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.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to create a persistent alias in Bash

One thing I've come to love about Linux is that it has an intelligent command prompt. In fact, there is more than one command prompt we call the shell. But the one I use and the one that is most popular is the Borne Again Shell, also known as Bash.

I use Bash on a daily basis. When I first started to use Bash, I studied howto articles on the web to learn how to use it. What I have learned is that Bash has many convenient features that the Windows command prompt was missing. Like a persistent memory. At the bash prompt, enter the command, history, and you will see the last 500 commands that you have entered before. That number can be adjusted, too. Windows doesn't have that in their command prompt. Yes, they do have Powershell, but that borrows many things from Linux.

I use Bash to get simple things done every day, like opening a set of files that I use often. To make it easy to run that command, I've created an alias that is just a few characters long and that makes it easy for me to repeat common tasks. Today, I want to show you how to create an alias in Linux.

I like to update my computer often. On a weekly basis, I find that there are updates for programs on my computer, big and small. Some are very important, some not so much. But keeping my computer up to date on Linux is an important task, just like on Windows. I do this for security and for bug fixes, just like on Windows.

Normally, when I run updates, I run the following:

scott@scott_machine:~$ sudo apt-get update
scott@scott_machine:~$ sudo apt-get upgrade

The first command updates the software database, a database that tracks the software installed on my computer. The second command downloads and installs the updates. Sudo is a command that allows me to temporarily run as root to run commands that make changes to the system and requires a password to run.

When I first started doing updates via command line, I was happy to enter the commands and watch the text crawl up the screen during the update and upgrade process. It's a lot more transparent than using the GUI, the point-and-click way. But after awhile I got lazy and started hunting for the commands in my history:

scott@scott_machine:~$ history
692  df -h
693  exit
694  sudo reboot
695  sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

Once I found the last update in history, I could rerun that command:

scott@scott_machine:~$ !695

But even that was getting a little tiresome. So I did some research and found out how to make an alias and make it persistent. You could probably do this with Windows, too. But I bet it's harder to do there. So here we go. At the prompt, type alias:

scott@server:~$ alias
alias alert='notify-send --urgency=low -i "$([ $? = 0 ] && echo terminal || echo error)" "$(history|tail -n1|sed -e '\''s/^\s*[0-9]\+\s*//;s/[;&|]\s*alert$//'\'')"'
alias chex='~/'
alias egrep='egrep --color=auto'
alias fgrep='fgrep --color=auto'
alias grep='grep --color=auto'
alias l='ls -CF'
alias la='ls -A'
alias ll='ls -alF'
alias ls='ls --color=auto'

That tells you what aliases are already recognized as present in your user profile. Every user on a Linux system has a profile. That can be found in the file, .bashrc. To find it, you will need to list all the hidden files as well as normal files. The dot before the filename for .bashrc means that it's a hidden file. So that when you normally list the directory contents, they're hidden. But if you run the command, ls -al, all the contents will be listed, including the hidden files. Notice that in the example above, there are several aliases defined for ls. The one I use the most is ll, the second from the bottom. These aliases can be modified to your liking, too. But today, we're going to focus on adding an alias.

First, decide on what alias we want to add. I wanted to add one for updating my computer, so I chose "updt", a short and sweet string to enter when I want to check for updates and install them. To add the alias, I just modify the .bashrc file like so:

# some more ls aliases
alias ll='ls -alF'
alias la='ls -A'
alias l='ls -CF'
alias chex='~/'
alias updt='sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade'

See that last line? That's the one that I added. In Ubuntu, the default .bashrc file will have a section for more aliases as shown above. To edit the file, run the following command: 

scott@server:~$ vi .bashrc

Then you can add the alias as shown above or however you like, but you follow the syntax shown above. Vi is the command line text editor in Linux. You can learn more about Vi here. The line starts with alias, followed by the new command you want to use, which is arbitrary, but should not be the same as another command that already exists. You can test it by entering the new command without an alias to see if anything happens. You should get a "command not found" message with your new command, if you do, then you can proceed. If not, try a new string until you find one you like. It won't take long.

In each line that defines an alias, the string you want to use is defined as a variable, followed by the equals sign. After the equals sign, you enclose the command(s) you want to use in single quotes. Note that for more than one command to be run, as in my example, I use two ampersands, &&. That allows more than one command to run in sequence.

Once you finish adding the new alias, you must log out and log back in again for the new alias to take effect. You can check to see if it's there by typing alias at the prompt again. If it's there, then run it.

That's it. I hope you enjoyed this little primer on aliases in Bash. Have fun with it.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Roll-forming with paper

As I have noted before, I used to be a sheet metal worker. During my time as a sheet metal worker, I had up-close and personal experience with roll-forming machines. Roll-forming machines have rollers connected to powerful electric motors that pull metal in flat and with rollers pressed together on both sides, shaped the metal in the desired form to make seams and joints in the metal. Through several processes, flat metal sheets are turned into pieces that can be knocked together with a hammer to create duct work.

Here is an example:

That was a part of my life for about ten years. I learned so much during that time, and I got to keep all of my fingers.

So fast forward 20 years. Now we have 3D printers. People are getting creative with them. They're building very interesting, somewhat useless stuff. Like this:

I find it utterly fascinating that someone took the time and effort to design, build and test such a machine. On top of that, the plans for such machines can be shared and improved upon. It's all 3D modeling and a 3D printer like this one:

This is a revolution in the making. Remember when the first laser printers came out? That was a revolution all by itself. This is going to be much bigger, and we're just getting started.

I guess the only real question left is: what are we going to do with this stuff when we're done?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The King has no clothes!...Wait!...Where did all the animals go?

This is news. Real news. Over the last 40 years, half of all the wildlife on the planet has been wiped out. This is mind-boggling. But in a very real, tragic and even comical way, it is food for thought. We could be our own undoing. Noam Chomsky points out that the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years and we're getting very near to the end of that.

Consider that all that wildlife is part of the ecosystem that humans evolved in and from. Through the primordial ooze we rose to become king of the planet. In our attempts to fashion the planet in shapes and forms for our own convenience, we have directly killed animals for food, polluted their environment or wiped out their habitat. If there were a Garden of Eden, we wiped out half of it and we're not stopping anytime soon.

Consider also that 85 people own half of the wealth of the world. What exactly do they own? Do they own buildings, technology and paper stocks in fictional entities called corporations? Or do they own land that grows food, provides a place for the animals to live, or even a clean environment? Those 85 people own half of what? Half of a sick and dying planet, that's what they own, a planet that probably can't wait for us to leave.

Humans have triumphed over every other competitor in every corner of the earth, and any place that is not worth the effort to live in, humans have left alone. But think about this: all those other animals provided food for the smallest of animals we cannot see. Viruses, bacteria, mites and other small insects. Yeah, those guys. Without those other animals, the smallest predators are going to get hungry and they're going to adapt.

With no other competitors and a huge monoculture of humans to feast on, a disease like Ebola actually makes sense. We grew up and evolved with all those other animals supporting us. Those other animals made it hard for any single microbe to gain dominance and infect all of us. The variety of species also provided competition for the microbes, preventing dominance again.

Humans have a rather self-centered view of themselves, as if we could live just fine on our own. Take a look at the space station orbiting above. The needs of humans are difficult to meet in space. There is no place to grow food, air has to be scrubbed of CO2, and water has to be recycled. On earth, all the other animals and plants did this for us. But we're too busy making money to notice what we're wiping out.

Indeed, I find it most unsettling to think that any of the conveniences and prosperity I now enjoy have come at the cost of half of the animals on the planet. It is hard to feel good about a new TV, a new car or even a new house, when I know that we're killing off our environment. Money isn't worth anything if you're sick. Land is not a home when it is polluted.

We cannot lay blame on one government, one religion, or even any style of government. We can almost surely cast an eye to our leaders and ask why they are leading us down this road. Why aren't they saying anything? Who even cares about what the Dow Jones Average is doing when animal life is dying? This is about all of us, not just "them", "the 1%" or the "elites". No, we all play a part in this.

Those little critters, insects like ants, and bacteria (think pneumonia) and viruses like Ebola...they're going to get hungry, and they're going to look at us if there is nothing else to eat or to eat them. This reminds me of the book Prey, by Michael Chrichton. It's a book about how a new invention of swarming microscopic machines started to eat humans. I read that book in 3 days, I just could not put it down until it was done.

While it is possible that we could build something like that and destroy ourselves, I don't even know for sure if we'll last long enough to do it. Nature will have it's way with us, or we will find a way to live in harmony with nature. We get to choose, but we don't have much time to make that choice.