away and the first appointment available wasn't for three business days - a Tuesday, precisely two weeks and one day prior to our scheduled departure.

This is where things get really exciting. You see, there are several ways to accelerate the processing of a visa application. All of them cost money (from $200 and up, the limit of "up" depending upon your ability and desire to travel to New York and what level of service you are inclined towards to deliver you to your appointment at the Consulate) and, depending upon your level of investment and degree of urgency, shave days or even weeks off the processing time. The "basic" service puts your application at the top of the regular pile upon arrival, reducing processing time to several days from the anticipated two weeks. We dig through an assortment of checklists, none of which correspond to each other on a consistent basis, and assemble a daunting packet of documents. Visa application, biometric data sheet (the old one, that has a spot for you to attach a passport-sized photo which is no longer required since they take digital photos at the enrollment center) proof of financial resources (to show you're not going to just show up and become a burden on the system) copies of the CAS letter (even though the CAS is prominently displayed on every official form you've filled out) and a return Fed Ex shipping envelope, complete with a pre-paid return air bill attached.

Tuesday morning we leave just before 9 a.m. for a noon appointment. The drive is just over two hours without traffic, but we pad it a little just in case. This would later prove to be a fortuitous move on our part. The drive was uneventful, save the last couple of miles when the GPS determined that a gravel road made more sense than the Interstate, but it was worth a chuckle after all the hurdles that had been overcome to that point. We arrived at the processing center at 11:25 and, heeding the warnings plastered on the door, left all electronic devices in the car and proceeded to the check-in counter, documentation in-hand.

Our joy for having reached the final physical hurdle was short-lived.

You see, there's a cover sheet for your biometric data collection appointment, along with the actual biometric application.

All they want to see at the support center is the cover sheet. Nothing else.


So, how do we overcome this hurdle after having driven over two hours to make the appointment? Why, you visit the local public library, of course! Located just ten minutes away, you have a choice of toll roads or a maze of twisty streets, all alike. I opted for the toll roads (total expense = $1.84, round-trip) and away we went. Finding the library wasn't a problem at all. Figuring out how to navigate through the parking lot was an entirely different story. Since when did parking lots become creative expressions of the landscape architect and not utilitarian spaces designed around efficiency of vehicle movement and storage? After several twists and turns we managed to park the vehicle and made our way in to the building.

We located a service desk and explained our plight to the librarian. After hearing that we needed to print a couple of pages from an email account she asked to see our library card.

We live over 100 miles from the county we're standing in.

We don't have a library card.

We have to have a library card to print something.

So I hand over my driving license and in a few minutes time I'm presented with a shiny new library card.

We're directed to a monitor where we have to log in with the excruciatingly long number on the library card, then agree to several legal agreements. I'm not sure, but there may have been something there about a blood oath and perhaps granting a lien on my house.

After a few more machinations the email with the cover sheet for the biometric appointment has been located and we submit it to the print queue. We log out and scurry to the circulation desk to retrieve our freshly printed documents, or so we thought.

First, we must pay the required ransom to release the print job from the queue and send it scurrying along the network to the chosen printer. I hand over the requisite $1.00 ($.50 per page) and we're instructed to go back to the printer located at the end of the row of workstations we were just standing at to wait for our print job to appear.

After what seemed like five or six days, but probably wasn't longer than two or three minutes, the printer sprang to life and the elusive biometric application cover sheet miraculously appeared. Back in the car, out of the parking lot (much easier since we had already plotted a course on the way in) and back on the toll road for the return trip to the application support center.

After another interrogation concerning electronic devices we were checked in and my son was directed to one area while I was directed to wait for him in another. The person at reception wasn't busy and we exchanged a few words concerning the multiple layers involved in the visa application process. As we talked she produced a checklist and asked if I had a copy.

I did not.

This checklist was an expanded version of the checklist found on the UK Visa and Immigration website. It included items not on the other checklist and omitted a few items included on the other checklist. Ugh.

Not to worry, we made plans to visit a friend after lunch and print the "missing" documents to put in the overnight letter. At this point we adopted the attitude that it was better to be safe than sorry. My only fear at this point was that we might exceed the weight limit on a FedEx letter, but we could deal with that later.

Finally, everything was printed, in the envelope, and placed in a FedEx drop box. Time to wait some more! At least this time we'd be able to see when the passport (and hopefully, visa!) were on their way back by watching the tracking information from FedEx.

Delivery was confirmed Wednesday morning. While we hoped it would be on the way home by Friday, our expectations were more realistic. Even with expedited handling sometime towards the end of the following week was more likely.

We were pleasantly surprised on Tuesday when an email arrived;

"Dear applicant,

We are pleased to inform you that your visa application has been successful.  Your visa will now be placed in your passport and returned to you.

-For standard and Priority Service visa applications lodged in the USA, and for all applications lodged in the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, or St. Lucia:  Your documents will be returned using the prepaid waybill your provided with your application.


The package containing your documents will be dispatched from New York either this afternoon or the afternoon of the next business day.   If you did not submit a prepaid waybill when you submitted your application, your application cannot be returned until you have provided VFS Global with an appropriate waybill.



UK Visas and Immigration
New York"

Since we included (per the instructions) a prepaid waybill attached to a return envelope we anticipated the documents by Thursday at the latest.

Thursday evening the FedEx tracking information gave no indication that the package was in their hands.

Houston, we have a problem.

Friday morning I call the only phone number available that gives any indication that they might be able to help solve our mystery. After connecting to a consultant and agreeing to the £1.37 per minute fee I'm informed that FedEx is not an "appropriate" waybill as the Consulate does not deal with FedEx, they ONLY deal with UPS. Note that this information is not provided anywhere - they only stipulate that you include a return waybill and packaging.

I go online and purchase a UPS return waybill (including Saturday delivery, just in case it manages to depart New York on Friday) and email it to the provided address for missing waybills. (Obviously this is a routine occurrence, which would lead you to expect that, perhaps, someone might try to figure out why this happens so often.)

As luck would have it, by Friday night the UPS tracking system shows no movement. Obviously there wasn't an update on Saturday. By Monday morning (two days before departure) I'm looking for someone, anyone, who can help me solve a problem. I don't need someone to read directions or tell me what should happen, I need someone capable of dealing with problems and offering solutions.

I may as well have asked for my own Lear Jet.

A direct call to the Consulate only connects to a surly individual who acts as gatekeeper. Only after begging do they even direct you back to the £1.37 service as your only option. Before that point they don't even listen to your problem, their only purpose is to repeat loudly and firmly that they cannot provide any information on visas. I didn't need information on a visa, I already knew it was approved. I needed to know what it was going to take for the person in charge of shipping to stuff everything in an envelope and apply the provided label.

So, another round of calls to the £1.37 remedial education line and I'm told "It should go out any minute."  When I impress upon the gentleman that "should" was not my concern and I needed to know when it would go out he promised to call the Consulate and find out what was going on.

Shortly thereafter I received another email, asking what I wanted to cancel. SMH.

Finally, at about 4:00 p.m. the UPS website indicated that the package had been picked up and would be delivered by 10:30 the following morning.

Tuesday morning at precisely 10:01 a.m. a UPS driver rang our doorbell and brought the entire ordeal to conclusion.

UKVI advises students to travel with all the documentation used to apply for the visa, in the event an immigration officer wants to see anything at the border. Ironically enough, this was the most hassle-free customs experience we've ever had entering the U.K. I presented our three passports and cheerfully informed the officer "Two regular, one student" - at which point he scanned and stamped our passports while requesting a thumbprint scan from my son. He then bid us a good day and off we went!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Read a book, already

My social media newsfeed has been filled with rants and raves that largely reflect the theme "This is what's wrong with America." Most of them are thinly-veiled bigotry of some description, mostly political, racial, or religious, but other aspects are covered as well.
From my point of view all of these complaints fall short of the true issue, which is willful ignorance. It's one thing to dismiss or refute someone's position based on information and after consideration, but to be dismissive based only on superficial attributes that have no bearing in substance only perpetuates the problem.
If you think that granting someone else rights that you already enjoy compromises your standing then it's time to educate yourself. It's not a zero-sum game. When they are granted the rights that have been denied it doesn't mean there are less rights for the rest of us, it just means that they now have a seat at the table with us. (The parable about building a larger table instead of a higher fence comes to mind.) If you find yourself objecting to focused groups ask yourself what really bothers you. Don't take the lazy path and pick the low-hanging fruit, since I'd bet you eschew all those lazy people collecting food stamps (low hanging fruit) and you don't want to be a hypocrite. Dig deep, challenge yourself, even if you don't have a change of heart at least be honest with yourself. Do you find the concept of same-sex marriage intolerable? Why? Have you ever spent time with any same-sex couples? (If you haven't I'll offer the observation that other than the ratio of X and Y chromosomes being different there's little else of note to differentiate a heterosexual couple from a same-sex couple.) Does your perception of their sex life make you uncomfortable? Does your curiosity make you uncomfortable with yourself? If your objection is based on religion then do you hold the same objection to other prohibitions outlined by your religion of choice? For example, if you maintain that homosexuality is an abomination based on Leviticus then do you also eschew shellfish and clothes made of blended materials? If not, why not? What are your positions on shellfish and pork? (My position is that they are both quite tasty, when properly prepared and presented. If some of my LGBT friends are interested in sharing then they can bring the wine.)
Outside social media most people don't read anything other than an occasional instruction manual (and that's usually for a new device that they're going to use to access social media.) Of those who do bother to read anything beyond the average, a large percentage of those only read things that confirm their world view. There are millions of books in dozens and dozens of genres. If you aren't interested in reading anything factual there's nothing wrong with a nice work of fiction to help expand your mind. How about the Guinness Book of World Records or a graphic novel (aka comic book?) Nothing is more powerful than knowledge. Reading is a simple and effective path to knowledge.
If you're not doing something to combat ignorance and enhance your understanding of the world then I've got news for you, YOU are the problem. The noise is drowning out the signal (if you don't understand what that means, click this ) and the culture of instant gratification combined with willful ignorance creates a caustic environment. If you're going to dislike someone or something, at least make sure you're disliking for good reason. Don't ride a bandwagon, make your own decision based on information from reputable sources.
In an age where we have easier access to more information than ever before we have fewer people availing themselves to that information. Ask questions, read books, and talk to people (especially people who aren't like you.) I promise the worst thing that will happen is that you might just learn something about others.
If you're lucky you might even learn something about yourself.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Do You Even?

Sometimes you come across situations that simply leave you scratching your head. No matter how you approach the issue you simply can't make sense of the thought process involved. Perhaps my problem is assuming that there has been any critical thought applied in the first place.

About 3-4 years ago a local company built a new facility for their operations, replete with a well-lit (read: nearly blinding for drivers after dark) stainless-steel sign and attractive landscaping. It seemed as if overnight the building was vacated and a "For Lease" sign posted by the road. Given the constant flurry of activity around the building I couldn't fathom that the business had run aground, and it wasn't long before I discovered them in a new location, just down the road in an industrial park. Apparently their business outgrew the new building and they moved to a facility that is at least five times larger (a conservative estimate, it may well be upwards of ten times larger, but it's difficult to estimate due to the location and position of the new building.) By any metric this business has flourished over the past five years or more in order to require not one, but two moves to new facilities.

So, you must scratch your head in astonishment when a local rally is announced for a Presidential campaign and they're supporting the group that insists that the current party (the one their business has flourished under) are a bunch of idiots that destroy business.

I'd really like to see a time that PT Barnum is proven wrong, but that isn't likely to happen. Until then we'll have a large segment of the population susceptible to senseless rhetoric who are thirsting for a magic potion that doesn't exist.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Borrowed Without Permission

I found this on FaceBook and wanted to post a link to the original article on but due to the design of her site that doesn't appear to be a readily available option. So, I'm posting the entire essay here, with attribution and without explicit permission, as I found it particularly poignant from the perspective of a white male raised in the south.

The Need for Southern Heresy

“Be willing to ruin the party.” --Danielle LaPorte

I am a white woman who was born and raised in the South. I have a lot of white friends who were born and raised in the South. I haven’t witnessed them commit violent acts of racism. No one I know has been shooting black people in the streets. 

What I see and hear about is far more subtle than that.

It’s the white construction worker who will share a drinking cup with his white co-workers but not his black co-workers.

It’s the white guy who tells a woman he doesn’t want to date her if she’s been with a black man.

It’s the white housewife who won’t let non-white yard workers use the restroom inside the house.

It’s the man who ends his story about a burglary with the statement, “And of course the guy was black.”

It’s the guy who tells jokes and stories to his white buddies that he would never tell in the presence of blacks.

It’s the white woman who uses 5 exclamation points in her comment that “All lives matter” when she see a #BlackLivesMatter post on Instagram.

These are real examples from my immediate community.

These are not uneducated, hateful morons. These are people who send me Christmas cards.

They are respected in their communities. They hold advanced degrees. They donate when their friends walk for cancer research. They are church deacons. They volunteer. They adopt dogs from the shelter. They’re generous, thoughtful, respectful people.

None of their white friends would label them as “racist.”

You see, most Southern whites think that racists are "bad people." Racists throw rocks through windows, burn crosses, and hang people from trees. But that nice lady who brings donuts for the staff on Fridays? Not her. Because she dresses well, lives in a nice house, and shares photos of her wholesome family trip to Hilton Head on Facebook.

White Southerners don’t seem get that you can be wholesome AND racist. That you can be generous AND racist. That you can be a nice person AND racist.

Racism is having or acting on the belief that a particular race is superior to another. Period. That’s the entire definition.

There is no sub-clause that says “but those who shop at Dillard’s and donate to the bake sale are exempt.”

This is the point where some people are going to get all hot and tell me that making a joke about black people is not the same as shooting them. And of course it’s not.

But what these nice, kind, white Southerners do is create a culture of permissiveness.

In this culture, it’s ok for anyone to be *a little* racist, as long they’re an otherwise “good person.” Which means that it’s ok to devalue the lives of others *a little bit.* Not “try to keep them from buying the house next door” devalued, but “assume the worst about them and think of them as fundamentally ‘other’” devalued.

And that’s a problem. A big, big problem.

Because they’re not the people who are going to pull a trigger, but they are the ones who are going to turn away when they see someone else do it.

As a white woman born and raised in the South, I was taught two competing ideas:

1. To think for myself and do what I think is right.
2. To keep quiet. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t cause a scene. Don’t be difficult. Don’t make people uncomfortable. Keep it private.

Southerners prize politeness. It’s time we accept that being polite and being honorable are not the same. Staying silent in the presence of a quieter, gentler racism is still staying silent in the presence of racism. We’ve got to stop valuing Emily Post above Alton Sterling.

I’ve held my tongue when I’ve overheard racist comments because I don’t want to start a thing. I know I won’t change anyone’s mind. It would be easier to just move the conversation along. But I’m done with that. I’m not going to lecture anyone, but I’m not going to stay in tacit agreement by saying nothing.

So consider this your notice: I am willing to ruin the party.

If I witness a comment or action that degrades a human, I will absolutely speak up on your special day when it will be inconvenient and uncomfortable for you and everyone else.

This baby shower? Just got weird. Thanksgiving dinner? Totally awkward. Your birthday party? “Who invited HER?”

I’ll say things like:

“I disagree.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”
“Would you say that if a black person were here?”

I’m not going to speak up because I’m the race police or want applause from my black friends. I’m going to do it because it’s the fucking decent thing to do.

And it’s going to piss some people off. Because in Southern white culture, not sweeping things under the rug with everybody else is a betrayal. Speaking up is heresy.

We need heresy. We need to be leaders in our own families and communities. We need to be willing to ruin the party.