Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections on food

Thanksgiving is over and done. I enjoyed the time with the family, great food, great stories, good games. This is the time of year that I reflect on times past and today, I'm thinking about food.

I've noticed that my attitudes about food have remained largely the same over my life, having formed most of my current eating habits during childhood and adolescence. For example, I've always been the slow eater at any family gathering. Especially for the Thanksgiving meal. Long after everyone else has finished, I'm still chewing away. With any meal, I take small bites, chew my food thoroughly and enjoy the flavors as they are.

I'm a slow eater because the sound of chewing in my head overwhelms the voices I'm trying to hear. I take small bites and chew slowly so that I can better hear what other people are saying. Sometimes I take a break to participate in the conversation, but while I'm eating, I'm listening. This is how I've adapted to hearing loss.

Even when I'm alone, I take my time. When I was a teenager, I'd have dinner after a good workout, alone in the kitchen. Mom would make steak and potatoes with green beans. I'd spend an hour reading Scientific American and eating, chewing slowly, enjoying the flavors and the words, together. That was during a time in my family life when we didn't eat together often.

I still carry that habit today. I wonder why people have to eat so fast when the joy of eating is in the flavor, not the swallowing. When I think about this, the pie eating contest comes up. The hot dog eating contest comes up. How anyone could think of eating as a sport is beyond me. An eating contest makes about as much sense as a walking contest. Is it really worth all that indigestion the next day? Maybe for the winner.

I often take note of advertising for food. Most advertising for food on TV promotes eating without consequences. If you're eating "lite" food, maybe you're eating too much. Children's programming on Saturday morning promotes eating without consequences, too. Cereals that are so sweet they might as well be candy are advertised as the first meal for breakfast. I used to ask my mom to get Apple Jacks or Froot Loops and was roundly denied. Now I understand why.

My mom used to keep a bowl of fruit on the dining room table at all times. Apples, oranges, and bananas were typical. She knew we were going to find candy somewhere and that if there was fruit around the house, would could make our own decisions about what to eat.

On the other side, my dad would keep a stash of chocolate well hidden in the freezer. We knew what was coming when the box was delivered from Bill's Liquor. And we knew where to find it - in the back of the freezer. Dad was apparently hoping we'd miss that chocolate. But I always found it.

When I was a kid, I used to take the bottles for recycling to the liquor store and get some candy. I started to compare how I felt after eating the candy and after eating the fruit. I began to notice that I always felt better after eating the fruit than after eating the candy. Over time, I learned to eat candy in small, yet satisfying quantities. I also learned that fruit has a feature that candy does not have. The body knows when it is full and cannot eat anymore fruit. With candy, the body has almost no way of knowing if the stomach is full until far too much candy has been consumed. This is how most packaged food is designed to work.

I used to eat from time to time at McDonald's and Carl's Jr. One thing I noticed about their food is that within about 2 hours, I was hungry for more. But I was working and could not break for more, happily. On the other hand, when I eat fruit or brown rice, the food really sticks and I can go longer without eating.

My observations on food have led me to the conclusion that if food is advertised on TV, I probably don't need to eat it. I'll never forget the the Der Wienerschnitzel ad on TV, with the hot dog training to run for his life. He is always portrayed as running for his life on those commercials but no one ever really catches him, for the grim result wouldn't be that palatable to consumers. Isn't it strange that in advertising how food is portrayed with human attributes? Do we really want to eat a character we like on TV? What does that say about our culture?

What I've learned is to eat in moderation, take it slow and enjoy the flavor, the smells, and the great company to be had at a gathering of family and friends. There's no rush, we're not going anywhere important for Thanksgiving. We're already there.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Life with a hibernating computer

I'm guilty. I used to keep my computer on overnight and pretty much all the time. I would go weeks without rebooting my computer. I can do that because I run Linux. But even with Windows, I could go a few days without rebooting because I was too impatient to wait for my Windows computer to boot. All of that has changed of late and I've made a little discovery that I would like to share with you.

Many of you know that I use Linux at home. I use a Windows workstation at work and every day, I see the limitations of Windows. Two notable limitations are Windows is slow to boot and has unpredictable results in hibernate mode. Microsoft seems so uncomfortable with people putting their computers into Windows hibernation mode, that they've hidden the interface to allow hibernation and turned off hibernation mode by default.

What is hibernation? When a computer is set to hibernate, the contents of the memory are cached on disk and the state of the computer is frozen, so to speak. Once that is done, the computer can safely power down, completely. I have wanted something like that for a long time, but I didn't trust the computers I've had in the past enough to do it, even with Linux and especially with Windows computers. And as many of you may know, Window needs to be rebooted almost on a daily basis for a positive experience. I guess Microsoft recognized these inconvenient facts about Windows and decided to turn off the hibernate feature by default.

In recent months, I bought a modern computer, a Dell XPS 8700. It has a top of the line CPU, 1 TB of hard disk space, 12 GB of RAM and a graphics card that could double as a supercomputer of a decade ago. This is my computer for the next five years.

Lately, I've gotten into the habit of allowing my daughter to play on the keyboard. She sees what we're doing and wants to be like us. So I let her play with a word processing document so she can see text appearing on the screen when she presses a key. For whatever reason, she really enjoys the cause and effect that she sees when she is on the keyboard. Then after pressing keys for awhile, she will reach for the mouse and move it around, with a furrowed brow, looking really important and busy.

One day, she saw the little round key with a half moon on it - that's the hibernate key on my keyboard - and she pressed it. Down my computer went. The screen was locked and the computer powered down completely in about 3 seconds. She was bewildered. But she was braver than I, because I was not brave enough to use that key before. I thought I would have to power up the computer again with the power button. I couldn't have been more wrong.

We both looked at the blank screen and wondered what to do next. So I did the most logical thing. I pressed the enter key. In about 5 seconds, my computer was back up and running, ready for me to unlock my Gnome session on the computer. I was amazed.

I looked around and saw my browser with many open tabs, was intact, Pandora continued playin where it left off. The virtual machine that was running in Virtualbox was intact, running just like it was before. The LibreOffice Writer document, still open, not even saved to disk yet, was just fine and ready and waiting for Emily to type on and on. I was floored.

So I decided to try an experiment. Every night, and every time I'm away from the computer for extended periods of time, I'm going to use the hibernate feature. I've been doing this for more than a week, I have to say, this is very cool for many reasons.

First, there is the power savings. While I'm sure that the CPU goes into low power mode, the disk is still spinning and RAM needs energy to keep activities going, even when the computer is not in use. Second, I like to have something like a firewall when I'm away from the computer and the computer is on. Hibernating the computer turns off everything. The disk, the CPU, the network - all of it goes down and it goes down efficiently.

When I go to sleep, I set my computer to hibernate. Before I leave for work, I hibernate my computer. When we go out to run errands, I hibernate my computer. If I know I'm just going to the next room to watch a movie and no one else will be using my computer, I hibernate it. Each time I revive my computer, everything is still there, just as I had left it. A bunch of tabs in Chrome, that Writer document is still open, my terminal for command line operations, still open. It's like my computer goes into a sort of stasis.

The best part is that hibernating Linux is not a crapshoot like with Windows. There is very little risk of corrupting data on the disk. Why? Because Intel, and hundreds of open source programmers have looked at the code, tested it and made sure it works they way it should work. Open source software is a beautiful thing. It seems like such a little thing, but it makes life better, a little easier.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The limits of personal responsibility

There is a raging debate over Obamacare in social media. It seems that there is a significant minority of the country bitterly opposed to the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid to include a greater part of the population. Some have openly expressed fear that Obamacare's ultimate objective is a single payer system of medical insurance.

The basic arguments against Obamacare that I see are described as, "why should I have to pay for someone else who doesn't have insurance?" On its face, it's a legitimate question. Further, people are asking why they should be required to buy health insurance? I'm young, I'm healthy, I have even found that doctors offer discounts for cash rather than going through the red tape of insurance coverage. "Red tape"? Isn't that a term almost exclusively reserved for government bureaucracy?

When I boil down the opposition's arguments, it comes down to personal responsibility. Let's look at this a bit more closely. Personal responsibility assumes that I am the master of my own fate. But if I drive a car, and I'm hit by a drunk driver, am I still master of my own fate? What if the health insurance I have limits expenses paid to the point where I lose pretty much everything that I've ever worked for? If I'm paying premiums that I can barely afford, I'm being responsible. What if the insurance company engages in a protracted legal battle to resist fulfilling their responsibility to pay my claims? Who pays for the visit to the emergency room and a week or two in an intensive care bed if I don't have enough insurance or the money in the bank to pay for it?

In a few seconds, I have outlined the limits of "personal responsibility" in this debate. Whether it's an auto accident, cancer, a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, I find it hard to believe that we can all be personally responsible for everything that ever happens to us. We are all, however, responsible for what we do in response to the environment. We can choose to work together or against each other, as free agents in a bag of skin.

I've seen arguments raised in opposition to the "personal responsibility" argument. For example, even smart and educated young people get cancer, have accidents, make mistakes that cost them their health, and so on. Even smart, white, affluent young people have problems, and they don't always have the power to fix it on their own. They need help. Everyone needs help at some point in their lives.

The opposition to Obamacare seems to say, "That's so tough, isn't it? Too bad, because I'm not responsible for them. Can we just let them die? Maybe some private charity will come along and help them. Really."

Sure, you could say, "But the government doesn't have to be the one to help. There are plenty of charities out there who can help." Yes, there are. But are they big enough? "But the wealthy can step in and help." Do they? Where were they in the Great Depression? Did they step in then? Did they step in to set the economy right in the Great Recession? I didn't see them helping out now, did you? Yes, there are some exceptions that you could point to, but no one is helping on the massive scale needed to right the economy, unless you're one of the bankers among the 1%. The government has bailed you out for failed investments that crashed the economy while basically ignoring everyone else.

This is the point I want to make. Private charities are run mostly by and for millionaires and billionaires. These are people who honestly think that the wealth they now hold is something they created all by themselves and that progressive taxation to re-distribute that wealth is socialist. They could be justified in holding that position if the productivity gains in the last 35 years did not accrue solely to the business owners, the top 1%. What happened is that businesses used laws set up to redistribute wealth upward to accumulate wealth, rather than allow employees to share in the productivity gains. But hey, that's not socialism, isn't it? That's capitalism.

If the wealthy crash the economy, putting millions of people out of work, are they accountable? Not if their wealth cushions them from the blows. Not if their wealth can be used to influence the government into a bailout. These same people can abuse themselves to no end and their high-end health insurance will guarantee access to the best health care in the world. They will not notice that there is really a problem with the economy. They have enough money that money doesn't feel like money anymore.

For the super wealthy, the relationship between money and work is so distorted, that personal accountability may not even be in their worldview. But they are quite eager to hold everyone else accountable to them.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I just want to make a left turn

I'm out with the family, running a couple of errands. It's close to noon on a Saturday, and I'm just pulling out of the Taylorsville Harmon's to head southbound on Redwood, cut across three lanes empty of traffic and get into a left turn late at 5600 S to make a U turn. This way I can skip the freeway or making a long detour just to get to the northbound side of Redwood from there.

The line seems short with 5 or 6 cars in front of me so there should be no problem making the turn on the first signal. Boy, was I wrong. I waited 3 signals to make my turn. The light was super short, affording time for only 2 or 3 cars at most. Must be a fluke, right?

Same day, finished a little walk in the mall because it's really chilly outside and my wife Alice, wants to check out the indoor playground at the Southtown Mall. Normally, I'm pretty good at exiting from the mall to the freeway by getting in the right turn lane on the south side of the mall and taking 10600 S to the freeway. But tonight, around 6pm, I made a mistake and wound up having to made a left turn to go to State Street and from there, made another left turn.

At State Street, I waited 2 signals to make my left turn. Maybe I'm a little impatient by this point, and Alice suggests that I go to 9000 S to make a left turn there. No worries, right?

As we arrive at 9000 S to make a left turn, the line is long. Once there, behind all those cars, I think that maybe the signal will be long to let us all through. No dice. I wait one signal. I wait two signals. Baby gets impatient and starts to complain. I wait three signals. I'm singing songs to my baby to help her relax as she likes the car when it's moving. I wait one more signal. Now I'm impatient and ready to write a letter to the city hall.

By the fourth signal, I see that several cars blow the red light in frustration to get through. By the fifth signal we finally get through and I remember the last time I complained about this. I was referred to UDOT since traffic management on State Street and Redwood is beyond the city jurisdiction. Fun.

So, this blog post is for you, UDOT. It's Saturday night. You just added 10 minutes to my trip, and forever burned into my memory that I will always, always, always take 10600 S to the west to the to freeway and to avoid making any left turns on State Street and Redwood.

As I was driving home this evening, I was wondering, what could possibly be the purpose of these long left-turn signals? Could it be safety? Not with people honking their horns and blowing the red light at the end of the turn signal. That's a safety and compliance issue. I can't see any other safety related reason to set the signal to 11-seconds for people running north bound on State Street to make a left turn on westbound 9000 S. Yeah, I had time to count the seconds for the signal.

The most likely reason, in my mind anyway, is to discourage traffic from exiting State Street. I mean, hey, if we're going to raise revenue for the city, first we need people to notice the enticing restaurants and shops in the neighborhood. The best way to do that? Keep them stuck in a left turn signal so that other people will see the long line and just keep going straight on State Street. Seems plausible, right?

What is the deal here? You must have some very important merchants along State Street and Redwood who are desperate for traffic diversion to their shops and food joints. Whatever the reason for your ridiculously short left turn signals, I have already made plans to avoid getting stuck like that again.

For Redwood, if I'm leaving Harmon's, I'm just going to go straight, get on the freeway and head north to get back home. Sure, it's the long way around and it uses more gas, but at least I won't be stuck simmering about the short signals. For Southtown, I'm going to make sure that I am in the right turn late on the south exit of the parking lot to be sure that I can just get right back on the freeway.

For the hapless traveler who gets snared in these intersections, beware and take notes to avoid the left turn signals on Redwood or State Street. But if you have to use them, I don't think that UDOT will be sympathetic to your plight. This blog is written and directed at UDOT to perhaps elicit their concern, but at the very least, I get to vent.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Reflections on political intimacy

I heard an interesting saying, long, long ago. "Intimacy is me being me, and letting you see me". Some of you might know where that comes from. I read it in a book called, "I got tired of pretending", by Bob Earll. Earll was one of the pioneers in the nascent recovery movement of the 1980s. He traveled the country sharing his adventures of recovery from alcoholism in the previous 25 years. I don't know if he is still alive, but that book changed my perspective on life in many profound ways.

One thing that I have learned in life is that intimacy is what Earll says it is. It's not just, "I gotta be me!". I need to feel safe to "be me". I need to know that I can freely express myself without fear of retribution or punishment for doing so. This is not a request for a grant of permission to insult or abuse others. This is about me, expressing my needs to others.

For no man is an island. No man (or woman) can truly live a fruitful and happy life without the care and comfort of other men and women about him. It follows that no man can meet all of his needs alone. As we saw in the movie, Cast Away, the character played by Tom Hanks just about goes insane living alone on an island. He was free, to be sure, but there was no one there to comfort him. In the end, before he was found, he only had a volleyball to comfort him.

But once among our brothers and sisters, we find comforts that we cannot find alone. We are social, industrious and commercial. We are social at gatherings of friends and family. We are commercial when we need to acquire things we cannot produce ourselves. We are industrious when we are being of service to others.

All of these activities involve a range of intimacy. When we are industrious and commercial, we engage in a type of intimacy that tends to the superficial. When we are social, we have more freedom to be vulnerable to our friends and mates.

There is one situation where intimacy cannot be found. When there is a great imbalance of power, inequality. Only among peers can we be intimate, because we know that among peers, we have the power to leave or retaliate. We have the power to speak our minds without hesitation and with the minimum courtesy.

But among those who have more power than we do, we are more circumspect. We pay a greater respect to those who wield power over us, for fear they might use it against us. The powerful may be missing something from the people they govern or deign to rule. An honest appraisal of their work.

In the early days of the formation of our country, political writing was often anonymous. The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers were composed of numerous anonymous writings. The reason for the anonymity is that the authors feared almost certain reprisals from their rulers.

When the powerful among us refuse to be among us simply because they have the power to remove themselves, they may lose the joy of community, a form of intimacy that many of us know outside the gated "communities" in the most coveted neighborhoods. When the powerful among us seek to silence everyone else or disenfranchise the same through legislation they alone can buy, they lose political intimacy with their fellows and become disengaged with the people they seek to rule.

This is the reason for the debates concerning inequality. It isn't just about the money. It's about the right of redress, the right of suffrage, the rights of all men and women, the quaint notion that all men are created equal.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

There is always an option in politics

One reader of my blog post from yesterday, A rebuttal to Senator Mike Lee, asked what can we do if politics is locked up by billionaires? Well, if we're talking about the voting booth, Larry Lessig's video, Lesterland, encapsulates the notion that elected office holders should be dependent upon the people alone and nothing else. Since Citizens United, the courts have interpreted the term "people" to include corporations. That is one of the biggest problems we face in the polling place today because ordinary people like you and me can't run for office without making the big spenders happy.

There are plenty of solutions floating around the internet for election reform, particularly with respect to campaign finance laws. Here's one that I just found, The Anti-Corruption Act, a proposal to more tightly regulate campaign contributions. It has some very interesting provisions. I really like the $100 tax credit that can be used to basically get a refund for your contributions. This is intended to flood the campaigns with small contributions, and that will in turn require elected officials to be dependent on more people than before. You might like it. I already do.

But that is just one branch of government. The legislature gets to cut the checks and the laws. The other two get to interpret the laws and to execute them. Let's have a look at a few examples of what we can do there.

With the executive branch, we'll look at the Federal government. To start, Congress writes a law and then delegates authority to the executive branch to carry it out. The delegation of power is usually to the cabinet level head of the department, for example the Secretary of the Treasury.  Then the secretary of that department will write regulations that re-delegate that authority to a subordinate or himself if that authority cannot be re-delegated.

Now here is where it gets interesting. The regulations are drafted and put on notice in the Federal Register, soliciting public comment. Often, regulations come and go without much public comment because it is really, really boring news. People don't get notice of it from their local paper or their favorite website. But if you follow the Federal Register, you can find some interesting tidbits.

I remember how, back around 2004-2005, there was a huge debate over FDA regulations defining the term "organic". After publication of the draft regulation, the FDA received several hundred thousand comments on their proposal. That does have an influence on policy, even if the result is not exactly what we want. It's also important to remember that many of these agencies are captured by the industries they regulate. The people working there have plans after their service in government and they want to get a good job when they're done. This is what we're up against.

In the courts, there are two prongs of political approach we could pursue, but it requires organization, just like anything else because we're dealing with a very large organization. First, I remember many years ago, learning that if everyone fought the common traffic ticket, that would flood the courts with too many cases and the system would collapse or at least need to be changed. If 2 or 3% of the tickets are contested to trial, that's a very expensive proposition for the courts.

The same approach could be done with laws we don't like or that we find immoral. But again, this would require organization and collaboration among parties. It could all be done over the internet and that would make it easy to share ideas, experience and briefs. If people shared briefs that are successful at fighting a bad law, the law will be changed in a hurry.

The last point I want to make about participation in the judicial branch processes is Jury Nullification, a concept promoted by the Fully Informed Jury Association. They don't talk about it much in the press, but the Founding Fathers knew about it. They used it against laws from their former king that were too onerous for them to obey. They knew that the jury had to right to render a verdict of not guilty if they thought the law was unjust. This is a very controversial point of jurisprudence, so don't get your hopes up. But again, this requires an organized, planned campaign to deal with laws that are unjust.

I hope you find this of interest. I have an active interest in politics and I look for concepts like this so that I know what options are available to me should the need arise.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A rebuttal to Senator Mike Lee

I just finished reading Senator MIke Lee's latest article, Bring Them In, a piece that seems to articulate what he believes the conservatives in America should be doing. All this talk about voluntary civil society is fine and good. But the fact of the matter is that the fantastically wealthy in this country *already* have the freedom he speaks of. The rest of us don't. If those same wealthy people wanted to change things, they would have done so long, long ago, but they have not.

If Mike really believes what he says, then he can act on it by working to returning us to the tax rates of the age of Eisenhower, adjusted for inflation. He can see to it that the biggest corporations who report record profits to keep their stock values pumped will also pay taxes on those profits rather than paying zero taxes as they often do. This will help to relieve the incredible concentration of wealth we see today, a common feature of banana republics. If he really believes what he is saying, then money is not "speech" and he will act on it by proposing legislation to recognize that money is not speech and enforcing that policy in campaign finance laws.

If Mike wants credibility with voters like me, then he is going to need to address "Lesterland", the place that the United States has become, where 0.5% of the population have enough money to command more than 60% of the political campaign contributions across this great land. That 0.5% gets to decide who runs and who wins. Not us. Not even by a long-shot. Income inequality affects our civic life by affording the super wealthy an opportunity to deceive us by providing the appearance of a fair horse race when the reality is, they've limited the choices available for our votes.

Until the walled garden of politics set up by the super wealthy is removed, the problems faced by this country are not caused by "us", they are caused by the people who run it. I'm not talking about the people in government, I'm talking about the billionaires who seek to divert government resources for their own gain as if they don't have enough of whatever they have. These are the same benefactors of Mike Lee's campaigns, the people who run The Conservative Nanny State.

Worse, to see Mike Lee grandstanding with Ted Cruz to defund Obamacare, and subsequently shut down government completely removes any credibility Lee had with me. Mike Lee offered no alternatives to Obamacare, he only wanted to repeal it, as a show of political force rather than a helpful solution.

No, I don't believe Mike's intentions are sincere, considering that he was elected by the leaders of Lesterland. When he thumps a Bible on a government website, I see this great nation becoming more like Iran. A nation run by the church, for the church, to the exclusion of people of other faiths, and those who choose none. Has Mike Lee forgotten that the Founding Fathers saw their practice of religion as a private matter and agreed not to mix religion with politics?

When I see Mike Lee address "Lesterland" and the problems it represents with meaningful and effective legislation, and raise the issue the same way he opposed Obamacare, that is a great start for him to show that he represents me rather than opposes me.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

About the weather

I'm a weather hound. I got into the weather as a young man watching the afternoon news with Fritz Coleman on NBC. I enjoyed his sense of humor as he explained the weather trends of Los Angeles, but I gotta say, the weather in Los Angeles is boring. Sunny and fair, sunny and fair, sunny and fair for what, 270 days a year? For the rest of the year, it might be in the 90s and that would be a heat wave.

Here in Salt Lake, there is more to the weather. We live in a desert just like SoCal, but we're about 4,000 feet higher in elevation. We get plenty of sun in the summer, averaging 90+ in the summers. In the winter, we get maybe 15-20 inches of snow in a heavy month, with temps dipping as low as 5 degrees with daytime highs in the teens. I've seen temps in one year range from 5 to 105. So yeah, the weather is a lot more interesting here. In Salt Lake, there is a saying, "If you don't like the weather, just wait ten minutes". I like that.

Before the internet, the news on radio or tv were my source of weather info. Weather is the only thing I really, really want to see on tv. The rest, I could watch later on Netflix if I wanted to.

Accessing weather information has changed a great deal since the days when tv dominated the mediasphere. I remember traveling on business and noticing that the tv was tuned to the Weather Channel. It was simple then. Graphic and text displays showed the local and national weather maps, current temperatures and a 3-day forecast set to pleasing jazz music with no talking heads. It was like that for a long time, too. Then the Weather Channel started to evolve into a weather news channel - all weather, all the time.

When the internet came along, I found that the national weather service had a website. The Weather Channel had a website. Even local newspapers had a weather forecast online. Our local television station, KUTV, has a website with a weather page. I can even watch the (usually) latest weather forecast video on my computer. That pretty much dashed any need for a cable subscription for me.

I have a smartphone. I've had them since the Palm Treo early in the last decade. I looked for weather apps for my phone then and have one now. My phone has a weather app from Weatherbug. I like Weatherbug because their app works very well compared to the app offered by Weather Channel. But what I really like is that I get forecasts, maps and news, which you can get with Weather Channel's app, too. One thing that the Weather Channel app offers that Weatherbug does not is video forecasts.

In my Chrome browser, I have the Weatherbug app that opens up everything I need to know about the weather at a glance. I can easily get radar maps and an extended forecast if I want it. I've found that although the extended forecast runs for 7 days, it's really only good for 3 days. That's ok. I've seen estimates that the accuracy of the forecast falls by 20% with each day into the future.

I don't run Windows at home, I run Linux. Like Windows, I can run a weather app, too. It's just a little text and graphic message integrated into the status bar at the top of the screen. With all the major computer platforms, Mac, Windows and Linux, you can get weather indicators with detailed forecasts. Weather is everywhere I want to see it now.

Lately, the weather has been kinda boring. Sunny and fair, highs in the 50s, lows in the 30s. When it's like that, I only need to see the status bar on my computer. Not much to worry about even with a little rain in the forecast. But if there is any indication of big snow coming, then I check the app on my phone and if it looks like serious fun, then I watch the forecast from the local news on my computer. I have many sources to get various layers of detail.

Getting weather information has come a long way. Fortunately, networked devices like the computer, my phone and even my TV have made it much easier to get.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Inefficiency as a business model: Microsoft

Unemployment has been higher than 7% since Obama was elected in 2008. The captains of industry and finance have done little to nothing to help ease the pain for consumers while helping themselves to enormous profits at the expense of the worker. Certainly, they have no interest in moving legislation that would ease the pain. But the entire fracas around the decline of the economy since the credit freeze of 2008 highlights something I began to observe a few years ago. Inefficiency is a business model.

Hard to believe, I know. I got the idea while reading a fascinating article on American business practices a few years ago. In that article, the author makes an interesting claim: For the most part, American business, especially big business, creates profits by subtracting value from what they sell - rather than adding value to it. For the most part, it's rare to see a business increasing profits by adding value to their products. It seems like executives take pride in being able to continue to make money while their customers hate them with a passion.

So lets look at one of my favorite examples, Microsoft. Microsoft makes most of their money licensing software. They also make money from the confusion surrounding their licensing practices. There is so much confusion about the complexity of Microsoft licensing, that very large organizations actually hire consulting firms that specialize in Microsoft licensing.

Back in the days when I did some consulting on the side, I remember talking to others in the same trade. They pointed out that the reason Small Business Server was so popular as a seller among consultants was that it breaks often. It generates billable hours like nothing else for consultants. Microsoft's mantra, exclaimed by Steve Ballmer at their annual meetings was, "developers, developers, developers!" This means create opportunities for developers, not consumers. Vendor lock-in is a source of pride to Microsoft executives.

Result: Microsoft is steadily losing market share. Microsoft stock has been going sideways for more than a decade (around $34 a share these days). The only future I see for Microsoft is a life as a patent holding company because they have lost the will or the desire to innovate. I see this future because Microsoft now rakes in $2 billion a year on patent royalties for software patents. This extra cash is reducing Microsoft's incentive to truly innovate and create products that people actually want.

For more than 20 years, they've been relying upon very bad licensing practices to wipe out or preclude competition from the consumer desktop market - all with government protection at its beck and call. For these reasons above, I will never buy a computer with Windows on it and actually use Windows. Why?  The subsidies for Windows computers are substantial and Microsoft makes most of their money on business licensing of business application servers like Exchange Mail Server, MS-SQL server and of course their office suite, Microsoft Office. I don't need it when I can run Linux.

Linux, in the mind of Microsoft executives, is a cancer. When they find that a company is using Linux, they call it an "infestation" that must be killed. Having killed off all credible competition, Linux is recognized as a threat to their inefficient business model that they could not control. Linux is not owned by any particular person, yet everyone who uses it has a voice in the development of Linux, should they choose to use it.

The anti-Microsoft is Google. Google has been adding value to search for at least a decade. First, they got really, really good at search. I use Google because my search experience with Google is far better than with the competition. Then they came up with Gmail, a very reliable email service with very complete spam filtering. Sure, they scan the email for keywords to tailor ads in their email application, but I hardly ever see them.

Then Google added Google Docs, Hangouts with SMS, blogger and a host of other features and applications that I don't use very much, but someone out there wants them. The Chrome browser is what finally nailed everything together. Fast, secure, open source, easy to use. I can use Chrome on Mac, Windows and Linux and get the same look because Chrome uses open standards. Once Google put Gmail on a phone running Android in 2007, I no longer had any need for Windows. By the way, Google shares are trading at more than $1000 a share.

The biggest difference between Google and Microsoft is in the licensing of their software. Google is the creator of Android. Android is free and open source software. If you don't want to use the operating system on your phone, you can root it and install CyanogenMod, an alternative operating system for your phone. Why? It's open source software that anyone, even Microsoft, could use, if they adhere to the license. Android powers 80% of the new phone market now and activates more than a million phones a day. Every day. By using open standards and open source software, Google holds the feet of their engineers to the fire by letting them know that customers have a choice up and down the stack of software. From search to phone.

Microsoft, on the other hand, relies upon closed source, proprietary software, with confusing license language and difficult to follow licensing rules. They depend on patents and strict copyright rules to create a captured audience to survive. While Google treats people like a true customer, Microsoft treats their customers like criminals. At least Microsoft is efficient about the way they treat their customers.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Private vs Public: Banks

I am again thinking of my friends who insist that government is incompetent and that private enterprise can run circles around the government, no matter what the government does. Reminds me of that song that goes, "Anything you can do, I can do better". In many cases I would agree that private enterprise is better suited for the job.

But there is one industry that private enterprise has had trouble with lately: banking. I'm sure most of you remember the bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009. We remember how the government helped the banks to the tune of almost $2 trillion. In a thank you note, the banks let us know that they refused service to most of America while giving huge bonuses to their executives. I guess those executives did a really fine job to earn those bonuses.

So while all those big banks had stock that was basically worthless as of September 30, 2008, there was at least one bank that did quite well, even leading up to that time. Seems that while big banks were tanking everywhere we looked on CNBC, the Bank of North Dakota was sitting pretty. It wasn't engaged in housing speculation as a primary business model. The BND was making consumer, farm and student loans, like a boring, ordinary bank should do.

But there is one feature of the BND that distinguishes it from the rest of the banks. It is state owned. Using the same fractional reserve system as other banks, the BND continued to make loans even during the credit freeze that everyone else experienced. Not only that, while every other state in the union suffered a spike in unemployment, the unemployment rate in North Dakota remained low and steady. What does the bank use for reserves? Money the state takes in to fund the budget. Over the last decade, the bank returned $300 million in revenue to the state, which is about $1200 per household there.

The BND is the only state owned bank in the country. We could have more, but there is a gigantic force working against the notion of any more public banks popping up: private banks. Here is a map showing activity by state where interest in public banking is picking up. Apparently, some 20 states are willing to at least investigate the idea of creating a public bank if private banks aren't willing to service in the public interest.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fine motor skills

As some of you may be aware, I have an 11-old daughter named Emily. I have enjoyed every minute of watching Emily grow. When she was just a peanut, I watched her struggle to stay awake when her body insisted that it was time to sleep. I watched her figure out how to crawl and to stand. I suspect that she will be walking in a few weeks.

Emily's parents are no stranger to technology. We have entertainment devices with remote controls, cell phones, and computers. Emily sees us using that technology every day, and like every other baby, Emily wants to be like her parents. She loves to touch and play with all of it. If I use a remote control, Emily wants to do that, too, testing each button for a response from the TV. If I use my cell phone, Emily wants to move her fingers across the screen to see what will happen. If I use a computer, Emily becomes fascinated with the action of my fingers and the response on the display.

I can remember a few months ago, that I was sitting here, at my computer, holding Emily while talking with Alice, my wife. As I'm talking with Alice, Emily is leaning to the keyboard, like she wants to do something with it. So I turn with her to let her have at the keyboard.

Emily wants to put the keyboard in her mouth, but with a few gentle lessons I'm able to convince her that the keyboard doesn't go in her mouth. A few more visits with the keyboard and Emily is starting to smack the keyboard with an open hand. She sees a response on the screen. So I open a new word processing document and let her have at it.

Emily sees characters appearing on the screen, but not many because she is smacking the keyboard with her open hand. I try to demonstrate, but her motor skills are not capable of selectively pressing keys.

Fast forward to yesterday. I'm sitting in the computer chair to check my email, Google+ and Facebook. Emily sees the keyboard and wants to try again. I open a new word processing document and let her have it again. This time is much different. She is showing much more discretion with the way she handles the keyboard. She is much more careful to press keys to get a response now.

More interesting is that she seems to have noticed the mouse when she didn't before - maybe she's been watching Mom at work on her computer. She moves the mouse around to see if there is any response on the screen. She scrolls the mouse and gets a response. I could see a continuous process at work here. Press this or move that, check for response on screen. She really likes this. I try to take her away to give her a bath, but she cries for more.

I even learned something new about my computer while she was working on it. As she was playing with the mouse, she put my computer into overview mode, which shows me my current desktop to the left and to the right, shows me all the other virtual desktops. While in overview mode, she scrolled the mouse and that switched desktops. This was a surprise to me, as I did not know that I could scroll between the desktops with the mouse.

To give you and idea of what this looks like, see the video below:

video

Of course, as this is happening, Emily has no idea that anything of interest has transpired. But I'm interested because she showed me that I can scroll the mouse between desktops when I only knew that I could use keyboard shortcuts to do the same thing.

I was already expecting Emily to be my teacher, but not like this. This is yet another happy coincidence as I learn to be a father. In time, I'm sure I will learn more as a student parent, but for now, I'm enjoying the spectacle of watching someone I love grow up.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Private vs. Public Prisons

The trend in federal government spending has been to add more private contractors to the budget. According to this article, as of 2012, private contractor awards amounted to about 14% of the federal budget. That's a lot of cash for contract work. It is also double what was being spent on private contractors in 2000.

Between 2000 and 2008, deficits have ballooned far beyond anything previously seen. Even under Obama, deficits were high, but that was mainly because of a refusal on the right to let the Bush tax cuts expire. Now that they have expired, Congress is in a really big hurry to cut spending and bring the deficits down. Unfortunately, that effort, known as "sequestration", is going to take $110 billion out of the economy. Someone is going to get hurt and those private contractors don't want their cash cow to be taken away.

This raises an interesting question though. Is private enterprise more efficient than government at everything? The fact that we still have governments largely run by government employees should be enough of a clue. But when I see what my right-wing friends have to say about it, they seem to think that it would be better to leave just about everything to private enterprise since the government isn't competent enough to get the job done. Are private contractors more efficient at everything?

How about prisons? It is not discussed very much in the news, but a good chunk of American prisons these days are privately run by contractors. It is estimated that 37% of all prisoners are housed by private contractors. And get this, private contractors require minimum occupancy rates or the government pays for the empty beds. Turns out, we have the highest rate of incarceration than any other country in the world. Communist countries, eat your heart out.

Oh, yes, we also have the highest rate of recidivism in the world. Instead of focusing on crime prevention and rehabilitation, we are focused on deterrence and punishment, a policy decision almost certain to benefit private contractors and prison guard unions.  In contrast, Sweden, with publicly run prisons, is closing some detention facilities because the crime rate is dropping. Their policies focus on prevention, diversion and rehabilitation. Even Norway, one of the happiest places on earth, has very low recidivism rates with public prisons.

The American penchant for retribution has very dear costs in the form of an estimated 67% recidivism rate and the largest prison population in the world. Norway, which focuses on rehabilitation and treating criminals like humans, has a recidivism rate of 20% - with publicly owned and run prisons.

While its clear that our policy decisions have had poor results, I don't see any changes on the horizon, even as major news outlets have compared outcomes born by the American justice system to outcomes in other countries. Perhaps that's because private interests, with their foot in the door, don't want to lose those valuable contracts. But one only needs to look to the recidivism rate to see the profit motive in action.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

For every action

When I was a teenager, I took a class in physics. I loved physics because it gave me a way to describe with great accuracy, things that I see every day. As a young adult I played pool and for me, the pool table is the lab. I can experiment with spin, angles of incidence and speed to get the desired result when I shoot.

I also apply physics to life. Sir Isaac Newton is famous for his observation that, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction". While this seems obvious with material objects, it is not so obvious with people. I've seen it myself. When I apply force to a situation, I am met with an equal if not greater force to counter my demands. Go ahead, try it out. Try to force something on someone else and watch what happens.

My observations of the effects of what happens when people apply force to each other, has given rise to a simple saying, a sort of principle: If you push really, really hard on the universe, be prepared to duck.

Let's take domestic affairs as an example. If a man and his wife engage in an argument, both sides will think the other is wrong. Both sides may be tempted to start to yell, to slam doors, to break things around the house. If either side gives in to the temptation to use more force, the other side will reciprocate. It will be loud and scary. God help any children around who have to deal with that.

On the streets, we see similar effects. Street gangs will fight over territory and mark it with spray paint. If there is a fight and one side wins, the other side will marshal their forces and use greater force to overwhelm the winner in the last round, often resulting in more injury, maybe more deaths than before. Bystanders are powerless to stop them and the police must be called in to stop the bloodshed.

Here is a more subtle observation about our environment. For more than a century, we've been putting tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. We've been burning coal, natural gas and gasoline, all of it, putting millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Not really a big deal, right? Plants breathe CO2 so we only need to grow more plants.

But what we've been learning is that the oceans are warming up and absorbing the CO2, killing corals and other sea life essential to the ecosystem. The atmosphere has been warming up, with year after year of record temperatures. More than 60 million trees in the western US have died due to global warming. When Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines it did so with with sustained winds of 147mph, with gusts of 170 mph and waves as high as 45ft. In some places, as much as 15.75 inches of rain fell. Some towns were more than 80% submerged. Some observers are saying this is the largest, most powerful storm on record.

We can see over the past two decades, greater and greater calamities, each with more damage than before. From tsunamis, to hurricanes to record snowfalls, we've been taking a beating from the Earth. I attribute this to the force we have applied against the planet to get our way.

How often we forget that the planet is much bigger than us and doesn't really need us. The planet will get along just fine without humans. Perhaps we should get really serious about making our peace with the Earth before the Earth brushes us off. Perhaps Carl Sagan was right when he said, "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception."

So the next time you think that applying more force to a situation is necessary to get your way, remember one thing about the adversary. They might be giants.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Downtown on the weekend

Over the last week or so, I've been indulging in a few videos. One, "The Third and the Seventh", really stood out as a tribute to great architecture. I encourage all of you watch it on a big screen in a quiet setting. It is truly an inspiration to watch.

The Third and the Seventh evokes many memories for me. Like downtown Los Angeles, early on a Saturday morning. In the ARCO towers, 28,000 people go to work every day, but on the weekends, the stone covered surfaces are empty of people. Hope Street looks like a ghost town, surrounded by shiny tall buildings. I can easily cross the street anywhere, between these buildings, without fear of rushing cars - because there is nobody there.

I used to work in Downtown Los Angeles as a construction worker. I saw the hustle and the bustle. I rode the freight elevators up the towers to install air conditioning. That life is a memory to me now. When people are there, rushing to and fro between work and home, work and lunch, there is plenty to see.

On the weekends, the sensation is eerie as empty streets and sidewalks evoke thoughts of the lives that have passed by here. As the sunshine reflects off the buildings onto the street, the fountains and the steps, I get a sense of the time gone by and wonder just what goes on in these tall glass towers.

I am reminded of summer days riding my bike. Every summer, as a young adolescent, I would ride though my old elementary school and remember the times I had there. I'd ride up and down the narrow ramps, ride around the empty playgrounds, notice the hidden alcoves near the restrooms and the cracking asphalt with grass shooting up. That school is no longer being used for public education, it is a ghost of a school to me now.

I also rode up to the other school, the school that I only heard about, but never attended. I rode through their halls and wondered about the memories there. I enjoyed the eerie silence of the walkways and playgrounds when no one was there. I wondered about the lives that went on there, and sometimes wished that I could have escaped the troubles in my school by attending the other one, on the top of the hill.

I am also reminded of the time I've spent with the California Paranormal Society. I went to their meetings with an open mind, I wanted to see what they see. So we visited cemeteries and mausoleums. I remember as I walked through a mausoleum, I can't remember which one anymore, but I remember the scene distinctly. Marble floors, ornate columns and ceilings and stained glass windows. I saw the colors on the floor as the sunlight passed through the stained glass. I imagined the light, moving across the floor, day after day, crossing the same path, year after year, hardly anything ever changes there. Mausoleums are uniquely designed not to change, to help hold the memories of those departed in place. Forever.

I live in Utah's capital, Salt Lake City. From time to time, I get to visit the capitol buildings and see some really great architecture. Most times, it's on the weekends, and even then, very few people are there when I'm there. Again, I get that eerie feeling when the building is nearly empty or when no people are to be seen. I see the skylights, the ornate surfaces, the wondrous murals on the ceiling and the walls. I see the empty Supreme Court chamber, so dark and ominous, and wonder what has gone on there. The times gone by.

Familiar places take on a different character when they're empty. They seem empty, yet eerily haunted by times past. They evoke nostalgia and a sense of what could have been. For me, they also evoke compassion for the lives that have traversed their walls. We wish we could do more, but in these walls, there is only so much we can do.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

A long time ago, a friend of mine once showed me how to have fun without spending money. At the time, I was still a kid, I was grounded, in debt to my Dad and for a few hours, I was allowed to leave the house and spend time with a friend. I called him up and asked him to come over to spend some time together. From there, we walked up Laurel Avenue on the way to the park and talked about my situation. That was the day that I can clearly remember first thinking of how to have fun without spending any money.

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed riding my bike all over town. There were hills everywhere, so it was easy to find a good time climbing hills and then speeding down the other side and coasting after hitting bottom, wind in my hair, familiar terrain around me and the sun shining. In the evenings, I would ride down to the pier to watch the sunset and ride back home.

I have enjoyed the sunset on the pier for many years as a moment of reflection of the day just passed. It was a simple pleasure. People I have known through my life have often remarked on my enthusiasm for simple pleasures. Sunset, sunrise, a walk in the park, riding bikes, and moments of solitude. For sustenance, I found red apples, bananas, turkey sandwiches from the Annex Deli, chips and a can of Squirt. These are simple pleasures. For much of my life, I've lived alone and it's only in the last decade that I have known life as a married man, and now, with a family.

As a married man, simple pleasures continue, but now, I share them. I share them with my wife, my daughter and more often now, members of my extended family now that they have moved here.

Having said all that, I have had the opportunity to see others in their pursuit of happiness and wonder if they're happy at all. I was invited to a party once at the Sutra Lounge in Costa Mesa. I looked on as everyone else got drunk in the dim light, and I kid you not, it looked like everyone else was experiencing pain in slow motion. I have wondered many times about the so-called pleasure of getting drunk or even a bit tipsy. I did the same thing myself many years ago and see no pleasure in it again, so I no longer have any desire to indulge.

The brain is a central nervous system. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, making it harder to sense things. At times I have seen people recounting how much of this or that drink they had last night and wondered, how did they know that they had fun? If you're drunk or even a bit tipsy, how do you know? Does a few beers make a roller coaster more fun? Does hard liquor make a party any more interesting? If the brain is not functioning at full capacity, I suspect that the brain cannot detect what fun is anymore.

When I was a young man, I tried drinking a 6-pack of beer in one night. The next day, I talked to a friend who was there. "I know of people who drink a 6-pack every night and I don't know how they can do it. I did that last night and today I can barely think!" His reply? "Exactly."

How about possessions? Does a more expensive TV make the experience of watching TV any better? Can the subjective senses - the eyes and ears - really tell the difference if the technology is relatively the same? Is driving a Mercedes that much better than driving anything else? How do you feel when that new car smell goes away? How much of a vacation in Tahiti do you need to be happy? How much money do you need to spend to know that you're having fun? Do you need to measure it?

When we're done with any of these activities, they are only a memory. Even then, memories are incomplete from the actual experience of being alive and in the moment. Memories are fuzzy and tend to change over time. Whatever we had then doesn't exist now. The experience we had then cannot be reproduced. We can approximate it, but it will never be the same again. Ever.

And who is to say that my happiness is better than your happiness? Why should I feel happier if I drive a more expensive car than you do? Why should I feel happier than you if I live on the beach and you live in San Fernando Valley? Why should I feel happier if something bad happens to you but not to me? How can a man feel happier by making something bad happen to someone else?

The pursuit of happiness is subjective. True happiness does not rely upon outcomes, rather, it relies on acceptance of the moment, what is here now. There can be no joy in fighting the present, trying to change it, applying force to the present is like trying to push water around with your hand. It is only through acceptance that we can find happiness because once we accept what we have now, we are free to enjoy it.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Do tax cuts create jobs? Not lately.

The Huffington Post will tell you that tax cuts do not create jobs. It's obvious that would be their position because they're a liberal website. But Forbes? Yes, Forbes Magazine's website actually has at least one article that shows very conclusively that tax cuts have not created jobs. Rather, the tax cuts over the last 30 years have only emboldened corporations to send jobs overseas, increase rent seeking efforts and seek more tax cuts. All this while some of the largest US corporations are posting record profits while paying zero taxes.

Even today, Bloomberg reports that the top 100 billionaires have added $200 billion to their wealth in a year. Yet billionaires expect working people to be grateful to just have jobs, to have wages that just remain flat instead of falling. All this while unemployment remains above 7%. No, you won't hear any talk of raising the minimum by billionaires, at least not as far as I know.

It's interesting to note that the top earners in the list are heads of what can best be described as monopolies. Bill Gates is head of the Microsoft Windows monopoly. Mark Zuckerberg has a near monopoly with Facebook, though Google is gaining fast and will probably overtake Facebook in a few years with Google+. Carlos Slim is head of the biggest telecom company in Latin America, another monopoly.

Monopolies...Interesting that that word even comes up in a discussion about a capitalist world. But those monopolies are not creating jobs. Monopolies destroy jobs by destroying competition. Monopolies arise and are protected by governments because they're easier to control than a thousand or a million little companies. But I digress...

If tax cuts were job creators, we should have full employment by now. But the titans of industry, the de facto, unelected managers of our economy are not interested in creating jobs. They are only interested in adding up numbers, not employees.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The continuity of possession

I see on Facebook that someone I know has lost her glasses. I know that feeling. The tingling stomach, the palpitations, the fear overcomes me when I realize that something I really need is not easily found at the moment. That's how I get when I lose things.

When I was a kid, I seemed to lose a jacket at school almost every year. It was a triumph of the will to find that I managed to keep a jacket for more than a couple grades, even to outgrow one.

When I was around 8 or 9, I acquired the trust of my parents not to lose a key to the house. I kept this on a string around my neck when I went out. But one fateful day, I lost that key. I was grounded and the phone and the TV were off limits. Dad had all the locks and keys replaced and I was handed a bill for $80. Then I learned that I was grounded until I paid the debt off.

"Uh, Dad. I'm 11 years old and I don't have a job." I got a job. For $1 an hour, I worked around the house everyday to pay off that debt. Clean this, fix that, clean some more over there. I took over chores for my siblings to pay that debt off. Grounded, in debt, with no one to help me out, I was learning a very hard lesson at an early age.

Eventually, somewhere around $50 into paying it off, my dad decided to forgive the rest of my debt and I was released from debtors prison. But from that point on, I got really consistent about putting anything of value anywhere I wanted to find it again. I started with my keys and made sure that I always put them in the same pocket every time I used them. I made sure that the keys went back into my pocket when I was done opening a door. Same goes for my wallet and money. I still do that to this day. I don't leave my keys or my wallet laying around anywhere, they're always in a pocket.

As a kid, I could manage my glasses fine. I knew where they were because I wore them during waking hours and made a point of putting them in the same place every time. But then one day I got a hearing aid that wasn't built into my glasses. Yes, I wear a hearing aid, so just speak distinctly and you won't have to repeat yourself.

That new hearing aid was much smaller and more expensive than anything I had ever possessed. One day I lost it. The feelings came back again. Whatever Dad was doing at work, it was good because he didn't seem to have a problem buying another hearing aid and I didn't have to get another job to pay it off.

As a single man, I lived in low level fear of losing my keys, locking myself out of my apartment, my car or losing the keys to work. That fear was especially acute if I were dealing with keys that were expensive to copy or replace, like keys to server rooms at work. The more important the keys I had on my key ring were, the more aware I was of where I last left my keys.

With my wallet, my keys, glasses and hearing aid, I consistently place them where I know I will find them. Even in the dark. Even when my living conditions change, like moving from apartment to house, I make sure that my most important possessions wind up in the same place, day after day, whether that be a pocket, a table, a nightstand or some other location. When I'm on vacation, I improvise but I'm consistent during the entire stay in a hotel.

That consistency over time has meant that I didn't worry about locking myself out of my car. I was only very briefly concerned with putting my keys back in my pocket. I didn't worry about losing my hearing aid, I simply made sure that I put my hearing aid in the same spot when I went to sleep, every night.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Consistent action over time, even for small things can yield enormous benefits. If I know where my keys are, I get to work on time, because I can focus on doing my writing, preparing for work and spending some time with family before I leave. Simple habits like these mean that I have the freedom to do other things that are more important to me than spending an hour looking for something I lost before I need to leave the house.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Oh, how I mourn the loss of Groklaw

I miss Groklaw. I used to read it every day for the complex mix of law and software together. For the adventures of watching the SCO v IBM fight. For the concise examination of whether software can be patented. I miss the goodwill and good natured debates in their forums, too.

The loss of Groklaw came about because, Pamela Jones, the creator and primary author, shied away from the good fight because of NSA surveillance, everywhere. I can understand her sentiments, but in this day and age, silence is worse than speaking, even if surveillance is widespread and getting close to unstoppable. Only by speaking can we make a change. Silence will be interpreted as consent.

The closure of Grokaw, now frozen in time from that fateful day that Jones made her decision to stop, is like a hole in the internet to me. It is a monumental capitulation to the forces that wanted to silence but could not. So it seems that the NSA was able to finish the job that others could not.

Groklaw was famous worldwide for its concise and groundbreaking journalism that few others were willing to pursue. The site is run by volunteers with no advertising using free and open source software, namely, Linux and the Apache web server with free databases like MariaDB. I have spent many hours there, reading up on events, treatises on math and law, trying to make sense of this world we live in through their lense. But now it is frozen, perhaps forever. I still check on it from time to time, as I did today, hoping to see a new post.

The closure of Groklaw is the best example of what surveillance can do to us if we let it. It can stifle free speech and leave us without a voice in our government, public discourse and ultimately, to determine our fates.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

For some, the mind is set against Obamacare

There is an interesting mindset among opponents of Obamacare. It sounds like this to me: "Repeal it and lets start all over," while at the same time harboring no intention of instituting reform. Remember, Republicans are starting from a position of, "what's mine is mine, what's yours is negotiable." This is another way of saying, "Hey, you know what? We really, really like the state of affairs before Obamacare and we're just not that into reform." If you don't like it, and you know you can't repeal it, find a way to improve it instead of hobbling it. 

Some observers have noted that the Republicans got the health plan they've been asking for since Nixon. It's not a single payer plan, private insurers will make plenty of money and it won't cover everyone. But it will cover far more than we were covering before. Opponents have decried the tax imposed by Obamacare, for shame that we should force young people to buy insurance or pay a tax instead. The tax that we've been paying is for uninsured people who land in emergency rooms all over the country. Republicans have said nothing about that tax.

Opponents of Obamacare sound like they're free-agents in a bag of skin who have failed to notice how hard the Conservative Nanny State works for them. Here's an example. Can you name a single "free trade" agreement that has made it easier for doctors in other countries to come here and work for less money than doctors here already do? You can't, can you? This is the AMA's lobby at work. The AMA works hard to maintain a doctor shortage. Meanwhile, doctors are happy to thrust people who used to be middle class into competition with the world, you know, places like China and Thailand.

It is also a fact that if we paid the same amount in GDP for health care as other industrialized countries, about half what we pay now, we would be seeing budget surpluses at the federal and state levels for years to come. Those other industrialized countries includes many European countries that have universal health care. But doctors living here have become accustomed to the high pay and anointed status they think they have earned. 

It's time to globalize health care and at least one economist, going by the name of Dean Baker, has a plan that is worthy of consideration. With 7 billion people in the world, I think we can find enough doctors worldwide to do the work that doctors here do, but for less money and with greater enthusiasm.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Headlines

It's become cliche to say that we live in the information age. Billions of characters pour into the internet every day, and some of that is called "news". We have created many ways to consume news. Newspapers have become static, unable to change with the flow of events once printed. Even television news offers but a smear of what is really happening around us. Now we get our news on our computers, our phones, our tablets and some of us still listen to the radio. We get print, audio and video, however we want it.

Good reporters do the hard work of digging into stories and dishing up the details in a way that is easy to consume given the time. They make phone calls, dig into government records, establish contacts and sources that are the foundation of the news they report. It is a source of pride for every reporter to find a big scoop on breaking news.

Unfortunately, reporters can have a tough time of their jobs. Some are killed or beaten for their reporting. Most times, they are censored by oppressive regimes. Their work, even in a free country, is often in vain for few have the time to read long pieces with the details. Even internet reports on the various video services can only devote so much time as working people barely have enough time to work and attend to their families and have some time for recreation. Who has time to read a detailed article or watch a fascinating report on the internet for an hour?

When I read the news, I find that so much of it is far removed from my life. I see the headlines, try to make sense of it, then decide if I want to read the article. Each article could be 5-15 minutes of concentration as I read it and try to understand it, and then try to understand its impact on me and my family. I would love to have time for this, but there are limits on comprehension. There is only so much that I can read and organize in my head.

I used to listen to NPR every day. I thought there were some very interesting stories there for a time. But then I noticed that I began to feel unhappy, uneasy. I came to call NPR, "Resentment Radio". It just seemed like every time I listened to the news on NPR, I found myself unhappy. Sometimes I find something interesting, worthy of further investigation, but that means sitting around at home, reading the article related to the audio report I just heard. Then I'd be researching other articles to see if there is some coherence to the story among other reporters.

I used to watch the local news, too. I like the weather reports when we get something interesting coming our way, which isn't very often - snow is my biggest draw to the news. Most of the local news though, is about people doing really nasty stuff to other people. A slow newsday? "A pickup truck has crashed into the living room of a house today..." That was getting me down, too. I have since come to realize that people who engage in violent crime are just people who are not willing to ask for the help they need. I know they're out there and I don't need to abuse my brain with daily stories of gory details. I just try to live a life of peace here and get along.

One tool that I've used to make sense of a story is Google News. Under each headline, you'll see something like "1,545 stories similar to this" as a link. I click on that link and I get a ton of other stories to check out. This is very useful for checking facts on a story. By picking news sources that have different philosophies, say, conservative and liberal, I can find confirmation of facts from sources with entirely different perspectives on a story. I've even found word-for-word plagiarism and reported it to the original source. This to me, is the beauty of what Google has to offer in terms of news. At times I have wondered if the news services are more worried about having their articles compared to others for accuracy than about being paid by Google for listing the headline with this feature of Google News in play.

In the end, though, we just have our own little sphere of influence. I don't have much influence over events in the Middle East, or China, or at the Federal Reserve. Wall Street? My stocks are going sideways. The trade deficit? Just another headline I can do almost nothing about. The Federal Budget deficit? I can't imagine a million dollars much less a trillion. I am just an observer of 99% of the news that I read. Every once in a while, I see something that directly affects me. Most times, it's just a headline.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The problems with healthcare.gov is just code - we can fix that

Civic life in America is based on the principle of government of the people, by the people, for the people. It's a concept well understood by the typical high schooler (I understood this by 6th grade, but schools seem to be different now). It doesn't always work out that way, though. One look at the controversy surrounding healthcare.gov provides a good example.

Upon opening, the Affordable Care Act site was slow, difficult to navigate and unable to let anyone get any work done. Since the opening, things have improved, but problems remain. The vendors hired to build the site are pointing fingers at each other, blaming each other. Oh, how they missed a wonderful marketing opportunity. The outcome would have been much different had they not engaged in a blamefest. What if they just said, "Don't worry, we got it covered". I think they would if they could. But they can't. They just don't have the capacity.

Enter the open source movement. According to an article on Venturebeat.com, Github, a place where coders love to code, the coding community has something to say about the problems at healthcare.gov and they're responding with a positive attitude. The Github community says to the government, "hey, open source your code and we'll fix it for you". This from a site with more than a million users who just love to code. It's not very well publicized that Obama's presidential campaign ran on open source code, successfully. Github isn't the only organization offering to help or making this suggestion. There are many other organizations who want to help make healthcare.gov run. This is, of course, news that Senator Ted Cruz isn't going to talk about anytime soon.

The suggestion of using open source development models for healthcare.gov is compelling. "Many eyes make all bugs shallow" is what we have learned from open source software. It is even more compelling in terms of government. Our government is of the people, by the people, for the people, something that the government tends to forget. But the government could learn a lot from the open source community as there is truly no better execution of this philosophy than in open source software.

Let's take a look at the scale of this success with just one project, the Linux kernel. Linux is managed by a core team headed by Linus Torvalds, the man who wrote the first working Linux operating system - just for fun - more than 2 decades ago. Everyone who has an interest in the code gets a chance to submit improvements and bug fixes to the code.

There is now more than 20 years of experience with Linux in personal and production use. Billions of lines of code submitted, vetted, tested, and thinned out to give us what is actually approved for use by the maintainers of the code: the most useful fraction of the submitted code, a few million lines of code. Estimates place the amount of code submitted by paid developers to be around 75%. The value of this code is now in the billions. But you can download it for free to use in any way you like, as long as you adhere to the General Public License that loosely encumbers the code. That's it.

Linux is now the single most successful operating system in the world, surpassing Windows by miles. Yes, Windows still rules the desktop (not in my home, thank you), but Linux rules the computing world. From phones to tablets, to desktops to Google to the fastest computers in the world, Linux is ubiquitous. Linux is everywhere you choose to look. In the TV. In your new car. In power plants, particle accelerator labs, colleges, websites, wherever you choose to look in tech that you use, you are very likely to find Linux.

Obama would do well to heed the call of the coders and let them help fix the problems. Not just for healthcare.gov. Eventually, we should be doing this for all government web properties. Why not let the people you serve help you run the government? Isn't that what the United States is all about?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Reflections on Immortality

I remember the mausoleums. I've always had a certain fascination for cemeteries. I got that from watching a movie called "Harold and Maude" when I was a kid. That was a pretty wild movie and I learned something about mortality - that we all have it.

I used to go to meetups with the California Paranormal Society just to see what they could dig up. They've done some interesting work, I must say. But what impressed me the most were the trips to the cemeteries. I don't really believe in ghosts, but when it got cloudy and the sun was close to setting, and it was cold, in the bottom floor of the mausoleum, that creeped me out. I needed to get to bathroom quick to pee, then get out.

I also remember seeing the resting place of Darla and Alfalfa together at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There are some amazing monuments there. Douglas Fairbanks was one of them. He had this beautiful reflection pool gracing his burial place. There were mini-mausoleums dedicated to great directors or actors placed throughout the cemetery there. All vying for immortality. Even Johnny Ramone has a place there. Great statue.

There is a picture of a man falling head first from the World Trade Center on September 11th. It's floating around on the internet. No one knows who he is. I don't think that he had that trip in mind when he woke up that morning. No one ever really does. No one is immortal.

I used to frequent the pier in Huntington Beach, California. I'd go there to watch the sunset and reflect on the day just passed. Sometimes I'd run into people on the pier carrying signs saying things like "Repent! And be saved!", "Let Jesus into your heart", etc. They were saying that the world would end, but that I could be saved, if only, if only ... I would let Jesus into my heart.

They would approach me and ask me these questions to see if there is any hope to save me. The conversation would go something like this:

Crusader: Do you believe in God?
Me: No, I don't, but I have faith in God. I consider faith to be distinct from belief and that makes me open to new information.
Crusader: Have you ever let Jesus into your heart?
Me: Now that's an interesting question. Would you like to explore that?
Crusader: Sure.
Me: Is Jesus God?
Crusader: Of course, Jesus came to Earth for us, to forgive us of our sins.
Me: Ok, so Jesus is God. Next question: Is God everything?
Crusader: God created everything, but I don't think the creator is the same as what he creates.
Me: Ok, is God everywhere?
Crusader: Yes.
Me: Then he's inside me, too. I don't think I have to change.
Crusader: But you must let Jesus into your heart to know God. Don't you want to live forever in Heaven?
Me: You mean to live forever? To be immortal?
Crusader: Yes.
Me: Don't you think you'd ever want to give it a rest? Wouldn't you get tired of living forever? I know I would. I think I'll pass. Thanks.

I just don't see the point in being immortal. Everything comes to an end. Everything. For now, I'll just enjoy life as it is. No worries.

Uh, oh. This article could freak some people out. Don't worry, Mom. This article isn't an omen. It's just a reflection that I run through around November, you know, near the end of the year. For those of you who know me and love me, I'm 7 years into a 50 year commitment to my wife, Alice and my daughter, Emily. I'm not going anywhere. :)

Friday, November 01, 2013

The billionaire sport of accumulating wealth

I remember what I learned in high school about the American Indians - you know - the poor people who were living here first? I remember the stories of how we decimated their populations, took their land and gave them little bitty reservations with casinos to make reparations for our crimes. Yeah, those people.

One thing that I remember about the American Indians is how they didn't let anything go to waste with their killed game. They didn't kill animals for sport. They did it to feed their families. They respected the abundance they lived in and honored their game before the slaughter of same. They only used what they needed.

Most of us, the 99%, work for a living. I'd say that the bottom 80% really have to work for a living. They need that paycheck to feed their families, pay the bills, pay for the hospital bills and send their kids to higher education. If they're really lucky, they can save money, you know, for a contingency fund.

For most of us, if we could take 3 weeks vacation a year, we would. I don't know anyone who gets 3 weeks vacation a year - paid. In Germany they get 6 weeks paid vacation. Dad can stay home for a couple months after his baby is born and not worry about losing his job. Most of us here, we worry about not having a job when we return from Hawaii. Why should we have to worry?

Because the One Percent don't just want us to feel grateful that we have a job working for them. They want us to make them feel like they have leisure time that no one else has. If they really wanted to create jobs, they would create work sharing programs so that more people are doing something useful with a shorter workweek while making roughly the same amount of money. That is what they did in Germany and it worked great. But we're not doing that because it doesn't make the One Percent feel better than everyone else.

The wealthy think we're jealous. Maybe. But what if they want us to be jealous? What if that is how they get their rise in the morning? There's a famous study done back in 1998 that shows that when asked most people would prefer to make $50k a year knowing that everyone else was only making $25k rather than making $100k while everyone else makes $200k. I think that's what this whole inequality thing is about.

It's not that billionaires need more more money. Once they figured out how to do it, it became a game to them. Then they talk with their friends and they play "top this" with each other in the sauna at the club. And so it escalates to the point where the object is to make more money, no matter what the cost to others. It's not about the money, it's about being in the exclusive club, the exclusive car, the exclusive circles that gather at the posh car shows on the coast of California, or jetting to France for that fashion show. All while everyone else is working. Hard.

But if you don't believe me, ask Bill Gross, the head of PIMCO, one of the most successful investment funds around. He's coming clean about the excessive pursuit of wealth at the expense of all of us - at the expense of labor. He's even criticizing his peers (OK, he doesn't have very many of them - that's important) and chiding them for continuing the farce that they call "managing the economy".

At some point enough is enough. We went past that point on September 30th, 2008.