(In a temporary departure from my regular blogging about cancer, I would like share an open letter I wrote this morning because this whole debt ceiling and deficit issue has me more stressed out at present than my struggle with Stage IIIC melanoma. – Jake)

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

As I’m sure your poll numbers are telling you, the American Public is less than impressed by your current posturing with respect to the debt crisis. And your efforts to scare monger have only made the situation worse. The only saving grace you have is that the numbers involved in the current debate are so large that the average voter’s eyes glaze over merely at the mention of all those zeroes.

This in turn has allowed you to posture with effectively meaningless numbers in the grand scheme of dealing with the outrageous amount of national debt that we, as voters who elected you to power, share as much responsibility for as you do. We were the parents who didn’t reprimand the misbehaving children, namely the Members of Congress who spent magnitudes more money than was realistically available.

The fact that our country now owes $14,300,000,000,000 to creditors is almost beyond comprehension, and the fact that President Obama and his Democratic colleagues want to increase that by another $2,400,000,000,000 for the next couple of years is audacious.

The current U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census’ Population Clock is 311,856,204. Divided into the current national debt of $14.3 trillion dollars that indicates that every man, woman, and child in the U.S. has a debt burden of $45,854.46, which is more than many people earn in a year.

And the additional $2.4 trillion increase to the debt being proposed raises that by another $7,695.85, to a total debt per capita of $53,550.31. Again, that is the amount of debt that will be on the shoulders of each individual man, woman, and child, should you all get your wish to continue to spend nearly unabated and further drive our country and our future into debt.

But the issue here should not be partisan politics. Both Republicans and Democrats are complicit in the hand waving and the empty solutions being offered to turn the debt situation around.

For example, based on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, the 2011 budget of the United States, which covers October 2010-September 2011, covers expenditures of $3.708 trillion dollars. At the same time, revenues to the government only cover $2.228 trillion, resulting in an approximately $1.48 trillion dollar shortfall. That shortfall is called a deficit, and it results in an increase in the national debt.

Put in more down to earth terms, in the form of a personal spending example merely by lopping off eight zeros, imagine that your annual income is $22,280, but that you decide to actually spend $37,080. That means you’ve just put $14,800 of debt on your credit cards to cover the excess spending against your income! But it’s far worse than that because the amount of debt has been accumulating for decades with recent years just as bad as the present, meaning that with your annual salary of $22,280 you actually have accrued $143,000 in debt. Who in their right mind would do this as a matter of principle, year after year, with no regard for the future?

Oh, and next year, you’re planning on adding another $11,000 in debt too. Madness!

While an independent citizen has the recourse of filing for bankruptcy (which results in all sorts of other downstream financial problems, including the inability to get credit for many years), a country doesn’t really have that option, which is why taking active steps to reduce our national debt is so critical.

But here’s the rub, Mr. President and Members of Congress: None of the so-called debt reduction plans being proposed this week will reduce the debt. For example, the Boehner plan proposes to reduce government expenditures by $3 trillion dollars. Lost in the fine print is that this is over ten(!) years. That means a mere $300 billion dollars a year. And the Democratic plan isn’t any better. All these plans mean is that the annual deficit will be a tiny bit smaller, but it will still be there, and the national debt will continue to grow out of control.

You need to deal with eliminating the annual deficit, which has been running well over $1 trillion EACH YEAR. And once you stop increasing the national debt, you need to start paying the debt down as well.

That means you CANNOT be spending more than the government takes in in revenue every year, and in fact, you should only be spending part of that amount, since the balance should be going off to paying down the national debt.

What’s really required here is a proposal from someone to reduce government expenditures by $2 trillion a YEAR. We have had years of wretched excess, and now it’s time to do some extreme belt tightening to make up for those years of plentitude.

Of course, being politicians, you have lost sight of the fact that your job isn’t to be reelected, but is instead to be responsible to the interests of ALL U.S. citizens. In that, you have failed, abysmally. You have burdened us and our children with towering debt, and you just keeping increasing that burden.

And the suggestion that a Constitutional balanced budget amendment is necessary is merely smoke and mirrors. It’s like proposing a rule be put into place because you all can’t behave like responsible adults and not spend more than you’re taking in so you want someone else to tell you “No”. Never mind that you all know that such a Constitutional change will get bogged down in years of rhetoric and never acted upon.

We, the citizens of the United States, call upon you to man up (or woman up), be adults, and make some difficult and painful decisions with respect to slashing spending, entitlements, and subsidies. And yes, act with extreme self-restraint when it comes to spending.

I would suggest that many of you will not be reelected the next time an election comes up anyways based on current voter dissatisfaction, and you therefore take advantage of that scenario and just bite the bullet and kick-start a real austerity program. You won’t be popular with all the special interests out there, of course, but the rescue of this great country should not be a popularity contest, should it?

And yes, we acknowledge this won’t be easy for us as individuals either, but we’re all in this together, to the tune of at least $45,854.46 a person (and more should you raise the debt ceiling).

A few suggestions to help get you to where you really should be – namely spending within your means, with enough left over to pay down our national debt:

  1. Implement austerity measures in government, since you can best lead by example. This includes trimming back on perks, overly generous compensation packages, and collective bargaining.
  2. Reduce the bureaucratic burden on small business and individuals by ridding policies of mandates that only increase expense.
  3. Vote to reduce the salaries of all Members of Congress and the President, and their staffs, as well as reducing the expensive perks such elected officials enjoy. Share the pain that you will be spreading with our new austerity measures. Again, lead by example.
  4. Simplify the tax code. Might I suggest a 20% flat tax on all income above $20,000 for individuals with absolutely no deductions (including mortgage interest) permitted? And for business a similar flat tax after expenses? The sheer savings in bureaucratic overhead by going with such simplification would undoubtedly be enormous as well.
  5. Get rid of all non-life-critical entitlements and subsidies. Of course, every special interest group will argue that their entitlements and subsidies are critical, but perhaps this should be a time where such groups might want to find alternative sources of support instead of relying on the government. For some it might require them becoming competitive. Imagine that.
  6. Let those government institutions that are self-funded through user fees (or could be without the meddling of Congress), such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, operate outside of the budget. And encourage existing institutions to come up with ways to fund their own operations so that they are not a budgetary drain.

I’m sure the creative thinkers in Congress can come up with other ways to cut costs and perhaps even find revenue from closed loopholes to deal with the elimination of the annual deficit and start reducing the national debt.

So, in closing, Mr. President and Members of Congress, we ask that you stop with the hand waving, rhetoric, and misleading proposals, and instead roll up your sleeves and make the hard decisions for which the American people of the future will thank you for, even if it means you may have give up hope of near-term reelection. The American people come before your own needs and desires.

Thank you for your time and efforts.

Sincerely,

Jake Richter
Citizen of the United States of America

 

It is now the fifth day since my lymphadenectomy surgery this past Monday, and I am back, sitting at my desk, in front of my computer, spending time on my typical breadth of activities. However, the activities I am performing are not all the same that I would have been involved in prior to my malignant melanoma diagnosis nearly eight weeks ago.

I find that when faced with a situation like the one I am presently in – namely a serious threat to my mortality, certain things have become more important, and others have almost dropped off the radar entirely.

For example, I have developed a sophisticated server-based e-mail filtering system, which, based on a blend of destination e-mail address (I have a virtually unlimited number of e-mail addresses that route to me), subjects, and sender information, will sort incoming e-mail to one or more of several e-mail queues. One of those queues or mailboxes – the low-priority one consisting mainly of newsletters, corporate mail blasts, and e-mails from people who still use older degraded addresses to reach me – has over 100,000 e-mails waiting in it at present. And while I’ve been planning for weeks to try to plow through all that mail, I simply can’t get myself to spend the time to clear the several months’ worth of messages which have accumulated there, as if the messages were truly important, the senders would find other ways to contact me. It no longer seems important to spend my now much more precious time dealing with things like those low priority e-mail messages.

I am also a big fan of the comic strips in newspapers – something unavailable to me in the few newspapers we get on Bonaire. One of the hidden blessings of moving to an apartment in the U.S. for my treatments was the daily newspaper delivery I could arrange (with the Boston Globe), primarily for the comic strip (and for some local news and events information). But even so, I can no longer justify the time to read comic strips that I never quite enjoyed with in the hopes they get better or more intelligible (with apologies to the fans of the Zippy and Sylvia comic strips). The reality is they won’t get more interesting no matter how many of them I read, so I really don’t need to waste my time bothering with those particular strips.

I also no longer spend a lot of time on random web surfing. When I do track stories or topics they tend to be more focused (keywords like “melanoma”, “extracapsular activity”, “cloquet”, “metastasis”, “yervoy”, “ipilimumab”, and “interferon” have been recent top search terms for me).

On the flip side, writing has always been a passion of mine, as has photography, so I am devoting more time to writing (as evidenced in this blog at present) and the continued evolution of my daily photo blog at http://www.BitsAreCheap.com.

While my home life has always been unusual in that both I and my wife work at home and our kids are home schooled, I am also trying to be more adaptable to the requests my children and wife have of me, as other than my health, they are my top priority. For example, yesterday Bas (my son) and I finished Portal II on the Xbox 360 in co-op mode, something he has wanted to do for a while. And we’ve also been playing a bit more World of Warcraft together (with my daughter Krystyana as well) in the last few weeks.

Modesty

Among the shifting priorities I have been facing and have adjusted to is “modesty”. While I have never been a truly shy person, this past week has shown me that modesty is no longer important in the grand scheme of things. I’ve lost count of how many people I have stripped down to nothing for this week (or flipped up my gown for while at the hospital – including the young and serious female intern who inquired about testicular swelling and wanted to perform a visual inspection). In addition to “show”, there has also been “tell”, where I have discussed my most personal physical details and issues with whichever nurse, doctor, or doctor-in-training who asked.

In fact, with nurses from the Visiting Nurses Association now coming by the apartment to check on me and my post-operative recovery, I find myself “dropping trou” (which, according to the Urban Dictionary means “To lower one’s pants (trousers) down to one’s ankles, often in a sudden, impulsive manner, thus exposing one’s nether regions”) almost without being asked. I think this is a subconscious move on my part to seek vindication that my surgery was worth the effort and that I am recovering properly. And frankly, with mortality on the line, showing one’s dangly bits to a medical professional is hardly a matter of huge import anymore. From a sociological perspective, it is fascinating to see how quickly our attitudes change when our situations change. My wife Linda tells me that this is a point that women determine and arrive at a lot earlier than men, since things like childbirth result in broad exposure of one’s nether regions, never mind excruciating pain – pain which could expose one’s soul to the world.

That said, I would not be surprised if misplaced modesty among others might result in delayed diagnosis and treatment solely because the patient was too embarrassed to explain or show a personal problem to a medical professional. My advice for any of you in a potentially embarrassing situation is to bare all – literally and figuratively. When it’s your health (and future) on the line, embarrassment is inconsequential and unimportant. Survival is what counts.

A corollary to this is that it’s okay to be emotional and cry, even as a male in our society. And yes, it’s also okay to tell another male that you love him (or to tell another woman who is not your spouse or other relative that you love her too). And let’s not forget hugs – we all need to get hugs, and give hugs. Sharing our emotions is what binds us together as human beings. That’s something I am relearning right now, and it has been both a freeing and grounding experience at the same time.

Don’t Use Illness as an Excuse for Inaction

As human beings, we also procrastinate and try to avoid things which are unpleasant, and we may confuse such actions with the cognitive setting of priorities. I would suggest that just because one is dealing with heavy issues, it’s not a reason to just blow off everything you don’t want to do. Maintaining a decent level dedication to your commitments, and making your time count towards things that have meaning are both good priorities. It’s too easy to simply wave off everything and do nothing, and I would suspect that would only lead to a downward slide toward depression because in the process you lose things that give you self-worth as well.

Mind you, it may not be easy to stay focused on what needs to get done, but I believe it’s vital to have goals at all times, and to pursue them, because in turn that keeps one’s spirit strong.

In Other Words…

I realize in re-reading the above that I am probably not really doing as good a job explaining myself as I should, but let me try to summarize this way: When faced with dramatic challenges in life, focus on the things that are most important to your mental and physical well-being, and never forget your loved ones – family and friends (and pets). Make the time you spend on anything you do mean something, at least to yourself. And don’t dwell on only the negative – that can never end well.

And Now, For Something Completely Different – My Status

So, with my day’s ration of philosophy and observation out of the way, let me share some updates in my health situation.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, my surgery went well. Although the swelling in my right thigh is still sizable, my overall pain level is slowly decreasing. And it made my heart glad this morning when the nurse who came to visit expressed amazement that I was up and about. She couldn’t believe I had only had surgery on Monday.

More troubling, however, have been two other things. The first was on Wednesday when my drain (pictured in the previous blog entry) had stopped showing any new liquid. Wednesday night I ended up experiencing significant swelling (including the aforementioned testicular swelling the intern had asked me about) and got a bit panicked. I ended up calling the nursing association as well as my doctor, with the result being a request that I come into the doctor’s office the following morning to have the situation looked at. I neglected to ask how such a problem would be resolved and had visions that they would have to cut me back open to unclog the part of the drain (about 8 inches worth) left inside me – this resulted in a pretty terrible stressful night of fitful sleep.

On Thursday morning, the doctor’s P.A. (physician’s assistant) was able, via a process called “milking” (of the plastic tube of the drain, in case your mind was in the gutter), get the drain working again, and I’ve now been happily draining hundreds of centiliters of lymph fluid again, with swelling in other areas vastly reduced (much to my relief!). At the same time I was also informed that there were several other ways to try to unclog drains, none of which required a brand new surgery. If only I had thought to ask I could have saved myself a lot of worry. Note to self: Ask all the questions up front whenever possible.

The second troubling item was that I also learned during the visit to the doctor’s office that my pathology report from Monday’s surgery had arrived. We were all surprised they were completed so soon.

I apparently had a total of 20 lymph nodes removed during my lymphadenectomy last week, according the excerpt shown above. Two of those nodes were “Cloquet’s”, meaning (as I understand it) that these were deep nodes, generally located closer to the organs in the abdomen. These were clear of cancer, which I took to be a mildly good sign, in that the cancer had not yet gotten closer to other organs, although my cursory literature search suggests that using Cloquet’s nodes as indicators of likely (or unlikely) metastasis of organs is not clearly established.

Of the other 18 lymph nodes removed from my body and analyzed, five (5) were found to contain metastatic melanoma, meaning the cancer has definitely been spreading. More worrisome was that the largest chunk of melanoma which had metastasized into the lymph nodes was 2.2 cm (nearly an inch) long in its largest dimension (the report provide no indication of the three dimensional measurements of the tumor), and that there was “extracapsular extension”. Extracapsular extension, as I understand it, refers to some of the cancer being located in tissue outside (external or “extra”) the lymph nodes. The member of the doctor’s staff we asked about this indicated that extracapsular extension was an indicator of an increased chance of reoccurrence of melanoma in people in whom the cancer had gone into remission.

The result of the pathology now changes my cancer staging from a Stage III B (it was borderline III A/B) to a Stage III C because of the additional lymph node metastasis. See http://www.aimatmelanoma.org/aim-for-answers/stages-of-melanoma/stage-iii-melanoma.html.

Another result of the pathology, one which I am willing to look at as a good thing, is that it has now resulted in an effort to discuss adjuvant treatment and clinical trials for new anti-melanoma drugs with me next early week instead of at the end of May as originally scheduled. I figure the sooner we can start on treatments, the better my long term prognosis.

While I had hoped for better news, I take solace in the fact that I have exchanged messages with and heard of a number of folks with similar staging who have been successfully treated for their melanoma. And getting my treatments started sooner rather than later only improves my chances, I think.

At this point I think my next update here in my blog will be the middle of next week, after my initial consultation and its ramifications have sunk in.

 

As I watch and listen to the royal wedding of William and Kate an hour after it happened, I am reminded that part of traditional wedding vows includes the phrase “in sickness and in health”. This phrase was part of my vows nearly 22 years ago and part of the vows of the royal couple today as well.

When we get married we mouth these vows without any sort of sense of what the “sickness” part entails, but if we are true to them (and sadly, wedding vows are too frequently broken), it’s situations like the one life has sprung upon me that put such vows to the test.

While it is the cancer patient’s lot to have cancer, the impact of the disease is not limited to just the patient – it affects all the people around them in myriad ways. And whether those people can cope with the news of the disease and its on-going treatment is a very individual and personal thing.

For family it’s a bit different though, as they have a something akin to an obligation to the patient – an obligation born of blood relations and/or vows. And on them falls much the burden of helping the patient through the difficult times, often without consideration for their own sacrifices.

In my case, the decision (and freedom) to get treatment in Boston resulted in total change for my wife and children. They had very little time to pack up what was needed back home on the island of Bonaire, shut down unnecessary things, and arrange to live for an indeterminate number of months in a new but temporary home. (And even as I sit here writing, all three of them are busy building a dozen pieces of IKEA furniture because I’ve been told by my doctor and wife to not stress my thigh skin graft any more than it already has been and that means staying away from furniture building. This past Tuesday I was told by the doctor that the skin graft was comprised, and things were not nearly as good or bad as they could be, but that I needed to be even more careful with it than I had been.)

I am fortunate in that I have the flexibility to uproot myself (and my family) and move to wherever is best for my survival, but for many that is not an option, and might involve regular long drives or settling for less than perfect treatment options closer to home.

While my physical suffering has yet to really start (and I don’t consider my initial biopsy surgery to have been onerous, although the lack of real mobility I have due the healing skin graft is very frustrating), I already don’t know how I would have been able to manage even some of the stupidly simply things, like being driven to appointments or getting supplies for our new apartment, if it weren’t for my wife and my in-laws (whose hospitality I relied on pre-biopsy as well as during the week my wife was back home getting the kids and cat ready for the move north).

 

The Richter Family at my father's 75th birthday party, three days before I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I'm the tall white/gray/blonde haired guy in the back left, and my daughter, wife, and son stand in front of me and to my left.

The Richter Family at my father's 75th birthday party, three days before I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I'm the tall white/gray/blonde haired guy in the back left, and my daughter, wife, and son stand in front of me and to my left.

 

Considering how much more challenging the times ahead are going to be, the burden on my family and friends will only increase, and I fear at times during my treatments I may not be as gracious about appreciating their efforts and sacrifices as I should be. So, in advance, let me express my thanks to you and all caregivers and loved ones of all people dealing with cancer.

I would like to close this post with a few references that might help those who have been diagnosed with cancer or find themselves with loved ones or close friends who are diagnosed.

First, Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG foundation offers a free guidebook and planner/journal set to anyone who requests it – all you have to do is pay shipping. The contents of both volumes is incredibly informative and helpful, and offers both the cancer patient and his or her caregivers information on all the various phases of cancer – from diagnosis to treatment to being a cancer survivor. If you learn of a friend or loved one who has been diagnosed, get them a copy. (Angie – thanks for pointing me to this as well!) More details at http://jake.me/Z879. The LIVESTRONG web site (which can be reached via the previous link or at http://www.livestrong.org) also offers one-on-one support for cancer patients and caregivers, including counseling.

Next, if you or a loved one have been diagnosed with Melanoma, a good foundation for understanding the cancer and its treatment can be found in Dr. Steven Q. Wang’s “Beating Melanoma: A Five-Step Survival Guide”. There’s not a lot of in-depth detail, but when you’re in the initial throes of coping with a melanoma diagnosis, it’s quite useful in helping set priorities. As a companion to the book, I also suggest the web site http://www.aimatmelanoma.org, which addresses all the basics of melanoma.

Another book I am reading is “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, which I am about a third of the way through. The book provides an absolutely fascinating – and terrifying – history of cancer and how people have perceived cancer and come up with treatments to combat cancer over the ages. Mukherjee is an oncologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute here in Boston, and interleaves his own modern-day observations of treatment with the historical approaches to cancer treatment (or lack thereof). The part I find disquieting is how new cancer treatment really is, and how much still is unknown. But I believe it is better to have a realistic understanding than an incorrect one, or worse yet – no understanding at all.

I also have several textbooks on cancer biology that I plan to delve into early next week. More on those once I have digested them.

Finally, for friends and family of cancer patients, you may want to take a look at “Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know”, by Lori Hope. I have just started reading the book, and while the focus is on the author’s own experience with breast cancer, and interviews with other breast cancer patients and survivors, I find that a lot of the issues that Hope addresses apply already to those with other forms of cancer. That’s because even though various cancers can be radically different from one another biologically, the emotions and physical aspects of treatment share similarities. Interestingly, one of the first things that Hope addresses is what she has learned is the number one fear of cancer patients – namely abandonment.

And the topic of abandonment brings me to my summary today.

A lot of the external worry and concern is about the cancer patient’s well being, but one should never forget the family and close friends who provide the immediate support network for cancer patients. It is quite possible for such caregivers to feel unappreciated and possibly even abused or scared and sickened during the later stages of a loved one’s cancer treatment. Some people will not be able to deal with someone they care for having cancer, possibly being terminal, and/or suffering for extended periods of time. And that is perfectly understandable, but one way to help those that provide care is to make sure they have a support network of their own. If you wonder what you can do for a friend or loved one with cancer, check in on their family and caregivers separately and provide them whatever support you can.

And, I should add that “support” does not mean getting sad around the caregivers and offering sympathy, at least not while the cancer patient is alive and reasonably well. Those sorts of empathic gestures, while well intended, only raise the specter of unhappy endings. Do something positive and life affirming instead, even if it’s something as simple as letting caregivers that you are there for them too.

 

Dollar Days in the Dutch Caribbean   January 2nd, 2011

Yesterday, New Year’s Day 2011, marked another significant change for my small part of the Caribbean. It was the day that the Netherlands Antilles Guilder (also known as the Netherlands Antilles Florin or just NAF) ceased to be legal tender on the islands of Bonaire, Saba, and St. Eustatius. Replacing the NAF is the U.S. Dollar, which is now the sole legal tender. (More here on this subject.)

This was a change wrought by the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles on October 10, 2010 (see post below). It was decided that although our island were now part of a special municipality of The Netherlands – appropriately called the Dutch Caribbean, the U.S. dollar would be a better currency for use than the Euro. I agree.

Neighboring Curacao and St. Maarten in the north, both of which are now countries under the Dutch crown, much like Aruba, will continue to use the NAF as their official currency for the rest of the year. In 2012 they will switch to a new currency – the Caribbean Guilder. No idea why they would waste time and money on a new currency unless it’s part of the nepotism protection actions favored by their politicians. Seems like they should have switched to the dollar too.

In any event, here on Bonaire, at the stroke of midnight, ringing in 2011, all NAF-based bank accounts magically became U.S. dollar accounts, at a conversion rate of NAF 1,79 = US$1.00. Likewise, ATM machines now only dispense dollars here on Bonaire (with one exception – apparently the ATM at the airport will dispense Euros if asked nicely).

So far, things are smooth, but it’s also a holiday weekend, so local businesses are closed. The fun starts tomorrow as locals with little or no familiarity with U.S. coins get to deal with them for the first time (dollar paper money has been widely used as a substitute currency for years, so that should not be a problem). It was pointed out to me, however, that folks who play slots at the sole casino on the island would have little problem with the U.S. coins because the slot machines use them too. I never thought of a casino as an educational facility – at least not in this context.

Of the two on-line banking web sites I regularly use for my local accounts (both from the same bank but one for personal and the other for business), the personal one is functioning properly, but the business site results in a blank page. I’m hoping they fix that soon so we can pay some bills. Also, the dollar-based checks we should have received last week were no shows. Hopefully they show up this week too.

I plan on braving the bank lines tomorrow to deposit the NAF we had in our pockets at the end of 2010 and to see how difficult it will be to deposit a dollar-based check from the U.S. Wish me luck.


Update – 01/03/2011: The commercial banking site was operational by 5:30am this morning. The bank was a zoo. I got there early, and was sixth in line, waited over a half hour to see a teller, and it then took over twenty minutes to take care of my transactions. By the time I left, there were nearly three dozen people waiting in line. I learned later in the day that a number of businesses were unable to obtain U.S. coins for their cash registers. Off to a rough start, but it should stabilize in a week or two.

The really interesting thing will be seeing how people who have never dealt with U.S. coins cope with the lack of numerals on them to indicate their value – an especially challenging fact, as U.S. coins’ size also does not reflect their relative value, with dimes being the smallest coin, and the half-dollar being the largest (larger than the dollar coins which will soon be popular here).

 

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New Day, New Country, Same Place   September 23rd, 2010

In about two and a half weeks, on the symbolic day of “10-10-10”, I will be participating in a little bit of real history. That’s the day that Bonaire, the island I live on in the Caribbean, switches countries.

Spirit of Bonaire by Jake Richter

Spirit of Bonaire by Jake Richter

Presently, Bonaire is part of the country of the Netherlands Antilles, which presently consists of four-and-a-half Caribbean islands: Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, St. Eustatius (also known as Statia), and Dutch St. Maarten (which shares a geographic island mass with French St. Martin). Up until the mid-1980s Aruba was part of the Netherlands Antilles as well, but then split off to become its own country.

While the Netherlands Antilles (and Aruba) have always been part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands, they have their own parliament and government infrastructure, based in Curacao (Aruba has its own, of course).

Some years ago, referendums were held on the five islands of the Netherlands Antilles about future status, and the result of those referendums as well as various political processes, is that on 10-10-10 the Netherlands Antilles fade into history as a country that has ceased to exist.

Taking its place will be two new countries – Curacao and St. Maarten, with the same status as Aruba – countries under the Dutch kingdom.  The three smaller islands, referred to locally as the BES islands (Bonaire, Eustatius, and Saba) will become municipalities of The Netherlands. What is a municipality of The Netherlands? It’s not particularly clear because Holland has never really reabsorbed past colonies, and as a result, many things are still in flux and being decided. And other than mostly vague policies, the details of the rules, laws, and procedures that will be in place after 10-10-10 have not been communicated to the people of the BES islands yet. In fact, it’s looking likely that many of these things, two and a half weeks before the changeover, still aren’t decided or determined.

And I don’t think everything will get figured out until later in 2011 because there are just so very many things involved in running remote islands from afar – from telecommunications and labor issues to governmental structure and the environment.

One thing is clear, though, and that is that the BES will not be treated the same as a province in Holland. Dutch citizens will still need a residence permit to live on Bonaire, for example (although these cannot be unjustly denied).

Also, on a monetary basis, we will be switching over to the use of the U.S. Dollar on January 1, 2011. Switching to the Euro would have been terrible for the local economy since most of our trade is with North America and in dollars, but it requires complete reeducation of locals who have no idea what a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter are. There will be quite a bit of chaos when the mandatory switch to the dollar happens.

We also end up with interesting logistical issues, such as how to properly address mail being sent to our island. Currently, people either put “Netherlands Antilles” or “Dutch Caribbean” as part of the address when they mail things here, but after 10-10-10 the former will no longer be correct, while the latter has never been a country per se, just a geographic identifier. Technically we should be “Bonaire, The Netherlands”, but that would mean our mail would get routed to Europe first before getting here – who knows how many weeks or months that would add to current mail delivery (which is already horrifically slow). The Dutch Kingdom office on Bonaire recommends we continue to have such mail addressed with “Dutch Caribbean” for the foreseeable future, incidentally.

In any event, even with all the planning that has gone into the process, there will be countless adjustments we will all have to make in dealing with a country dissolution and transfer, especially in rather untested waters, as no modern western nation has reabsorbed previously semi-independent locales in recent times (outside of the result of warfare, of course). It will be very interesting to be part of the process as well, instead of merely observing from afar.


A note about the image that appears in this blog post: Spirit of Bonaire is an original digital painting I created a few months ago to commemorate the transition of Bonaire back into the unknown of direct Dutch rule. More specifically, with the bright colors of the flag, which reaches out into the infinite, I meant to show that the spirit of Bonaire and its people is up to the challenge of transition, and strong enough to survive anything, even in the face of change and uncertainty.

 

On-line Education Pitfalls   September 23rd, 2010

A key component of on-line education, such as the Master of Fine Arts in Photography that I’ve started pursuing this semester, is a stable Internet connection. In an on-line program, like the one I’m in, you’re supposed to submit your assignments via upload to a web site and actively participate in dedicated discussion groups, which take the place of classroom interaction.

One of the things we are told is that having computer problems or Internet connection issues on our end is no reason to not participate, and that we should use available resources, like an Internet cafe, to ensure we meet our obligations. Okay – I agree that the Internet is now relatively ubiquitous, so unless there’s a complete Internet outage and you’re stuck on some sort of desert island and can’t get to an active connection (which here, on Bonaire, which is a desert island, could actually happen), there should be little excuse to not be able to get on-line in some capacity.

But what if the school goes off-line? Can’t happen, right? Wrong.

It’s happening right now. If you’re a person with an inflexible schedule, perhaps due to a job, and your plan was to check into class in the morning before leaving for work, you are hosed. Going to an Internet cafe will not fix the problem if the problem is at the other end and outside of your control.

Not an encouraging sign when you try to access your classes

Not an encouraging sign when you try to access your classes

I’ve been getting the above message since I first tried to get in about two hours ago. And the school’s main web site is down too.

Even the University's main web site is down

Even the University's main web site is down

We’ve been advised to call the On-Line Help Desk if we have problems with the web site, but unless we somehow had the forethought to store that phone number locally, you’re stuck because you have to be able to get to the school’s web site to get the phone number (this is where Google’s cache feature is really handy – I found it there – 888-431-2787).

But even calling the help desk doesn’t help here because the number is either busy or dumps you to an answering machine, suggesting others have located the number and are trying to get through too.

This reminds me of the fire drills and bomb scares we used to have in my grade school and junior high classes in Munich during the 70s. Everything was shut down and were sent home for the day. Maybe a server outage is the modern day equivalent?

I’m sure that this will get resolved at some point today, hopefully with our work from yesterday intact, but it’s a great lesson to all of us – namely that computing technology can fail in unpredictable ways, and if we rely on it too much or leave things to the last minute, we may suffer unintended consequences.

Back to my paper-bound, handheld books while I wait for class to resume.

 

Broadly Focused   August 22nd, 2010

One of the most difficult questions I am often asked as part of normal social discourse is “what do you do for a living?”. For many people this would not be a difficult thing to answer – they might be an accountant, a lawyer, a computer programmer, a Starbucks barista, or a rocket scientist (I know several).

But in my case a more appropriate answer might be something along the lines of “what don’t I do for a living?”. That answer, however has really never satisfied the person asking the question.

That’s because we have been raised in a culture that needs to pigeon hole people so that they fit some sort of societal mold.

Think about it. When you fill out a form of any sort these days, whether it be some sort of application, a survey, or whatever, and there’s a question about your title or career or profession, you’ll find it’s not multiple choice. But I believe it should be, because I am not alone in having multiple, diverse jobs that are concurrent.

Let me provide an overview of my current career status, in no particular order:

  • Registered U.S. Patent Agent
  • Professional photographer and artist
  • Technical consultant and expert witness in various patent litigation matters
  • President of a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable corporation
  • President of a licensing company of copyrighted works
  • Co-Director of an Internet web and e-mail hosting company which also provides Internet marketing services
  • Co-manager of a company which develops and sells tourism WebCam solutions as well as maintains over a dozen live cameras on the Caribbean island of Bonaire (where I happen to live)
  • Computer programmer
  • Blogger
  • Journalist and analyst in the digital media technology field
  • Inventor
  • Scuba diving instructor
  • Graduate student
  • Director of an art gallery
  • World traveler and explorer
  • Linux server systems operator
  • Operator of several on-line stores
  • Developer and operator of a patent document procurement service
  • Father of home-schooled children
  • Food scientist and researcher
  • Book author

And that list is by far not complete – it only covers the things I’m doing at present, and then only some of those. So imagine my frustration when I’m asked to narrow things down to just one title and profession. If the questionnaire is on paper I just scribble outside the designated boxes. If it’s online, I randomly pick something from my repertoire which seems appropriate at the moment. Neither is a great solution however.

I have certainly been told many times that I need to focus. My response is that I am broadly focused, and plan on continuing to be for the rest of my life. Call me a “Jake of All Trades and Master of Many”.

More on this subject and many others later.