About Me

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Armchair theorist, poet, and occasional IT manager, Sascha B. is equipped with a Master's Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas, and is not afraid to use it. His work has been published by the University Press of America, Edwin Mellen Press, University of Texas Press, and a variety of small journals nationwide. He is also the proprietor and baker for 3141 Pie, of which you should eat many.

The Deal

I stopped blogging in 2013, when life overtook me. My father became ill and died shortly thereafter, and my mother was left with increasing dementia. I became the primary caregiver, and now orchestrate my mother's care and our family estate.

Now, I am coming up for air again.

Looking for the next book to read. All suggestions welcome.

My reading list is over here.







Monday, December 27, 2010

Happy New Year, Mr. ATT Repair Guy!

So today, after years of on again off again landline and DSL issues --- mainly horrific static on the line whenever it rains, and disruption of DSL whenever the voice line engages --- the AT&T repair guy showed up today (four days early), and was able to do what no other AT&T guy has done for me before.

I mean, yes, he cleared up the trouble, and my line now is crystal clear (for now); more importantly, he diagnosed the cause--- which has eluded everyone who AT&T has sent out over the last 12 years.

It's not my equipment. It's not my splitter. It's not the wiring in my walls.

The lead pipe that carries all the twisted pairs from the splice box in our building's basement and out to the telephone pole on our street corner, that pipe is apparently as old as our building (90 years or more). And that lead pipe has a crack or seam or leak in it, somewhere on it's length as it climbs the telephone pole outside. And my twisted pair carrying my voice and data lines is apparently the one that has been catching all the incoming moisture.

So, now I am attached to a new pair, and the line is clear, but since my repair guy is internal wiring, and the pole is only dealt with by the external wire work group, it is likely only a matter of time (and weather) until another trouble ticket will need to be filed.

But in the meantime, thank you, Mr. AT&T Repair Guy. Hearing a dial tone rather than static is a lovely little gift ---- however ephemeral.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In Case You Were Wondering....

I'm sitting here in the sunshine, the morning after Thanksgiving, in a pleasant house on a hillside in the Egkomi neighborhood of Nicosia, on the island of Cyprus. It is a strange but pleasant place, with the constant reminder of a war-torn past. Orange trees dot the urban landscape and within the old city walls a bustle of pedestrian currents run through the streets from the walls to the checkpoint at the UN buffer zone, up through the Turkish side of the city, and back again.

I'll be back in the US in a few days, and perhaps I will say more then about this place. But perhaps not. I will, however, put up the year's reading list and Best Of book list.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ta-Dah!

Well, I was going to write about the incredibly disturbing implications of this article --- which, unsurprisingly, seem to be missed entirely by not only the instructors and students engaged with the devices, but by the journalist as well --- but I've been shifted in focus to the upcoming Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

I just can't get the image out of my head of the imagined proposal: "So, honey, how would you like to be the future Queen of England?"

Talk about a great come-on. I'm not sure that can be topped.

As to the handheld remotes in higher education, just read the last few paragraphs, and consider: isn't the capacity to do exactly what these tools are enabling students to avoid --- speaking their minds publicly, supporting a point of view despite opposition, and having the courage to stand up for what you believe even when the majority is of a different (and potentially antagonistic) mind --- isn't this a critical part of what higher education is supposed to provide?

OK. I'm off to sit by the mailbox now and wait for my Royal invitation.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Quote for the Day

“The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not data.”
- Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Meaning Of Democracy

On Tuesday, 171,000 people took to the polls, in order to exercise their right to vote, and to have a voice in the future of our communities, the state and the nation.

On Wednesday, more than 200,000 people took to the streets, in order to get drunk and shout loudly under a rain of confetti in celebration of our local baseball team winning the world series.

Yes, both matter. But somehow, I think that one matters more than the other.

And I'm afraid that The People™ don't entirely agree with me.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Quote of the Day

no amount of money or having the latest new media tools means anything if you don't have a message.
- Mindy Finn, Republican media consultant, on the demise of Meg Whitman. From the SF Chron.

Why Voting Matters (again)

Here in this hotbed of activist action, San Francisco:

Total population: 758,000

Total number registered voters: 465,181

Total votes cast on Tuesday: 171,271
That's less than a 37% turnout. In a profoundly political city. Now, imagine spreading that across the country, and imagine just how many people didn't bother.

In part, I blame the absurd "independent" / "conservative" / libertarian meme that your vote doesn't matter that has helped to propel the self-selective disenfranchisement we keep seeing. But then again, perhaps it is just part of the nihilistic self-absorbed zeitgeist of the Privileged People.

Why Voting Matters

By a 2-1 margin, voters yesterday were over the age of 55. Consider that, on two levels. First, that the sweeping youth vote which brought Obama to office two years ago was absent completely: those folks did not switch sides, they simply bailed out. Next, the overwhelming majority of those people who voted the new crop of so-called conservatives in to office are the very people who have been whipped into fear over the cuts in medicare built in to the new health care plan---which also is the first significant cost-cutting measure to be seen since before Bush was in office.

Think about that: the people who want government to spend less (except on their medical coverage) voted out the people who actually passed a law to allow the government to reduce spending, in order to increase spending on their own needs at the expense of their children, and their children's children.

Had the voters from 2008 come out in any proportion at all, we would be looking at a remarkable save from the brink of disaster for Democrats, rather than an historic wave of transformation for the GOP in the House. Had the White House crafted a method of communicating even half of what they have actually been able to accomplish from the 2008 agenda with any sense of heart and belly, we wouldn't spend the next two months listening to John Boehner mis-categorize yesterday's sweep as a mandate to repudiate the policies of the president, rather than a general lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats --- which, let's face it, is pretty much the other shoe dropping from the very similar lack of confidence in the GOP four years ago which brought in the historic Democratic majority.

Post Electoral Question

So, an opposition political party (in this case, the GOP), say that the proposed policies from the party on the far side of the aisle are bad bad bad, and so they will obstruct any attempt to get them passed. But...

We know that the undercurrent of these actions is to garner support for a future election (like yesterday's) in order to gain power. So labeling the opponents' ideas as "bad for the country" makes them heroes, because they kept evil from coming to pass.

But wouldn't it make more sense, if those policies really were bad, to let them pass?

See, if they are such bad policy, then the people will see how horrid the current guys in charge are, and will overwhelmingly vote for the "I told ya so" party. It would be self evident, and a helluva lot cheaper.

But they don't: not the GOP now, not either them nor dems ever. Which implies that they don't really think the policy is so bad. It implies that they don't really give a damn. At least not about anything but the politics, and short term gain.

*/End cynical rant/*

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

I Love California

Even on election day, we can gin up a headline like this one:


Schwarzenegger bans welfare cards at psychics
I can see that this move will be controversial already. According to the article, the list of unacceptable businesses for state-issued welfare debit cards includes:

  • medical marijuana shops

  • Psychics

  • bail bond establishments

  • bingo halls

  • cruise ships

  • tattoo parlors



Still, I might argue against the last item. body art can have significant spiritual value.

Friday, October 29, 2010

While the photo was not captured near the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees, it might as well have been:

Photograph: Johan Opperman/Solent News

Now we indeed know for certain what the crocodile has for dinner.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Like a CEO driving a company to ruin

Under the Republican plan, the budget resolution would set spending at 2008 levels, lawmakers said. While cutting the $100 billion needed to meet that pledge would force deep cuts, they have steered away from a specific plan for it.

“I’m a budgeteer,” Ryan said. “I just bring down the cap.”
And there you have the grand fallacy and danger of the current darling of the GOP. Ryan here is doing what a bad executive does---perhaps they've learned this from television shows like Law & Order, 24, and everything by Andrew Sorkin---and are replacing leadership with 'by any means necessary' arrogance.

They are not equivalent.

By ignoring the details of how something is accomplished -- in this case getting our government spending under control -- you leave open the opportunity for every unintended consequence, backfire, and internal failure imaginable. As the reporter points out in the Bloomberg piece I link to above, that's pretty much what might be expected with the current Republican plan.

I have issues with the idea that we need to run government more like a business: I think that the two management methods and aims are, while not completely antithetical, are indeed dialectically oppositional. But even worse is the idea that we ought to run government like a bad business, that spurs negative competition, short-term unsustainable profit at the cost of long term viability, and disregards the innate connection between the desired ends, and the mean by which those ends are achieved.

If Ryan is the best the GOP has to offer, and his best is to explicitly ignore detail -- hey, I'm not a details guy, I'm a budgeteer! -- then they, and we, are in for a long, cold winter.

“I want to be tolerant of intolerance. That’s my goal.”

Frank Bruni gives us a fascinating glimpse into a restaurant's experiment in social inclusion at the heart of the exclusionary world of Hasidic Judaism's Lubavitcher community.

From my own experiences (granted, many years ago now) with the community, it rings very true, on both the positives and the negatives: the inquisitive and almost compulsively friendly interactions individually, the disturbingly oppressive actions from those in power and engaged in maintaining it; the curiously bipolar nature of the community as it intersects with he secular world and the need for compromise with those beyond the boundary of the community. My favorite bit from Bruni's observances:
Among the waiters and waitresses who have worked at Basil over its first seven months, there hasn’t been one observant Jew. There have been several black servers — Perez made sure of that. And there have been several gay servers, including her 32-year-old nephew, Michael Viola, who moved to Crown Heights from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On a few occasions, he says, he has mentioned his sexual orientation to religious Jewish customers — for instance, when one couple inquired if he had a girlfriend.

“Actually, boyfriend,” he corrected them.

They went on to ask what dating was like for a gay man and whether he was open with his parents. He answered and went on to ask if they had room for dessert.
The open simplicity and lack of condescension or judgment in that interaction---I just love it. Of course, I'd love it more if it were more the nature of the whole body of the community, and not just the atomic individuals within it.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Genius

Via Ezra Klein and The Dish, this pdf showing how to provide an itemized receipt for your federal taxes is brilliant.

Now: the pie charts showing government spending are easily accessible; aren't there some crack web developers out there willing to throw a page up on the web with a simple interactive calculator based on those numbers? Just plug in your total tax bill, and get your itemized receipt?

This needn't be a government sponsored issue: some enterprising geek with some basic javascript skills and a little entrepreneurial verve should be able to whip up something like this in a couple of days.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Deep Thought II

After watching the first of the debates in the California race for governor, my mind wanders:

Meg Whitman has spent $120 million to date on the CA gubernatorial campaign; Jerry Brown has spent about $4 million.

Brown is polling at the mid to high 40s; Whitman between 39% - 41%.

Who do you want in charge of the fiscal train wreck that is California: the candidate who spends a literal fortune in order to have a truly mediocre showing, or the candidate who spends almost nothing, and still winds up coming out on top?

Deep Thought

Why is it that three and one half of the top five solutions to creating more jobs and increasing the economic health of the nation are exactly the options against which conservatives are willing to fight tooth and nail? And the bottom five least effective seem to be the bedrock of their agenda?
  1. Increasing Aid to the Unemployed

  2. Reducing Employers' Payroll Taxes for Firms That Increase Their Payroll*

  3. Reducing Employers' Payroll Taxes

  4. Investing in Infrastructure

  5. Providing Aid to States for Purposes Other Than Infrastructure

If you can posit (and I firmly believe that you can) that the positive economic health of the nation benefits the generation of wealth for those who already control large amounts of the existing wealth, then why on earth do conservatives insist on working against their own long-term interests?

(* I only count this as half, since the idea of raising payrolls would to most Boehner/Beck conservatives smack of both governmental coercion as well as cancelling out the benefit of a lower payroll tax.)

The Underwear Gnomes Attack!

SF Chronicle reports that the startup company Xmarks will be shuttering in 90 days. Apparently the profoundly shallow thinking fostered by the 90's interwebs boom really has no place in a functioning market:
For four years we have offered the synchronization service for no charge, predicated on the hypothesis that a business model would emerge to support the free service. With that investment thesis thwarted, there is no way to pay expenses
So writes the company co-founder.

The problem here is not a lack of good intentions, nor of a competent product. It is the stunning idea that you can create a company without any business plan for revenue generation beyond "I hope we think of something". This was a major reason for the severity of the dot-bomb, and continues to be a barrier to innovation. Just because an idea is cool does not make it a value proposition. If you want to create something, serving it up as a for-profit venture is not necessarily the best, or only way to do so.

Perhaps what we need is more innovation on the business modeling side, rather than just in the technology and products we deliver: If there is a product that is useful, and cool, and provides value, but lacks a profitable revenue stream, how can it still be presented to the public in a viable manner for both the creators and the users?

I think a key lesson to delve into for us is: The providing of value is not always obvious, nor always understood in a short time frame. Innovation may be of enormous value, yet still not provide a reasonable or rapid financial return to the implementers of that innovation. How can we foster creativity of that nature, without disincentivizing the marketplace?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hmmm

The SF Chronicle is reporting that Barbara Boxer has taken a noticeable lead in the race between her and Carly Fiorina, 47%-41%; polls suggest that this is far less a race between contending points of view than it is a race between high negatives:
Nearly two-thirds of Fiorina's supporters say their preference is more of a vote against Boxer than a choice for the former HP executive.

Just 29 percent of Boxer voters say their preference is based on their negative feelings for Fiorina.
And yet boxer has a 47% disapproval rating. With 12% of the electorate undecided, it is still anyone's race. but two-thirds of support being a vote against someone else rather than a vote for you doesn't leave a lot of real supporters.

I still think that Boxer will take this election, not because she is loved, but because in the end, that majority of voters supporting the not-Boxer candidate will either stay home and not vote, or start to realize just how unappealing a candidate they are looking to elect: replacing donkey poop with elephant poop still leaves the room stinking.

Moonshine, Sunbeams, Lollipops and Puppy Dogs

That's apparently what the new CA budget is made of -- or possibly what our legislators have been smoking in order to achieve concensus on what appears to be yet another unsustainable and dubious budget offering for our state:
Sources close to the talks said leaders had agreed to make $7.5 billion in spending cuts and that they are assuming the state will receive a significant amount of federal money, which has not been promised. The $7.5 billion in cuts is much less than the governor and Republicans have been backing - about $12 billion - and even less than the $8 billion in reductions Democrats had proposed.

Additionally, the framework relies on a $1.4 billion revenue estimate by the Legislative Analyst's Office, which is rosier than a Department of Finance estimate, along with $1.2 billion from the sale of state buildings that would then be leased back.
So, the health of our State relies on cutting less of our deficit spending than what was proposed by those who don't want to cut anything at all, and then relying on funds that don't exist except in the feverish daydreams of Sacramentans hoping to suck at the already dry teat of an irritated Federal sow.

Yeah, I am feeling really positive about this election year.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Democratic Epic Fail

Dems in Congress decide that having a tax issue horse in the race prior to elections is a bad idea. So now instead of having two solid stances prior to November (1: We saved the country from default by forcing the ultra-rich to once again pay their fair share, or 2: the GOP want the country to default because they support the greed of the ultra rich), they now go in with "we fought hard to expire the Bush tax rates because they were killing the nation at the expense of the middle class and the poor, but now since we aren't sure how it might turn out we're going to punt because we didn't really care that much anyway."

My god, as a party they are pathetic. I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry though, since our choice in leadership is pathetic, or sanctimoniously evil.

The Pledging of America

right.

I've just finished reading the populist screed that is the Pledge to America; the amount of hypocrisy, dangerously shallow policy directives and revanching of cold war era fearmongering is pretty daunting. Here are a few of my most favorite disturbing quotes:

By permanently stopping job-killing tax hikes, families will be able to keep more of their hard-earned money and small businesses will have the stability they need to invest in our economy and help grow our workforce.
Hmm. Seems to me that a permanent freeze on all tax hikes might be a terrifically bad idea. Also, I'm not sure there is more than a tenuous connection between higher (not "high") taxes and "job-killing". In any case, should the unforeseen disaster arise, which requires higher spending, how, exactly would we deal with it---since we've permanently cancelled our ability to levy more tax money?
We offer a plan to repeal and replace the government takeover of health care with common-sense solutions focused on lowering costs and protecting American jobs.
I would think that the blanket protection of existing jobs, and the sweeping lowering of costs might be in direct contradiction with one another, without the intervention of some larger force of regulation---such as a government. It's back to basics here, Econ 101 etc. You can't have everything, and have it on the cheap, and expect to receive value and live well. Protectionism in a global economy for a nation the size of the US is eminently self-destructive.
Hold Weekly Votes on Spending Cuts.
Good lord. This might as well be labeled "how to keep congress from ever accomplishing anything by clogging the arteries of legislation with meaningless blather and bureaucratic procedural time-eaters." We can barely get these guys to vote on anything of value now; imagine the logjam if they were mandated to vote on spending cuts every week---regardless if there is anything to cut. It's like begging for an ideological impasse every Friday, forever.
Impose a Net Federal Hiring Freeze of Non-Security Employees: Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the engine of our economy and should not be crowded out by unchecked government growth. We will impose a net hiring freeze on non-security federal employees and ensure that the public sector no longer grows at the expense of the private sector.
Leaving aside the basic issue that the public and private sectors are rarely in competition for jobs at a federal level, and that there is no data to suggest that small businesses are being "crowded out" by government workers, a net hiring freeze would be a massive disaster. If the goal is to throw government into chaos, then maybe OK. But as real policy for governance, this is one of the stupidest ideas imaginable.
We will repeal President Obama’s government takeover of health care and replace it with common-sense reforms focused on strengthening the doctor-patient relationship.
You can't legislate the doctor-patient relationship. Any more than you can legislate the love of children for their parents. This red herring is better stated as "we will return to the status quo ante, and rely on the selflessness and goodwill of those in the medical profession and the insurance world to govern our needs."
Permanently Prohibit Taxpayer Funding of Abortion: We will establish a government-wide prohibition on taxpayer funding of abortion and subsidies for insurance coverage that includes abortion, this includes enacting into law what is known as the Hyde Amendment. We will also enact into law conscience protections for health care providers, including doctors, nurses, and hospitals.
Overturn Roe v Wade. This has nothing to do with government, nor economics, but just about legislating morality. It also is as heavy handed an action by government as anything the authors' claim to oppose. The difference? They oppose actions which act as legislative policy in the financial and communal secular world (the normal realm of our government), and are all for even more authoritarian action when it governs the moral, or the private, or the personal actions of individuals.

Fully Fund Missile Defense.
Lacking a Soviet enemy, this document formalizes their replacement with Iran, and threatens a rain of ICBMs on Topeka unless we return to Reagan era levels of spending on systems which are now obsolete as strategic objects. How this fits with reduced spending I've no clue. How we might be able to forget that enemies are fungible, and just a few years ago this same language was leveled against Iraq, leading us to our longest war, and providing high cost with great suffering and little gain...I dunno.

Maybe we really are that stupid. I, for one, have no desire to share in the nation that this document truly portends. I'm not thrilled with what we've got, but at least I know that we have hope for working and altering it for the better. This "Pledge" strips us of that.

Autumn

Today is the full (harvest) moon, the beginning of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the first day after the autumnal equinox, and the day that the first revisions of the health care relief act go into law.

Of all these, I think the last is both the most important and the least lauded right now.

At the same time, I suspect that the pre-electoral s--tstorm that is being whipped up right now by the Tea Party and the congressional GOPs re-upped Contract With America Pledge to America is going to continue to both eclipse any real activity to better our lives, as well as feed the sense of the nation that up is down, white is black, bad is good, and that the absorption in self without sense of responsibility to any others, the affirmation of entitlement without cause or reason, and the glorification of leaders and politicians who have more in common with the cast of Big Brother than with any non-fictional character of merit.

sigh.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"We don’t know"

An invaluable and critically important commentary on a critically important topic: the current nature of knowledge, learning, and cognition. I urge you to read it in full, and think about the implications of the author's statements on your own behavior.
Some of the top digital designs of the moment, both in school and in the rest of life, embed the underlying message that we understand the brain and its workings. That is false. We don’t know how information is represented in the brain. We don’t know how reason is accomplished by neurons. There are some vaguely cool ideas floating around, and we might know a lot more about these things any moment now, but at this moment, we don’t.

...If students don’t learn to think, then no amount of access to information will do them any good.
I wish I were less inclined to agree with the author's assessments, but I think he is dead on. There is at the moment a blurring of perception between the tools for information dissemination, and the ability to use those tools to engage in critical inquiry or true innovative discovery.

While technology is a fantastic tool, it teaches neither judgement nor critical inquiry. Those things are what propel us into innovative thinking, and new discovery, and the willingness to look down an undiscovered path and (potentially) declare it of greater value, even when the main road has five stars from 800 yelp reviews and 15,000 "likes".

Friday, September 17, 2010

Indian Summer?

It is grey, wet, and altogether dank on the west side of San Francisco right now. A healthy dose of typical September weather --- hot sun, bright skies, warm afternoons --- would do a lot of good for those of us who are fogbound and wondering where the light has gone.

On top of this, the news that yet another hypocritical and lying candidate is coming out swinging with the tune that sings "My opponent is the liar and the hypocrite! Don't bother to check the record, just listen to my spin!" This time, it is ($119 million dollars and counting) Meg Whitman's meaner CEO sister, Carly Fiorina, who has in one fell swoop accused Barbara Boxer of "class warfare", obfuscated her own history, told a few blatant falsehoods, and completely conflated and confused the issues of class, business practice, poor planning, and self-aggrandizement, and wealth accumulation at the explicit cost of those on whom that wealth is built.

Consider: Boxer has accused Fiorina of laying off tens of thousands of workers while accruing to herself increased pay, benefits, and a yacht (basically true). Fiorina spins this by saying that Boxer herself is a millionaire, and therefore is engaging in hypocritical "class warfare." This makes no sense. The fact that Boxer is filthy rich has little to do with the accusation that Fiorina was a terrible business leader, who destroyed morale, played employees against one another, engaged in internal spying and drove a company into the hole---all the while protecting her own assets and accruing wealth.

This is a bit like two rich kids who get driven to school each day in matching Maybachs; one is a bully, the other just a snotty rich kid. One day they get into an argument over who deserves to be head of the class, and the snotty rich kid says "You don't deserve it, you're a big fat mean bully!" And the bully responds "You little creep! You're just as evil, since your car is the same as mine! And that's mean to all the other kids here!"

Like I said, pretty lame.

And while this is going on, in the background we have the quiet hallmark of a record 80 days without a budget in the State of California (sigh), and the first slight murmurs of an actual campaign from Jerry Brown. I wait to see what he can do against the $7 per vote that Whitman has already spent of her own money. (We have 17 million likely voters in the state).

Personally, it would take more than the price of a beer to buy my vote, especially for someone as ill-prepared and ill-equipped for public office as Whitman.

On a lighter note, here's a video of a potential candidate who can prove that they have exactly the skills they claim: a robot that can do the hokey-pokey!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Unfit For Office

I have yet to hear anyone specifically mention this rather sordid tidbit of info regarding Meg Whitman's past with eBay; I doubt it would sit well with the majority of California voters.
eBay acquired LOQUO in the Spring of 2005, as part of Meg Whitman’s classifieds acquisition strategy, at a time when its “eroticos profesionales” section was present, but with few ads or pictures. Changes would soon be afoot however, and Meg crowed about the growth and profitability of LOQUO on eBay’s Q2 2007 earnings call.

...Meg Whitman didn’t mention eBay’s paid hard-core pornographic ads offering unprotected sex acts for sale to eBay investors when talking up the growth and profitability of LOQUO during eBay earnings calls, and I’m not aware that subsequent management has done so either.

Similarly, there is no reference to eBay classifieds depicting unprotected sex for sale with potentially underage and/or trafficked persons on the Stop Human Trafficking by Using eBay Classifieds Facebook page.
That is from the craigslist blog, in discussing the background of their attempts to filter their adult classified ads. and publish only "legitimate" posts unrelated to prostitution, underage sex, and/or human trafficking. They have recently given up on this effort, and in place of the former "adult" link, there is only the word "CENSORED."

If more than a dozen AGs were willing and eager to chase down the CL folks over this for the last four years, then I struggle to understand how anyone could condone the leader of a similar company providing similar public ads running for high office in one of the largest states in the union.

This isn't really about pornography; this is about prostitution, and human trafficking. And turning a blind eye to that activity in search of a profit.

If Whitman does not or cannot publicly and explicitly explain how and why her company managed to allow such activity, then I don't see how she can be allowed the opportunity to govern. And as our AG, I hope that Jerry Brown has the wherewithal to ask her this question in debate.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Observations

I walk by the reform movement synagogue (large, prominent, wealthy) and notice the armed guard at the entrance: he stands quietly in a bullet-proof glass sentry box, the full body metal detector on his right. I flash suddenly on Naples, 1986, the height of the mafia activity of the eighties, going to a bank to get cash, and seeing the same scene.

I walk by the orthodox synagogue six blocks away (small, nondescript, lower middle class, immigrant-laden); the door is open to the street, children run in and out, not a gun nor a metal detector nor a sentry box in sight.

_____________________________


A foundation has given 1.3 million dollars to schools and teachers, to fulfill the teachers' wish lists for their classrooms. I don't know whether to rejoice that California classrooms received this windfall, or to scream in frustration that with a single massive act of generosity, a private group has reinforced the unspoken sentiment that the government need not find a way to better serve our children and their educators.

_____________________________


The essentials of liberty require intellectual rigor, and uncommon decency. We seem to be dead set on replacing these ideals with more banal gods: desire for uncommon wealth, rather than desire for a magnificent commonwealth; instaed of liberty and justice for all, a market-driven free-for-all.

Intent on not learning from our mistakes, I wonder what we plan on refusing to learn over the next decade.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Milestone

Amid all the other crazy, from the unbelievably horrific floods in Pakistan to the mosque mayhem in NYC to the California budget yet again being at impasse and the state looking to issue IOUs, this bit of news should be getting bigger headlines, and is more important in the long run than I believe we are giving it credit for at the moment:
Last US combat brigade leaves Iraq
A quiet, almost unnoticed end to a 7-year long war that in the best case, toppled a nasty dictator, and in the worst case, destabilized an entire region of the world while at the same time destroying the economic and diplomatic health of the US.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Prop 8 Ruled Unconstitutional

A bright light of reason in a time of darkness. As far as I can tell at this moment, TPM has the only quotes from the actual ruling. Here they are:
Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional....

In the absence of a rational basis, what remains of proponents' case is an inference, amply supported by evidence in the record, that Proposition 8 was premised on the belief that same-sex couples simply are not as good as opposite-sex couples. FF 78-80. Whether that belief is based on moral disapproval of homosexuality, animus towards gays and lesbians or simply a belief that a relationship between a man and a woman is inherently better than a relationship between two men or two women, this belief is not a proper basis on which to legislate.....

The arguments surrounding Proposition 8 raise a question similar to that addressed in Lawrence, when the Court asked whether a majority of citizens could use the power of the state to enforce "profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles" through the criminal code. ... The question here is whether California voters can enforce those same principles through regulation of marriage licenses. They cannot. California's obligation is to treat its citizens equally, not to "mandate [its] own moral code."
It's almost as though you could imagine sanity reigning again, at least in this state.

Let's hope.

UPDATE: here's the complete ruling.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Local Muni Crankiness: Rewarding Failure

Muni operators in SF are now approved to receive their annual City Charter-mandated raise, this year of 5.75%. The host of issues surrounding this hot button topic aren't what I want to bitch about though: not the quality of Muni, nor the upcoming ballot measure to wipe the Charter clean of their exceptionalism. It's just my personal frustration at seeing failure being rewarded, and indeed lauded.

The two comparable systems to which SF Muni is compared are Boston and Santa Clara Valley. The first is, I believe, the better comparison (small dense city, complex road grid, challenging population and routing, mix of over- and underground usage, trolley/coach rolling stock and light rail, etc.). So let's just glance at them. If you google it, it takes about 15 seconds or less to find the MBTA's public performance scorecard for 2009 online. Try finding SFMTA's. You won't. There isn't one.

I want to be proud of where I live, and to be able to proclaim it as a world-class destination; but our current situation precludes that from happening.

For MBTA, the most noticeable issues are that their overall on-time performance (using nearly identical metrics to those apparently used by Muni) hovers a few points above 90%. Muni announced with much fanfare earlier this year that they'd tipped the scales of success by achieving a record on time performance of 77% --- of course, that was only on the routes which had been drastically reduced or modified last year. The remainder of the system was hovering between 71% and 73%. (you can find all this here, and here).

Even more interesting to me are the missed run statistics. MBTA includes these, and there too notes a 90% or higher achievement rate overall. SFMTA has rates of...we just don't know. Since operators. as part of their work rules, have no need (at least initially) to alert anyone of missed runs/absenteeism, there doesn't seem to be either an accurate accounting, nor a willingness to publicize any estimates. But anecdotally, we are running a higher loss rate than Boston, at about 13-15%.

That said, now that we are paying Muni to get their asses whupped by MBTA --- not by a little, but by a 30 point spread --- I wonder what's next. And I wonder how on earth we are ever going to be able to negotiate our way out of the managerial and structural mess that Muni has become.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Why We Are Doomed

Last night I had the pleasure of spending the evening with friends at a BBQ party. As we sat under the clear night stars, talk turned to the economy. One of the guests, a very smart and very engaged man who works in the financial sector, said he thought we were in for a long slow recovery, with higher taxes and fewer services.

I turned to him, and asked what he foresaw as the route to that model, considering that a large number of the folks in government right now (and their constituents) are fairly well dedicated to the idea of reducing taxes, and limiting any cuts in real governmental costs (like, say, defense). He repeated what he had said. I asked again - how do we get there if the congress can't enact legislation to either raise taxes or reduce costs because of political posturing and agendas of the opposition (and some of the Democrats as well). His response was telling:
"Well, they just have to. There's no other way to get out of this mess."
Which brings me to my title statement. The disbelief of rational people in the ability of those in power to engage in the most irrational of acts is what paves the clear wide road to self-destruction. Indeed, the current Congress could very easily block any tax raises, or any real cost cutting, until the fiscal health of the country is so unsound as to be unrecoverable for decades. Just because it's obvious that taking such a route would be catastrophic is in no way a protection against taking that route.

Genocides continue to occur in this world because (in some small part) rational people refuse to accept that their peers could engage in such obscene behavior. And so it occurs, in the face of denial, until nothing can be done but bury our dead.

Economic idiocy in the form of lowering taxes and raising spending simultaneously, while desperately struggling out of the worst recession in generations, and fighting two foreign wars, is absolutely within our reach. The fact that to do so is unbelievably stupid doesn't make it unbelievable. And I wish that more people who are close to these issues would understand that. Because if they don't, we really are doomed.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Evidence Based Living

I've been thinking a lot about current political discourse, and the increasingly polarized nature of the dialogue we hear. The last quarter century has seen an increasing erosion of the (vocalized) center, and an extension of the fringe edges of ideology at both ends of the spectrum. OK. We know this. But what has been bugging me is the increasing prevalence of outspoken individuals on those ideological frayed ends, and even more so in what has become the mainstream of conservative, right wing thought, of a remarkable lack of interest in the evidence left by history and reality, in favor of adherence to principle.

I see this everywhere: in major publications (eg Economist, WSJ), in blogs, commentaries and op-eds (eg NYT, Atlantic), and I hear it on a daily basis from otherwise clear-thinking people. And I fear that it has spread like a metastasizing cancer from political commentary to most other fields of discourse as well.

Paul Krugman points out a recurring cycle in economics that indicates a pattern of deflation, and is bewildered why people who know this continue to ignore it, in his words
What I’ve never quite understood is why so many investors still loooove the likes of the WSJ editorial page, while they hate, hate, hate people like, well, me — when believing anything the former says has historically been a very good way to lose a lot of money.
It's a fair question. And not just an economic one. An anecdotal aside: I was watching a documentary on WWII last night, and perused some of the online comments other viewers had left at Netflix. The comment that stood out was from a viewer who thought it was an excellent documentary, except he couldn't believe that some of what was shown to have occurred really occurred. Therefore he urged people to disbelieve it.

The desire to believe the accuracy of an ideology or belief in the face of evidence to the contrary used to be considered a sign of madness. Now it is starting to be counted (apparently) as a sign of strength.

In a similar vein, on the always frustrating and valuable blog of Andrew Sullivan, he points out some discussion between Gary Shteyngart and Ross Douthat on the value of the information soup that is the interwebs. Apparently, they are arguing that crap information is a gateway to valuable information; that
MySpace and lolcats make you more likely not less to go on, through serendipitous link-wanderings, to read, say, The American Scene, which in turn makes you more likely to read, say, Dos Passos.
The profoundly misguided and dangerous mistake in this thought is the error of assuming that most people consume all information equally in a high-speed rapid consumption environment.

Sorry, no.

What it may do is make people more likely to look at a comment about Dos Passos. But not actually read Dos Passos. The world of wikipedia has made it far easier to digest information at a slightly sub-Cliff Notes level, and provides no reward to the average internet user for actually engaging with content at a higher level.

People create more, but there is no incentive to create better.

What we are creating is is a universe of information similar ot a fast food emporium, where you can get a cheap, ugly hamburger that tweaks all the immediate gratification centers of your brain, only you have a choice between the burger called "The Filet Mignon Supreme", or the "Super-Health McPatty Deluxe", or even (if you're a masochist) the "B-Grade ground meat from animals treated like hell and processed in a sweat shop in Asia". But they're all effectively the same product, with the same content despite the packaging and labeling. And they all leave you in the same state of poor health.

This is just another process which is training us to disbelieve what we discover through experience and assessment, and rely on the structures of our own dysjunctive beliefs. It's as though, along with universal literacy, the scientific method is busily been tossed on the trash heap of human past, along with the rest of the achievements of the Enlightenment.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Feeding The Beast?

I love this story: A Canadian Anglican priest fed a communion wafer to a parishioner's dog, which accompanied him to the altar during communion.

A female priest, no less.

I guess this is what the Catholics are worried about when they talk about the pitfalls of opening the priesthood to women?


Bow. Wow.

WikiLeaks

I'm afraid that despite the huffle-fuffle in the press, this isn't Pentagon Papers II. Unlike the PP, there doesn't appear to be any smoking gun; nor is this vetted material. It's raw intelligence that still requires review (90,000 pages of review). Remember, it was unvetted intelligence of this nature that got us into Iraq. Remember Chalabi's connections? The mobile weapons labs? the WMD? Mmm hmm.

None of the info is pretty, but none of it is really news. Just confirmation of details. I agree in most part with George Friedman on this:
Much will be made about the shocking truth that has been shown, which, as mentioned above, shocks only those who wish to be shocked...We are left with the mystery of who compiled all of these documents and who had access to them with enough time and facilities to transmit them to the outside world in a blatant and sustained breach of protocol. The image we have is of an unidentified individual or small group working to get a “shocking truth” out to the public, only the truth is not shocking — it is what was known all along in excruciating detail. Who would want to detail a truth that is already known, with access to all this documentation and the ability to transmit it unimpeded?
That's the question we face. It has more to do with political agendas, election timing, and a willingness to use the active military as a wedge tool against the war effort, the military, and the current administration, than with the Afghan war and the potential there for success or failure.

Not a Bad Idea

I think that Haiti could do far worse than this. Just please, please, please don't tell Bono. He might get ideas.

Friday, July 23, 2010

RIP Daniel Schorr

Not only an amazing journalist and a respected figure, but a voice in my own life that, as part of the background of my knowledge and daily access to the news, will be sorely missed. His passing, however, provided the opportunity for Donald Ritchie, the congressional historian, to provide this summative quote on the current state of journalism:
"What passes for commentary today is almost all opinion," Ritchie said, "but Schorr was part of that breed of commentators who dug up information before they pontificated about it."
They grow fewer and fewer with the passing days, and we are inundated with Becks and Breitbarts and Hannitys.

The houses are all gone under the sea.
The dancers are all gone under the hill.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why Am I not Concerned?

I received the following in an email this morning, from one of my NPO service organization lists:
"On May 17, 2010, the IRS began revoking tax-exempt status from nonprofits that failed to file three consecutive annual returns (Form 990-N, 990-EZ, 990, or 990-PF). As a result, as many as 300,000 nonprofits may lose their tax-exempt status, effectively shrinking the nonprofit sector by 25%."
I knew about this stronger enforcement already, but I found it interesting that this service organization was using a tone of "be afraid, be very afraid" --- not about the need to pay attention to your paperwork as a registered 501(c)(3) NPO, but that the sector was shrinking massively. Oh no!

To my mind this is probably a very good thing.

From my own experience in the NPO world, I think that the sector is unfortunately rife with mismanagement, self-perpetuating inefficiency, inappropriate qualification; and despite the many, many devoted and well-meaning individuals who dedicate themselves to the causes that many non-profits work toward, as well as the minority of incredibly impactful groups, it is a sector which to a significant degree is wildly ineffective at reaching its goals.

With the mindset of providing a space for everyone, and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (if we were to solve world hunger, then what happens to the thousands of organizations based on the model of trying to feed the starving?), I think that a simple weeding out of those groups who are too disorganized or sloppy to file their correct papaerwork three years running isn't such a bad thing. In fact, it will likely have the positive impact on the NPO world of consolidating effort among those groups with the organizational skills necessary to not only provide for others, but to look after their own houses as well.

So in the end, 25% off a bloated industry sounds pretty good to me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

In Poor Taste

But...before loading a new pump into his heart, did Cheney's doctors consider the BP oil approach? A top kill"? Bottom kill? A junk shot, perhaps?

On the other hand, maybe BP could have done better hiring the former VPs doctors to do their damned work in the gulf to begin with....

NYT Headline: A New Pumping Device Brings Hope for Cheney

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Best Good News In A While

BP says oil has stopped leaking

From the BBC: "BP says it has temporarily stopped oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from its leaking well."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"the decisions that caused the delay were not made for the purpose of gaining any advantage"

The first former detainee at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to be moved into the civilian court system has lost a case in court claiming that his five year long detention in the secret prison of our shame* was not a breach of his constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.

On the one hand, this clears the path for the government to continue (one hopes) the transfer of these unpersons from the grey murk of the paramilitary justice system they have been trapped in, into the regular trial system of the US. And at the same time, the wording of the judge's ruling troubles me at a deep level, which I will have to consider further: it construes a pretext and a precedent for the 6th amendment that as far as I know, does not currently exist. If I take him at his word, what it boils down to is that if the government doesn't intend abuse, then abuse does not exist. If we didn't mean to screw you over in a pretty obviously illegal way, then hey, it wasn't illegal!

This is about the same as saying that if I take and eat your ham sandwich, but then claim that I didn't mean to deprive you of lunch, and the following year offer you a snickers bar in compensation, that I am not guilty of stealing your sandwich.

As long, of course, as I am the government.

This has the unpleasant feel of "some pigs are more equal than others" judicial thinking, and I wonder what will come of it.




*Hyperbole free, courtesy of my morning coffee.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Judenraus

In Hanover, Germany, a troupe of Jewish dancers is stoned in the streets:
Youths reportedly shouted "Juden Raus" (Jews Out) as they attacked the dancers of the Chaverim ("Friends" in Hebrew) dance troupe last weekend.
It's disturbing on so many levels: the resurgence of antisemitism in central Europe, the association with North African Muslim immigrants, themselves a trouble minority, the blurring between Jew-hating and Israel-hating....

"What happened is just so awful. The teenagers started throwing stones the moment our dance group was announced, even before they started dancing."
It's dark times in so many ways; I just hope it doesn't start yet again becoming "the fault of the Jews."

Mixed (Crude) Results

So Judge "don't mess with my portfolio returns" Feldman has refused to grant a stay on his judgment against the federal offshore drilling moratorium. Not surprising. But from the sound of things, we may wind up with better oversight, and a more rational short term take on the process. No oil company wants to be the next BP, hence Shell and others voluntarily abiding by the moratorium despite the ruling.

But in the end, balancing between the disastrous economic effects for the Gulf of a shutdown of the 33 deep water platforms, and all new development, and the disastrous economic, environmental, political, and societal effects of the BP spill, and the potential of more of the same from a similar event in the future, I think that we wind up where Salazar seems to imply he is going: making review and oversight of every new and requested action out in the water the subject of intense expert scrutiny and assessment. Will it slow the oil economy? Hell, yes. Will it kill it? Of course not. Not any more than 60,000 barrels a day is killing it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Busy Day

What with the renegade General (shades of MacArthur?) balnketing the airwaves, it is a mere bump in the bustle to see that the drilling moratorium has been blocked by a NOLA judge. Says the judge,
“the blanket moratorium, with no parameters, seems to assume that because one rig failed and although no one yet fully knows why, all companies and rigs drilling new wells over 500 feet also universally present an imminent danger.”
Well...yes, it does. Generally, in risk assessment, if you have a failure which cannot be explained, you must assume that every similar system is at the same level of catastrophic risk: until you determine cause. Yes, it is a terrible hardship for some, and yes, it appears to play toward a more abstract policy goal for some, but in the end, it does make sense.

From a simple risk abatement point of view, we currently have a deadly and catastrophic failure. We do not know the cause. We do know that the complexity of the issue, and the potential severity of the damage, increases with depth.

the moratorium makes sense. It isn't ideal. But it is logical. The right answer to this isn't to challenge it in court, but to find the proximate cause of the blowout, and effectively guarantee that the same set of circumstances are not likely in all other deepwater rigs. Until then, it's just russian roulette.

Monday, June 21, 2010

15 years in prison

That's what you will now get if you try to get a terrorist organization to stop using terror.

Thanks to the painfully deferential Roberts court, we have extended the meaning of the Patriot Act yet again, this time to infringe on the basic act of political discourse. Now, I don't disagree with the majority of the law in question: that providing material aid to organizations that engage in terror is not fine and dandy. Money, technical training, goods and personnel; these we can easily identify and condemn. But this ruling cuts at the basic protections of the first amendment, and allows -- at the discretion of the Executive branch, and/or Congress, at their pleasure -- the criminalization of political speech. The hair that Roberts and the majority split for this irrational rationalization is that of "coordination." It's OK to speak out and say that you'd like Hamas to use the international court system instead of rockets and bombs. You just can't say so to Hamas. As David Cole put it in his response on the NYT blog,
...human rights advocacy is not fungible. It cannot be turned into guns and bullets. It is designed to persuade, not coerce. It is, in short, what the First Amendment is all about. But it is now a crime, and according to this Supreme Court, the First Amendment poses no obstacle to its suppression.
The two galling aspects of this are first, the absurd and naive deference given by the court to the other branches of government, as though they were children bowing to the will of a stern parent, rather than the final constitutional authority in the nation, and second, that despite Justice Breyer's eloquent and rational dissent, this law opens a chasm in the inviolate protections which are the basis for our freedoms---and the majority apparently approve.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Collegial Sensibilities

The Myth: University and College sports programs bring in more than enough money to support themselves, and are a financial boon to an educational institution.

The Reality: Sports programs run at a net loss, and cost schools a bundle, despite being disproportionately funded.
Only seven U.S. sports programs generated enough revenue to have an operating profit in each of the past five years. At most schools, the growth in athletic spending has required greater subsidies from the university and state taxpayers and higher fees from the student body, the report said.

...athletic department spending increased 37.5 percent to a median of $84,446 per athlete at 97 of 103 public schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision between 2005 and 2008. Meanwhile, university spending per student overall increased 20.5 percent to a median of $13,349.
So your typical school is spending 6 to 10 times more per athlete than per all their other students, and fees are increasing to continue the growth of that disparity at a massive rate, and we wonder why our nation sees more and more of a dip in our overall educational outcomes, and a dumbing down of discourse?

The Common Indecency Of Man

As I've said time and time again, we have bred a culture -- no longer merely American, but globally reaching -- where individual and communal actions are not determined by what is right or good or even acceptable, but by how much you can get away with:
in a letter, BP said it never follows a federal law requiring it to certify that a blowout preventer device would be able to block a well in case of an emergency. The inquiry stemmed from a hearing in May into the Gulf oil spill from the explosion and fire which sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to BP in May demanding answers and was dismayed Thursday by the response.

But, at the same time, the British oil giant blamed the federal oversight agency, Minerals Management Service, for not asking it to comply with the law.
As Andrew Sullivan notes, this whinging response is painful to see. I've added the emphasis to that last sentence, just to drive home how unbelievably infantile this sort of thinking is. But it isn't just BP; it's all of us. We jaywalk --- but not when the cop is sitting there on the corner.

BP's laxity is just jaywalking on a corporate, multinational, multibillion dollar scale: 'The cop was looking the other way, and didn't tell me to stop!'

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Business of Business

Once upon a time, the Masters of Industry realized that the new crop of up and coming executives were too limited in their thinking -- competent, but not insightful:
“A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.
The year was 1955; the Cold War was raging. McCarthy was ascendant. And Bell Labs set up a 10 month intensive liberal arts program for their best and brightest. Ranging from art appreciation to critical thinking to exposure to the best minds of the day, the program was an absolute success. And yet....
the graduates were no longer content to let the machinery of business determine the course of their lives. One man told Baltzell that before the program he had been “like a straw floating with the current down the stream” and added: “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”

...Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities.
Apparently little has changed: at the highest levels, we want the finest minds with the broadest exposure and the great faculties. But we still want them to think like drones in the hive. Is it any wonder that expanding the intellectual ability and horizons of a competent individual will make them more interested in creating a life worth living, rather than suborning themselves to corporate bottom lines? The same glass ceiling in business management theory exists today.

Read the whole op-ed here. On a frustrating wednesday against the backdrop of war, eco-disaster, and global unrest, I think this story made me more unhappy than anything else all day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Luddites Unite And Rejoice

If you love vinyl LPs, paper books and newspapers, manual shift automobiles, and baking your own bread from scratch, or you're just a steampunk fanatic at heart, then here's a new tech gadget for you: a kit that will convert a manual typewriter into a keyboard that can be used with your computer.

I'm almost tempted to buy a kit and convert my old 1934 Smith & Corona machine to a USB input device. Almost. But the idea of typing on a hundred year old manual key entry device and having it port directly into an iPad (as shown in the video) truly tickles me.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Post Vote

Well, things turned out pretty much as expected on election day, with Meg W. getting the GOP nod at a cost of $80 per vote, and the populist pissants voting in our new "jungle primary" which looks to both consolidate power for incumbents and reduce the landscape of options on the ballot. On the upside, both props 16 (PG&E-shall-own-you) and 17 (Mercury-Insurance-shall-screw-you) lost, to an audible sigh of relief across the state.

Here in SF our mayor the Gav was tipped to be the Lt. Governor choice for Democrats, and while I suppose it's a harmless place for him to move on to, I suspect it will do good only for his political career, and not for any of the people he (nominally) is elected to serve -- much like his current stint leading the city. (Perhaps that's too harsh: Newsom has done some good in his time, it's just overshadowed by what he has actively neglected.)

Friday, June 04, 2010

Why Does This Make Me Sad?

From the SF Chron:
"She has spent $80 million to secure the nomination - and (GOP) voters are convinced she'll spend whatever it takes to win in the general election," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said. "That's a very persuasive argument ...
So Meg Whitman will "spend whatever it takes"...Are we as voters and citizens really that incredibly shallow? Whatever happened to content? Quality? Anything having power other than dollars?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

In The Wake Of Disaster

This month California is on the verge of beginning use of a newly approved chemical for agriculture: methyl iodide. In support of the decision, the industry panel and groups in charge of this stuff looked at the data:
...the state's own scientists concluded that the chemical posed a potential risk to public health. The department then appointed an outside review panel, which essentially came out with the same results.

Brooks said the department incorporated many of the review panel's suggestions in the final risk assessment.

"However, the members are experts in assessing pesticide risks, not in regulatory risk management that leads to decisions on registration," Brooks wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle. "Panel members were not familiar with the many options and measures that can be put into place by risk managers to avoid unsafe exposure levels."
Yup. Just like deep sea oil drilling is totally safe because the risk managers understand how to avoid unsafe situations in the Gulf of Mexico.

They plan on injecting this stuff into the ground acre after bloody acre prior to planting your strawberries.

And of course only trained chemists will be handling material, and of course all the regulations will be followed to the letter, because everyone knows just how thorough folks are out in the fields when 70% of your workforce speaks little English, and 70% of those are in the country illegally, and would never say a word about improper activities or dangerous work conditions for fear of la migra.

Please: If you live in California, write or call your representative, or your state legislator, and ask that this be halted; if you don't, send an email to the EPA, to the White House, to Nancy Pelosi. I love my strawberries as much as the next guy, but I'd rather they cost more, and be a little less perfect, than that we grow them in fields sown with cancer and thyroid disease.

Words

Amos Oz, the Israeli author, has painfully direct words about the current situation in Israel and Gaza:
Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and Monday’s violent interception of civilian vessels carrying humanitarian aid there are the rank products of this mantra that what can’t be done by force can be done with even greater force. This view originates in the mistaken assumption that Hamas’s control of Gaza can be ended by force of arms or, in more general terms, that the Palestinian problem can be crushed instead of solved.

But Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. Hamas is an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force — not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one.
The Israeli government and the nation's leaders are currently on the losing side of the battle of ideas, and someone else is writing the history of the war.

When will they wake up to this? And who will wake them?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Flotilla Fail

There's a lot of hyperventilating going on now over the Israeli clusterf--k raid on the Turkish-led flotilla to Gaza; this is typical of an event in its first hours. But there is one post (at least) where someone has drawn the obvious and disturbing parallel between this event and the early actions of the Jews in the Palestinian mandate. The short of it is that politics is in great part theater, and whomever controls the narrative, wins. Israel, in its flubbing of this event --- the overkill of sending in special troops equivalent to navy seals, rather than police troops better able to handle civil unrest, the cutting of communications prior to the raid, the taking of action so far into international waters, the attempt to portray themselves as victims in the aftermath despite the normative understanding of their power and prowess by the rest of the world --- all this has basically handed over the narrative to the Turkish activists, and Hamas, and the Palestinians.

George Friedman over at Stratfor has nailed one of the basic problems that Israel has made for itself in this situation: they've played into someone else's story, and so have failed to own how that story will be told. It's worth reading, so follow the link.

One other thing: at first nod, it reminds me a bit of the conundrum in which Obama finds himself with the BP oil disaster. By not playing the game of outrage, he effectively is allowing others to write the narrative of the event, and while he may well be doing everything possible, letting the story be told by others that he might not be -- simply implying the narrative is enough -- is putting him at a grave disadvantage with the public.

Politics is theater. One needs to act.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Spill

I haven't written anything new on the horrific events in the gulf, mainly because I can't imagine what to say. We now see that a more accurate estimate of the Deepwater gusher is around 20,000 barrels of oil or more spewing into the ocean each day, rather than the 5,000 estimated by BP. In other words, this is the largest, most catastrophic environmental tragedy to hit the US in our history.

At the same time, I am not of the camp demanding that Obama "do more" or claiming that the government should "take charge" ---- what the hell could he (or anyone) do? Yes, we have a foul history of laxity toward regulation and oversight: but that looks to be changing, thanks to the current president. But the event has occurred, and no amount of righteous indignation, or self-serving fire in the belly oratory, or threat of punitive action will change that. From what I can tell, we've had most of the oil industry players who have any idea how to approach this there on the job, and we've had the government pushing to keep things moving, and setting the pieces in place for the long slog of recovery.

Today, it looks like we may be seeing the light at the end of this dark tunnel; I pray that this is the case. But as with other catastrophes, what can be said in the aftermath? My hope is that the President and Congress stick to their word, and hold BP accountable for the costs to the people and the land and waters that have been blackened; that we finally address the real costs of maintaining our oil economy through current means; and that we find ways to educate people and organizations to the true cost of our actions. Because every action has costs.
We weep for the earth's loss, and toil for its rebirth, and struggle to ensure that it will not happen like this again.

"the attention span of a hummingbird on a nectar jag."

Timothy Egan has some choice prose tidbits in his rather scathing take down of the Palin Brand, and how it seems to be the touch of death for recent candidates on the march:
In California, Palin has endorsed Carly Fiorina for Senate. Who cares? Well, Palin should. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Palin pledged to “stop multi-million dollar payouts and golden parachutes” to C.E.O.s who run their companies into the ground.

After having steered Hewlett-Packard into a ditch, with the stock plunging 50 percent and 20,000 real Americans forced into layoffs, Fiorina walked away with about $45 million.
I don't think anyone has yet been more succinct this season stating why Fiorina is a disastrous candidate for the State of California, deep in crisis and lacking in leadership that can guide us out, rather than deeper into the ditch.

Read his whole post. Good irascible prose is always worth it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Quick Statistics

There are about 17 million registered voters in the State of California. About 5 million of them are GOP; about 7.5 million are Democrats. 3.5 million are independent.

This cycle, $37 million has been spent on state election advertising.

95% of that $37 million has been spent by just two candidates: Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner.

Meg Whitman has
contributed $68 million to her campaign for Governor.

Poizner has contributed about $21 million.

Jerry Brown is at about $1 million total to date.

The Meg and Steve show has spent nearly five bucks a pop per possible vote---assuming they could potentially capture the entire independent voter pool. And considering $10 million got burned just last week, I expect that number to rise dramatically between now and June 8.

One has to wonder what could be done for the state if the nearly $100 million rammed so far into getting elected were instead put toward actually doing something constructive for the state.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Well, Crap.

Apparently, despite what you might think, insanity really is contagious.
During the followup years, 229 people found themselves caring for a spouse with dementia. The caregivers were six times more likely to develop dementia themselves compared with people whose spouses did not develop dementia.
All the more reason to find a cure for dementia, PDQ.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Audacity

That's a polite word for what the CEO of BP is full of, when he spews forth this toxic bile in an interview with the Guardian:
"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume."
Of course, as someone commented pithily on the TPM site, a
A gunshot wound is also very small in comparison to the volume of an adult human, yet for some reason we still take them very seriously.
There's more. Hold your nose, and read it all.

Go To College, Get A Job?

At long last, it seems that policy thinking is catching up to something I've been ranting on about since at least 1984: that the US system of higher education and its unfortunate and deep entanglement with the US job market is wackadoodle. For more than 40 years, we've been on a path that creates an urgency for a 4-year degree as proof of eligibility for higher wage jobs, and by doing so have inversely affected the actual education being received by more and more youths, while at the same time creating a perverse incentive to reduce higher education to the level of vocational training.

And now, as the cost of education is reaching truly incredible levels, and the number of unemployed is near 10%, and the relationship of a higher degree to the work done after its receipt has often no tangible thread, a few others are starting to rant. Particularly intriguing is one finding:
Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder blames the cultural notion of "credential inflation" for the stream of unqualified students into four-year colleges. His research has found that the number of new jobs requiring college degrees is less than number of college graduates.

Vedder's work also yielded something surprising: The more money states spend on higher education, the less the economy grows -- the reverse of long-held assumptions.

"If people want to go out and get a master's degree in history and then cut down trees for a living, that's fine," he said, citing an example from a recent encounter with a worker. "But I don't think the public should be subsidizing it."
The problem, of course, is that the cycle is systemic, and its easier to throw money at the issue than to modify the underlying structure of US education.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Checking Fares

It's a common knowledge matter of "fact" that one of the primary reasons that Muni is so financially crippled is that a tremendous number of riders don't pay their fare. All these fare evaders have not only given Muni bad PR, but have seemingly caused the multi-million dollar disaster that is their deficit.

Only now we have numbers.

In a program just suspended (read all about why here), Muni sent in teams of 8 to 10 inspectors all at once to a bus or train, making it possible to check every passenger for proof of payment in under a minute or two. The results?
The saturation inspections were effective, Muni officials said at a hearing earlier this month. A total of 130 saturation inspections between July and March managed to check 326,293 passengers, and 3,348 citations were issued.
So let's do the math: 130 inspections over an 8 month period resulted in 3,348 citations from a pool of 326,293 passengers, for a overwhelming average of....a 1% fare evasion rate.

Now, the overall estimated rate is officially closer to 2.3%, but let's go on.

The lost fare revenue on those number, assuming they are all adults who would be paying full fare (unlikely, since a significant number, if not a majority, of fare evaders are on any given day eligible for Youth fares or other discounts), adds up to a maximum of $6,696.00.

If we look at the numbers for total inspections and not just the mass raids, we have a total of 28,169 citations -- out of 1,276,593 inspections -- for a total loss of $56,338. That's a bit more than the chump change cited above, but still less than the average annual pay of a single Muni worker.

But let's go on.

The cost of each inspection raid: Let's take an hour for each raid (organization time, prep time, wait time, the actual inspection, citation writing, cycling back into regular duty), and assume that none of the officers working are making anything more than average money. So that's about $25/hour for your $50K/year Joe (or Josefina). So Each raid costs us $25 x 10 personnel, or $250.00. And we ran 130 inspections, for a total cost estimated at $32,500 --- or about 5 times the lost fares. Even if we allow for 2 raids per hour, that's still 2.5 times cost versus loss.

Now granted, if we look at this as a revenue center, with each citation returning $75.00, suddenly the numbers look better. But creating punitive revenue streams is counterproductive in the end, and ugly. Still, when you can rake in $250,000 in citation fees from fare jumping shmoes, who's to say anything bad? The only trouble is, if the decline in evasion rates continues at its current pace, we won't have any fare evaders in a year or two, and so no revenue stream, and so we're back to the beginning again.

It's turned 90 degrees and skewed a bit, but it's yet another example of lemonade stand illogic that seems to permeate not only civic management but the business world as well: "I can't seem to sell enough of my lemonade at $1 a glass to make any money. So instead I'll raise the price to $5 a glass! Instant profits!"

And within a reasonable window of time....no more lemonade stand.

Always remember: A higher price is not an incentive. And the revenue necessary for either your profit, or the proper management & maintenance of your organization, is never going to be a concern of the consumer or customer. They are only interested in one thing: getting the product at the lowest cost possible. This fundamental rule of human market interaction seems beyond the grasp of far too many people.

You may need money to improve business and attract more customers --- but penalizing your current customer base with higher prices, or citations, or reductions in value, can never be a long term winning strategy.

The money has to come from somewhere else.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Backlash Begins

It took them a mere 12 days to raise $10,000 for their plan to create a better online society, and beat Facebook at its own game. Four geeks, some money, a dream, and a whole lot of frustration adds up to....well we'll see. As one of the budding entrepenuers says:
“For some strange reason, everyone just agreed with this whole privacy thing.”
Yup.

If you want more info on their project ("Diaspora"), their site is here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

And One More Facebook

Via Sullivan, a post that graphically shows the [d]evolution of privacy and control of personal data on Facebook, 2005-present. It's fascinating and disturbing in equal parts. And if you think that there is anything like a "private" note on the web, open your eyes and smell the encroaching transparency of our lives.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Facebook, Again

A decent article on the issues of privacy and Facebook:
"So what exactly is “personal” on the internet? Well, that’s easy. Nothing. Not a damn thing....

"The inherent problem then is expectations. People expect their “personal” data to remain personal and private. This expectation is set at some point by the site they are entering their personal data into. Or, it’s a site like Linkedin, where the expectation of complete transparency is set. The thing is, as Loren mentioned in the video, no one reads the terms of service contracts. When you click the little check box and hit continue, you are agreeing to pages and pages of legalese that pretty much state you don’t have any personal data and you have absolutely no privacy on that site."
As the author notes, the problem isn't Facebook --- they are doing what most analysts and tech folks assumed they would do, which is take their primary commodity (your personal information) and commodify it (turn your interests into their profits). The problem is in the perception that has been built by the "social web" that these sites, and this stuff we put up on them, belongs to us. And it is that disjuncture in perception that is the problem, and the real crime. Sites like Facebook are guilty only of encouraging the illusions (and delusions) that the users bring to the site.

So what's the choice? You can accept that privacy is an anachronism, and accept that everything you are and everything you do is now in the public domain, and our lives are effectively some huge Truman Show, or Big Brother house. Or, you can start asserting your right as an individual, and wean off the current cultural addiction to the social networking drugs of choice, and consider how to build alternatives that are stronger, more humane and less self-interested (in an exhibitionistic sense) and more self-aware (in a reflective sense).

The choice is ours to make. But the status quo is currently making the choice for you.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

In Praise Of A Religious Education?

Apparently, in this time of pope bashing and scandal, there is a small light in the darkness for the Catholic Church. Diane Ravitch, in her current critique of US Education, has strong positive words to offer on Catholic schools and their organization, effectiveness, and pedagogy.
On the one flank, they never gave over to the obsession with standardized tests. On the other, they never conceded their curriculum to progressive trends like whole language, constructivist math and relativistic history. As a result, black and Hispanic students in Catholic schools did not necessarily score higher than those in public schools on standardized tests like the SAT, but they were far more likely to take rigorous classes, graduate on time and attend college.
The focus on family, community, and personal development as a part of basic education seems to still have value. I can't really argue with that. At the same time, I'm not sure that the parochial model is one that is at all translatable: the reason for the schools' successes, I suspect, is due to the fact that they are parochial in nature, and held by the world of faith, rather than that they are simply adopting practices that provide positive outcomes despite that parochial grounding.

Charter and public schools don't have God on their side.

Monday, May 03, 2010

“Facebook is not a conversation.”

It may be counter-intuitive, but I continue in my belief that online social networks, while increasing our breadth of contact, actually continue to erode the depth of that contact --- as well as changing the basic nature of how we interact, and how we understand the nature of connection and intimacy. And now the research is beginning to back me up:
Writing in The Future of Children, a journal produced through a collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton University, Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia M. Greenfield, psychologists at California State University, Los Angeles, and U.C.L.A.respectively, noted: "Initial qualitative evidence is that the ease of electronic communication may be making teens less interested in face-to-face communication with their friends."
further down the page, the article notes in more depth:
...close childhood friendships help kids build trust in people outside their families and consequently help lay the groundwork for healthy adult relationships. “These good, close relationships — we can’t allow them to wilt away. They are essential to allowing kids to develop poise and allowing kids to play with their emotions, express emotions, all the functions of support that go with adult relationships,” Professor Parker said.

What she and many others who work with children see are exchanges that are more superficial and more public than in the past. “When we were younger we would be on the phone for hours at a time with one person,” said Ms. Evans. Today instant messages are often group chats. And, she said, “Facebook is not a conversation.”

One of the concerns is that, unlike their parents — many of whom recall having intense childhood relationships with a bosom buddy with whom they would spend all their time and tell all their secrets — today’s youths may be missing out on experiences that help them develop empathy, understand emotional nuances and read social cues like facial expressions and body language.
This is not at all to imply that I think social networking online is evil. I just think that it is in very subtle ways doing two things: first, reinforcing the natural strengths and weaknesses of young people in regard to their ability to form deep meaningful connections. Second, it is stripping the capacity for emotional depth from the basis of our 1-to-1 communications as a culture.

A socially inept young boy who finds it easier to communicate online than in person -- that's great. But does it translate to that boy growing into an adult who can build lasting and meaningful relationships with those people around him in real life, face to face?

I fear that we are laying the foundation for a generation of adults who have the social depth and grace of cartoon characters. As someone who struggled all my life to learn the skills that online connection seem to obviate, I fear this for our culture as a whole, and I pity those people find themselves stunted in their development, perhaps without ever even knowing that there is something they are lacking.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Horror, The Horror

One day passes; size increases 3 times over. The potential devastation of this incident cannot be underestimated:
Alabama's governor said his state was preparing for a worst-case scenario of 150,000 barrels, or more than 6 million gallons per day. At that rate the spill would amount to a Valdez-sized spill every two days, and the situation could last for months.
Let's hope that we never get to that worst-case scenario. But right now I'm not hopeful.

More info and graphics here.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Advice To Today's Youth

  1. Fall in love.
  2. Never grow old.

That is all.

Worst Nightmare

I think this would probably happen to me, given the opportunity.

21st Century Vinyl

This is f-ing brilliant:

Free TV : Ustream

Jack White going all analog on us --- via live streaming.
Instead of streaming the audio in a digital format, Mr. White and his crew have pointed a camera and a microphone at a record player spinning “Sea of Cowards” on vinyl at their office in Nashville.

Asked via e-mail why he was using all this 21st-century gadgetry to transmit a form of technology that was basically perfected 50 years ago, Mr. White wrote: “We’re trying to marry the two worlds....This generation needs to be turned on to the tangible side of music, I want to involve teenagers in music in a real way. Teach them that real life experiences, and things you can hold in your hands, are so much more beautiful than mouse clicks and sound bites.”
Rock on, Jack. I love it.