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A Vacation in Rome: Angels, Demons and Dirt

angelOur vacation this year was to Rome, Italy and it was good and bad. I’ve been trying to reconcile this trip in my own mind but am still wrestling with it so thought best to get it out of my head and in a post.

Our family approached this trip with great anticipation. My kids are 26 and 19 so it is likely our last vacation together as only the four of us. Having never been to Rome, we planned for months. Here’s what we discovered, though these opinions are more mine than my wife or kids:

THE BAD

Tough to see, but the area in front of our five star hotel is littered with cigarette butts and trash...which is *everywhere* in Rome

Tough to see, but the area in front of our five star hotel is littered with cigarette butts and trash…which is *everywhere* in Rome (click for larger view)

1) THE FILTH: Oh my God is Rome filthy. Old is one thing, but cigarette butts, wrappers, cans and bottles, homeless people’s food debris (and urine) is everywhere, and no one has cleaned a sidewalk here since the time of Caesar (or so it seems). It is just simply dirty.

What really stunned me, though, was the endless graffiti. It covers every surface from upscale hotels and office buildings, to subway cars to every shop and apartment building.

graffiti1

Even in the town near Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port city, there was graffiti on buildings.

Over several days as we were in neighborhood after neighborhood, tony shopping districts, the subway, towns outside Rome, and even major attractions, and the thought that kept coming in to my mind constantly was, “Man…Rome is a shithole!” and I couldn’t figure out if Romans didn’t care about Rome, or corruption is rampant so no one does much work, or something that makes people put up with this in a city with as much potential as this one.

graffiti2

Every subway car was covered, windows etched with knives, and graffiti was all over the inside too.

This filth, or lackadaisical attitude about the cleanliness of the city, even translates to the overwhelming majority of cars driven by Romans in the city. Nearly every vehicle I looked at on the road, in parking lots and parked on the side of roads was scratched, dinged and just simply dirty. Even new cars. I just didn’t get it, especially from this land and people who have designed and given us Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

I actually had my small wallet in a front pocket but the pickpocket got it anyway

I actually had my small wallet in a front pocket but the pickpocket got it anyway

2) THE CRIME: Our last day we were riding the metro bus from a museum near the Vatican and my wallet was pickpocketed. Even though I’d taken incredible caution for the entire trip—especially since every guidebook warns over-and-over again to wear a moneybelt and be extremely cautious—this time I slipped it into my pocket so someone grabbed it. To say I was upset and angry is an understatement, so much so my daughter got off the bus since I was “making a scene.”

Coat of arms of the Carabinieri

Coat of arms of the Carabinieri

We went back to our hotel room to cancel my credit cards and place a fraud alert on our credit report, when a call came in from the front desk. Turns out a team from the Carabinieri, the Italian national military police, had busted a gang of Romanian pickpockets and they found my wallet in one guy’s backpack!

I got everything back. To say I was stunned and amazed is putting it mildly. Based on all the TripAdvisor forum posts, the articles and forum post at travel expert Rick Steves website, this type of crime is rampant in Rome and, as Steves said in one article, “...at least one person on every tour is pickpocketed.”

The scams, people hustling, and the ripoffs made me feel like I was traveling to a third world country, not a modern one like Italy.

But there was a lot of good and amazing things to see and experience and we had those too, thankfully.

[Read more…]

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Listening Point

Listening Point on Burntside Lake

Listening Point on Burntside Lake

Wilderness. It is a concept fading from our consciousness as more humans populate the earth and those growing up now increasingly have their attention focused on the virtual.

The wild places—those where it is just you, the natural world, and the past, present and future you become aware of when you truly listen and observe what is around you—are arguably more important now than ever before in our fast-paced world.

This is something that Sigurd Olson lived and taught. If it weren’t for Olson, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) would not exist.

Yesterday I had a chance to visit Olson’s cabin on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, a place he called Listening Point, and one now on the National Historic Register.

[Read more…]

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Become a Free Agent Now

If you haven’t recognized that work is quickly shifting toward free agency and away from longer term employment, you really must understand what is happening to the nature of work if you hope to perform it and make any money going forward. Depending upon whom you read, the last several decades have seen an accelerating shift to an information, knowledge or creative age. However you choose to term it, they all mean the same thing: humans are moving toward ever-higher value work and away from more rote, assembly, industrial or lower value effort.

The difference now is that the internet and our tools (e.g., mobile devices, Wifi, collaborative web and app tools, etc.) has made it easier than ever before for us to work when, where and for whom we want.

The concept of free agency came from professional sports (via Wikipedia): In professional sports, a free agent is a player who is eligible to sign with any club or franchise, i.e. not under contract to any specific team. The term is also used in reference to a player who is under contract at present, but who is allowed to solicit contract offers from other teams. In some circumstances, the free agent’s options are limited by league rules.

free-agent-nationThat free agency concept was built upon by the author Daniel Pink (a guy whose books I embrace) but with a twist: sports free agency means a player can consider offers from other teams while the business concept means that one is essentially doing work for multiple companies, organizations or individuals.

The term free agent for business is believed to have been coined by Pink, author of a 1997 cover story in Fast Company titled “Free Agent Nation” and his subsequent book by the same name. From a Wikipedia article on business free agencyIn business, a free agent refers to someone who works independently for oneself, rather than for a single employer.These include self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors and temporary workers, who altogether represent about 44 percent of the U.S. labor force.

Besides the internet, there are other influences catalyzing the shift to a new, free agency age. For instance, the Affordable Care Act (i.e., “Obamacare”) is being looked at by many in the venture capital community and elsewhere as potentially one of the biggest catalysts to entrepreneurship ever (see Obamacare & the Coming Entrepreneurship Boom and Affordable Care Act Could Be Good for Entrepreneurship). The latter article points to this report (PDF) that says the number of self-employed people is expected to rise by 1.5 million as a direct result of the health care overhaul. Good news to anyone who is still stunned by the lack of hiring going on in the U.S. even today.

You might already be participating right now as a free agent. Many of my colleagues and peers are and they vary in age from 28 to 64. You may also be thinking right now, “OK Borsch…I get it that work is transforming and that I should be doing something about it. But what exactly?

Thought you’d never ask.  [Read more…]

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Obamacare: $500 More?

laughing-execsHealth insurers were likely howling with laughter in their executive conference rooms when they came to realize the windfall coming their way due to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., “Obamacare”). 

Though many of us have been eagerly anticipating the overhaul of the healthcare system to drive down the spiraling-out-of-control healthcare costs nationwide, it’s unlikely it will do that (at least initially) and will almost certainly cost us all more money every month as well.

It’s going to cost my family and I approximately $500 more per month starting in JanuaryLet me give you my real-world example:

  • WHAT WE PAY TODAY: As a self-employed couple, my wife, son and my healthcare coverage costs us $1,173 per month (for a high, $5,000 per year deductible each). I should also note that this cost has gone up since our health insurers have been slowly ratcheting up costs, undoubtedly because they can “grandfather” in any cost increases before the healthcare marketplaces kick in this January. 
  • mnsureWHAT IT WILL COST US IN JANUARY OF 2014: The Minnesota marketplace called “MNSure” is coming online January 2014 and their website has this calculator. Based upon our ages and household income level, it estimates* our payments to be $1,667 per month!   (*The calculator estimates since the State of Minnesota DOES NOT YET KNOW what the premiums will cost. Seriously? MNSure comes online in just over four months and you can only ballpark the cost!?!).

That is an increase of $494 per month in our monthly premiums for a “Silver” plan — a 42% potential increase! There will be three tiers of plans: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. A Bronze level plan will cover roughly 60% of the costs of services MNSure offers. Silver will cover roughly 70%, Gold will cover roughly 80% percent, and Platinum will cover roughly 90% of the costs of the benefits provided.

OBAMACARE FACTS
A website that explains much about Obamacare called Obamacare Facts had a section on Health Insurance Premiums was enlightening but useless as far as anticipating (or even calculating) what we (or you) will write checks for coming in January.

Here is the punchline and why you can absolutely be guaranteed your healthcare premiums will increase come January:

Some insurance companies are using the confusion over ObamaCare to raise premiums on unsuspecting Americans in order to capitalize before more protections are put in place, grandfathering people into more expensive plans. This is in response to protections going into effect in 2014 and the need to cover more high-risk Americans. If this has happened to you, please tell us who your insurer is and give us some other background so we can continue to investigate who is behind this.

Note On Health Insurance Premiums: Your provider can “grandfather you in” by upping your premium now and keeping it that way once the insurance cap protections kick in in 2014. They can also grandfather you into plans that don’t provide coverage options that are required under the Affordable Care Act until 2015.

Sigh. We’ll have to see what benefits Obamacare actually brings but even I, a former cheerleader for heathcare reform, have put my pom-poms down and I’ve sat down on the bench.

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Lavabit Owner (carefully) Speaks Out

Lavabit, the secure email provider with over 400,000 users (including me as of last month) was unexpectedly shutdown by its founder, Ladar Levison. We don’t know why exactly because it’s a secret and Levison is under a gag order. 

It is likely Levison is “gagged” because he received a national security letter, an administrative subpoena used by the FBI, which has an attached gag order which restricts the recipient from ever saying anything about being served with one. The government has issued hundreds of thousands of such NSLs accompanied with gag orders. The gag orders have been upheld in court because they fall under the Patriot Act which, in my opinion, is one of the weakest, constitutionally violating laws ever passed by Congress.

What could Levison say about his instant shutdown of Lavabit?

“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” 

In probably his most obvious (since so many of us now do have knowledge, thanks to Edward Snowden) and troubling statement he added, 

“I think if the American public knew what our government was doing,
they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore.”

Democracy Now, the internet news organization, snagged an interview with Lavabit founder and owner Levison. Alongside him was his lawyer who was there to ensure Levison didn’t inadvertently cross over a fine-line that would land him in prison for violating the gag order. If you are somewhere that watching a video wouldn’t be appropriate, there is also a transcript of the interview here: Owner of Snowden’s Email Service on Why He Closed Lavabit Rather Than Comply With Gov’t.

Here is the interview:

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I Am NOT Paranoid

spookSince I skim literally hundreds of articles per day in my news feed — some days are upwards of 2,000 or more — there is no question I stay on top of the latest developments in a whole host of categories (just look in the right sidebar at “Posts by Category” and you will see most of them). Add to that my deep interest and layman’s knowledge of history — and my awareness of the circumstances that have led up to massive shifts in power which have led to totalitarianism, fascism and war — and you bet your life I’m deeply concerned but don’t consider myself paranoid.  

Friends, family (and two of my clients who read my blog) have pooh-poohed my seeming “paranoid” concern about what is going on with the National Security Agency and the revelations. I must admit feeling vindicated and pleased that my fellow citizens are finally feeling outrage and are making their thoughts known to Congress.

Over the weekend I did some blog cleanup and was fascinated to take a look back at posts I wrote as early as 2006. I also remember deleting numerous posts in the 2002-2005 timeframe since it didn’t feel safe to publish them. Not that some shadowy figures would come to get me, but the sentiment and mood in the country had already shifted to the “rah-rah, waving the flag” toward treating anyone dissenting (or even questioning) with a mix of revulsion, anger and a seeming certainty we were traitors. [Read more…]

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My 2013 Road Trip Adventure

Just returned from a 9 day adventure covering 3,200 miles through 8 states! Here are a few select photos I took which you can view within a slideshow or you can click this link to view all of the images on one page at Flickr.

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We Are All Gonna Die! (But Before You Go...)

no-noNone of us are going to get out of here alive (meaning life overall) and ignoring the fact that you are going to die is never a good idea. But since you could very well live into your mid-80s—and be retired for 20 years or more—not planning for those 20 years is a huge mistake.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been examining our retirement portfolio in order to decide on when we could/should/probably-will retire. We’ve saved all of our lives (even when we didn’t have two nickels to rub together) and thankfully are in great shape, but it turns out that most people are not and the recent economic downturn didn’t help (though investment assets and 401ks are rebounding).

A few weeks ago Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, Inc (a wealth management firm), had his “radical retirement recommendation” discussed in this CNNMoney article. 

BlackRock Inc. chief executive Larry Fink said during a speech Tuesday that longer life spans and underfunded retirement plans are the defining challenge of our age, and went so far as to recommend that the U.S. consider making retirement savings mandatory.

Radical? Probably not, especially if someone 25 years old expects to get anything out of social security when they retire. Yes, Fink has a vested interest in sparking interest in retirement funds management, but he’s not the only one talking about this as a crisis[Read more…]

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The Ends Justify The Means?

TEJTM101Was at two high school grad parties yesterday and found myself having disheartening conversations with several young people who had just graduated high school. We talked about what they’d be doing post-high school, their visions about their future lives and whether they thought what they wanted to do was achievable, and what kind of world they thought they were inheriting from those of us were close to passing it on to them.

I was not prepared to hear their sense of sadness, fear, pessimism and, especially, their true befuddlement that the BIG lesson they had been taught by those in power was that:

  1. It was OK to lie to the world to start a war and no one is held accountable
  2. If you are a huge financial institution and instrumental in facilitating a global economic meltdown, not only will you not go to jail but your company is saved and it’s back to business (and bonuses) as usual within a year or two and no one is held accountable
  3. That a “terrorism Pearl Harbor” is excuse enough to spend trillions abroad while at home our infrastructure fails and our country embarks on the largest runup in mass surveillance while trampling on our Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and no one is held accountable (at least not yet)
  4. The richest and most powerful nation on earth has the highest incarceration rate in the world, while many of the crimes (especially ironic compared to no jail time for those in #2 above) are petty in nature.

While I tried to continually steer the conversations toward a more positive note—and part of their funk might have been partially attributable to our crappy, rainy weather yesterday—they continued to be gloom-and-doomsters about the state of our country and how uncertain they felt about the future.

gordon-gekkomother-theresaThe lessons taught to (and learned by) these young people? The ends justify the means. Makes me wonder if the next several decades may make many of these young people look more like a Gordon Gekko character than a Mother Theresa, and that our country’s ethical decline is now systemic and most of the skids-are-greased to make it easier for the United States to become a totalitarian country.

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Thoughts About the Secret Police

stasi

The Ministry for State Security (German: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS), commonly known as the Stasi, has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. (More here at Wikipedia)

All last evening, and over lunch today, I’ve been reading dozens and dozens of articles on the shitstorm going on with respect to the National Security Agency and their scooping up data about Verizon phone calls and how the NSA has access to major companies (see U.S. intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program) to collect our emails, photos, tweets, chat logs and more. Last night and today the aggregator Google News displayed links to over 2,000 articles (and that doesn’t count all of the blog posts) about this ongoing issue. 

But it was a post today that crystallized the FEAR about what’s going on in a way I’d not yet read from anyone or any news outlet.

Your iPhone Works for the Secret Police, from Harvard Business Review blogger James Allworth, recapped our fear about what the NSA mass data vacuuming means for all of us. As someone whose ancestry hails from Prussia and Germany — and that I’ve spent alot of time in Germany, especially just a few years after the Berlin Wall fell — I can tell you that the effects of the Stasi repression was still palpable. Allworth points to the Stasi as an example of an intelligence service run amok and what it could lead to:

The infamous East German secret police, the Stasi, managed to infiltrate every part of German life, from factories, to schools, to apartment blocks — the Stasi had eyes and ears everywhere. When East Germany collapsed in 1989, it was reported to have over 90,000 employees and over 170,000 informants. Including the part-time informants, that made for about one in every 63 East Germans collaborating to collect intelligence on their fellow citizens. You can imagine what that must have meant: people had to live with the fact that every time they said something, there was a very real chance that it was being listened to by someone other than for whom they intended. No secret police force in history has ever spied on its own people on a scale like the Stasi did in East Germany. In large part because of that, those two words — “East Germany” — are indelibly imprinted on the psyche of the West as an example of how important the principles of liberal democracy are in protecting us from such things happening again. And indeed, the idea that it would happen seems anathema to most people in the western world today — almost unthinkable.

President Obama, Congressional leaders and any others are defending the subversion of our Constitution and the 4th amendment as “legal” and “sanctioned”. But when everything is secret, how can we do what President Reagan said about our relationship with the former Soviet Union “Trust…but verify”? The answer is “we can’t” and what’s going on right now in the present-day United States would have been a Stasi leader’s wet dream back then.

If you read nothing else about this important issue, take a few minutes and read Allworth’s article here