Friday, October 31, 2014

The Day of the Dead and Halloween

I have many memories of Halloween as a child. I was Spiderman, Frankenstein, Dracula and even Superman. My mom made many of those costumes, and I recall the thrill of wearing them. As I grew older, I guess I became more jaded and kind of forgot about Halloween. I became too old for trick or treating and just lived vicariously.

For many of us, there is an all-too-commercial aspect of Halloween. The candy, the franchises for our heroes on the big screen and the movies that come out to scare us. It seems unfortunate that, like many of our days of celebration, Halloween has been converted into commercial success rather than a day to be together and enjoy for what it is.

One thing I find interesting is how different cultures have come to celebrate October 31st. While we celebrate by dressing up as someone else here in the US, many societies around the celebrate this day as the Day of the Dead. This is not just a fad, this is something that has been going on for decades and is gaining in popularity.

The Day of the Dead is one or more days dedicated to remembering the fondest memories of those who have passed on. Wherever the Day of the Dead is celebrated, people remember that we are born and we die, and that's OK. We are reminded once again that everything is temporary and passing. The only thing that is permanent is change. The Day of the Dead is not a somber event, it is one of celebration and joy. Just like Halloween is for us.

Tonight, we will be handing out candy to the kids who come by. It's such a treat to see what they're wearing and how excited 4, 5 and 6 year olds are when they see me open the door. They exclaim, "Trick or Treat!" and hold out their bags, ready for we bear at our door. They will be out there tonight, enjoying the jack-o-lanterns and the haunted houses and of course, the friendship with the other kids.

Have a happy and safe Halloween, kids!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How do you know your ideas really have support when districts are gerrymandered?

It would seem that one side is not listening to the other and is doing everything they can to keep them quiet by gerrymandering districts. It is no secret that after the last census, while Republicans held majorities in their state houses, gerrymandering became a popular fad in many Red States.

But consider what is happening as a result of gerrymandering. When districts are drawn to marginalize the opposition, they have some interesting effects. For one, when one faction is marginalized by the other, the marginalized faction loses their right to representation in their government. The second is that when representation is denied to one faction or another, the dominant faction in a district can impose their will upon the other with impunity and can pass laws that affect the other faction more so than the dominant faction.

Obviously, asserting power over others is very cool if you're say, very well to do. But if you're on the receiving end of that assertiveness, it's not very fun. And if you have no one there to represent your interests when it comes to writing and passing laws, there is only one thing left to do: protest.

I think it was Howard Zinn who said that protests are what happens when legislatures and courts are inadequate or unresponsive to grievances. I guess that's what we can expect when better than 80% of the seats in the US House of Representatives and the Senate are deemed to be safe. It has been well documented that we have a safe seat problem in our elective offices. Safe seats arise from gerrymandering.

According to PBS, about 48 seats in the House and 12 seats in the Senate actually have a contest. The rest of the seats are considered safe. I know of a couple of House districts in Utah, for example, that don't have a Democrat running against the Republican incumbent this year. What are Republicans saying in those districts? "Democrats? There's no one here but us Republicans!" But the Democrats in those districts are living in a district that simply cannot be flipped, which means that the sitting Republican doesn't have to listen to the other guys, now, does he?

I'm not rooting for either side here, but I want to point out that as soon as one party or another rises to power, they suddenly change from underdog to dictator. This trend can be arrested by drawing the districts so that no party is favored. Given the technology available today, with help from Google (j/k), we can draw districts that are even.

But there is one other thing that we can do that I don't see anyone suggesting at the national level. Give 3rd parties access to the debates. 3rd parties are willing to address issues that the Donkey and the Elephant are not willing to discuss on TV. As we saw during the campaign of Jesse Ventura, he ran against candidates who at times refused to debate him on television. The two dominant parties seem to take a certain pride in keeping 3rd parties out of national politics and that is very anti-democratic.

As we can see from the various protests around the country, we have a two-party system that does not have the capacity to address grievances posed by those who protest. Perhaps if there were some real competition for seats, we can keep our so-called leaders intellectually honest.

I want to close on one last point. A candidate who says he's Democrat or Republican, but only represents members of his own party in his seat when he votes, is not doing his job. The job of a Congressman, Senator or a member of a state house, is to represent everyone in the district. It is not his job to vote only for what he likes or is consistent with his party's platform. He must take all sides into consideration of his votes. That's what it means to represent a district.

Perhaps if we had legislators who agreed with that job description, we'd see fewer protests.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Voting machines that flip the vote are non-partisan

Truthout has an interesting article on some recent examples of voting machine problems. Both Democrats and Republicans are reporting that their votes are being flipped. They note in their article that voting machines are still counting the votes in secret and that we are well advised to take pictures of our results with our phones if we want to verify our votes. That might be a problem because then people might be tempted to sell their vote by proving who they voted for to someone with money to buy it. I don't know if that will ever catch on, if it's happening now, or if anyone that regulates voting systems has thought about it.

I can remember the days of the punch card. It was simple and effective, but not too great for the environment. At least we could verify where our votes were going. There's nothing proprietary about punch card systems other than the code that they run on.

But as before, one thing remains clear: creating an open voting system based on open standards and open source code will help us to ensure that our voting systems are working as advertised. In order for any democracy to work, we need to know that our votes are going to the people that we think are representing our interests. With what is called, "Black Box Voting", we have no way of knowing for sure if our votes are not flipping after we have verified the vote on the screen. You know, when it's counted on the servers that collect and tabulate the votes.

To put this in perspective, consider the fact that what we think of as computers are really just machines that record 1s and 0s. The computers use protocols and formats that are arbitrary, and the memory system is volatile, such that if you disconnect the power, you lose whatever was in memory. The file systems on the disks are arbitrary, yes they are logical, but humans had to start somewhere, and that is with an educated guess on how to build a file system. Once you find something that works, you stick with it. Computers are fickle. They don't always do what you want them to do when you want them to do it. I know, I've been working with computers for about 30 years.

Voting machines are built out of arbitrary choices and demands. All concerned have some idea of how it should run. But the problem is that not all who are concerned have a voice in how they should run. From what I can gather so far, we are using proprietary systems running some form of Windows. The source code for these systems is proprietary and if there is any oversight at all about the code running on these systems, it is done by a very small and privileged group. The rest of us have no way of knowing for sure if the code will accurately record the vote.

I'm not just talking about the voting machine you see in the booth. I'm also talking about the machines that collect all the data from each voting machine, the servers that do the heavy lifting of counting the numbers and tabulating the results. Yes, those machines. Those machines are hidden from public view and they too, are probably running a proprietary operating system like Windows.

This is why I advocate a completely open system for voting. We have open source hardware systems that can be integrated into a voting machine design. We have open source operating systems that are used by businesses all over the world, one of them is called Linux. We can create boards and committees that have broad oversight over the production and operation of open source hardware and software for voting systems. Those boards and committees can be held accountable for the operation of open source voting systems.

Why do we need open source voting systems? Because we can't completely trust the voting systems we have. If votes are being flipped right before our eyes as some report, that might be intentional, but that we saw it, that's an accident. Yeah, that's probably my paranoia, but I'd rather be using an open system that most programmers can review and check for flaws, submit corrections to fix the flaws, and that has hardware that most electrical engineers would know how to fix.

A completely open source system can be verified up and down to do the job it was intended to do. The system can be protected from tampering through open source design practices and philosophy. Machine images (the operating system and application code) can be checksummed to ensure they have not been tampered with. The hardware can be tested, locked and deployed to ensure it runs properly in the voting booth. With open systems, anyone who wants to know how it runs, can find out, but security is not maintained by obscurity. We've tried that and failed. Security automatically improves in the crucible of transparency.

Why should we be dependent on a few private companies, with interests that may not coincide with our own, for our right to vote? No democracy will survive if a handful of private companies can steer an election their way. Not even ours.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

If you believe you are right, Mr. Conservative, open up the vote

The debate over voter ID laws has been heating up in recent weeks as election day draws near. The argument, boiled down to basic elements is this: Conservatives maintain that having a valid ID is a requirement of modern life and should be required for voting. Liberals say that the requirements to get valid ID cost money that many people don't have. I can see merit on both sides of the argument. But one thing that seems consistent across the board is that recently enacted voter ID laws will ensure that fewer people vote.

As I've noted previously, the conservative push for voter ID laws is a straw man, a distraction from the real goal: preventing any discussion of the voting systems and their flaws. It is well documented that certain voting machine manufacturers, such as Diebold have pledged support for past conservative candidates, but it is not well known. Diebold, among a few other manufacturers, has built voting machines based on Windows Embedded, complete with the security problems that come with Windows. Until we open source the hardware and software so that everyone who wants to know can find out how these machines operate, we may never know for sure if we're having elections we can trust.

While the integrity of the laws that qualify voters and the machines that count the votes are both issues worthy of discussion, I think there is a broader point to be raised, one that requires urgent debate. If conservatives truly believe that their ideas hold popular support, then they should be willing to pass laws that increase voter turnout, not reduce it. Why?

It is also well documented that most ordinary citizens have next to zero influence on public policy in the United States at the national level. Congress and the president, from all appearances, simply do not listen to ordinary citizens and their opinions. Rather, they patronize the wealthiest among us, discouraging input from everyone else and they limit the debate to the scope desired by the wealthiest among us so that alternatives to their solutions are not considered. To put it concisely, most of the power is held by about 150,000 people who think their ideas are best. As Larry Lessig puts it, they live in Lesterland. At this point, voting is probably the best chance for many Americans to be heard by those in power.

That tiny minority with all the power appears unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that subjecting their ideas to votes that require maximum participation. They are probably afraid that real democracy is like two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for lunch. We know who will win that vote now, don't we?

This is what appears to be the mindset of the most conservative and wealthiest among us. To put it a bit differently, they appear to be afraid that with maximum voter participation, we will become a lot more like Sweden and Norway than like the United States that we knew in the 1950s, in the most nostalgic sense.

Conservatives may be right about voter ID, and they may be silent on the integrity of our voting machines and tabulation systems. But almost certainly, they don't believe their ideas have national support or they would be doing everything they can to increase voter turnout. They might consider the ideas proposed by fairvote.org, as solutions to increasing voter turnout.

But if conservatives consistently harp on voter ID as a problem, despite the well documented dearth of actual voter fraud (unless you're Republican), then liberals can rest assured that conservative ideas do not have the popular support claimed by their proponents.

Friday, October 24, 2014

GMO's aren't worth the fight without patent royalties

It's interesting to see the debate around GMOs these days, centering on food safety and consumers knowing what's in their food. Those are important issues, but it's equally important to understand the motivation of the adversaries, Monsanto, ADM and Dow. They are spending millions to defeat local ordinances and state laws that require GMO labeling of food that contains GMOs. They are also spending millions to keep any federal law that requires labeling from ever passing, despite the fact that 64 countries around the world already require labels on GMOs in our food.

GMOs are genetically modified organisms, where a gene from one organism is transplanted into another. In one example, there is the humble tomato. In order to help the tomato survive cold snaps, they have transplanted a gene from a fish that can survive in freezing water into tomatoes to help them deal with the cold. We have very little idea how the gene is expressed in the plant, whether or not the result is toxic, and whether or not such a change reduces the nutrition value of the tomato.

They are also putting insecticide in the food so you can't even wash it off. The New Leaf Potato is a great example. The modified potato has a gene from an organism that causes a beetle that eats the potato leaves to starve by altering the digestive system of the beetle. While we know what it does to the beetle, we don't know what it does to the people who eat the potato. Maybe the harm done to us is not immediately apparent, and it may be years before we find out.

Companies like Monsanto like this arrangement because they can get a patent on the modified plant and sell seeds to farmers. The pollen from the plants that result from the seed can then pollinate non-GMO plants downwind. If a farmer is found to be growing a crop with that gene, he can be sued for patent infringement, even if he doesn't know what happened when he saves the seed from the last crop. GMOs are the perfect legal playground for lawyers who love them.

The primary motivation, above all else, IS NOT FEEDING THE WORLD. The commercials that air during Meet the Press on Sunday morning from ADM are hiding a thinly veiled motivation for money. Lots of money. In one year alone, Monsanto earned more than $2 billion from GMOs. They have a near monopoly on GMO soy, a variety of soy that is resistant to Monsanto's Round Up herbicide. Monsanto owns more than 90% of the soy seed market, that's what we call a monopoly. Lucky for them, this monopoly has government protection built in.

Patents seem nice and dandy until you realize that they are a government intervention in the market. Whenever you hear conservatives moaning and groaning about welfare queens, remember, they won't utter a peep about patents. They don't want you to know that they prefer public policy that makes money move up, not down.

We were originally sold on the idea of GMOs as herbicide and insecticide resistant plants that would feed the world. They don't. We were told we would need less herbicide with these genetically modified crops. Unfortunately, as Forbes reports, we are using more herbicide, not less. In fact, it may be that it was Monsanto's plan all along to sell more herbicide, too. Now, because we're using more herbicide, we're creating superweeds, weeds that are resistant to herbicide.

There are many who complain that our patent system is broken, and I agree it is broken, for many reasons. But one of the reasons it's broken is that we do not see patents in the holistic sense. Patents for GMOs are granted without taking their effect on the environment and our behavior in context. The superweeds, the effect on our digestion, the effect on how we use herbicides and insecticides - they're all factors that patent examiners are not trained to consider.

That's why there is such an overwhelming political response to GMOs. States are not passing laws against GMOs because Monsanto spends the money to convince state houses to look the other way. But county after county, city after city, upon looking at the problem, they are starting to wake up. Some states are starting to talk about it, too, as they see their member cities pushing for bans. Even Bill Nye, the Science Guy, offers a sobering look at GMOs.

Can we at least do the research on food safety? Or are we going to wait 20 years before we finally discover that we made a mistake, as we did with artificial sweeteners? While we're waiting for that to happen, we need to reframe the debate to include the patent royalties as the reason why Monsanto and their ilk defend their crops. Feeding the world just isn't a factor in their math.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Income inequality forces people to work for free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Power Drain Solution for PC hardware problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Who wants immunity from the consequences of their actions?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Yet another argument for regulating internet access as a utility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What exactly, is a picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A passing note on being a dad with computers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to create a persistent alias in Bash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scott@scott_machine:~$ !695

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

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

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

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

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

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

scott@server:~$ vi .bashrc

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Roll-forming with paper

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

Here is an example:



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

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



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



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

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

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Freedom from religion is required to have freedom of religion

On October 7th, 2014, Governor Herbert announced that the State of Utah would finally recognize gay marriages and allow them to proceed, complete with marriage licenses. He expressed disappointment and said again that there are legitimate reasons for defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. The US Supreme Court disagreed, and seemed to recognize the danger in supporting that assertion.

What the governor is claiming, as many religious organizations have done, is to claim that religious organizations have sole authority in defining what marriage is. It is obviously important to them that their definition of marriage be held sacred and respected by government. But that's not enough. They want the government to enforce their definition of marriage as law.

There are two problems with that position: The First Amendment and the 14th Amendment. The First Amendment says that there shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion. The 14th Amendment says that everyone is treated equally under the law.

The emphasis here is on the First Amendment. We would do well to understand that when religious organizations lay claim to the definition of marriage in law, they are attempting to enact a law respecting their religious establishment. That is to say, it is not the business of government to enforce the laws concerning marriage with a definition supported and approved by the local religion. It is the business of government to represent all of us. Equally.

What I really want to say, to make this absolutely crystal clear is this: If you want freedom of religion, you must allow anyone else outside of your religion to be free of your religion. That means your religion does not get to dictate the law to the government and impose that law upon everyone else.

The minute you are allowed to do that, you have created a dangerous precedent. I believe that the Supreme Court understands this, along with every court that has sided against bans on same sex marriages. Such bans represent insecurity on the part of organizations that support them. If you truly believe you are right, then perhaps you can promote your views by attraction rather than government enforcement of the laws as you see fit for a religious organization.

Whatever we might feel about same sex marriage, it is not a decision that religions are fit to make about who gets to marry outside of their religion. I say that as long as there is peace, why not? Could they do any more harm than heterosexual marriages have done? Go on, have your heterosexual marriages and let the same sex couples have theirs. They're not going to bother you. They just want to live together in peace, just like you.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Where did the money go for college?

I see in the news that Germany has scrapped tuition for college. I always thought that Germans paid significant fees for university education like we do here in the US. But it turns out that free education has been a part of Germany culture for centuries. By keeping higher education free, Germans have created an equal opportunity economy. Anyone who wanted to get a degree could get one provided that they work through the classes to get it.

In England, there is rising opposition to the neoliberal fantasy of a market based education system. That fantasy created a paradox: the people who could most afford the opportunity got one, but the people who could not, did not. As fewer people could afford a higher education, the fees grew to accommodate a shrinking market of wealthy students.

For much of the last century, American higher education had been either free or very low cost. As fees rose in response to the demands of the upper class, fewer people could afford to go to college. Fewer people were afforded the opportunities that a degree provides, and so, were not able to afford a seat at the table. As Elizabeth Warren has so famously pointed out, "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu."

The neoliberal fantasy is based entirely on the premise of competition. That depends on how you define what it means to compete. The original definition of competition is:
 "compete - Comes from Latin competere, "come together," but in later Latin, it developed the sense "strive together," which was the basis for the English term.
"To strive together". I like that. However, as I look at the history of American business, I see that the objective of many businesses is to eliminate competition altogether. Microsoft offers an instructive example. Microsoft has pursued victory over other competitors at any cost. They have been willing to lie, cheat and steal ideas, to lobby for the use of government force against competitive threats and have been largely successful in doing so. Since the 1980s, Microsoft has been able to defeat nearly every competitor except one: Linux, the free operating system. If Microsoft were in a baseball league, by the end of the season, there would be only one other team left, Linux.

I have wondered how we got here, with so many people unable to afford an education. There are several factors that I can see. The commercialization of college sports is a big one. In public education, the football coach is often the highest paid employee in the state. College sports are a huge source of revenue for colleges.

The next factor to consider is the slow erosion of public funding for colleges. Neoliberalism has taken root in many of our legislatures, with conservatives urging us to cut funding since we can't afford to fund public education any longer. Well, if you take away a free education, fewer people get degrees, creating more people who earn less money than before, paying less in taxes than before. Suddenly, finding ways to make money from sports seems like a reasonable idea.

The final driver I see in the trend of the last 40 years is Wall Street. Think about it. There aren't many of them relative to the size of our country, but there are people who have managed to save money for college for their kids. They keep that money in a retirement account. Since interest rates are so low now, it makes sense for them to invest the money. Wall Street just loves this trend! Trading fees are piling up as middle class investors, trying to build a nice tidy sum for their kids to go to college, are making trades on stocks to do so. The average investor lacks the sophistication and insider information that Wall Street has. So for many of them, their 401ks go sideways, building slowly, but not as well as an interest paying savings accounts, CDs and bonds used to pay.

Germany understands something that most Americans, particularly conservative Americans, don't quite fully comprehend. Maintaining a system of free education creates the soil needed for businesses to grow. On one hand, free higher education creates the educated and skilled workforce that businesses need to compete with the rest of the world in this globalized economy. Yes, they are more expensive, but because they've been to college, those educated employees have made most of their mistakes there, in college. Having made their mistakes in the computer lab or machine shop, these educated employees have a steady hand when they find their way to the office to work.

On the other hand, those same educated employees have degrees that can fetch more money, money that can be spent to support the growth of our economy. For the last 30 years, wage growth, adjusted for inflation has been stagnant or negative. If more people went to college, they would be more aware of such a trend and would take measures to reverse that trend so that the economy can grow again.

It is a fantasy to think that a small group of wealthy billionaires and millionaires are going to spend more money simply because they have more money to spend. You don't get rich spending money, you get rich investing your money wisely.

Germany is setting an example that we could learn from. Not only do they have some of the best universities in the world, those universities will be free by the end of this school year, as they were before, for centuries. Germany is a net exporter, even with a strong currency. Why? Because their educated workforce doesn't try to compete with the bottom of the barrel, high volume, low quality manufacturing competitor. Rather, they work on the high end, high precision products that are in demand around the world.

In America, we've spent the last 40 years creating a market-based education system, starving our schools of the funding needed to keep tuition low or even free. This has reduced the opportunities for our kids to get a seat at the table. Where are they headed now? To be on the menu for Wall Street executives. Maybe now is the time to divert them to a free higher education system.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

On the 2008 Meltdown: The banks said, "The borrower made me do it."

In September of 2014, something quite amazing happened in a federal court in Sacramento. You won't see it on the mainstream press, God no. So don't go looking it up on CNN, ABC, CBS or NBC. But PBS is picking this one up from Slate on the Moyers and Company show.

Here is what I'm talking about, in a nutshell. Four men were prosecuted and acquitted for mortgage fraud. They were charged with lying on their loan application for a loan they got in the go-go days of 2006, you know, one of those fantastic Bubble Years. Fortunately for them, the defense had a novel argument.

In those days, the banks didn't care what you put on your application, as long as they could send you the statement. At least, not the honest banks. The banks issuing the bad loans didn't care about the borrower's ability to pay, rather, the executives were more concerned about volume. Volume, volume, VOLUME! They were handing "liar's loans" out to anyone who wanted one based on stated income. In that case, an underwriter testified that in certain cases they were prohibited from verifying the borrower's income.

The defense won their case with an acquittal from a jury. The jury was convinced that bank executives didn't really care because their bonuses were piling up a mile high. The defense was able to show that the bank did not have clean hands. The Clean Hands doctrine says you're not entitled to relief from a court if you contributed to the cause of action. In other words, if you acted in bad faith, you could sue for relief but you can also expect to your request to be denied.

These bankers didn't need clean hands because they were engaged in control fraud. Control fraud is where an executive allows fraud to continue as an ongoing part of the business, while receiving immense compensation at the expense of the company. In this case, executives made bonuses on the huge volume of really bad loans. When the bank tanked, the executives kept their money.

This case is being seen as a watershed moment, a way to now hold the 0.1 percent accountable for their fraud on the country that led up to the financial meltdown in 2008. True, the defendant didn't have clean hands either, but if the bank doesn't care about the information on the loan application, the bank doesn't get relief when the loan is not paid back. Relief is what you and I know to be "justice".

Defense attorneys arguing mortgage fraud cases are now talking to each other and sharing this information. It is quite possible that this defense tactic could spread and make it very difficult for the Obama Administration to ignore requests to prosecute bank executives. At the very least, it would be politically unpalatable to continue the current course considering the political contributions they have received from the banks. Remember, Obama put Tim Geithner, in charge of the US Treasury after running the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Say, isn't that the same Federal Reserve Bank that acts like a captured regulator? I think so.

The news of that jury verdict in this mortgage fraud case also removes support from the argument proffered by the banks and their supporters that, "The borrower made me do it." Actually, the conservatives I've debated with usually say that government policy forced the banks to make the unqualified loans that were fueling the housing bubble. Yes, the government forced the banks to make loans to people who couldn't afford to pay them back, right?

You mean to say that the same bankers who can afford rockstar legal counsel couldn't mount a defense against a charge of failing to make a loan to someone who couldn't afford to pay it back? Say it ain't so!

This is the cognitive dissonance in the reasoning behind making the banks out to be victims in the meltdown. The banks were not forced to make bad loans by government policy, were warned not to do so, and could easily have mounted a defense against being forced to make a loan if they didn't want to. But they sure didn't mind the loan fees piling up as a result of giving out those loans.

Perhaps sooner than later, we can start to see some action on the part of the Justice Department to prosecute the executives who covered the country in the liars loans that tanked our economy. On the other hand, we might have to wait until someone like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders is elected to be president before we see any bank executives go to jail as a result of their part in any mortgage fraud.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

It's not (just) my fault

I think there was a time when I assumed that everything that went wrong in my life was my fault, particularly at work. If something went awry on a project, I would assume that it was my fault. But often, after investigation, something else came up and that became the root cause.This isn't to say that nothing is my fault, it's to say that often, I'm not the only one involved.

The act of living, for most of us anyway, involves many other people. What I see from here is just the surface of a very deep and complex interaction among people, including me. So when something doesn't go right, even if I assume that its my fault, I can still find factors that are beyond my control.

I had something like this happen yesterday at work. Something didn't go quite right. Emails fly. My first impulse was to assume that I did something or failed to do something. but I kept my calm and watched as other people sorted it out to find a root cause unrelated to me or anything I did. My job then, was to work with the team to solve the problem.

Assuming that when something is not right it's my fault, all the time, is a sort of grandiosity. It says that not only am I responsible when things go wrong, I'm responsible when things go right. Some of the greatest politicians and wealthiest people in the world are happy to assume responsibility when things go right. But you won't hear them talk about all the help they got along the way, and you won't hear a peep when things go wrong. You might, however, see a finger pointing away from them when things go south.

The big picture is that we are just specks caught up in a massive current, with everything in motion, so little within our control. As I mentioned in The Grand Carousel, we are moving in orbit on many levels. We have no control over the motion of the earth, the sun, the galaxy or the local group of galaxies wherein we reside. On a cosmic scale, we're just a pale blue dot with absolutely no control over our fate. One big burp from the sun and we're well-done. One gamma ray burst from within 1000 light years of us, and we're toast.

Now let's look inside. I have a body and a brain to manage it. I have, at best, used maybe 1 or 2 percent of my brain at any given time as conscious thinking power. The rest? Memory and autonomic action. The brain keeps my heart beating, day in and day out. It manages everything going on in my body without conscious control. From breathing to colon evacuation, I don't have to think that much about living in the physical sense. I just try to eat right, exercise and have fun when I'm working and when I'm not so that I don't take myself too seriously.

I like to say that if I had better than 1% control of my body, I'm sure I'd screw it up royally. A billion years of evolution have led to you and me. We have finely tuned the art of living to be able to do what we do. But individually, our circle of influence is infinitesimal on a cosmic scale. Even on this planet, our circle of influence is still small.

When we work together, we can make fantastic advances or wreak havoc. When we act as a team, we have no control over our teammates, their actions, their words, their inaction. When something goes wrong on the team, it would be grandiose to assume fault. That assumes we have power over others when we don't.

I don't really want power over someone else, anyway. I don't need that much control and seeking that kind of control prevents me from noticing my part in the world, in the events that turn the world around. Besides, it's not possible to change other people. I can only change myself, and that might change how people respond to me, but my motivation is to change myself for my benefit, and let everyone else sort it out later.

Nowadays, when I see something going wrong, I stop and breathe, pausing to remember that there are other people out there. They are self-conscious, too. They might not be aware of me and what I'm doing. They might assume fault for something that went wrong. They may even admit fault for an error.

Whatever happens, the duty of the team is to fix the error, record the event, have a contingency plan in case the error is made again and plan for prevention of the error. Everyone can learn from it without casting blame. Considering the state of the world, with accelerating loss of species, ecosystems and global warming, we might have to enlarge the definition of "team" to include all of humanity. We might come to realize that we're all on the same team. Imagine that.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Stuff I shouldn't do when I'm driving

Today, I'm going to come clean. There are a few things that I do when I'm driving that I probably shouldn't do. I think it'd be a good idea to share them with you so that you don't do them, too.

I'm in the fast lane, as usual, keeping up with traffic at about 75-80. I'm by myself so I don't have to worry about my wife and kids. It's just me, on the way to work, listening to music, planning my day. Lo and behold, there is a slow driver ahead in the fast lane, plugging it up at 65. 3 miles go by and he refuses to budge.

Ahhhh, but there is a massive 4x4 behind me, and he wants me to get out of the way. It's early in the morning and it's dark. The truck lights are blinding and he's tailgating me. Hmmm. Slow driver in front of me, massive, phallic-deficiency-hiding truck behind me. I change lanes, the truck passes and I get behind the truck. Ahead of me, the tin can sitting on top of 4 large tires tailgates the slower car and the slower car changes lanes. Problem solved.

In another situation, I've been trailing a slow driver for a couple miles and I've had it with him. He finally notices me and changes lanes to the #2 lane. Instead of passing him, I shadow him for a mile or two, with the nose of my car lined up with his rear wheels. He can see my car in the rear view mirror, but he can't see me directly. Where are we going? About 1/8th of a mile ahead, there is a slower car in front of him. I shadow him until he has to slow down for that car. Yeah that car! Take that, you snail! Then I pass slowly, while eating my apple on the way to work.

I once lived on a side street next to a main street. For some reason, people who drive on my street, seem to think that it's OK to do 35-40 on my street when it's clearly a residential street with a 25 mph zone. From time to time, there are some yahoos who want to blat down my street at about 65-70 on their motorcycles, too.

It's all fun and games until I'm in the way. So when I'm in the stream of traffic with my car on my street, I'm doting along at 20 mph. I make sure that I keep a low speed whenever I see someone behind me there. Even when they're not, I have no problem putting around at 20 mph on residential streets. I assume that where there are houses, there are kids. Yes, I'm thinking of the kids on residential streets because I know that they can pop out on a bike or a scooter at any time.

So it's not all bad, you see? I do have a conscience, but I am also mindful that there are some pretty nutty people out there. We see other people in their cars and we have no idea what they're going through. They just got fired. They're on drugs, even legal drugs. They're packing heat. We don't know. Really.

I used to work construction and I heard a story about a drywaller (the guy who hangs drywall in commercial construction - big, burly and pretty goddamn strong). He had a road rage experience, but he was dishing it out by punching the other guy through the closed window. I don't know if he went to jail or not, but there are people out there who, you know, lose their minds when they get angry.

I'm mindful of these things when I drive. I think of my wife and kids when I drive. I know also that I can't think when I'm angry, so I allow myself to be patient. To remember that an irritating circumstance while driving is temporary, you know, because we're all moving, and things change quick on the road.

A few years ago, my life turned around in my head one day as I was going to work from Costa Mesa To Carson in California. If you know the 405 around that area, you'll find that traffic is fine until you get to Seal Beach and then it's jammed during rush hour. While Orange County was investing in infrastructure, Los Angeles County had no clearly defined plan for their roads. It's like night and day.

Anyway, I'm stuck in traffic, playing whack-a-lane, when I notice that I'm stopped for 2-3 minutes. I don't know, maybe 20-30 cars passed me by on both sides. I just about cried. Then a voice came to me and said, "I accept everything exactly as it is right now". I repeated that, over and over again until I forgot what it was that I was so angry about. Before I knew it, I was at work.

That was a transformative (I know, that's not really a word, so sue me!) moment for me. In that moment, I came to find salvation through acceptance. Most of my suffering comes from not accepting things as they are. Once I was able to accept where I was, I was able to decide where to go.

To put it differently, if you want to get somewhere and you're lost, but you don't accept where you are, it's going to be really hard to get to where you want to be. I made a choice to accept my situation and move on. You can do that, too, if you want to.