Monthly Archives: September 2010

Lazarus May Be Starving, But Dives Feels Poor

The AP today reported that, based on the 2009 census data, the gap between rich and poor in the US has continued to widen. It’s been driven by two factors: rapidly-rising incomes of the top earners, even during the depression, and a mirrored increase in the US poverty rate. The end result is that we have more people in poverty than ever before, increasing social stratification, and an income gap that puts us near the bottom of industrialized countries.

Hm, I wonder if there’s some recent news that could throw this into stark relief.

Democrats and Republicans are locked in a game of political chicken over George W. Bush-era tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year. Democrats want to extend the tax cuts only for individuals earning less than $200,000 or couples making less than $250,000. Republicans want to extend the breaks for taxpayers in all income brackets.

Goodness. Couples making over $250,000 a year represent about 1.5% of all Americans. It’s four times the US median income, or some 17 times the amount of money a couple can make and be considered poor. Surely these couples recognize their truly privileged situation?

I, like the president before me, am a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and my wife, like the first lady before her, works at the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she is a doctor who treats children with cancer. Our combined income exceeds the $250,000 threshold for the super rich (but not by that much), and the president plans on raising my taxes. After all, we can afford it, and the world we are now living in has that familiar Marxian tone of those who need take and those who can afford it pay. The problem is, we can’t afford it….

We pay about $15,000 in property taxes, about half of which goes to fund public education in Chicago. Since we care the education of our three children, this means we also have to pay to send them to private school. My wife has school loans of nearly $250,000 and I do too, although becoming a lawyer is significantly cheaper….

Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby so we can both work outside the home. At the end of all this, we have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income.

Well, goodness. I can understand how hard it must be to make ends meet, what with private school, a lawn service, a cleaning service, and a nanny. It’s hard not to be poor when you have to pay for all of these.

Okay, this was just a Chicago law professor. I’m sure it’s an isolated–

Picture, if you will, my lawyer friend, Caitlin. She’s a mid-level finance associate at one of New York’s biggest lawyer factories. She’s been at the Big Law game long enough to be depressed on the good days and on the hunt for sturdy noose material on the bad days—which is to say most days. But, as luck would have it, after months of furtive interviews, she finally got an offer a couple of weeks ago to go in house at a media company that most people I know, including me, would kill to work for….

“It’s just…I’m just afraid…” She darted her eyes around and leaned in closer, lowering her eyes.

“I’m just afraid of what it’ll be like to feel…” she whispered, “…poor.”

The offered salary of the new in-house gig? $120,000 a year.

And now, a couple of weeks later, I’m still not sure what’s more disturbing: the fact that this friend—a worldly, educated, smart, able person—truly thinks that a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 could feel “poor” — or that fact that she’s absolutely right.

No. Just no. It’s no fun feeling poor, but feeling poor isn’t being poor any more than feeling like I can fly makes me an airplane. Feeling poor isn’t having to choose between a doctor’s visit or food for your family. Feeling poor isn’t wondering when they’ll get around to cutting your electricity. And that’s just in comparison to the US’s genteel version of poverty.

I’m sorry that the Chicago law professor doesn’t feel rich because he’s surrounded by people making far more than he, and he only has a few hundred dollars to spend as he sees fit after investing, paying his domestic help, and putting his three kids in private school. It’s terrible that Caitlin is having an attack of the vapors over feeling poor. But you know what? If you beg for sympathy in these situations, I’m going to point and mock. They, like me, live in a society where the rich are getting far, far richer and the poor are getting far, far poorer. They can feel all they want, but it won’t change that fact.

If you would like to change that fact, find a local food bank, or consider donating to Feeding America. Do you have a woman and children’s shelter in your town? Poverty and recessions hit women and children hardest. You don’t have to donate money; donations of time are always welcome.

And who knows? Maybe focusing on others in need will change how all of us feel.

The Grue We Knew

It was about 8 pm on a Wednesday night when I realized we had a house guest. I saw a praying mantis clinging to the ceiling in the kitchen when I looked up from making Thursday’s lunches.

I pointed out the praying mantis to Stephen and we decided to let him stay inside until the next morning when we could show him to Liza. Then, we thought, we could escort him back outside using the handle of our fly swatter.

Thursday morning, Liza, being the excellent bug lover she is, thought he was awesome. The mantis did not think climbing onto the handle of the fly swatter was awesome, however. That’s when we found out he had wings. He moved to the window over the sink and began meditating.

By Friday morning, he was starting to turn brown. I thought maybe it was from hunger. I still didn’t know how to get him back outside.

Friday afternoon, I had an idea. I called Jon at work and asked him to go to Animal Trax and pick up a clear critter box and some worms before he got to our house for dinner. He said he would do it as long as I wasn’t serving the worms for dinner.

Because the little guy hadn’t had anything to eat in 48 hours, Stephen was able to easily catch him in his hands and put him into the box.

Ashley promptly named him Grue.

I dropped a worm into the box and Grue pounced. Liza stood and watched, enthralled, at our tiny predator in action. She spent most of the weekend sitting at the dining room table watching Grue in the box like most other kids watch tv.

Saturday morning, he was bright green again, I guess from all those free tasty, tasty worms. Sadly, he didn’t eat anything on Sunday. We decided on Sunday night he needed to go back outside Monday morning.

He sat on my finger for a moment, as if to say thanks for the great food while he visited.

As he flew away, Eli said, “I miss Grue already!” in his particular sad-Eli way.

As we finished our morning activities, I told Stephen that I saw a lot of critters in our future named Grue.

Also I Soon Expect Him to Have Followers

Last week Eli came home from school with a large plastic helicopter. “Where did you get that?” Misty asked him.

“Oh, I got one of my friends to trade it to me.”

She paused. “What did you trade him?”

“This two-page comic I made in school. It had two robots and they were fighting.”

We explained to him that, while we were proud of his ability to make such a trade, his friend might later regret it and that he should offer to give back the helicopter. We’ve now ruined his ability to go into sales when he’s older.

On the plus side, he’s re-invented micropayments using the barter system. I can’t wait until he becomes a web cartoonist.

Did I mention the hat drive?

I finished my Dr Who doll in time to take it to Dragon*Con. Renee and I had a blast taking photos of him all over Con.

Since Con, I’ve also finished Rose (notice my Dr Who poster that I got at Con in the background):

I’ve been making hats for a hat drive ever since:

The goal of the drive is 500 hats by January 1, 2011. My personal goal is 50 hats. I’ve made 16 so far.

Here’s Baby Alice sporting a too small hat:

Sometime in here, I have to make Alice a hat that actually fits!

My Dragon*Con 2010 Experience

Let’s see. At Dragon*Con I’ve led a thousand people in a sing-along to “Re: Your Brains”. I’ve had a naked man tell me, “Hey I saw you on TV!” I’ve even been cosplayed. Really, what can top all of that?

I know. Let’s talk about Scott Adsit.

Scott Adsit, who is best known for his role on 30 Rock

He’s best known for his work on the TV show 30 Rock, but he’s also a gifted improv artist and has done work with Adult Swim. One afternoon, as Misty and I were waiting for an elevator to our room, I saw him waiting as well.

I am a cool, suave man. I did not rush up to him and say “I LOVE YOUR WORK YOU ARE AWESOME!!!!!” because then we would have had to wait for an elevator in strained silence. He was giving off a “please ignore me” vibe, so I gave him his space.

Of course, then we all got on an elevator with some three hundred of our closest friends and began the slow trek up to the 16th floor.

The elevator stopped at every floor to let people out. At the third stop, when the woman who got off the elevator turned around and looked back in the elevator, her eyes widened. “You’re on DCTV, aren’t you?” she said to me.

“Er, yes.”

As the elevator doors closed, the guy to my right said, “Awright, man, DCTV! You’re famous!”

I could not look in Scott Adsit’s direction. “Thanks, but I’m really not that famous.”

“No, man, you are! You’re famous in these five hotels.”

If, on my deathbed, you ask me my greatest regret, it will be this: I did not say, “Thanks, but it’s not like I’m on a national TV show like 30 Rock or something.” It would have been a moment of me saying, yeah, Scott, I know who you are, and I know you’re the one with the talent and actual fame outside the convention, but I’m not going to call you out over it. Just so you know.

Instead, I said something lame about my con fame being like internet fame and then staggered off the elevator on the 16th floor, right in front of Scott Adsit. When we got to our room I told Misty who he was and we giggled over the weirdness of the convention, where I can be more famous than a guy who is on a TV show, even if it’s only on a semi-major network like NBC.

My panels went well, and the “There Ain’t No Stealth In Space!” talk was standing room only. It turns out that if you tell a bunch of geeks that something’s impossible, they’ll come and argue with you! My talk on metamaterials was also well-attended, thank goodness. I’ve got my scripts and my slides from both talks, if you want to play “STEPHEN LECTURES ME ABOUT PHYSICS: THE HOME GAME”. Every time you see a # in the script, go to the next slide.

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

I got to geek out about the science of the Whedonverse with Jason Schneiderman, a neuroscientist who had a lot of smart things to say about Dollhouse, and Jennifer Ouellette, author of The Physics of the Buffyverse and the just-now-out The Calculus Diaries. That was a lot of fun, as was our now-annual live taping of WhatTheCast?. I also talked some about my day job on a robotics panel and argued with a guy who wanted every car equipped with a military radar unit to guide it.

I know I’m forgetting something. What could it be?

Oh, right, Dragoncon TV! Above is the mock trailer I did for a spoof version of 2012. Below is what happens when I have both a long line to navigate and a portal gun. Many thanks to my good friend Alex White for the fine special effects in both.

That, of course, just scratches the surface of the weird and wild time I had at the convention. But it’s all you’re getting from me. YOU CAN’T MAKE ME TALK.

(Of course, my five panels plus numerous DCTV appearances would argue otherwise, but hey, this is my blog, so I’m allowed to make any crazy claims I want.)

Today’s Embarassing Admission

For years I’ve been making fun of razor manufacturers’ ongoing arms race. Three blades! Four! No, five! Make that six! For the longest time I’ve used a three-bladed razor to shave my head, and even that felt excessive.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine gave me a free five-bladed razor she’d gotten through her awesome ninja couponing skills. I tried it out.

I got a better shave.

Man, don’t I feel dumb.

I Got Lamp!

Look what I got, two days after my birthday!

Liza poses with the coin from the Get Lamp documentary, by Jason Scott

It’s GET LAMP, Jason Scott’s awesome documentary about text adventures. Liza is modeling the coin that comes as a feelie with every copy of the movie, and let me tell you, that is one high-quality coin. I know the trouble Jason went through to get them minted, and they were absolutely worth it. As I’ve mentioned before, the documentary is worth seeing if you love passionate people explaining why they love what they do.