Thursday, October 23, 2014

Income inequality forces people to work for free

I just read a fascinating article by Paul Petrone, Communications Director at VoiceGlance, on LinkedIn.com. He's written a great piece about free internships, you know, working for free to get that first job. There is at least one billionaire who supports the idea that if people really want a job, they should be willing to work for free to get it. That would be Mark Cuban, investor extraordinaire.

What is interesting is that I don't see too many billionaires willing to offer their services for free. Sure, they may do volunteer work, but if it came down to their financial survival, they're going to find a way to get paid for their work. Besides, no one gets to be a billionaire without being willing to at least ask to be paid for their work.

Bernie Sanders has been quoted as saying, "The top 1% owns 41.8% of the wealth in this country, while the bottom 60% owns just 1.7%". The 1% own 40% of the wealth in this country, but at least some of them think it's pretty cool to have other people work for them for free. Few of them are willing to admit that with 41% of the wealth, they have enormous power and influence over public policy. Such a concentration of wealth can allow a small minority to essentially buy laws that create advantages for them, while putting everyone else at a disadvantage.

When given the opportunity to talk about the state of the economy, the same 1% will blame the government on the state of the economy without mentioning their influence on government and public policy. If the economy is great, hey, the 1%, the captains of industry have steered us in the clear. But if the economy is bad, then it's the government's fault. This is a very discrete form of cognitive dissonance.

But as Mr. Petrone notes, when corporations take advantage of an economy that is so bad that people are willing to work for free, that says a lot about how they perceive their employees or even future employees. If a company is not willing to pay for work, does it really value that work? If an employee is willing to work for free, what does that say about his or her other options?

This reminds me of an argument against pirating software. It goes like this: if you pirate Windows, then you never really know the true costs to you of pirating the software. When you pirate Windows, you invite all sorts of vendor lock-in onto your computer. This is because Microsoft is aware that piracy is a problem, so if they can't make you pay for the license, directly, they can at least impose costs on the use of the software. These costs come in the form of vendor lock-in over communications protocols, file formats and digital rights management. Eventually, you become dependent on Windows and when you need to upgrade, you will pay. That's what Microsoft is counting on.

A similar situation exists for free work. If someone decides to volunteer for a charitable cause, he understands the transaction very well. He is in a position to donate the time and effort to the cause. he understands that all service is spiritual. The charitable organization is committed to directing that effort to the benefit of the less fortunate, the people who really need the help. Everyone involved understands the transaction as well as the value of the same.

Now contrast that with a company that is using the dearth of jobs in a bad economy as an excuse to offer free internships to college kids who want to get their first job. The company is using this effort to extract a profit. The same company may not get the quality of work they want for free, and since nothing is paid for the work, the true cost of the work to the company cannot be easily assessed. The same is true for the employee. This activity perverts economic incentives on both sides and creates vagueness in the relationship between the company and the intern.

Sometimes, a paying job can be setup so that an employer can extract free labor from employees. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has an interesting labor arrangement at the warehouses he maintains for his customers. His employees at the warehouse are contractors, which places some legal distance between him and them. Them employees are paid, but not for all of their time at the warehouse. Why? Employees must endure a 20 minute search to ensure that nothing is stolen from the warehouse. There is a class action lawsuit happening right now, winding it's way through the courts. It is such a contentious issue, that Amazon is willing to fight all the way up to the Supreme Court to win.

Yes, my dear readers, Amazon.com, that imaginary place of wonder, where many of us have shopped, and will shop again sometime soon before Christmas, believes in slavery. They are willing to fight this battle up to the Supreme Court to maintain their right to unpaid employee time. Remember, the economy is still pretty bad, but Jeff Bezos, also a billionaire, thinks its really cool that he can get employees to wade through a 20 minute search without being paid for it, after a long day at work. Every day of the year, for hundreds of employees.

Remember Ronald Reagan's campaign for president? They weren't kidding when they called it "Trickle Down Economics".

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Interferometry must be a pretty good idea. Everyone does it.

Many years ago, I read a cool article about very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). This is a technique where very sensitive radio telescopes are positioned on opposite sides of the world and are trained on a powerful and very distant radio source, such as a quasar. Quasars are thought to be some of the oldest and brightest galaxies in the universe. They're in the same position in the sky throughout the years because they're so far away.

VLBI is used to image very distant sources. As the entry for the subject in Wikipedia says, "This allows observations of an object that are made simultaneously by many radio telescopes to be combined, emulating a telescope with a size equal to the maximum separation between the telescopes." The idea is to simulate the biggest telescope in the world by using the size of the world to do it.

The article that I read years ago taught me that VLBI can be used to measure the rotational speed of the earth, that the speed of the earth's rotation changes with respect to the speed of the global jetstream, and that the shape of the earth can be measured very accurately with VLBI. The example in that article used two telescopes.

What I find interesting is that, as far as I know, all vertebrate animals have two eyes. Two eyes use a form of interferometry. The brain takes two simultaneous images or streams of images that can be used to calculate it's relative position in space and time. Somewhere, long ago, I learned that the brain uses two eyes to calculate distance within about 10 feet. For everything beyond that the brain uses one eye.

By the same token, many years ago, Scientific American ran an article about how owls hear. Owls are nocturnal creatures and have each ear pointed in a different direction. They can use their ears to listen for their prey and pinpoint it's location in the dark. This again, is a form of interferometry. The brain uses two different signals to determine the location of an object, like a mouse.

We have been graced with two eyes and two ears, probably for redundancy just so that we can see and hear if we lose one. But as we have evolved, it seems Nature has found unique benefits to having two ears and two eyes. One of them being a way to fix the location of things we see and hear. Nice work, Mother Nature.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Power Drain Solution for PC hardware problems

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to buy a nice Dell 19" widescreen LCD monitor from Dell at a great price. I think the monitor I now use is about 8 years old, probably closer to 9, but I can't remember anymore. This monitor has served me well all that time.

It has two inputs, DVI (this cable has white connectors) and VGA (this cable has that familiar blue connector) and can easily be switched between the two. That extra input has helped me numerous times to do repair work on computers for friends, myself and to set up a nice little backup server that I now keep in my closet.

The monitor had been working fine until yesterday, when I noticed a pattern of artifacts across the entire screen. This seemed to happen shortly after I had used the monitor as a big screen for my laptop from work. When I disconnected the laptop, and went back to the DVI input, I saw the artifacts appear on the screen. To be fair, I can't remember exactly when the problem appeared, but that seemed like the most likely event.

I wanted to resolve it then and there, but we had planned to have lunch at our favorite Indian restaurant, so I waited until I got back to work on the problem. At first, I thought the problem was the graphics card, that somehow, there was a grounding problem. See, I had the computer and the monitor hooked up through a power strip that should have cleared any grounding problems. The laptop had a VGA port on the side and I hooked up the monitor to that port while the AC power supply was connected to the laptop, with the power supply connected directly to the wall. That's why I thought there might be a grounding problem.

So I tried what I've always done to reset a computer to, what I like to call, the "ground state". Computers have a number of capacitors on the motherboard. These capacitors retain their charge for some time even after the power is turned off. To discharge the capacitors, I powered off the computer, unplugged the power from the computer and held the power button for about 10 seconds, then reconnected the power to boot the computer. Normally this fixes many issues on a computer. In this case, I didn't get the solution I wanted, but did find that my computer would play Mexican radio through my speakers when the power was disconnected and I pressed the power button.

Long ago, I was working tech support for a large chain of non-profit retirement homes. Someone from San Diego called me to say that his computer would not boot. It only got so far and then presented a blinking cursor, without a DOS prompt. After listening to his description, I suggested that he press the power button and hold it until the computer shut down. Then I told him to unplug the computer and press the power button again for about 10 seconds. Then I asked him to plug the power back in and boot the computer. With relief, he reported to me that his computer was working again.

Windows is like that. Often, Windows will recover from many errors with a reboot, but in this case, a complete power drain on the computer was required to remove anything that remained in memory.

I was sort of worried that the drivers on Linux borked the graphics card, but I was still early in my investigation, so I was open to that possibility. After trying a power drain on my computer, I still had the artifacts on the screen. So I unplugged everything and took the computer to the kitchen and opened the box to reseat the graphics card.

What does it mean to reseat the graphics card? The graphics card is a very powerful processor for handling the display of graphics on your computer. For example, if you play games on your computer, the graphics card does the work of displaying the animation from the game so that the CPU can focus on running the computer. Often, the graphics card has far greater power than the CPU, but it's dedicated to the function of running the display for your monitor. My graphics card makes light work of displaying a movie on the screen, as an example.

The graphics card is connected to the motherboard by metal tabs at the bottom of the card and a slot on the motherboard. To reseat the graphics card, I simply open the computer, remove the card from the slot and put it back. My computer had been sitting below my desk for more than a year, so I did some cleaning, too. Cleaning the dust out of your computer can help to remove dust bunnies that can cause electrical problems in computers, too.

Then I took it back to my workstation, hooked everything up and turned it on. Unfortunately, even after reseating the graphics card, I still had the same problem. So I connected my other Linux machine, my laptop, to the monitor. Still had the same problem. With the other computer connected, with no display problems, I could eliminate my main computer as the source of the problem and began to focus on the monitor. I had tried power cycling the monitor, but didn't try a complete power drain from it. I had doubts that would work and had already talked to my wife about buying a new monitor. But I thought I should give it a try, anyway.

I disconnected the power from my monitor, pressed the power button for a few seconds to discharge everything, and plugged the power back in. Then I turned the monitor on and found the artifacts gone. The monitor was completely clear of any artifacts. What a relief! Thankfully, the problem cleared.

I'm very pleased to see this. The power disconnection and discharge technique works on my computer and my monitor. I dub this technique, The Power Drain Solution here and now, but it probably goes under another name. I can see how it can be used in computer parlance with a customer. "Try a power drain on the computer and see if that works." Yeah, I like the way that sounds.

Anyway, I told my wife that I got the monitor problem solved and she said I can still buy a new monitor later. I might just do that. I've been watching movies on my computer lately and have found that works very well for me.

This experience buttresses a principle that I have found that can be applied quite often in diagnosing hardware. The principle is that often times, the simplest solution works best. The hard part is finding the solution. But once the solution is found, I can document it for myself and others here. I hope you find this article useful.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Who wants immunity from the consequences of their actions?

There's a meme floating around on Facebook. It looks like this:


The man in the image, if he's not familiar to you, is Dick Cheney. You know, former senator and vice president of the United States under President Bush. Yeah, the *second* Bush.

This post isn't so much about the criticisms that are leveled at him. I've already written articles about Iraq and the financial crisis, and plenty of pixels and ink have been spilled worldwide on the topic. Most of us are already familiar with the consequences of those events and a tiny fraction actually profited from those events. But here, we see a man who has profited immensely from the two wars he helped to foment, despite popular opposition to the same.

This is a man with compensation that is so completely disconnected from performance, that it's amazing that he managed to keep it - that there was no clawback. As I write this, I now understand better why anyone needs to make more money beyond a comfortable living. In fact, it's not a need, its a desire. That desire is for more power. Beyond the point of living in a decent house, having retirement paid for, fantastic health benefits, being able to pay every bill and still have money left over at the end of each month to sock away in retirement, what else is there to want? The only remaining thing I can think of is power.

But there is something else that comes with power that few people notice or are willing to discuss: insulation from the consequences of their actions. I think in policy discussions of governments around the world, and particularly here, we need to look more closely at immunity from the consequences of policy decisions.

With Dick Cheney he was fairly immune from the consequences of his policy actions and proposals. War is a result of public policy decisions here in the United States. Who bears the brunt of that decision? Certainly not Dick Cheney. The poor who could not find decent jobs outside of the armed services did. The poor who could not afford a college education did. The Iraqis who lost nearly a million lives did. Dick Cheney? He made a boatload of money.

Cheney already had enough money to be fairly immune from the consequences of his actions before he became vice president. The money he made from the wars is just more insulation, more power. In other words, if Cheney is ever prosecuted for war crimes, he can hire a rock-star legal team to mount a meaningful defense to any charge that comes his way. If he's busted for drunk driving, it's not likely that he will see the inside of a cell. If he shoots his friend with a shotgun while hunting, he still won't see any charges - maybe it was an accident, but no one knows if Cheney said he was sorry. He's got the money to pay for the accident and any legal defense required.

Dick Cheney is just one of our so-called leaders that is most visible. There are many others seeking that same insulation and not all of them are in government, but because they have money, they have a voice in government that can be heard above the din of popular protest and uprising across this country, both online and in the street.

So while the people at the top complain about how welfare decreases the incentive to work, or how Social Security should be abolished in favor of private retirement plans, or how Medicare and Medicaid should be abolished, they are quiet when it comes to their own immunity from the consequences of their policy decisions.

Let's be fair. Everyone wants immunity from the consequences of their actions to some degree. That's why we buy insurance. We buy car insurance because we've made a decision to buy a car and understand the risks involved in driving that car. We acknowledge that we may not be able to assume all of the financial responsibility for the risk of driving a car. Insurance is a way to spread the risk among many people, and we're all better off for sharing the risk.

As we saw in the financial meltdown of 2008, the wealthiest among us like to call themselves "capitalists", but they were not willing to assume all of the risk, so they went to the government for help. Did they buy insurance? I don't know. We do know that the people running Wall Street, faced with imminent financial ruin, were not willing to accept the consequences for the actions they took in their part of the financial meltdown of 2008.

Leading up to the 1980s, we had very progressive taxation. That progressive taxation did a fairly good job of limiting extreme accumulations of wealth like we see now, in the hands of a few people. Consider that 85 people own half of the wealth in the world. Everyone else owns the other half. Those 85 people are supremely insulated from the consequences of their actions. They can buy their way pretty much out of any mistake they make. Even if they faced financial ruin, after selling their assets, they will still have plenty of money to live comfortably, they will never be homeless. But these same people can make policy decisions and lend their support to the same, that can cause pain and suffering to millions if not billions of people.

This is what progressive taxation is about. It's not about taking from people what belongs to them, as some conservatives want us to believe. It's about acknowledging the risk associated with allowing too much wealth to accumulate in too few hands. It's about acknowledging that once you allow extreme concentrations of wealth accumulate in any democracy, you're creating a very high risk of losing that democracy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Yet another argument for regulating internet access as a utility

On Monday, a man with a name that most of us have never heard of was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on regulation. His work has been cited more than 80,000 times by other scientists. His work spans decades and might have helped us to find real competition in the internet access market. But it was ignored by US regulators over the last decade. His name? Jean Tirole. Yeah, another frenchman, like Thomas Piketty.

For years, I've been reading articles that promote the idea of regulating internet access providers like utilities. I've been promoting that idea, too. But for some reason, I didn't see any of that in US policy discussion until recently. Finally, we have someone who wins a Nobel Prize for pointing that out. Not only are his ideas recognized, they have been tested in other countries that now enjoy cheaper internet access with better quality of service than we have.

The reason is that at the federal level, internet access has not been treated as a utility or common carrier industry. The reason for this is that we have lived with conservative leaders who believe that the market will regulate itself. This is true when there is more than one or two providers. Multiple providers of any service or product will compete for customers either on price or service level.

Unfortunately, for most of us, when we look at our options, we have one or two internet access providers. No sane economist will tell us that we have a truly competitive market for internet access here in the US. But in other countries like Japan, Australia and many countries in Europe, there is real competition among many competitors. Their internet access costs less and provides higher speeds than we see here in the US.

Tirole has done research to show that when the market is left to themselves, they tend to find ways to remove competition from the market. Sometimes they do this by cooperation, other times, they do this by systematically removing competitors, through consolidation, price competition, or even government regulation that hurts other competitors.

It is a complex problem that requires consistent attention and action, but one thing is for sure, regulating internet access as a common carrier or utility can help to remove or eliminate parasitic behavior on the part of internet access providers.

This is why I promote community broadband. Community broadband works because its reason for being is to serve customers first, generate profits later. When profits are generated, they tend to be shared with the consumer in the form of upgrades to service rather than diverted to CEO salaries. Community broadband must respond to political forces where private internet access providers, in the form of large corporations like Comcast, seek insulation from political and competitive forces.

Tirole has shown us how the market is inefficient and that it can fail. If your choices for internet access are one or two service providers, the market has failed. If you only have Comcast as your service provider, one of the most hated companies in the US, your local market hasn't just failed. It's cratered.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What exactly, is a picture?

From time to time, I see pictures of myself, friends and family on Facebook. When I see those pictures I find that I take a short inventory about what I know about that person and wonder how they are doing. Once a week I go shopping for groceries with my family and find myself at the checkout stand, looking at the magazines. I see the celebrities, all tricked out with the latest fashions and on the tabloids, I see the most unflattering pictures of celebs one could ever find.

How much do I really know about someone from a picture? Not very much, really. A picture is, after all, a very gross approximation of who we really are at that point in time. A picture is a snapshot in time of our state of being, and even then, it is only the thinnest of slices of time. A picture is what is captured from light reflected by us onto the CCD or film at that moment in time.

A picture of me does not reflect all the joys and sufferings that I may or may not have enjoyed or endured. A picture cannot even come close to encapsulating all of the experience, wisdom and history that I have gathered. A picture is just one point of view of me or anyone else captured by a camera.

I think that film stars know this better than anyone, for they see themselves aging over the years. They can watch their own films and remember what they were going through on the day of each shoot. They know, first hand, the blood, sweat and tears, that went into the making of the film. They know how they had to set aside everything else going on in their mind for each take, to stay in character and to pretend, for a few minutes, to be someone else.

I suppose that when someone takes a picture of us, even impromptu, we find a way to pose for the shot, to show our best side, and gather ourselves up a smile. In those moments, we don't know what will happen next or what will happen to our pictures. Who will see them? Who will remember us?

For decades we used film to capture those moments we thought worth capturing. Some of those pictures are in our memories for the impressions they made on us. From portraits, to magazines to the internet, we've seen pictures travel from a limited life to a state of immortality, for the internet never forgets. Most of us now use digital cameras as single purpose instruments or built into our phones. The pictures now go straight to disk, stored for as long as there is power and the means to retrieve them, they will be there.

Yet, no single picture can tell the entire story of the image it captures. All that a picture can do is offer us a glimpse of a moment long since passed, into eternity. Only the people who were there know what was going on outside the frame of the shot. For the rest of us, we can only imagine the scene at the time of the shoot.

Yes, a picture really is a very gross approximation of who we are, and I doubt it will ever be anything more than that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A passing note on being a dad with computers

I work a full time job and I am an aspiring writer. On top of that, I'm a dad. Today I made the mistake of leaving the bedroom door open when warming my water, lemon and honey for the morning - while my daughter was awake. Emily came right out to the kitchen at 4 in the morning as if it's time for her young mind and body to get up. Like me, she wanted to get up early like Daddy.

Well, I tried to explain to her that she's too young to be up so early. Daddy needs to write in the morning so that he has time for Emily later when he returns from work, right? I do all my writing in the morning when Emily and Alice are asleep. Then in the evening, I can just focus on family and caring for Emily.

But this morning, Emily would not give up on leaving the bedroom. She has figured out the doorknob so now we have to be extra careful about where she's going. But she hasn't figured out the exterior doors yet, thankfully. She now knows how to leave the bedroom even if Alice and I want to get some sleep. This morning, she would not have it so easy. I tried sitting with her at my computer while writing my morning page, but I began to have growing concerns for her eyes and brains seeing light so early in the morning. So I brought her back to the bedroom.

Then the ultimate rant went on, crying, screaming, pounding on the door as I sat in front of it, preventing her from opening it. I carried her hoping that she would flail to the point of sleep, but she outlasted me with her struggle. She did not outlast me with her power, she outlasted me with the hope that her mother, carrying a sister into the world soon, could get some sleep. I could see that as long as both of us were in the room, Emily seemed sure that she had leverage to negotiate. If Mom can't sleep, surely Emily can watch YouTube for awhile. Sorry, Emily. That's not going to happen this morning.

So I carried her out to the living room, but as I carried her, she continued to struggle. Then I had the good sense to just lay her on the couch. I explained to her that it's time for her to go back to sleep. As she lay on the couch, she took notice of her feet and made happy noises about them. She started to relax because she wasn't in the bedroom and probably because she had some hope of getting on the computer again.

So I laid on the couch, too. In a few minutes she joined me. Then I sang a few songs. I counted to 100 and back down to 0 again as she lay by my side, with her head cradled on my shoulder against the backrest of the couch. She was still heaving from crying so much, so I stroked her stomach in an effort to help her relax. Then I turned her over to lay her chest on my chest, letting her head fall to the side of my head.

I figured that after a few minutes of feeling her body rise and fall with my breathing, she would fall asleep, and she did. Helping her get to sleep is one of my favorite things to do, for the smile that she has on her face is priceless. I didn't get to see it this morning because the house was dark and intentionally so. This is to help her brain remember that when it's dark, it's time to sleep.

I did all of this with no yelling, no screaming, no spanking, even if she hit me. Nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could. I was determined to use relentless gentle persuasion. I also used gentle restraint, a firm "no" when needed and eventually, I let her go on the couch and she relaxed. It was clear that she didn't want to be in the bedroom. When I brought her into the living room, she relaxed noticeably. When I laid on the couch with her, she really settled down. When I laid her on my chest and let her head rest against my shoulder, her return to sleep was complete.

I was determined to let her know that she wasn't going to get her way, but that I was there, to gently help her find her sleep again, despite her growing fascination with computers. She knows how to start YouTube, she knows where to find the videos she likes to watch, and she knows how to power the computers on. She just doesn't know the password and how to enter it to unlock the computer. I have a notion that she sees computer skills as survival skills and maybe that is where she is coming from.

I have no doubt that she will be a whiz with computers when both of he parents are very competent on computers. But I also try to show her that computers don't love people. People love people. As she develops language skills, I am going to be repeating that theme over time, to let her know that no matter how appealing a computer can be, they can never love you.

Computers lack the drive and the instinct that people come with. They don't have the unpredictability with all their pleasant and not so pleasant surprises. Computers cannot look you in the eye and say, "I love you". That just isn't going to happen. Computers can't make choices. People can.