Friday, January 31, 2014

Open source the development of the thorium molten salt reactor

Thorium molten salt reactors could save the world as we know it. The TMSR is 200x more efficient than the light water reactors we use with uranium. Thorium is 4x more abundant in the earth's crust than uranium and is fairly evenly distributed throughout the world. It is currently being stockpiled in crates as a waste material from rare earth mining and we have thousands of tons of thorium in storage in the United States alone.

TMSRs are not theoretical. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory ran a TMSR for several years without incident. The reason for this is simple: the TMSR is designed to shut down in case of a failure. Thorium is a fertile material, not a fissile material. It simply cannot have a runaway reaction. The fuel is a molten salt so you cannot have a meltdown. If there is a problem, the reactor shuts down passively. The fuel is held in the reactor by a frozen plug of thorium salt, and the plug is kept frozen by a fan. If power is lost, the fan stops spinning, the plug melts and the fuel drains into cooling tanks. This could have been Fukushima, but they were using light water reactors instead. Check out this video for a primer on thorium molten salt reactors and the many benefits thereof.

There is intense worldwide interest in thorium reactors. China and India are working on the problem of bringing thorium online with a huge budget for research and development. The United States? Not so much. There are entrenched incumbents in the United States that run uranium power plants and they're used to the huge profits from uranium with all the mining, refinement and inefficiencies that uranium brings, and they don't want to change that.

There is also a patent race on thorium tech, with China leading the way in an effort to lock the rest of the world out of thorium energy production. Even Bill Gates is getting into the act and wants to get his own patents in play. When Gates steps in with the intent to get patents on key technologies, we can only guess there will be trouble. Why do people get patents? To gain a temporary monopoly on technology they build. How well have patents worked out? There is no empirical evidence to the support the claims that patents increase innovation. Zero. It's assumed to be common sense that patents encourage inventors to do what they do.

But if you ask people like Nikola Tesla, you'll find that although he did get patents for his work, that wasn't the main reason he spent time building inventions. He did it because he enjoyed his work.

He's not the only one who likes to invent or innovate just because it's fun to do. The people who built the Linux Kernel like to innovate, too. Linux is the world's most important operating system, by far. It's everywhere. In your phone, your TV, your computer if you run it at home like I do, and everywhere on the internet. The fastest supercomputers in the world run Linux. There is simply no way that broad adoption of the use of Linux everywhere would occur with the heavy hand of intellectual property.

To encourage growth and adoption, Linux was released under the General Public License, a license that has protection under copyrights, but is generally considered to be "copyleft". You can use the software for any purpose you want. You can freely copy it. You can sell it for the nominal costs of reproduction. You have access to the source code. You can modify the source code and distribute binaries of the same, as long as the source code is available to all who ask for it, and that attribution to the original authors remains intact.

The GPL has created what I believe is the greatest collection of software knowledge ever assembled in the Linux Kernel. Fortune 500 hundred companies use it and contribute code to it. 75% of the code is contributed by paid programmers without any exclusive rights to the code that is eventually distributed - for free.

If we're going to save our planet, encumbering thorium power plant technology with patents is exactly the wrong way to go. Creating a commercially viable reactor under a GPL license would make the designs easier to disseminate, improve upon and service. When more people are allowed to contribute their ideas to the development of thorium reactors, our odds of creating a viable commercial reactor sooner than later, increase significantly. One pound of thorium will replace 1700 tons of coal. It's that important.

Some people will complain..."But who will invest in thorium reactors if they don't have the rights to them? Venture capitalists aren't as concerned with patents as with being first to market. In fact, some venture capitalists see patents as a tax on innovation. Patents will discourage the development and widespread adoption of thorium molten salt reactors. Placing development under the GPL will have the exact opposite effect and create a worldwide body of documentation for creating working, commercially viable TMSRs.

To save the planet, lets create an open source design of the thorium molten salt reactor, a reactor that can power our planet for the next 1,000 years.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Who cause the meltdown?

There is still a debate over the causes of the financial meltdown of 2008 in the forums and blogosphere on the internet. When conservatives try to point out the culprits in the financial meltdown of 2008, they point to the government. They will tell us that the government forced banks to make loans to people who can't afford them.

I've seen this argument trotted out many times by conservatives, so let's put this into context. Banks are run by very smart and well educated men and women. They know the laws, they know their rights and they have access to legal counsel and representation. Did they fight this in the courts? I don't remember any headlines about monumental court battles of bankers with good intentions, fighting the laws that "forced" them to make loans to people who could not afford them.

In fact, "Liar's Loans" were the dirty little secret of the day during the bubble years.

To put this into perspective, look at the legal wrangling over Obamacare. Look at the fighting, the posturing and the resistance being put out by so-called conservatives against Obamacare. They're fighting Obamacare in Congress, the state legislatures and in the courts. Did you ever see anything like that for the laws that forced banks to make loans to people who could not afford them? I didn't. Did you?

No, it wan's the government that got banks into trouble, it was the profit motive that caused banks to make loans to people who could not afford them. Fortunately for the bankers, they managed to privatize the profits and socialize the losses and risks. How did they do that? They were able to sell the loans into mortgage backed securities, doffing the loans onto investors looking for a sure buck. To ensure their survival, the government was only too happy to bail out the banks who were holding the securities and worthless loans.

Who were the banks making loans to? Middle class people stuck with wages that had been stagnating for 30 years while greater than 90% of the gains in production due to innovation went to the top 1%.

There might be blame to go all around on the meltdown. People bought loans they couldn't afford because almost everyone believed that housing prices could continue to go up faster than inflation without a correction. Real estate agents were happy to perpetuate the lie until they were caught in the bursting bubble. Governments were happy to take in the tax revenue from the bubble. Economists who missed the bubble still have their jobs, but hey, who's counting?

You can blame the government all you want, but no one can honestly say that the banks were forced to make loans to people who could not afford them leading up to the meltdown of 2008.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union - a review

My wife and I watched the State of the Union address last night. In the center, there was Obama, flanked by Joe Biden and John Boehner. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so unhappy as Boehner. He has perfected the scowl in a way that would frighten most children if he were their parent. At least he smiled at Obama's crack about the son of a barkeep who rose to become speaker of the house.

Biden, on the other hand, had a big, broad smile with perfect teeth. He stood up when Boehner sat down. Sometimes they stood together, but mostly, Boehner sat it out, and hardly ever applauded, while Biden stood, applauded and smiled.

The lights were bright, everyone was very well dressed. I can imagine the sensation of being out in the evening, aware that at the end of the evening, many will join together for a late dinner at a posh restaurant or maybe at a coffee shop for a cup of joe. There was camaraderie and a sense of fellowship, even if it didn't always reach across the aisle.

I was surprised to see even a shot of Elizabeth Warren, without even a caption. Warren is a leading populist and liberal senator from Massachusetts, but her appearance was just a blip. If there is anyone I want to vote for president, it is her, by a mile. She clearly knows the pain and suffering of the middle class and is willing to fight the good fight for all of us.

For me, the highlight of Obama's speech was a quick discussion of patents. Most people don't really understand patents, since they don't own them, nor do they see the effect of rent-seeking on their lives. Obama was right to say that we need to bring patent trolls down and make them pay the costs of their litigation up front. Most patent trolls are hawking software patents, or what I like to call "idea patents". These patents are not for inventions, they are for ideas, but the problem is, patent law provides protection for inventions, not ideas. Hopefully, Obama can make some real progress on this issue before he leaves office.

But considering the administrations hawking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a so-called "free trade agreement", I'm not so sure about Obama's enthusiasm for intellectual property reform, even with patents. The TPP is a major consolidation of power into the hands of the few, as if they needed more power. The deliberations on this treaty have been shrouded in secrecy so that the true objectives are not easily exposed. Then it will be subject to an up or down vote in the senate for ratification.

These free trade agreements have more to do with protecting obsolete business models and professionals from international competition than they do with free trade. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals have no concerns about throwing the middle class under the bus known as globalization. But they get pretty upset when they are subjects of scrutiny, as if they didn't play a part in the problems we are trying to solve.

Oh yes, there was the Republican response from Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Flat. Vacuous. Patronizing. Sure, we can have equality of opportunity as soon as we are willing to admit that the wealthiest among us will be happy to tilt the table their way, until they are caught. Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges and Gore Vidal are well acquainted with the social class essentialism exhibited by the elite. A sort of dementia that says no matter what, by virtue of their status, they're better than all of us and that all inferior beings will never change, and can never be rehabilitated.

A great example of social class essentialism can be found in Rep. Trey Radel, a Republican from Florida. Here is a wealthy white man, in Congress no less, busted for buying cocaine from federal agents. The punishment for his crime? $250 and supervised probation. Someone thinks he can be rehabilitated. Replace him with a young, poor and black man, and the sentence will be more like a few years in the pen. Radel will get many opportunities to fail, others, not so much.

We need to pull a hard left and we need to do it soon. The Reagan Revolution gave us an economy that can only be propped up by bubbles. Bubbles are great if you have lots of money you can use to buy low and sell high without creating any lasting jobs. But if you're middle class, your retirement fund will be slowly depleted by trading fees and lost equity. Who will defend the middle class?

The short answer is Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? I think so.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sunday afternoon, tennis and pomelo

I really enjoy my weekends. I get to stay home, relax, nap, and play with my daughter, Emily. Emily is almost 14 months old. Every time I am with her, I learn a little bit about her and a little bit about me. One thing I have learned about her is that she loves to share.

It's Sunday afternoon and I'm watching tennis on TV with Emily in my lap. Alice is in the kitchen preparing for the Chinese New Year. She's got a big project going with all of the stuff she is making. I can smell the banana leaves and it's a wonderful smell. The previous night, Alice had peeled a pomelo. I think it's time for some as I don't want it to go too long.

We are watching the Australian Open, the championship match and Emily is mesmerized by the ball going back and forth on the screen. Two women duking it out on court in a fascinating match of skill and wits. It doesn't matter to me who wins. I just like to watch the ball fly. Seems that Emily enjoys that, too.

I have a plate of pomelo before us. Emily has become a big fan of pomelo. I feed Emily by taking choice pieces and offering it to her mouth, but she feeds herself more than I feed her. As we eat the pomelo, Emily will turn to me, a tiny sliver of pomelo in hand, looking at me with those big dark eyes, and thrust her hand to me. I open my mouth and accept the pomelo. I was surprised at first, but now, this is a regular occurrence.

Emily probably doesn't share by instinct. It's hard to say. But it is possible she learned to share by my example. Who knows?

What matters is that we both enjoyed the pomelo on a quiet Sunday afternoon. No worries, no hurry. Just Emily, me, a bit of pomelo and some tennis to enjoy our time together.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Classroom Socialism: an alternative ending

There's a meme floating around on the internet purporting to be a true story about an experiment where socialism is applied to a classroom setting. In the original story, a teacher attempts to show the class the failings of socialism by applying the principles of socialism to grades awarded in class. The story shows what appears to be a natural progression from kids striving to get the best grades to one where the smartest kids withhold their efforts so that they're giving nothing to the slackers in the class.

The result in this story is based on the assumption that people will perform better when financial incentives, or in this case, educational incentives, are awarded based on individual rather than group performance. In the end, everyone is miserable because no one is willing to do their best to get the best grade because individuals are not rewarded for their efforts.

This story is trotted out to show liberals that they are wrong and that they should get a job. Never mind that cheating on tests is endemic, ghost writing is a service offered for people who can't write term papers, copying of term papers is prolific, and that the wealthiest kids will always get a shot at college no matter how poorly they perform on tests or in life. Is that how the free market works? Is this what kids are learning in college? God help us if that is the case.

I've done some fact checking on this story and indeed, there is no factual basis for the story. It is simply a mental experiment conducted with only one assumption: that everyone is selfish at all times.

Here, I rewrite the story to show how an alternative assumption and outcome will prevail.


Is this man truly a genius? 

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before but had recently been tempted to fail an entire class just to make an example of them. That class had insisted that Obama's socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. 

The professor then said, "OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama's plan". All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an “A”.... (substituting grades for dollars - something closer to home and more readily understood by all). 

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a “B”. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. 

As the second test rolled around, the high performing students realized that their fates were tied to the struggling students. The high performers had a meeting and decided to take action. 

They set up a private website where they could all post their scores and notified the entire class about it, teacher included. These high performers advised the teacher that they were just going to tutor the struggling kids to bring the grades up for everyone. The teacher was given access to all materials present on the website so that he could see that they weren't passing around privileged materials. The short story? The class open sourced their work and collaborated to learn materials necessary to pass the tests.

The grade on the second test came in and everyone got a B, again.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the students were all on the same page now. Working together, collaborating on new concepts and taking the time to help those still struggling to grasp concepts and information needed to pass the third test. The teacher saw what was happening. The class worked so well together that everyone got 90% or better on the tests. On the fourth test, everyone got a B+ as the teacher wasn't completely convinced of what was happening.

As the tests proceeded, the scores increased increased as did the quality of work because everyone was collaborating in a spirit of fellowship. They were happy to help each other and realized that, from now on, they did not have to work alone, to anticipate every contingency, or to have all the answers. Eventually, everyone was getting As on their tests.

To their great surprise, ALL PASSED, with A's for their hard work together. The professor made an announcement on the last day of class. In that announcement, he admitted that he offered the challenge to the class to prove them wrong about Obamacare. But he also admitted that this experiment is not a test case for Obamacare. He finally admitted that the methodology of this experiment doesn't prove or disprove the merits of Obamacare. But it does prove that when people realize their fates are tied together, that if they make a choice to work together, their outcomes will be better, collectively.

End of story.

Human nature is such that a culture will fail when the individuals in the culture fail to see that their fates are tied together. When individuals assume that they don't have to help others because they already have far more than they needed or wanted, the culture will fail. When individuals in a culture work together towards a common goal, and help those still struggling, all individuals will benefit from that effort. 

The original story is a ruse. I have re-written this story to show that indeed, there is an alternative outcome, one that conservatives are unwilling to admit as a possibility. There is actually a great example of where people are willing to produce great work for little or no cost. Work that benefits all, regardless of whether they contribute or not.

Where is this work? Where can I find it? It's the Linux kernel. Free, open sourced software, available to anyone who wants to use it. The development model is, in a sense, socialist because no one is paid individually for their contributions to this work, but everyone benefits from it. You can read about that, here.

In the digital age, collaboration will become and is, in my opinion, an essential skill in the workplace. It's not exactly socialism, but the fact that collaboration is so successful disproves many of the conservative theories about incentives. Once I realized the need to write this article, I could hardly resist the temptation to write it. For free to all who care to read it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The double standard of the IMF

Every now and again, I see it in the news: country gets in too deep in debt, International Monetary Fund (IMF) comes around and says that they can help, but only if austerity is imposed to make the upper classes feel better. Isn't it interesting that the IMF is happy to stomp on third world countries, but for some reason, they never bother with the United States?

Case in point, the US Federal debt is estimated to be about 72% of GDP according to the Congressional Budget Office. That seems like a very high ratio of government debt to GDP, doesn't it?

Rewind to 2012 and we find that Spain had government debt equal to 72% of GDP. Spain isn't even a Third World country by any measure, but the IMF came knocking with a painful plan of austerity.

This to me is a double standard. For any other country, the IMF brings the hammer down. But you don't see the IMF coming to the United States imposing discipline, do you? I sure don't. I guess that's what the Tea Party is for.

Unfortunately, there is no empirical evidence to show that austerity has worked. No modern country that has tried it has ever grown their economy by cutting government spending. None. Britain is a great example of austerity gone wrong. They knew it even before they tried it back in 2010. A private UK treasury report estimated that 120k public and 120k private jobs would be lost for *each* year over five years under the austerity plan proposed then. That's more than 1 million jobs lost due to austerity in a country with only 63 million people. Where are they now? 7.1% unemployment with a shrinking economy, still.

This is what the Tea Party is selling in our Congress. The austerity measures promoted by conservatives in Congress have little to do with creating jobs. They wanted to keep the Bush tax cuts, but did they create jobs? NO. Study after study has shown that increasing government spending during a recession can go a long way towards replacing the demand lost in the private sector. That creates jobs.

It is estimated that $900 billion in annual demand was lost by the housing bubble. You'd think that the lowest tax rates and the lowest interest rates in history would allow the private sector to replace that demand. That didn't happen did it? What? You mean those job creators didn't create jobs after the meltdown? No. They didn't and could not.

The reason for this is very simple. Consumers didn't have money to spend. If consumers don't have money, there is no other way to replace that demand than with government spending. Businesses will idle their plants and ship jobs overseas in a recession. That's because short term profits are more important than keeping people employed - just ask any CEO. But the government will never stop spending money.

So don't expect the IMF to come around with an austerity plan for the United States. The standards applied by the IMF to other countries don't apply here. More to the point, our Congress is already doing enough to inflict pain upon the middle class.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Magnetar, oh how lucky we are

From time to time, I am reminded of just how lucky we are. We live on a planet that just happens to have water, be the right distance from the sun, with the sun well into the main sequence, the most stable part of its life and the building blocks for life are in generous supply, conveniently located everywhere on earth. It all seems like such a great coincidence doesn't it?

Yet, we're surrounded by distant danger. Every once in awhile, scientists will mention in passing that an asteroid the size of a football field has come within 2 or 3 million miles of the earth. Asteroids buzz by the earth every day, and estimates place the near earth objects at about 10,000. Most are no danger, even if they do hit the earth. The earth is sort of a cosmic vacuum picking stuff up all the time, every day. Scientists believe that much of our water came from space. That is lucky for us.

Then there is the sun. Every once in awhile, the sun has a bit of indigestion and burps a large ball of fire, known as a coronal mass ejection, into space. For most of earths history, earth has not been in the path of a smoke ring from the sun. There have been times when scientists were worried about it and have expressed concern. But that has usually been for our satellites. So far, we've been lucky to see the sun as a benign benefactor of life here, on earth.

We've all heard of supernovas. Supernovas are the end of the line for a star. When a star runs out of hydrogen to burn, then it burns helium, and then it start fusing helium to make oxygen. When the star fuses bigger atoms together, it grows into a red giant, like a giant balloon. When it runs out of fuel, the star collapses on itself and when the matter slams together at the center and goes boom, that's a supernova. Some us have seen the Crab Nebula. That's a remnant of a supernova. Heavy atoms like silver, gold, thorium, and uranium are made in supernovas.

While that's big, there's a bigger boom out there. It's called a gamma ray burst. Gamma rays are at the top end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma ray photons are the most energetic forms of light and are beyond the range of our eyes to see. We usually detect them with special instruments as coming from stars, supernovas and gamma ray bursts.

I read about gamma ray bursts a few years ago. The last one I read about came from an object known as a magnetar. It's essentially a neutron star, but with a very strong magnetic field. The gamma ray burst came from a magnetar having what can best be described as an earthquake. That was a little blip for the magnetar, but to us, we measured an output of about 250,000 years of our suns output, in less than a second.

It is theorized that if one of those were pointed at the earth, and we were say, within 1000 light years of it, life on this planet would be mostly toast. Fortunately, those events are rare, maybe one or two every million years in our galaxy, and most recorded gamma ray bursts come from outside of our galaxy, placing them millions of light years away from us. I guess we can take comfort in that.

We are a putative force in the universe, and we have been blithely unaware of the forces at work in the universe for a long, long time. Maybe that's a good thing. It would be hard to get out of bed fraught with worry that we might be snuffed out by an asteroid, supernova or gamma ray burst.

Knowing about all this myself, when I'm down and I feel like nothing is going right, I remind myself how lucky I am to be here. For if the world were truly against me, I'd be about a millimeter thick. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


When I was a kid, I used to play marbles. I saw the other kids doing it and found it to be an interesting game of skill. So off I went to the five and dime store to get some marbles. I looked at the offerings and found a bag with some marbles. I just looked for a good variety of colors and went home to check them out. My plan was to take them with me to play after school.

I played marbles in a few places, but the one I remember the most was under the trees in Sand Dune Park at the bottom of the hill. I played near the recreation center, a small little building with just enough room for an office, sports equipment and a fan for the warm days.

I can remember joining a game of marbles under the cool summer shade of the trees. Even caroms didn't hold a candle to marbles. I loved to shoot caroms but marbles...they had color, variety and group play.

I'd get settled with my bag of marbles and bring one out to play. It's been so long that I can't even remember the rules anymore. They came in a variety of sizes  and colors. I remember the aggies the most. Blue, green, red, yellow and white. Some were small, some were big. The big ones were coveted, but they were easy targets to hit. Then again, they were hard to move if you had a small marble. You had to wait to see what the other guy would bring.

Some kids brought ball bearings to the game. Now that was interesting. They were heavy, so they had the mass to push other marbles into the hole. The rules are coming back to me now. That was the game: to push the other guys marbles into the hole. We might have invented some other rules, but that was the main rule. I guess there were two holes, I don't remember. I just remember the shade under the tree, playing on the cool soil, chatting with my friends and enjoying the afternoon.

To me, the physics were the game. Nothing else really mattered. Ok, if I lost my ball bearing, that was a problem because I didn't know where I could buy another one. The marbles were easy to replace, but the steelies, as we used to call them, they were a treasure. I just liked to watch how the marbles roll.

I don't know when or how I stopped playing marbles. I guess I just moved on and found something else to do.

I must be getting older. I seem to have lost my marbles.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Socialism: a natural experiment in software

Over the last 20 years or so, a natural experiment in software has taken place. On the one hand, you have Microsoft, undisputed master of the desktop, and for a few years, it owned the server room. Windows is the flagship product of Microsoft. There were versions for the home, the office and the server room. For a long time, you could not get fired by buying Microsoft.

Windows is proprietary code. That means, not only is the code protected by copyright, it is protected by obfuscation. Computer code is written by humans in a programming language that humans understand. Programmers comment their code so that they know what a section of code does as a point of reference. But this is code that computers do not understand. The code that humans can read is then processed through a compiler, a piece of software that reads the code written by humans and converts it to something that computers understand, machine code.

If you read the license for Windows, you will find that in order to exercise the rights in the license, you must give up the right to decompile the software. That means that you may not send it through a decompiler to see the source code again. But even if you could decompile the software, you will be missing something very important - the comments. When the software is compiled, converted from human readable code to machine code, the comments are stripped. So even if you could decompile the software, you're going to spend a long time figuring out how it works.

This is the basis of the Windows monopoly, copyright protection, obfuscation and a license that restricts you from even looking. It was pretty successful until the Internet came along. Then people began to share ideas about software.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a young man from Finland, wrote an operating system and shared it with his friends, now called Linux. His friends wrote back and said that it was nice, and they offered code as suggestions to make it better. And so it began. Since then, friends, businesses and paid programmers, all contributed to the Linux Kernel, for free. They all made it better and better. Over time, it collected more and more experience and intelligence, eventually becoming a server class operating system.

During the intervening years between 1991 and now, Microsoft took notice and called Linux a cancer. They could see the threat that Linux posed to the Windows operating system and launched numerous campaigns to stop it from spreading. But they could not. Some say Microsoft offered too little, too late. I don't think that Microsoft ever had a chance to stop it.

Where Microsoft had complete dominance over the desktop, Linux began to take market share on the server side. Small companies realized that they could use Linux to scale up their business. Then large companies figured it out, too. They knew that Microsoft would just squeeze them enough with licensing costs to keep the competition at bay. But with Linux, there was no threat from Microsoft.

Linux was and is free. You can make as many copies as you want. You can use it for any purpose you want to use it for. You have a right to access the source code, in human readable form, with all the comments. And you have the right to modify it for your own purposes. The biggest restriction on the Linux license, the General Public License, is that if you modify the source code, and distribute compiled binaries, you must make the source code available for the changes you made.

Linux is socialist in the sense that you see, from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, but with a twist. When you share, you get ten times back what you gave to it.

Linux is everywhere. Your phone, if you have an Android phone. Your computer if you use the Internet. Most major corporations use Linux: Google, HP, eBay, Facebook, Netflix and every major securities exchange uses Linux. Your tablet, your TV and your DVD player, all use Linux. The fastest computers in the world run Linux. Why? Because Linux is not just free as in beer. It is free as in freedom.

You can't modify Windows to suit your every computing need. If you want to modify Windows, you need to get the secret sauce and permission to look at it. With Linux you don't have to wait. Read the source code, learn it, play with it. Or hire a programmer to help you.

The Linux operating system blew past Microsoft in every area of computing that we know of today. The only things Microsoft has left to defend Windows is marketing and patents. Microsoft doesn't share. So the world does not share Windows, or the world view of Microsoft. Microsoft wanted to own it all, developers, applications and users. In a few short years, that will all change.

I am a part of that change. I don't use Windows at home. Even my wife uses Linux on her computer. My kids will never see us using a Windows computer unless the job requires it. I encourage my friends and family to try it. I know the freedom Linux has brought to my life and I want to share it with anyone who wants to try it. So I do.

The capitalist company that is Microsoft could not conquer a competitor that is free to anyone who wants to use it, modify it and share it. Capitalism has some useful attributes, but, like Microsoft has taught us, unless we tame it, it will be our undoing. Linux has demonstrated that very effectively.

Monday, January 20, 2014

There is something about surfers

I've known a few surfers in my time. They all have a rather singular quality about them. They are incredibly peaceful. They seem, at least to me anyway, at home in their surroundings and on the planet.

The first surfer I think I ever met was Dan. I met him when I was a kid and we were going to elementary school together. I've looked at the class pictures through the years and noticed that Dan's hair went from brown to blonde over the years. That is the sign of someone who likes to spend time in salt water, waiting for the next wave. I don't know exactly when he took up surfing, but I always found him to be very relaxed. I guess that is what is required for someone who likes to dance on 6' waves.

I can remember the storm of '83 in the South Bay community of Southern California. At the Manhattan Beach pier, they were reporting 12-14' waves. Dan was there. Surfing.

Later in adult life I ran into another surfer. I was working as an air balance technician, one of those mysterious jobs in the air conditioning trade. I made sure that every register in the ceiling passed the amount of air called for in the design of the air conditioning systems we installed. It was very peaceful work for me.

So I get to work early, you know, around 6:30 in the morning. This is my first visit to the building and I have to meet the building engineer at a location in Newport Beach. He's a really nice guy, friendly, amiable and, he's a surfer. So we're having a conversation as he prepares to provide me with access to the office suite I will be working in to balance the air conditioning system. I can't remember the rest of the conversation, but what I do remember him saying is something like this, "Sniff, sniff! Hmm. Smells like it's offshore today."

I asked him about that and he said that he could tell how the wind was blowing by the smell of the air, I was blown away. Now that is awareness. This apparently is true of many surfers. They are so in tune with the environment, that they know the signs of good waves with good shape without even sight of the beach. I guess if they want that wave, they get to know the world around them.

I watched surfers do their thing on big and small waves, in person and in the media. While they are impressive on the waves, they are relaxed and at ease during the interviews. They don't seem all that excited in the conversations that unfold during the interviews. I often have the impression that they are somewhat detached, too. Just a little bit aloof, yet always keen to catch the next wave.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Shadows and Tall Trees

The winter months always strike me as a rather interesting extreme in angles. Whereas the summer sun shines brightly overhead around noon, in the winter, sunlight reaches the wall through my bathroom window at noon, at a rather significant angle. When I see the light bouncing off the white wall in my hall, I get an almost wistful sense about. I have a sense of awe when see that subtle change in my environment, a result of the slow, intricate dance of the earth around the sun.

Now that I'm living in Utah, I'm six degrees north latitude of where I used to live, Los Angeles. Everything seems a bit more extreme when it comes to the sun's position in the sky. In the summer, the sun seems to set in the extreme north relative to my position and it is high overhead at noon. In the winter, the sun seems to set in the extreme south relative to my perspective. It was confusing at first, but now I'm used to it.

For some reason, the angles of the shadows in winter afternoons and sunsets seem odd to me. They just seem so out of balance, so extreme. Late afternoon seems so much like sunset because the sun's position in the sky is already low compared to summer. The days are shorter and the shadows are longer. This time of year reminds me of a great song by U2, "Shadows and Tall Trees".

When I see the shadows as I drive home from work, I start to think about time. I think about the passing of the year, the cycle of the year and sometimes, I wonder what this planet would look like to aliens. The shadows of the winter solstice past remind me of the limits of my will and give me pause to reflect again. I am reminded not to ask too much of myself. I am reminded to listen and take direction. I am reminded that this is another year and that I will get a shot at redeeming myself for mistakes past.

After the passing of the solstice, the hopes and aspirations of the coming spring return as the shadows each day show progress to what my brain thinks is normal. The days are lighter, the angles on the ground are not so extreme anymore. I begin to recall the days when I could just sit and sweat in the heat with some anticipation.

These are, I guess, the musings of a closet astronomer.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Living on talent - People I admire

It's awards season and my wife likes to watch the awards, so I watch them with her when they come around. One thing I love about the awards shows like the Grammys, the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Oscars, is that everyone is absolutely gushing with gratitude. It is one of the few forums I see where that can happen on TV.

I've seen a bit of what goes on in film and TV production, you know, by watching the "making of" documentaries that we usually find on the bonus disk for DVDs. There's production to be sure, but there is time spent waiting for the director to call everyone to the set while he preps. I've seen interviews of actors where they say that although they love acting for film, a lot of time is spent waiting.

Actors do research into their character. They visit with people who resemble the characters they are about to portray. They get to see how people live and then re-enact that for us on the screen. They find ways to be the character they are going to portray. They go to places where they would not ordinarily go to see how they lived.

When we see the finished production, if a movie is good, we forget all that, all of our troubles, worries and get absorbed into the plot that unfolds. I saw that with movies like True Grit, Ronin and Contact. They are great movies with great actors and crew.

So when I watch the awards, it's all teamwork. Everyone is grateful to be there. I see the smiles, the anticipation, the hopes, and the camaraderie. They are all there to have a good time.

I also love to see actors reveling in their roles. My favorite example is Alec Baldwin in The Shadow. Sure, critics panned the writing and the plot, but you know what? Alec truly reveled in the role. I don't think I've ever seen an actor having such a great time. Here is a serious actor who seems to have done a movie more for fun than anything else.

Then there are the bit parts that actors will do for fun. The best example is Young Frankenstein. During the casting for that movie, Gene Hackman heard about it and called Gene Wilder to ask if he could be in it. He was looking for a bit part because he knew it would be fun. You'll have to see the movie to see where he is, but you would never know it unless you looked at the credits.

Actors do their job because they love it. Some will even admit that they would do it anyway, regardless of the money. I've watch Inside the Actors Studio to see them recount this first hand. Every actor on that show will recount how they were bitten by the acting bug and just could not let it go. They had to do it again, and again, and again.

That's why George Burns was still doing standup until he was 100. That's why Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood carried the torch well into their 80s. They just can't stop.

Dedication like that is what keeps a talent alive and worth living for.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A matter of discipline

For centuries, humans have longed for, and exerted control over their environments. We found trees to get cover from rain. We found caves as nice safe places to rest. We found clothes to cover our hairless bodies. We collected food and hunted, then we thought farming would be a great idea. We built homes, air conditioning and space stations. We have cars, planes and trains. We built computers to assist our putative brains. We made restrooms so that we can do our business safely sheltered from predators.

All of this takes some discipline. It takes time and practice and refinement to make the things we use every day. It starts in a school where we learn to read and write. Then we go to college to learn higher order thinking. Then we get a job and put all that training to work. Day in and day out, we're learning, practicing and building.

While it is true that humans have discipline, results vary considerably from human to human. Some are lazy. Some are go-getters. Some are artists driven by an insatiable urge. Some are politicians, lawyers or con-men.

Whatever characteristics we have as humans, we get them from atoms. True enough, we are essentially an organized collection of atoms. Yet, we are constantly shedding atoms and assimilating new atoms. Somehow, our consciousness has managed to get this collection of atoms to cooperate for very long periods of time. When that cooperation ends, we die.

There is an ongoing, simmering debate over the source of free will and whether free will even exists at all. A few years ago, a small group of mathematicians even went so far as to suggest that if free will is proven in humans, then free will must exist in the particles that make up humans, too. We have to get it from somewhere if we have it.

I get up early every weekday and go to work. I write, I exercise, I bag my lunch. I show up predictably to work and am paid for that service. I take care of myself, my family and my possessions. When I settle down for the day, I put my phone, my keys and my wallet in the same place, every day. Without fail. These are all forms of discipline.

But consider for the moment the possibility that matter has free will. Homes and roads last 30 years. Ancient ruins are fairly intact for eons. Insects have been perfectly preserved in amber for tens of millions of years (I think of this whenever I hear the song, "Stuck In A Moment" by U2). Rocks have been found with compositions and structures hundreds of millions of years old. The sun, is more than 4 billion years old, and it generates light that is 100,000 years old before it escapes the surface.

Matter has discipline that humans can only dream of. Atoms seem to last forever. Uranium, one of the biggest naturally occurring atoms, has a 4.5 billion year half life. Consider the humble proton, a constituent of every atomic nucleus. It has a half life of 10^35 years (that's 10 followed by 35 zeroes). Matter is an amazing example of disciple, in walls, steel, the earth and the sun, and notably, us.

Whatever discipline we have, we got it from the buzzing cloud of atoms that we are comprised of and all around us. Matter has been shown to be 99% empty space. If the proton in a hydrogen atom were the size of a basketball, the electron would be orbiting some 20 miles away. Yet, despite all that space, lead appears quite solid. Drywall appears quite opaque. I sometimes wonder at the discipline required for atoms to stay organized in the walls of my home. I find it interesting that scientists don't think about the locations of these tiny particles of which we are all made - they think about the probabilities of where an electron or proton can be found.

Matter, as the smallest of scales, is about uncertainty and probabilities. Yet, if you want to see discipline, look around. It's everywhere you want to be.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Life with(out) credit cards

I have lived the last 12 years without credit cards. It's not that hard to do, but it requires determination to do it, and maybe help from friends you trust. I've also developed philosophical reasons for avoid credit cards, too, beyond the practical reasons that are not always easy to see. One of the biggest obstacles to letting go of the credit is psychological. The credit card has come to represent a way of life in America. Let's see what we get with a credit card and how to wean ourselves off.

My life with credit cards has been pretty messy. I'd see something that I wanted right now, buy it and them work very hard to pay it off while paying 18% interest on the card. Think about that. The Fed funds rate is less than 1%. Most banks are paying 1/2 of 1% for savings accounts. Then banks turn around and lend that money at anywhere from a few percent to 18% which is rather typical of credit card companies. In some circles, this is called usury - in others, it is a respectable way of making money if you're a bank.

Now if you're Ben Stein, you have credit cards, but you pay them off before the grace period expires. Ben Stein is a wealthy man with a mini-media empire. He can afford to pay off his cards quick and easy. Most of us are still struggling with flat wages and rising prices, and we don't have cash coming in from a business that makes money from the work of others.

Credit cards make money, even in a deep recession. Credit cards are the profit center of most retail establishments. I know because many years ago, I worked retail and during their training, I learned where they make most of their profits. Here is what I learned:

  • If you pay cash for your purchase, the store makes $1-2 for every $100.
  • If you pay with a 3rd party credit card, the store makes $3-4 for every $100.
  • If you pay with the store's credit card, the store makes $8-10 for every $100.
That means that the margins on cash alone are very thin, with the business plan sitting on top of a very high credit card use expectation. Stores want you to use credit, and they make aggressive offers to get you to use their credit. Some stores will offer $20-50 off on a purchase just for opening a line of credit with them. Some offer an additional 20% off just for using a credit card. "Shall I put that on your K-Mart card?"

I avoid all of that and don't even let the temptation enter my mind. The size of the offers any store makes for using their credit card is a measure of their expectation for profit on the credit card. That's how I look at it.

Another way of looking at credit cards is that they are a hidden form of inflation. Credit cards make everything more expensive. The interest over time adds up, so basically, you're paying for someone to sit on their butt and collect money you could have used for something else. The compound interest is even worse on large balances and makes paying the balance more difficult, especially if your wages are flat or falling. If you want to donate to the 1%, get a credit card. They will be happy to take your money.

There is a psychological aspect to credit cards, too. Most of us have been led to believe that we need to have a credit card to build a credit record to buy a house. There are less dangerous ways to build credit history: lines of commerce and secured loans. Credit ratings are based on payments to anyone nowadays. Those payments are what are known as lines of commerce. Make regular on time payments for a few years and your rating will go up, even if it is not for a loan.

That wasn't the case decades ago. Credit ratings for homes was firmly in the territory of credit cards then. I remember how even in high school, that was the emphasis. Get a job, get credit, pay it off and buy a house. That was what they taught in school.

Things have changed. Now retail establishments have to deal with a new generation that won't touch credit cards. Maybe they saw what their parents went through and decided against it. I learned about that while renting a car at Enterprise car rentals. I asked if they would take a debit card, and they said sure, as long as they can take a healthy deposit. I asked about it and they said that Generation X or Y, I can't remember which one now, won't use credit cards, so they found a way to adapt. I'm glad to see sanity appearing in the current generation of kids.

Watch TV for a while and notice the ads for Discover, Visa and American Express. Notice how important and impressive the characters look in the ads. The ads feature people buying expensive things on credit, but there is no mention of how many hours of work is required to pay it back or how much interest will be paid on the card. It's free money, right?

Another way to build credit scores is to buy a car on time. Just make regular payments and don't miss any. Keep that job and get good training so that you have more skills and make a bit more money. Making regular payments on secured loans is a very good way to build credit scores. I know because I thought my credit score would fall without a credit card. But I went from fair to excellent just by making regular payments early or on time to everyone. That's everyone including the bank for the home loan, the car loan, the utilities, and the insurance companies. It all counts now.

You don't have to go into debt with credit cards to build a credit score. I'm proof of that, and there are many thousands of people doing the same thing all over the country. That is a small part of how we can turn this country around from debts to prosperity. It all adds up over time.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Airbag - designed for people who insist on freedom

I remember the days before the airbag appeared in cars. I was a kid then and I can remember how our family trips would start. Someone would refuse to put their seatbelt on as we all piled into the car. Dad would check to see that all of us were buckled in. If anyone was not buckled up, he would wait until we were and threaten dire consequences if we didn't buckle up quick.

I don't know how many times Dad did this, but once he got started on the subject of seatbelts, he always talked about how people were ejected from their cars in accidents when they didn't wear their seatbelts. He'd point to the windshield and say that if you get into an accident without wearing a seatbelt, you'll go right through the windshield. I was a believer. I wore my seatbelt.

Even as a young adult driver, I wore my seatbelt. I can remember one fine day when I actually forgot to buckle up. I noticed as I was driving, how I moved around in the opposite direction of the car when the car moved and that felt really uncomfortable. I felt like I had no control over where my body was going and that scared me. At the next stop light, I buckled up. To this day, I have no idea how people can even think they can drive without wearing a seatbelt.

What I learned that day was that when I'm not wearing a seatbelt, my mind is not focused on controlling the wheel, my mind is focused on controlling my position in the seat. I also noticed that I tended to use my arms to control my seating position. The seatbelt relieves me of that tension and gives me the leverage I need to maintain control of the car.

I remember the raging debates over the airbags. The debates boiled down to a simple concept. A man who refuses to wear a sealtbelt is a far more expensive mess at the hospital than a man who wears a seatbelt in the same accident. Even if insurance is factored in, the costs are higher for all of us if seatbelts are not used.

The subtext is that if you don't want to wear a seatbelt, we'll figure out another way to save your life in an accident. We'll force manufacturers to install airbags in cars. That'll fix it for ya. Then, even if you don't wear a seatbelt, the airbag will keep your teeth in your mouth by preventing a collision between your head and the steering wheel in an accident.

The people who refused to wear seatbelts in cars were imposing a huge cost upon everyone else. Their medical bills were higher, imposing higher costs on insurers, and ultimately, everyone else. People who wore seatbelts did not realize the cost savings because other people, the (crash test) dummies who refused to wear their seatbelts, continued to impose higher costs.

I can recall the righteousness of the people who wanted to drive without a seatbelt. They felt it was their god-given-right to do so. They believed that no one else is being hurt by driving without a seatbelt. But when they got into an accident, their costs were much higher and their fatality rates were also much higher. The people who didn't wear seatbelts had a hard time admitting that they were imposing higher risks and costs on others through their choices in the car.

This is the problem we have with health insurance. People who believe that they can save money by paying cash at the doctors office and insisting that they don't need health insurance are still going to impose a cost on others by their choices.

It's true that you can save money by paying cash at the doctors office. I know this and have even put this fact to use.Paying for the office visit is one thing. Paying for a catastrophic illness with a stratospheric medical bill is something else. That is what health insurance is for.

No matter how smart, young and healthy you think you are, you do not have the means or the experience to anticipate every contingency. It's simply not possible. Insurance companies have centuries of experience and empirical evidence to estimate your risk as a policy holder. They know their costs and their averages. They've seen it all.

One of the complaints about Obamacare concerns the individual mandate, a provision in the law that requires everyone to buy insurance or pay a tax. The objective was to expand the pool of covered persons, thereby increasing the total amount of money paid for insurance, and eventually lowering individual costs for everyone. It's simple math.

The provision was designed to deal with a persistent problem that is posed by the people who refuse to buy health insurance. The people who don't buy insurance sometimes find themselves facing costs that they cannot manage on their own. The costs can be so high that they go into debt or bankruptcy when they realize that they don't have a snowball's chance in hell of paying it off in their lifetime. Hospitals and doctors have to make up for this loss and that is where the high costs for the rest of us come in. I will admit that this can be a problem even for people who have insurance, but with a much bigger pool, we can expect to see some reduction in medical bankruptcy.

When the uninsured get in over their heads, they impose costs on the rest of us. Just like the dummies who refused to wear seatbelts.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sincerely deluded by social class essentialism

Slate has a very interesting article on a topic new to me: social class essentialism. It's a fascinating exploration of assumptions made by the wealthy classes. The summary? The wealthy think that they're better than the rest of us. Genes, upbringing, sheer intelligence and even drive are all factors believed to contribute to the success of the wealthy. Luck, connections and being born in the right place have nothing to do with it.

After reading this article one event came to mind. The event happened on September 30th, 2008. I can recall listening to This American Life recount that bit of history where all the biggest bank stocks were worthless due to their asset to liability ratio - the bottom line was negative. The biggest banks in the US are run by some of the wealthiest people in the US. If these very wealthy people truly believe that they are better than the rest of us, what were they thinking on September 30th as every financial network (CNBC, Fox News, etc.) reviews the value of their stocks? Did they still feel superior to the rest of us, even then?

President Bush was only too happy to bail out the bankers, but not the people. I guess he's a member of that club, the Social Essentialists Club, too. Yet, at least one economist was able to to see through the fog produced by the bankers in the hopes that we would all be so willing to forgive and forget, if we could just get through this crisis. One economist saw what it was all about the day after September 30th. What were they thinking at the Federal Reserve?

There is a converse perspective to social class essentialism, too. It's the notion that, "Hey, if I'm better than you because of my genes and smarts, you're hopeless. Why should I help you?" That is a key point that is utterly lost in the debate on inequality. With a few exceptions, the wealthy are unwilling to admit that they got help from the rest of us. They are unwilling to give any ground on the notion that what they earned, they earned from their own efforts.

The only exceptions that I see on any public venue are the awards. You know, the Emmys, the Oscars, the Golden Globes. The winners of those awards slavish praise on all the people who helped them succeed. But you will never hear that from our beloved billionaires. They did it all by themselves.

Jeremiah Johnson. That's the name that comes to mind when I read the article on social class essentialism. Jeremiah Johnson was a mountain man movie from the 70s. I went to see it when I was a kid. It was a movie that just oozed with rugged individualism from every pore. Man vs mountain covered in snow. Man doesn't win, but he lives to see another day. Is he a success? For himself, yes. But in today's lucre-obsessed culture, no.

Jeremiah Johnson comes to mind to make a point. Success is not something you do alone. You need culture, a society to have success. In the movie, even Jeremiah Johnson gets help from someone else. For success, you need family, friends and mentors. You need help at every step of your development, and you need guidance. When mentors share their mistakes, we all benefit.

A society that gives the wealthy every opportunity to fail and fail again, without accountability - while leaving the poor and the middle class to fend for themselves - is not really a society. As we saw in the bailouts, the wealthy investors were given every opportunity to fail with other people's money and were rewarded for failure. For everyone else, they lost their homes, their retirement, their day job. Can we call this civilized?

Any businessman or businesswoman knows that in order to succeed in business, you need cooperation from others. You need employees, vendors and customers. If you cannot secure cooperation from all of these, you're doomed to fail. Oh yeah, there is one other factor in their success that the wealthy are loathe to admit: the government.

The government provides the basic standards we use to make commerce possible. The pound, the ounce, the kilo, the meter, the second and the dollar. It's all there, in the standards. Then there are laws to enforce contracts, some of which are inequitable. There is the police to keep people from stealing your inventory. There are hospitals to attend to people injured in your factories.

"But we pay taxes for the government!" Indeed you do. But how much time do you spend at work? Your business was hard to start, and you spent many hours getting it going. But then the business took a life of its own and it makes money when you're on vacation and when you're sick. Everyone else is still working for your business but you. Once you got it going, many other people saw a common interest in your success. Did you notice that?

But don't worry, dear reader. The wealthy among us did it all by themselves and they earned every penny by their own labor. They made it because they're better than the rest of us.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Memoir of a former sheet metal worker

I admit it. i used to be a sheet metal worker. Yeah, that was me, so many years ago, wearing boots, jeans and a t-shirt. I was on a ladder at 6:30 in the morning, almost every morning while working the field. When working in the shop, I started work at 7. I have some good memories of that time of my life and many, not so good. I would like to share some of that with you, the world, now.

I started work for my father when I was 12. My father once told me that sheet metal work was not fun, but it was something I could take to the bank. He said that air conditioning is one of the most complex building trades, and he's right. Air conditioning has something for everyone: electrical, mechanical, controls and other features that don't come readily to mind. Just know that I started the trade when I was 12.

I started one summer, working 40 hours a week. I just showed up by buying some boots, jeans, and I got some company t-shirts. I got my ride to work at 5:30 weekdays. My starting pay was $1 an hour. I carried the bucket for Al, the job foreman assigned as my supervisor. I complained that my arm hurt carrying the bucket, and Al would just mock me. Oh, it's all rushing back to me now. The characters were Al, Bob, Kurt, Rudy and Rickey and Matt. There were more later, but these were the big ones.

I carried the bucket every morning. I fetched stuff from the truck when a part or tool that wasn't on hand was needed. Somehow, I managed to stay safe in a construction environment. I was careful everywhere I went. I learned to use tools. I mostly just watched what was going on at first, and then I was given a face mask and directed to cut fiberglass and wrap it around ductwork. I did a lot of that.

I also spent time sealing ductwork. We called it "pooky" and and it was a foul smelling goo that was used to seal the ductwork. I did that. I can remember spending a few hours going through a bag of screws looking for a particular type of screw that was needed. I was a gopher and grunt, rolled into one. I did all kinds of odd jobs in the field.

I worked downtown in LA as we did commercial construction, you know, office suites. I saw all the pretty and handsome people dressed in business attire. I wanted to be one of them. I hated what I was doing, but I wanted to be loved and approved by Dad. So I did sheetmetal. I remember helping out in a nearly finished office, putting the finishing touches on a system or fixing something where there were people working. I was coming of age, so I noticed the women in their business attire. I wanted to be with them then.

I did everything around the shop. Swept floors, cleaned toilets, took out the trash. I worked in a metal shop with lots of dangerous equipment around. I was very wary of the corners of the metal laying on the tables. I cleared the scrap and sometimes I got to cut metal in the big shear, a machine that I could feel through the floor when it cutting metal. It was an 8-foot shear that would cut with big "k-thunk" sound and it was really scary at first.

At the end of the week, we'd go back to the shop at the end of the day and I'd wait for Dad to finish drinking beer and chatting with his buddies in his office. I'd wait for some select moment, a pause in the chatter, then I'd clear my throat and rub my index and middle finger with my thumb for the money. Then Dad would give me $40. That was the prize. $40.

I spent some of it on food, even though I had an allowance for food. Back then, $5 would cover the food. I ate in some diners downtown and off the lunch truck, too. Breakfast burritos were good. McDonalds always left me feeling hungry. I learned to pack my lunch to save money because the food in restaurants wasn't good enough.

Every day, I would come home dirty and loved taking a shower after that. I remember spending time, counting my money and imagining the great things I would do with it. I opened a bank account and kept my money there. I watched the balance rise over the summer and felt something good about having it there.

By the end of the first summer, I had a few hundred bucks, but no real friends. I missed out on time I could have spent playing or studying something cool in science. But I had money that none of my peers had. That was all I got for the first year.

For some reason I did it again. I was hooked on the money, but working a job I hated. I wanted to work in an office. I wanted to do something with my mind. While I was reading science at home, the guys I was working with were more interested in sharing the number of beers they drank or how drunk they were and still able to get to work. It was hard to bring up the subject of black holes in casual conversation.

The next year, I got a 100% raise to $2 an hour. it went pretty much the same as the year before, but this time, I had more money when I was done. I was getting to like this. But I missed the free time, the pleasure of going to the park, the library and just hanging out with friends. I did this, I think, until I was 15, then I got a job at the local supermarket for a couple years and really rolled in some dough there.

I hated school. I got teased every day and there was just no escape from a world where I had adversaries and few friends and no support from Dad or Mom on what to do. I don't remember asking for help.

So when I heard that Aviation High School was closing, I decided to get a GED and work for Dad. Big mistake. Don't work for dad. Even if you're tempted, just don't. Even if you think you ever had a chance at doing what he did, forget it. Everything is different for you than it was for Dad. You'll never achieve what he managed to achieve. You could do better somewhere else with a college degree.

But I didn't see much support for going to college. Dad told me that people who go to college are stupid and never amount to anything. Tell that to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. I wanted to learn computes, but Dad seemed to think that sheet metal was the ride. So I stuck to it.

I worked in sheet metal until I was 27. I did everything. I worked in the field, worked in the shop. I did that mystery job called air balance. I helped to bring to production the first numerically controlled plasma cutter on the west coast. I worked as job foreman. I worked as project manager. No joy. No joy. No joy. I had nothing to show for it when I left.

One day, they said I had to go back to the field and work on a ladder again. I quit. I went off into no man's land. I was stressed out so I spent a year on workmens comp. No career, no goals, no guidance. I spent a few years fishing around, looking for something to do. I found computers. But all along, I had a desire to write. I didn't know it then. But I feel it and work it every day now. I'm a writer, not a sheet metal worker. I'm a tech, too, but that is real work. Writing is natural for me - once I get started on an article, the words just flow from my fingers. Thank God I learned type!

So there you have it, a very brief overview of my life as a sheet metal worker. I've wanted to write about that for a long, long time.

Friday, January 03, 2014

There is a reason money is also called currency

All of us are familiar with electricity. We use it every day. Our bodies cannot function without it. When electrons flow in a wire, we have electricity. The name for that flow is "current". When electrons move, you have power.

By the same token, when a dollar sits in your wallet, it has very little power. But when you present it in exchange for something else, like food, gas or shelter, you generate economic demand. In this example, money is moving and generating force, a demand for goods and services. Most of the transactions we're familiar with involve the exchange of a dollar for something else.

The demand generated by a moving dollar is something that we're familiar with. Economists think of moving dollars as "circulation", and when money moves, it's taxed. Whenever we buy something, there is a sales tax for it. Of course, there are a few exceptions. In California, there is no sales tax on food. In Utah, there is a sales tax on food. When money moves, it tends to generate tax revenue.

When we think of a dollar, we usually think of paper money, a dollar bill with the familiar portrait of George Washington on the face and the word "ONE" on the back. When this money moves, we call it circulation, or demand. When electrons move, we call it current. The paper money has another name for it, a fancy name, and we call it "currency". I believe that the term "currency" came to represent paper money for the power that is created when paper money is circulated.

Nowadays, most people do not handle money in the original sense. We write checks. We use a debit card. We use PayPal. I know for myself that days and weeks may pass before I see a dollar bill of any denomination again. I used to study money when I was a kid. I was fascinated with the art of the older currency from the 19th and 20th century and used to gape in awe at pictures of the $100,000 bill with Woodrow Wilson on the face.

Most economists estimate the US economy to be worth approximately $16 trillion a year and they call this figure, the Gross Domestic Product. It's a huge, mind-boggling number, isn't it? $16 trillion is the value we come up with when we add up every transaction by everyone every day for one year. Every house, every car, TV, washer and dryer, every computer, cell phone, iPad, what have you, the GDP includes all of that. All of it generates tax revenue, with a few minor exceptions as mentioned earlier. Even online sales are coming into the fold.

But there is one area of our economy curiously missing from our tax revenue net: securities. When most of us think of securities, we think of stocks and bonds, we think of Wall Street. Some of us have invested in stocks and fewer still have invested in bonds. There is a lot of money flowing through Wall Street, every second of every day. The money never sleeps.

So how much money changes hands in a year on Wall Street? Estimates put that figure at $5 quadrillion. To put this in perspective, 1% of $5 quads is $50 trillion. Our economy is estimated to be a mere $16 trillion. A tax on all this speculation might actually help the economy. A small 1% tax on those high frequency traders might slow them down long enough to consider a meaningful trade, you know, a trade that actually creates jobs. A 1% tax will hardly be missed by super wealthy traders who are just pushing paper around and producing almost nothing for anyone else.

Strangely, this sort of tax, a financial transactions tax, has been largely absent from any discussion about fixing the debt. You know, the $16 trillion government debt that you, me and all of our grandchildren will have to pay for someday? Yeah, that debt. The one we owe to China.

Fortunately, somebody has noticed this gaping hole in the debate. But trust me, you'll never hear it from our esteemed colleagues on the right. They simply have too much skin in the game to talk about it.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

It's time to reframe the debate over the minimum wage

For years, there has been a strenuous debate over the minimum wage. In the lats few years, the intensity of the debate has grown due to massive unemployment in the Great Recession. During the Great Recession, the total income earned by the middle class fell while fortunes for the 1% improved. Despite a very rosy outlook for the upper class, the wealthy have provided mighty resistance to any effort to raise the minimum wage.

The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. Study after study has shown that if the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, it would be about $10 an hour. Yet, when the mere suggestion of raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour is made in public discourse, conservatives cry foul, and warn us that millions of teenagers will be put out of work. While a significant fraction of minimum wage workers are teenagers, a far larger proportion are older workers.

The Republican argument that raising the minimum wage would cost jobs fails muster since the real value of the minimum wage has fallen over time, yet unemployment remains uncomfortably high - unless there is a bubble propping things up. The GOP maintains that having a low minimum wage or even *no* minimum wage will increase employment. Seems odd then that while the real value of the minimum wage is less than what it was in the 1960s unemployment is still very high. There is simply no evidence to support their claim in this natural experiment.

Whether or not to raise the minimum wage is a fair question. But it is a distraction. There is a deeper, more basic question we should all be asking. Think of the technology you use every day, at home, and at work. Computers, smart phones and tablets, programs and web-based applications.

I love the web based application, for they are a wonder to behold. I have watched Google's Gmail evolve over time. Google Office is amazing and evolves over time. Even at my workplace, we use web-based apps every day, and they have evolved, noticeably, in the short time that I've been there, a mere 3 months. Suggestions, bug reports, incremental innovation, it's all happening and at a fairly rapid place. The web application I use at work beats the pants off of any desktop application and the Oracle interface that I can use from time to time.

The debate over the minimum wage is a ruse for a much larger, much more basic question. Employees innovate all the time. They find new ways to do things with technology, even if it is just a mop. They write programs, they learn programs and find ways to work around programs that don't do the job right. They report bugs. They report errors. They make suggestions. Yet, if one small suggestion leads to a leap in productivity, or even a small improvement, he is not compensated for it.

If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation and were adjusted for increases in productivity, we'd see a minimum wage set around $22 an hour. Who gets this compensation? Certainly not your average hourly knave. No, that's too good for them. By conservative standards, its better to build character by withholding increases in compensation and encouraging more hours to work. Why pay an employee more money when he could save that money and have time to look for a job he really likes? God forbid that he should ever have time to start his own business. Having a captive audience is very important to the upper classes. Just ask Alice Walton of Wal-Mart fame, she knows.

The winners for the largest slice of the innovation economy? The manager? Sometimes. Most often though, it's the VP, the CEO. Don't forget the board of directors that meets 2 or 3 times a year pretending to work while sitting around at the board table while determining the fate of their employees. The people at the top are the winners who get the prize for innovation. Studies have indicated that they have captured over 90% of the gains from productivity in the last 10 years and more.

While the question of the minimum wage is relevant, the question we should all be asking is: should the productivity gains from innovations flow only to the top 1%?