Friday, April 18, 2014

Throwing money at ideas doesn't make them good

So, the Supreme Court still thinks that money is speech? I see that the Roberts Court has not only repeated this tired idea, but they have strengthened it with language in their ruling to suggest that all campaign finance limits are an infringement of speech. Never mind that Citizens United overturned more than 100 years of jurisprudence already. Early analysis suggests that this is only the beginning of the attack on campaign contribution limits and that many laws will be subject to attack and scrutiny with this ruling.

So lets assume that they're right and that money is speech. The Walton family owns more wealth in this country than the bottom 40%. If money is speech, and they get the laws they want, will they take responsibility when things go wrong?

I have seen first hand, what happens when only a few people get to make the decisions in any group. The outcomes go south for everyone except the proponents of the idea. Consider a contrast in software. Microsoft sells Windows worldwide. Windows is written by a few select programmers within the company. No one gets to see their code outside of the company. Fewer still have any meaningful input into the direction of the development of the software.

Compare that to Linux. Linux is shared code. It runs most of the internet today, the securities exchanges and more than a billion devices worldwide known as smart phones. Anyone who chooses may submit code for use in the Linux Kernel. Every time the code is shared with another person, that person benefits. In terms of the market, Linux has been favored over Windows in almost every sector of the IT industry except a few servers and the typical desktop computer.

Because so many more people had input on the direction of development in Linux than in Windows, Linux can deliver what the people want. The people who manage Windows assume that they know what the people want, but also have their own, pecuniary interests that they hold higher than what the people they serve want.

This is the problem with American politics in general and the latest decision by the Supreme Court. The assumption being made here is that the best ideas will draw the most money. Maybe, maybe not. But if the most money supporting an idea or ideology come from only a few people, with limited experience or exposure to the implementation of those ideas, what incentive do they have to vet the idea to ensure it is sound?

I used to be conservative. I voted for Bush Sr. when I was a young man. I liked Reagan then, too. But after 30 years of watching the middle class slide into oblivion, I've lost my enthusiasm for conservative politics. We have a greater concentration of wealth at the top than many countries which we disdainfully refer to as "banana republics". Most of the conservative pedagogy is really about ideals without much empirical evidence to back it up.

Since Reagan, all I've ever heard from conservatives is that if we lower taxes, more jobs will be created. When the top marginal tax rates dropped to 28% we should have had a boom. We did not. We had a bubble. And another bubble, and another one, each followed by recessions and each became more severe than the last. At the end of the reign Bush Jr., we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. People were losing their houses, losing their retirement, losing their cash flow. The money didn't just disappear. Where did it go? The top 1% got it.

Now that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands than ever before in this country, the billionaires are chomping at the bit to get guys like John Roberts in a position to help them out even more. It's not enough that money can buy the laws needed to concentrate wealth. Now they need courts to affirm those laws just to remind the rest of us that it's too late to save our democracy.

Money is not speech and it will never be. It is time for a constitutional amendment to clarify the matter and Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed one in Congress. Maybe someday, that will become law that the Supreme Court cannot overturn.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Here's something to think about the next time you vote

Could we be living in an oligarchy? An oligarchy is a society where only the super rich have any influence on public policy. Worried about the environment? Nothing is going to happen unless the wealthiest among us are willing to do something about it. Worried about Social Security? Hey, if the wealthy don't need it, it will be cut to ribbons if the oligarchs want to cut it. Consider yourself lucky if you even get anything after paying taxes for it.

Average citizens don't get to decide who runs for office and who wins. We think that the decision was made in an election. The decision of who gets to run and do well in the primaries was made long before the election by the oligarchs. Lawrence Lessig was the first to publish clues about the problem of oligarchy. He says we live in "Lesterland", a place where 0.05% of the people get to decide who runs and wins elections.

A recent study confirms that America is no longer a democracy. The study has conducted a detailed analysis of more than 1700 issues to compare influence of the government by business, individuals and grass roots organizing. The finding? If you're wealthy, and you happen to own a very large business, hey, you're in the club. Set theory says that everyone else is not in the club.

I see our representatives inviting ordinary guys like you and me to come to the town hall when they're in town. I used to have the idea that I could go there and ask a few pointed questions to help influence policy, to let them know that they represent me. But the evidence is growing larger to show, rather decisively, that they don't represent me. The town halls are all for show as far as I'm concerned.

Now I understand why I get these bland, uninspiring letters from Congressmen in reply to my communications with them. They can't do anything for me. Their hands are tied by the people that bankroll their campaigns. Now I see that their Facebook pages are just for show, too. They want us to feel engaged, but they're not really doing anything for us. They're still thinking about their benefactors while they pretend to take average citizens seriously.

We used to be a democracy. Average citizens used to have influence over public policy. We can see it in our history. The civil rights movement is a great example, with people like Rosa Parks. But today, what do we get? Edward Snowden? A contractor who made off with classified data and released it to the media. He has done a great deal to educate us all about how our government thinks about us, so don't get me wrong. But if we want social change, we may have to do better than that.

This is a good reason for high marginal tax rates like what we had in 1955. This is also a good reason for effective taxation of corporations. When the wealthy have real limits on the amount of money they can accumulate, they have real limits on the amount of influence they can impose on government. High taxes can be used to support society, no doubt. Canada, Finland and Norway are fine examples of that. 

I'm not so sure that the high tax rates of the previous century were imposed just to raise revenue. I think their original purpose was to limit the influence of the wealthy over government so that everyone can have a say in how government works. You know, like a democracy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The mental narrative has changed

I have a voice in my head. It talks and makes observations. It has suggestions. It can be angry, happy, sad, and it is the voice I hear in my head all the time. Some people have voices, but they're not here. We're talking about having one voice in the head. Yeah, I have just one.

I've been recalling the voices I've heard over my life, the influences on my thinking and now notice a dramatic shift in the way that I think due to the internet.

I remember the days before the internet. Quiet times were really quiet. It was just me, a great sandwich, a bag of chips and a Coke, all in the shade of the trees at the bottom of Sand Dune Hill. There was no cell phone, no smart phone, no computers. Just thoughts running through my head as I ate my sandwich, my chips and drank my Coke as an adolescent boy.

What ran through my head was everything that I heard from other people in school, what I saw in TV (not that much) and what I read in books (all over my mind). There was no phone to peer at while I'm looking for something to do. I made something to do with my mind. I carried magazines or books around when I wanted something to read. That is what I did before the age of the network.

If I wanted to call someone, I needed a payphone or I had to go home to make the call. I might stop in to see someone on the way home on my bike. I would think while I was riding. I did not play music from a little box connected to a headset. There was no distraction available to take away from the ride, the wind and the moment of riding downhill.

I can recall days when I was kid, where I had truly quiet and peaceful moments. I enjoyed spending time under shade trees at the park, sunsets at the end of the pier on my bike and the thoughts running through my head during long walks alone. I know from that experience that true solitude is hard to attain in the age of the internet.

I can also recall a time that I spent at a yoga retreat on Mount Palomar for a week. It was a great time and I learned a lot about myself while I was there for a week. No phone, no computers, no nothing. Just me and the other people seeking some peace. On one particular day there, we had a no talking day. We made gestures to communicate but said no words. That experience allowed me to empty my mind to find other parts of my mind that I didn't know were there. I had peace.

Now I see myself today, on the internet everyday, reading, writing, texting, watching videos and listening to music. Some of the music I listen to I own, most I do not. There is no DJ blather to muddy my mind. No commercials beating on my brain to tell me what to do. In the morning, I listen to really quiet music and write as I'm writing here. I read for inspiration for articles. I watch videos to learn more about the world I live in.

There is so much information available on the internet now, that I've noticed that it tends to crowd out the personal narrative. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the minutia, the trivia, the facts - whatever. Want to follow the story on Flight MH370? You can do that all day, every day for as long as they still cannot find the plane. Even after they find the plane, CNN will still be analyzing the facts of the story until God knows when.

I like to read on the internet, so don't get me wrong. I enjoy the media that I get to sample every day from the internet. It is a part of our culture. There are some stories that I like to follow in detail, but for every story that I follow, I lose a little bit of my own story.

When we follow all that stuff on the internet, we can lose sight of who we are, where we belong, and where to find peace and quiet. I can only read so many stories, but when my daughter trundles in to see me, I stop what I'm doing and spend time with her. She has her own narrative. She sees me as I really am because there is no distraction available to her so that she can ignore me or make me go away. She reminds me that I am here, not there, on the internet.

It is easy to get lost on the internet, to forget oneself. The internet is a very interesting place, but I wouldn't want to live there. The people in my life remind of where I am, they are a point of reference I can see whenever I'm not looking at a screen. They are the anchor I need to reality, the true source of personal narrative, because they reflect me exactly as I am. Now.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Who does the NSA serve with Heartbleed?

The tech world is abuzz with word of the Heartbleed bug, a bug that makes OpenSSL, the software that makes your shopping safer with Amazon, susceptible to attack. Responses in the media and blogosphere range from outrage and paranoia to "ho-hum, another bug - did you update your computer yet?"

Two sources seem to have confirmed that the NSA has been exploiting the bug for a couple of years since it was introduced, Bloomberg and Wired Magazine. Wired Magazine quotes Bloomberg, but has more details on what the bug is about. This is a server side bug, which means that if the server is configured to use the Heartbeat service for OpenSSL, clients connecting to the server may not have a secure connection if the Heartbeat code is unpatched. Proffered solutions abound.

The NSA has been consistently hunting for and exploiting bugs in software for years in an effort to fight the so-called war on terror. I've heard it said by the NSA that if they save even one life from an act of terrorism, that all of their surveillance is justified. Yet, the NSA and other surveillance agencies are not reporting the bugs they find to anyone, not as far as I know, nor have they suggested that they have any responsibility to do so.

Their attitude suggests that as long as the rest of us are insecure, they can maintain security for the people they serve. So, who exactly do they serve? The 60% of the population that owns 2.5% of the wealth in this country? I submit that they are not serving most of us, that they have a higher interest in mind: the 400 hundred families that own most of the wealth in this country.

Ordinary people like you and me did not vote for candidates for federal office with 24/7 surveillance in mind. We did not elect our government to watch everyone and everything. Some of us are even aware that if the moneyed interests want privacy, oh, they'll have it, at the expense of everyone else.

There will always be bugs in software, even very important software like OpenSSL, the software we've come to rely upon when we're shopping on the internet, sending out business proposals to our clients, or merely sending a job application to an employer. But just because the bug is there doesn't mean security agencies get a free-for-all blank check to read and record everything just because they think they might need it to fight terrorism. Why don't you get a warrant like you're supposed to?

The odds of dying from a terrorist attack are about 20 million to 1. The odds of dying from a natural disaster that is a result of global warming are rising every day, albeit slowly. "Extreme weather" has become a phrase of common usage in the media and in culture. Remember Hurricane Katrina?

The war on terror is about control over energy, people and information. The priorities of the 1% are clear: money and control before the environment. We no longer live in a democracy. We live in an oligarchy. We can talk about where you're going to live, later.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Movie Review: We're Not Broke

I know, it's a couple years late. I've been really busy, so getting a movie in here and there is hard. Fortunately, I figured out how to get Netflix running on my Linux machine and it works great. So, last night, I took some time to watch "We're Not Broke" an interesting historical analysis of the financial meltdown of 2008.

The viewing coincides nicely with a wave of book reviews for "Capital in the Twenty-First Century", by Thomas Piketty. Picketty has shown that the ultimate conclusion of capitalism is a plutocracy, using 200 years of data. The plutocracy has resulted not in capitalism. Capitalism is dead, due to its own hand, and has been replaced with something else. It's an economic system that allows a small fraction of people (the top 0.1%) to accumulate wealth, invest it and hold it, with little to no risk. Dean Baker calls it "The Conservative Nanny State". Whatever it is that we have now, it isn't going to support a democracy.

Allow me to explain. The movie We're Not Broke, demonstrates over and over again, that cutting taxes will not create jobs. There are tax policy experts on the left and the right in the movie who recognize the problem of a system whereby the people who benefit the most from international tax law get influence and access to the people who pass the laws.

In the movie, you'll hear phrases like "transfer pricing", "tax haven", and "repatriation". All of it is about how the richest corporations are hiding their money from the authorities, legally. The authorities know that it is there, but wealthy corporations have teams of lawyers who can hide the money across borders to keep it from being taxed. It is estimated that there is more than $2 trillion hidden offshore. Our esteemed corporate leaders say that if they can have a tax holiday, they will bring that money back home to create jobs and make investments.

The conservative refrain is to cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes. Well, for the last 30 years, we did. How did that work out? The movie goes into gory detail about a natural experiment, the 2004 tax holiday under the Bush administration. The tax holiday temporarily cut the corporate tax from 35% to 5% to allow repatriation of money held offshore.

The results? Shareholders and managers got dividends and bonuses - employees got laid off by the thousands. This is just one tax holiday in a giant game of keep-away, with what was once known as the middle class, in the middle. That was one very expensive experiment, one that former President Bush is quite proud of.

This movie only confirms what I've been seeing and saying: conservative economic policy is not about creating jobs. It's about creating distance and removing risk from investing and holding capital. Consider the rise of monopolies like Comcast, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the wireless giants, AT&T and Verizon. They sprang up after the Reagan Administration to become giants that no one could touch. Their stocks are valuable because they are monopolies, not because they entertain true risk in the ordinary sense of the word "capitalism".

Today, the Huffington Post reports new estimates are that there is somewhere between $22 trillion and $32 trillion sitting in accounts offshore. If you're wondering where the "job creators" went, they went offshore. Too greedy and selfish to support the society they live in, paying taxes is seen as out of fashion by this cabal of billionaires. Never mind crumbling infrastructure, expensive education and healthcare, with few if any national initiatives to improve the country. They're shorting America and taking their profits now, before it's too late.

I know a few capitalists. They don't have access to a team of lawyers that can reduce taxes to zero as do Bank of America, GE, Exxon and a host of other multinational corporations. Since the capitalists I know are not running monopolies, they entertain a certain risk of losing customers, and rising supply costs. Their concern of paying higher taxes is urgent simply because the titans can bend the laws to their will, at the expense of everyone else. If you own a monopoly, you're not a capitalist, you're a plutocrat and you're not interested in a free society, unless its high society that has the freedom.

With that kind of money being siphoned from the economy, we can easily explain the wage stagnation over the last 30 years that precipitated the 2008 meltdown and the recession that followed. "We're Not Broke" is a well though out analysis of the crisis we face today and offers some very interesting solutions to restore the balance of power necessary to support and sustain what makes this country great: democracy.

When everyone has a voice in determining our collective fate, we all prosper. But you won't hear that from the plutocrats.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lunch at the Cheesecake Factory

Last weekend, my wife and I had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, courtesy of a gift card we received sometime ago. I must say, it was a fantastic meal. I had somosas and fettucini alfredo. Alice had soft chicken tacos and a big plate of pasta with marinara sauce topped with some chicken. For desert, we had the Black Out Chocolate Cheesecake. All of it was delicious, all of it well worth experience of eating there.

But the one thing I won't forget about our experience is the size of the portions. They were huge portions. Even the cake was big enough for two. The meal was so big that I didn't even eat dinner that night. Around dinner time, I was still buzzing from all the food that I ate for lunch.

As I sat in a chair at home shortly after the meal, I could feel my stomach working, I could feel the pulse through my hands as my body worked to digest this massive meal. I wasn't hungry and I could feel the urge to take a nap. I think I did take a nap that day.

Upon reflection, I started to think about my other restaurant adventures and noticed a similar pattern. The portions are very large, too large for me, probably too large for most people, but you know, "waste not, want not" is running through our minds, so we eat all of it.

Years ago, I read about a study where college kids were invited to eat a bowl of soup. This was no ordinary bowl of soup. There was nothing special about the soup, but there was something special about the bowl. The bowl would keep filling up from the bottom as the students ate the soup. Another group ate from a different bowl that did not fill up. But they ate until the soup was gone. The conclusion of the study is that most people eat until the food is gone, and won't stop even if they feel full.

These two conditions, portion sizes and the tendency to eat beyond the point where we need no more, could easily explain obesity in America.

I know this tendency in myself. I will eat until the food is gone. So at home, I make sure that the portions are small. If I need more, I can get more later. My wife is like my Mom, they both cook more than we need and often, there are leftovers. No big deal. I don't like the feeling of my stomach working late into the night to digest food. I actually like a little hunger pang so that I know my stomach is getting a rest.

You see, the stomach is a muscle, and it has to work hard to digest food. This takes energy away from other processes that the body will perform to assimilate and rebuild. I make sure that my stomach has time to rest every day. You wouldn't want to do situps all day now, would you? But if you snack all day, your stomach is working all day.

Cooked food also leads to another form of work: enzyme production. Raw food is packed with enzymes that digest food for us. This is what causes fresh food to decay if we leave it out of the refrigerator. Animals use these enzymes to assist with digestion of the food they eat. There is significant documentation on the subject of enzymes, but most of what I know comes from two sources: Enzyme Nutrition, a book by Dr. Edward Howell, and the Wheatgrass Book, by Ann Wigmore. Both of these books are a huge influence in the choices I make when it comes to food.

The easiest food to digest is raw food. Salads, fruits, even raw vegetables, they're all there, ready to eat. Meat is much harder to digest, even when cooked because the enzymes are dead by then. Enzymes are at work in our bodies, 24/7, and they do almost all of the work of keeping us alive. Enzymes mediate every step of metabolism in our bodies. Food that comes with living enzymes makes for light work for our bodies.

You might have heard of caloric restriction as a way to increase lifespan. I think it is a good practice and practice it myself. I eat when I'm hungry and I don't eat when I'm not hungry. Eating is not a sport, it is not recreation. It is something I do to live and live well. You just won't see me in a pie eating contest.

The reason caloric restriction works is not fewer calories consumed, its because your body is not producing enzymes to digest cooked food. As your body produces enzymes, that effort takes away energy for other work that the body needs to do to stay healthy and young.

The next time I go to the Cheesecake Factory, I will probably split the entree with my wife for better sleep. I will also rest easier knowing that my stomach will get some rest before the next meal.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Chromecast review - the media revolution

I finally got one. After weeks of patient and quiet negotiation with my wife, Alice, I got a Chromecast. My wife was worried that, like the Rasberry Pi before it, I would have to buy accessories that would bring the total price up to $100. I won't have to this time.

Chromecast is like a thumbdrive, but it's bigger than that. Chromecast plugs into an HDMI port on your TV and connects to your wireless network to bring your favorite media to your TV.

I had been reading about it for the last few months and my curiosity grew by leaps and bounds over the last few weeks as I learned of an ecosystem that Google is cultivating. The number of applications for Chromecast is growing quickly because Google has created a software development kit to help developers make use of it. This is a revolution in the way we view and listen to media.

Chromecast is a $35 HMDI dongle - for lack of a better word - that turns your TV, any HDMI TV, into a smart TV. It's a little computer that fits in the palm of your hand. I found one for $30 on sale at BestBuy, in the store and there were plenty in stock for sale.

Setting it up is a dream and you do not have to be a nerd to get it done. first, plug it into an open HDMI port. The Chromecast needs power and comes with a USB cable that provides power to it. What is really cool about this is that you can use a power outlet with the provided power adapter, or you can plug the USB cable back into an available USB port on the TV for power.

Then bring up the TV and select the source HDMI port for viewing the Chromecast. If nothing else is powered on, the TV will automatically select the right input. If you have a cable box or a DVD player that is already on, you will have to manually select the right port to view Chromecast.

Once you have Chromecast in view, find any Android phone, tablet or ChromeOS computer and install the Chromecast app. Follow the prompts on the TV to connect to the Chromecast with your device and connect the Chromecast to your wireless network. Once connected, the Chromecast will get the latest updates and reboot. Then you're ready for your first cast.

I started with YouTube and played a few videos just to see how it works. It works well.

I started to get excited about this because I know I can do the same thing with my Samsung DVD player. Yeah. The slow to boot, slow to move anywhere DVD player. Before I got the Chromecast, I could "cast" videos to my DVD player. This was nice because moving around in the DVD player was slow and clunky. I hated it. Using the phone gave me much more freedom and latitude to get to where I wanted to go. The phone is the remote control for the Chromecast. Or you could use a tablet to do the same thing.

But there is another problem with the DVD player, and this applies with almost any DVD player that has some smarts built in. The DVD player manufacturers are in the hardware business, not the software business. They have little incentive to keep their devices up to date. They can use slower hardware and still get the job done, but maybe not as fast as consumers would like.

Google is in the search business. They want people to use their products because when people use Google, advertisers find customers. Google uses software to make the search business work. But Google isn't content with just the PC, and they know who rules the PC for now: Microsoft. So Google went around Microsft and put Android on phones and tablets that could connect to media, cause you know, people like to watch media on any screen they can find. Android is the locomotive that punched a massive hole right through Microsoft's business.

Google has every incentive to make their hardware fast. The Chromecast boots up fast. It found updates on the first boot on my TV. The Chromecast is just getting going and I expect it to evolve quickly into the tool of choice for accessing media on big screens.

So far, I've used Chromecast for Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, Google Play (to access my own music collection in the cloud) and my pictures. In each case, my user experience faster and easier than using the DVD player. Notice that I didn't mention Hulu yet. I won't bother with Hulu because the amount of advertising shown for a "one hour" episode is beyond irritating, it's nauseating. So far, the top 4 remain a great experience and they're even better on Chromecast.

Pandora has made their Chromecast version easy to read, easy to navigate, easy to listen to. Netflix runs pretty much the same way as the DVD player runs, but the phone is the remote control, so it's easier to find movies you want to watch, but maybe a bit more effort to pause, play, and so on. Note that with all media, when the screen is locked on the phone, you can still pause or play without unlocking the phone. Very cool.

I can already see very interesting uses for Google Chromecast. Here's an example. I'm on vacation in a hotel. I'd like to take some downtime after some fun on the slopes and watch the videos we made today with the kids. Why watch videos on a laptop or an itty-bitty phone screen when we have Chromecast? We can use the hotel TV to see what we want to see. We don't have to be content with the advertising laden content provided by the hotel.

When I'm visiting with Mom in California, I can use Chromecast to send pictures of of our kids to her TV while we are there. I can play videos on the TV without any other cables. We can put on Pandora while we're there. Chromecast can go anywhere there is an HDMI TV.

There is even a business case for using Chromecast. You want to make a presentation in your client's boardroom? No problem. You can use Chromecast to receive a presentation of slides from your phone, tablet or Chromebook. You could even use Chrome on your windows machine to make the presentation. But do you really want to risk a blue screen of death in front of a big customer?

These are early days, but I can see the momentum building for Chromecast. Chromecast will make cable TV irrelevant. Chromecast makes TV personal, portable and convenient. The revolution has begun, so grab a bag of popcorn, sit back and watch.