Archive for July, 2004

The Thinker

Stop me before I donate again!

Let’s talk about the good things George W. Bush has done for America. George W. Bush has scared the crap out of me. I have never donated so much as a dime to any political campaign prior to Bush coming into office. But this year I realized I couldn’t afford not to give my hard earned money for political causes.

With Bush in the White House, Republicans controlling both houses of Congress (and arguably the Supreme Court) our government had turned into a corporate-ocracy. Bush and his far right neoconservatives had moved my country into something truly noxious (and I mean a lot more than the bad air quality). America today bears little resemblance to the country I was born in. I want my country back!

I have taken action. Not only have I worked for political causes I have dug deep into my pocket to put Democrats back into office. Thankfully I am not alone. Democrats all over the country are doing the same.

Here is my personal political spending report to date. It totals $1650. I try to give at least $100 a month to political causes. But through the election I am trying to give $200-$300 a month. If you are a Democrat or consider yourself a progressive it is time to dig deep. The soul of our country is at stake. Consider giving to some of these fine campaigns. (The dollar amount is how much I have given each campaign so far.)

Bagwell for Congress $300 (Disclaimer: Tim is a longtime friend)
– Dean for America (now Democracy for America) $350
Kerry for President $450
Matsunaka for Congress $50
MoveOn.org (various) $350
Richard Morrison for Congress $50 (Tom Delay has got to go!)
Joe Hoeffel for Senate $50
Lois Murphy for Congress $50

Note that I have not given directly to the Democratic National Committee. I know they want me to. So does the DSCC and the DCCC (where I used to work). But I have learned that the candidates they support often represent a different agenda than mine. I don’t want to elect someone who simply returns us to a Tip O’Neil Congress. I want a congress that will be genuinely progressive and beholden to the people’s interests, not the interests of lobbyists. My choices I hope reflect a guerilla movement among Democrats and progressives to skirt the official campaign committees and to put money directly in candidates who best represent the people’s values and stand a good chance of election or overturning a Republican incumbent.

Please do your part.

 
The Thinker

Emotional Sophisticates

Lately I’ve been feeling really dumb. I have this advanced degree in Software System Engineering but in some really important areas I feel like I am in first grade. Maybe this is a consequence of having a really good and female boss. I have only had one other female boss in my life, and that was a short-term thing. It didn’t last three months. I was her employee only long enough to find another job. But now I have a really successful female for a boss and her people skills are daunting at times.

First let me say that Susan (my boss) is terrific. She is everyone’s dream boss. She’s funny, she’s cute, she’s snarky and she laughs a lot. Every day is an adventure from her perspective. She loves everyone and everyone loves her. In the five months I’ve worked at USGS no one has said anything that could be remotely interpreted as negative about her. She is also very, very smart. She has brains of a magnitude that are daunting to us lesser mortals. She remembers everything including the tiniest details from years ago. You can’t dislike her. She so very much believes in and honestly appreciates anyone who works for her. She treats everyone as peers. She’s like a big mother hen (although she has no children herself) and she just loves all of us. She will bend the rules and go out of her way to give you what you need to succeed. If you have family problems she will support you 100%.

She is also what I would refer to as an emotional sophisticate. I cannot be disingenuous with her. She sees right through me. I don’t know how I know this but I do. She has me all figured out. She knows just the right combination of buttons to press to inspire me and get me moving in the way she wants me to move. And that makes me feel, well, both empowered and at times inadequate. I don’t know what to call her gift, but “leadership” doesn’t describe it.

Like most of us men I suspect I can be pretty emotionally clueless. I can be sensitive to other people and their feelings but I have to deliberately turn on that part of me. Most of the time I have that side turned off since I am used to having it turned off. But since I have become a supervisor I’ve made it a point to turn on that side of me with my own employees. I ask them regularly how they are feeling and how various members of their family are doing. I try to get to know them as people, to respect who they are and not to be condescending. So far I think I am doing pretty well. At least with my own employees I’m pretty sure I’ve earned their respect, though it may be qualified.

Still I am often clueless on how my behavior may be impacting other people. I will relate an all too typical example that happened recently. I had some concerns that there were multiple groups of people inside my office working on solving essentially the same problem. (If curious the problem was how to present our data in various XML formats.) It didn’t seem that the right people were talking to each other. So as I usually do when I see a problem I tried to bring everyone together to reach consensus. Except of course one of the other unit chiefs had someone who had this issue as one of his areas of responsibility. From his perspective I was stepping on his turf. But he didn’t seem to be talking to someone in this other team because they were both charging forward on separate and redundant paths. And really I wasn’t that aware that his role was as broad as he and his boss envisioned. If it was that broad I figured these problems wouldn’t be happening. Anyhow I was at least a grade above him. I figured this was the sort of problem people at my grade level were supposed to solve.

This would be a typical male left-brain response. But it was the wrong emotional response. Because you see I neglected to consider that someone’s feelings might be hurt. In this case my fellow peer unit chief, also an emotional sophisticate, knew this man had this work and more importantly that he felt he owned the issue. So I was asked to run a conference call where it was on the agenda. I took an action item to set up a meeting and put it on my electronic To Do list. I probably did hear once, maybe even twice, that he and his boss wanted him to take leadership of the issue. But I didn’t retain it. I just saw the action item and started working on it.

So it generated some consternation. Email flew around. People’s feelings were getting hurt. I really didn’t want to manage the issue. I just wanted to make sure it was addressed and that my needs would get considered in the meeting. I saw myself as starting a process that needed to happen. I think I have it straightened out now. It was too late for me to let this guy set up the meeting since I had sent out the invitations. However I did shoot him an email saying I’m glad to let him run it from now on. Case closed I hope. But I had inadvertently or perhaps stupidly caused some minor damage to the effectiveness of the larger team. Bad me!

Granted my boss and my fellow peer unit chief have twenty years or more working in the same office as these people. They know them inside and out. They know their hot spots, what makes them happy and their eccentricities. I am still trying to associate names with faces, let alone names with roles. But that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was I lacked the emotional sophistication (or perhaps the innate patience) to work through these issues so that no feelings were hurt. I was operating as usual at full throttle when I should have thought through the issue and done the necessary networking.

I know how my boss would have worked the issue. She would have stopped by the guy’s cubicle on some pretext but mainly to sound out his feelings on the issue. She’d talk to his boss and get her opinion. Then she’d talk to me and suggest an approach. No nicks. No cuts. No bruises. No hard feelings.

My solution? That approach seemed very time consuming and old fashioned. Email was much faster. Besides I’ve got a million things on my To Do list. It seemed like they are all due immediately. I needed some shortcuts. It’s not clear to me if I choose to ignore the proper way to do things because I am hasty by default, or because I was more concerned about being fast and efficient than with dealing with all the human relations issues. The downside of my approach is now clear: I may be making enemies, or at least be giving the impression to people that I am a bit inconsiderate. Naturally I don’t think of myself that way. But that may be how I am being perceived. That’s not a great long-term strategy. So my boss’s solution is much more logical and would solve the underlying emotional issues.

Anyhow a couple issues like this rear their heads during the course of my workweek. I hope I am the type that can adapt my behavior. But issues like this have dogged my otherwise pretty successful career. It is now past time for me to develop the sophisticated emotional skills that I need. In fact as a result of episodes like this my boss has already suggested I need some training in this area. And it sounds like I may need it sooner rather than later.

I just hope this old dog can learn just one more new trick.

 
The Thinker

My hero

Everyone should have their heroes. I may be 47, but I’m not too old to have my hero. Jimmy Carter is my hero.

I hate to admit I admire Jimmy Carter as much as I do. For one thing he is a passionate Christian and I am not. I am not sure exactly what I am, but I am not a Christian. While I like individuals who happen to be Christian, as a class I am not fond of Christians. But then there’s Jimmy. And after analyzing my feelings about the man I realize I like him because he is a Christian.

A contradiction? Not at all. I admire Christians who can actually act Christ-like. When I think my disenfranchisement with Christianity, aside from all the silly mysticism of much of it, my number one gripe is that most Christians seem to be more spiritually aligned with Satan than with Jesus. But then there’s Jimmy Carter. Here’s a man who epitomizes what Christianity should be but so rarely is. Certainly he is not alone. Perhaps I note so few of them because they so quietly do their work. But from my perspective true Christians are a rare breed. And I believe that Jimmy Carter is near or at the top of the list of people who epitomize the Jesus I found from reading the Bible.

I often wonder how many of those people who purport to be Christians have actually bothered to read Jesus’s words. Here in Virginia you can’t walk two feet without bumping into purported Christians. Unfortunately we’re talking about the Jerry Falwell type of Christian. These folks have no qualms about amassing large sums of money even though Jesus disdained wealth. These Christians seems to be obsessed over the evils of gays and sodomy even though Jesus hung out with Samaritans and prostitutes and stayed away from the rabbis at the temple. These Christians are people who every day feel free to condemn me and people like me for my lifestyle but seem to have wholly missed Jesus’s words saying only those without sin should cast the first stone.

Then there is Jimmy Carter. Humble. Decent. Not the proselytizing type. Not the sort of man to give you a lecture for your behavior. He is a man much more concerned about living the example of Jesus through deeds than through words. Here is a man who if he followed the Ronald Reagan model for ex-presidents might have grabbed speaking fees for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at a pop. Instead he went home after a bitter defeat, licked his wounds, built the required presidential library and went to work. Most of us know that he started Habitat for Humanity, which creates affordable housing across the nation. Many of us also know he has worked tirelessly to bring democratic government to nations that never knew it. If you look around the world today and wonder why there are more democratic nations than there were in 1980, don’t think Reagan or Bush had much to do with it. Thank instead Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter who monitored countless elections. Thank also Jimmy and Rosalyn for all their work vital work in world sustainable development.

People often say that Jimmy Carter was a terrible president. The truth is that Carter was too good to be our president. We say we want a man of peace and high character as our president. But in fact we prefer the macho cowboy as president, not the 98-pound weakling. We even prefer adulterers like Bill Clinton to weenie men like Jimmy Carter who confess lust in their hearts but don’t do anything about it. We saw Jimmy Carter as almost effeminate: a wimp. Here was a guy who agonized for weeks before sending American forces into combat in an unsuccessful attempt to free our hostages from Iran’s custody. We all know W would not be such a wimp. He’d send in the Marines! Send out the strike fighters! He’d show those wacky Persians who’s the boss! Yes, we require a real man (or perhaps someday a real woman) as our president. We don’t want someone who realizes what a hollow thing our sexual stereotypes are and instead is content to be an honest and fallible human being.

The truth was that Carter was a president during times that would have tripped up anyone. The same fate would have befell Gerald Ford had he won in 1976. There is not much any president can do to reduce high inflation, high interest rates and oil shocks in four short years. But Carter did what he could. Although the deficits of the 1970s look puny by modern standards he did manage to reduce the annual federal budget deficit, unlike his immediate predecessors. And he made unpopular but correct choices in a number of areas. Does anyone remember the hubbub of “giving away” the Panama Canal? Does anyone care now that it is under the control of the Panamanian people? It was the right thing to do and Carter had the leadership to make sure it happened.

And what other president prior to Carter did as much for world peace? Certainly many presidents sent men to war to create a peace. But Jimmy Carter actively worked to solve the thorniest foreign policy issues. The Camp David Accords were an amazing achievement that created a peace that has endured for over 25 years between two implacable foes: Israel and Egypt. It is no wonder that for this and his many other achievements in peacemaking Jimmy Carter belatedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Last night I watched Carter, nearly 81, speak at the Democratic National Convention. His voice was unsteady at times but he is otherwise in remarkably good health. He gave of one the most concise but on target speeches against George W. Bush and his strategy of preemptive war that has ever been made. Who else could say this with such conviction and authority?

Today, our dominant international challenge is to restore the greatness of America – based on telling the truth, a commitment to peace, and respect for civil liberties at home and basic human rights around the world. Truth is the foundation of our global leadership, but our credibility has been shattered and we are left increasingly isolated and vulnerable in a hostile world. Without truth – without trust – America cannot flourish. Trust is at the very heart of our democracy, the sacred covenant between the president and the people.

Jimmy Carter is modeling the behavior we should all emulate. If we had courage we would be following behind him. Instead of squandering our lives playing with game cubes or watching “reality” television, our lives could take on genuine meaning and richness. Carter is showing us a path we can all choose to take. How many of us have the courage to rise above our selfishness and live the meaningful life?

If I could pick just one person among all the brilliant people, statesmen and theologians in this world to spend an hour with I would pick Jimmy Carter. Just to have the opportunity to shake his hand would be the highlight of my life. Jimmy, if you are in Northern Virginia, take this as a standing invitation. And as a wishy washy Unitarian Universalist to a true Christian I say: God bless.

 
The Thinker

Our Wild, Wild Universe

Back in March I mentioned that I was going to read Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. Brian Greene is a physicist currently working in the area of string theory. Fortunately for the rest of us he is also a man who can demystify modern physics for the masses. In this book he takes the casual reader on an adventure into the nature of reality. I think you will find that this adventure is beyond the wildest ride you can imagine at any theme park. To call our universe amazing is to damn it with faint praise.

Today I actually finished the 569-page tome. Yes, it took over four months to read it. Greene is excellent at making analogies so that we laypeople can wrap our minds around something so abstract as physics. Even so this is not the casual sort of book you bring to the beach with you. I doubt you spend hours curled up in your hammock reading it, fascinating though it is. I got through it in snippets of 15 minutes or so at bedtime. I did this because I found that 15 minutes was about the maximum my brain could stretch in one day. I generally needed a day or so to process what I had learned. Sometimes I had to go back and read parts again: did he really say that?

So the book is still daunting but well worthy of the read. Physics is not a subject that interests most people. Still physicists try to describe the reality of the world that we live in, and what we observe is but a tiny fraction of the reality. Since we spend our existence in this reality you would think we would care more about understanding this box that frames our existence. Most of us think we understand reality but it takes a physicist to show us that we really don’t understand squat. The problem is that it is daunting to communicate to the layperson the nature of reality. When we think about concepts like Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity we reach for the Excedrin. We figure there is no way to understand it except to spend years learning calculus and sifting through the equations. Fortunately thanks to Greene and other writers you don’t have to. He does an excellent job explaining both the special and general theories of relativity, and this entity he calls space-time in which we live our lives. In clear analogies and illustrations you will find that you too can grasp ideas like why time slows as one moves toward the speed of light or how space itself can be curved.

If an appreciation for special and general relativity weren’t enough, the second half of the book takes us into the far more mysterious world of quantum physics. You don’t have to get too far into the quantum physics portion of the book before you say to yourself, “Gosh, this stuff is so amazing it should be in a science fiction book.” And that’s the point: what we understand about our reality really is amazing. You should be awed by the time you finish this book. Those crazy, nerdy physicists are onto amazing stuff. We have mystics and theologians who try to tell us what lies beyond: physicists are pulling back the gauzy curtains that frame our vision of reality to show us the beauty and mystery of what lies behind the curtains.

Although I am not sure Brian Greene would share my assessment I feel physicists are tantalizingly close to joining two universes that hitherto have been as separate as oil and water: science and religion. Actually I’d describe it more as physics and metaphysics. I’ll have more on this in a blog entry soon. Reading Greene’s book made me realize that we were knocking on God’s door. The mysticism that embraces much of our most profound needs and hungers is peeling away. The good news: the universe is an awesome place.

Here are capsule summaries of some of the main ideas I took away from the book. If Brian Greene were to read this review I suspect he would caveat it, footnote parts of it and say certain of my observations are in error. If so some translation errors are to be expected on a book of such depth.

The Universe is principally space pervaded by energy that we can see and cannot see. It is pervasive and it is everywhere. There is no part of the universe that is not alive with energy. The whole notion of a vacuum is a misnomer. There is no space in our universe that is untouched by some form of energy. A vacuum is an area of space with no matter in it. But as I learned about halfway through the book energy and matter truly are the same thing. We learn that E=mc2 but we don’t really understand what this means. It means that mass is a property of energy. In fact there is nothing that is truly solid. Mass and energy are bound up together. So a vacuum, even if it can be construed as empty of matter, is never empty of energy. Even an empty chamber at the center of the earth is coursing with cosmic rays. To me it is not unrealistic to say the universe itself is alive.

Moreover within this boundary of reality that we can perceive nothing ever really perishes. Form may change. I doubtless will die as a homo sapien some day but the matter that makes up this thing I call me is as external as space-time. Some of my matter will decompose into simpler elements. Some of my matter will become energy. I am never destroyed. I only change form. The big question to be discussed in another blog entry is whether I have a soul and whether that unique signature that is me survives death.

What is there to understand about quantum mechanics? Fundamentally it is about uncertainty. Uncertainty is hardwired into our universe. At the subatomic level there is no guarantee of any outcome. We can only speak about probabilities of outcomes. It seems counterintuitive that the more precisely we try to measure something the less certain we are of the outcome. But this is the undeniable truth.

And what exactly is the nature of reality? At the quantum level Greene makes the assertion that things that frame our notion of reality cease to exist. There is no time. Time can only be perceived at the macro level. Indeed toward the latter chapters we come to understand that space-time itself may be an illusion. Everything we perceive or think we perceive may well exist in a two dimensional universe. Our existence may well be on the edge of an enormous balloon.

String theory tries to tie quantum theory with the general theory of relativity. Here we enter a world of the theoretical since strings are too small to be seen: they can only be reasonably inferred. Like a dot on a picture tube of the monitor that you are reading this on there are areas too tiny to be observed. There are only mathematical models to work with. Linear accelerators may give credence to certain string theories over others but there appears to be no way to prove that strings exist. But as our models get better and as the math used in them gets more rigorous we can reasonably infer the rules by which quantum physics and that which we call particles operate.

I strongly recommend this book. Life is too short to spend ignorant of the nature of reality. What we teach in school covers a tiny percentage of the truth, and the truth of our reality is always becoming better understood. I think courses on relativity, quantum physics and string theory should be a requirement for any college diploma. It’s not necessary to be down in the weeds with the physicists on the mathematics to get an appreciation for our amazing universe. But it does take time and effort to truly have a decent understanding of who we are and our place in this thing we call reality. Books like Greene’s are invaluable. For a curious mind to get through life ignorant of such amazing discoveries means in some sense to live the unexamined life.

 
The Thinker

Democracy is not always the solution

The United States is in the proselytizing business. No I don’t mean Bush’s odious Faith-Based Initiative which contrary to our constitution seems to say it’s okay to shower religious institutions with tax dollars. I’m not talking about proselytizing religion at all. No, the United States is in the democracy-proselytizing business. No matter what the problem is overseas with some non-democratic government, democracy (with rabid capitalism) is our solution. One size fits all countries.

Given our heritage it is understandable that that we would want all other countries to also be democracies. Our country was founded on equal representation, liberty and freedom. It generally works for us. Democratic governments are unlikely to wage unilateral wars against other governments (present administration notwithstanding, of course.) Democracy certainly seems better than the usual alternatives such as theocracies, communism, socialism, despots, strongmen, anarchies and monarchies. And I’d have to generally agree. My problem is I don’t always agree that democracy is the best approach for any country.

As we are learning in Iraq, I don’t think democracy can be imposed from the outside. For it to work it must come from the citizens of a country. To work really well the citizens must crave democracy. It helps for them to be completely fed up with their non-democratic government. But it also requires a strong belief in the people in their ability to solve their own problems collectively. Democracy is like a garden. A garden requires good soil, lots of effort, persistence and tender loving care. Lacking these you end up with a lot of weeds, and the result may not be what you intended.

The same is true with democracy. In much of the Muslim world at the moment we have nations embracing theocratic versions of Islam. Clearly this is not a form of government that seeks much guidance from non-clerics. I anticipate that for the next 20-50 years Muslim countries that have not yet embraced democracy (the vast majority) will need to work through their issues of separating religion from government. Until that happens democracy is unlikely to take hold.

Still I suspect a lot of Muslims are quite pragmatic. Most would like to give their mullahs the heave ho. There is a lot of cultural baggage to deal with in Muslim countries. This is a problem shared by countries with a predominant faith. Islam’s predisposition toward theocracy makes it very difficult if not dangerous to speak out against any religious authorities that want to run a state.

Iraq’s experiment with democracy might actually succeed. The odds are at best 50/50 that it can be pulled off over the next decade. (My guess is it is actually about 1 in 5). But Iraq is more fertile a place than most in the Mideast for democracy. Why is this? It is clear that Iraqis have tried the strongman approach with Saddam and at best it was a mixed experience. It certainly gave order and security, but tyranny caused a lot of murders, death, hardship and repression. On the other hand in some ways Saddam Hussein was ahead of his time. One was in the area of education. Overall Iraqis have much more access to education (including higher education) than most people in the Middle East. There is a thriving middle class. The conditions in Iraq are not all that different from those of our country in 1776. So let’s keep our fingers crossed. Against the odds Iraq may actually live up to Bush’s vision as a democratic state at peace in the middle of the Middle East.

But then there is much of the rest of the Muslim world. There is also much of the third world. There is hope that even in third world countries democracy can take root. Bangladesh for example is a country mired in poverty and low educational standards and yet it has a reasonably successful democracy. Part of its success has to do with being in fertile democratic soil. India is next door and has been democratic for fifty years or so. It is poor enough so that it is not a likely target for invasion. It is also predominantly Muslim. And although it has seen its share of wars and ethnic conflicts more often than not their conflicts can be worked out through a political process instead of civil strife.

Unlike Bangladesh there a lot more places like Afghanistan. Here is a country where I can almost guarantee democracy will not work in the short term. First of all we would like all citizens of Afghanistan to have the right to vote. It seems reasonable enough from our perspective. Unfortunately a very conservative form of Islam embraces most of the country. It is hard enough for women to leave their house without wearing a burka. Most women have to be escorted by a male relative if they want to go anywhere. In many places they cannot even get medical care. The sad facts are that this is a culture that does not appear ready to give women much in the way of civil rights.

Then there is their education problem. While education improved somewhat in places like Kabul in the 1970s and 1980s, Afghanistan is an overall educational disaster. Women are rarely educated. The average educational level of an Afghani is 1.7 years! Think about this: the average person doesn’t even have a second grade education. It’s a good bet that most citizens have not studied democratic models nor developed critical thinking skills. I know I would be concerned about placing trust in the people if I knew they were operating at a second grade level.

So what works for these countries? It depends on the country’s culture and history. Progress should unfold in the context of that unique story. Historically monarchy has been a fairly successful way to get between feudalism and democracy. A succession of kings and queens gives a country a certain stability.

The Afghani loya jirga process is not quite democratic, but it may be the most realistic short-term solution for Afghanistan if it can be pulled off. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan can bind together as a nation at all. No such nation existed until the British created it in the 20th century. Like Yugoslavia it may make more sense for the country to balkanize into ethnic areas. There has to be shared interests on many levels in order to have a real country. It’s not clear these yet exist in Afghanistan.

The United States needs to stop pushing democracy as the solution to non-democratic states. Rather we require an enlightened approach to encourage democracy where the climate is favorable and encourage benign forms of government in places where it isn’t.

 
The Thinker

The end of the fast food job

It seems even the fast food industry is not immune from outsourcing. I don’t know why this article surprised me, but it did. An excerpt:

Pull off U.S. Interstate Highway 55 near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and into the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s next to the highway and you’ll get fast, friendly service, even though the person taking your order is not in the restaurant – or even in Missouri.

The order taker is in a call center in Colorado Springs, more than 900 miles, or 1,450 kilometers, away, connected to the customer and to the workers preparing the food by high-speed data lines. Even some restaurant jobs, it seems, are not immune to outsourcing.

The man who owns the Cape Girardeau restaurant, Shannon Davis, has linked it and three other of his 12 McDonald’s franchises to the Colorado call center, which is run by another McDonald’s franchisee, Steven Bigari. And he did it for the same reasons that other business owners have embraced call centers: lower costs, greater speed and fewer mistakes.

Cheap, quick and reliable telecommunications lines let the order takers in Colorado Springs converse with customers in Missouri, take an electronic snapshot of them, display their order on a screen to make sure it is right, then forward the order and the photo to the restaurant kitchen. The photo is destroyed as soon as the order is completed, Bigari said. People picking up their burgers never know that their order traverses two states and bounces back before they can even start driving to the pickup window.

Davis said that he had dreamed of doing something like this for more than a decade. “We could not wait to go with it,” he added.

Bigari, who created the call center for his own restaurants, was happy to oblige – for a small fee per transaction. McDonald’s Corp. said it found the call center idea interesting enough to start a test with three stores near its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, with different software than that used by Bigari. But it added that it was more focused on other, continuing customer service improvements, like adding wireless Web access, or Wi-Fi, to restaurants, and introducing ways to let customers pay with credit and debit cards.

Jim Sappington, a McDonald’s vice president for information technology, said that it was “way, way too early” to tell if the call center idea would work across the 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.

You realize that it is now only a matter of time before you pull up to a fast food franchise and instead of your order being taken by a call center in Colorado Springs, someone will take it in Bangalore or Manila.

But this is just a start. I have to wonder what took the fast food industry so long. For an industry that works on tiny margins, low wages and lots of sweat I would have thought they would have outsourced their drive through order takers years ago. Like the amoral owners of Wal-Mart fast food owners have no shame. What they seemed to lack until now is some imagination on how to change their business model to pump up their profits. Shannon Davis has figured it out.

Of course I have to wonder why fast food restaurants require a human being to take orders at all. There are ways to remove the human being entirely from the drive thru order taking process. Most likely you pump and pay for your own gas. For now fast food restaurants can simply create an express drive through lane. In this lane you enter your order onto a touch pad screen. You can even pay for your order by inserting your debit or credit card into the convenient slot next to the screen. For a while restaurants may need a lane for those old fashioned types who can’t seem to place an order without talking to an actual human being. But that will change as we evolve into a cashless society.

But let’s think large. Actually interacting with a human being when getting fast food is so 20th century. Fast food restaurants could have us assemble our own orders too. Hamburgers and fries could pop down through chutes at the pickup window.

Doubtless there are lots of other ways to take the human out of preparing fast food too. Why not a robot at the French fry vat? Machines could also potentially cook, garnish, assemble and wrap hamburgers too.

By 2050 I predict that we will have the virtually manpower free fast food restaurant. Someone will still have to deliver the food to the stores, but perhaps programmed trucks could pull into automated docking stations at the back of a fast food restaurant. Then robotic arms could remove packets and place them into staging areas where other machines would draw on them as necessary. How efficient!

Those who quaintly want to eat at the restaurant could be accommodated without a single member of the service class. Greatly advanced Roombas could take care of sweeping the floors. Other robots could handle wiping counters. Some entrepreneur will doubtless create a restroom-cleaning robot too. Actually they have already created a self-cleaning restroom. But expect that fast food restaurant owners will be savvy enough to charge for the privilege.

Admittedly it will make things tough for youth looking for that first entry-level job or for that knowledge worker whose expertise has been outsourced overseas or is accomplished with artificial intelligence software. But that’s the price we pay for progress in this country. Whatever makes us more efficient is good. These were mindless, dead end jobs that no one could survive on anyhow. We might as well let the technology do it for us.

Watch out Wendy’s. McDonalds will be savvy enough to see the dollar signs in their shareholders’ eyes when this proves viable. Taco Bell has done most of their food preparation outside the restaurant for years. Yes, the first phase of the restaurant wars of the 21st century has begun. And fast food workers will be victims.

 
The Thinker

MoveOn.org’s Foxy Mistake

MoveOn.org is going after Fox News Channel. Presumably you’ve heard of MoveOn.org. It is the large email list and web site that was formed during the time of Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. MoveOn.org assembled an awesome email list collected from friends and spread through word of mouth. It used its list to unsuccessfully petition Congress to skip the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Instead it wanted its members to tell Congress to just censure Mr. Clinton for his lying under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinski. In their view it was time for the country to “move on”.

MoveOn.org is the embodiment of an idea whose time had come. It became (and likely still is) the nation’s largest, most moneyed and most influential grass roots internet-based political movement. Now it is working hard to return Democrats to power, principally in the White House, but also in Congress. And it rallies its members on causes it considers important. It has had some major successes. One of its more recent successes was in getting the Congress to roll back a nasty FCC ruling. That ruling said the same company could own 45% of both the print and media markets in a given locale (it was 35%). This is quite an accomplishment. There is no member of Congress who has not heard of MoveOn.org. It is often praised and pilloried depending on which side of the political fence you walk.

I’ve been very impressed by the organization to the tune of giving it $400 of my hard earned dollars to date. In addition I’ve signed dozens of its numerous petitions. On their call to arms I have written my congressman and senators (pretty much a lost cause in my state), donated to their recommended candidates and even called my representatives a couple of times. I’ve referred my friends to MoveOn.org.

So I was more than a little upset by MoveOn.org’s recent petition to the Federal Trade Commission. In a complaint to the FTC, MoveOn.org is trying to get the agency to tell Fox News that it cannot claim to be “fair and balanced” because, well, it’s not. It calls their slogan misleading. The logic seems to be if you had a toilet bowl cleaner that didn’t clean toilets and you marketed it as such the FTC would go after it, so why not a news organization?

It doesn’t take too much watching of Fox News to realize that it is about as fair and balanced in its reporting as, say, Pravda was during the Cold War. If you are not convinced the soon to be released documentary Outfoxed should make it crystal clear. To call it a recklessly partisan policy advocate for the Bush Administration is to damn it with faint praise. So I think MoveOn.org has a point in that their slogan is misleading.

However it is a news organization, or at least pretends to be one. It happens to be covered by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press. This also means that the press is not subject to government harassment for its views. I take the First Amendment seriously. I assumed that MoveOn.org as a progressive organization did too. That’s why I was so shocked by this campaign. Because in trying to sic the government after Fox News, MoveOn.org is showing that its standards can be just as low as Fox News’. In other words in this case any form of legal harassment is okay if it makes the other side hurt. The end appears to justify the means.

I think this is a serious mistake for MoveOn.org. It is an organization that is now on my watch list. I may have to give my money to other progressive organizations that understand the First Amendment and won’t flinch because some other organization it doesn’t like is exercising its constitutional rights. This campaign with the FTC is just mean spirited harassment and worthy of Bill O’Reilly at his worst. MoveOn.org in this case should just shut up. In fact, it should do more than that. It should admit this campaign was a mistake and a serious lapse in its judgment. And then it should, well, move on.

The staff of MoveOn.org (who incidentally are not elected by any of its membership) need to shape up and do so quickly before progressives like me take our money and energies elsewhere. We progressives don’t elevate debate and show our character by slinging the same kind of mud as is dished our way.

Bad move, MoveOn.org.

 
The Thinker

The Best of Occam’s Razor

For those of you who are new or read me periodically I thought use I’d the occasion of my 200th entry to highlight what I think are some of my best entries. I had nearly thirty entries that I thought were really good. Consequently picking my top ten so far has been very difficult. I expect you will find each of these entries entertaining, enlightening and of value. It offers a potpourri of my blog. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them:

Why Bush Will Lose in 2004 (July 4, 2003, perhaps my most popular entry!)
Idea: Term Limited Marriages (July 13, 2003)
Why Current Marriage Laws are Immoral (August 1, 2003)
Welcome to the New World of Polysexuality (August 10, 2003)
On Marriage (October 11, 2003)
My 7th Inning Stretch (November 19, 2003)
Scrooge is Alive: Wal-Mart is Evil (December 6, 2003, perhaps my second most popular entry!)
Unsaved (December 27, 2003)
A Rant: Our Supersized Nation (February 22, 2004)
Infidelity: It’s Not So Simple (June 19, 2004)

 
The Thinker

Entry No. 200

This entry represents yet another milestone: my 200th blog entry. I suppose that’s not a big deal for many bloggers but it is to me. Why? Because I like to think that this is not just any blog. For me blogging is not about jotting down a few random thoughts and observations echoing or amplifying others’ observations. It’s about trying to create entries that (at least in my mind) have some substance, unique thought and meaning.

This is not always an easy thing for me to do. It explains why entries generally have two or three days between them. It would be fun to make blogging my career. Unfortunately except for a handful of people it hasn’t proven to be a profitable profession. So it is a pure hobby and one that I must make time for. It is increasingly difficult to make the time given my life is pretty busy as it is.

Of course I don’t always succeed in writing meaningful entries. And ultimately any impact my thoughts have come from my readers, 80% or more of who appear to arrive serendipitously as a result of search engine queries. The vast majority of you probably don’t bother to bookmark this place. I don’t know what percentage of my readers actually read an entry all the way through. Even fewer I suspect spend much of their brain’s CPU time pondering my insights. But perhaps I have changed a few opinions and opened a few minds.

This blog has no theme. The entry of the day is usually what is flipping through my brain on a particular day. Since I categorize each blog entry I can get a general idea of what occupies my blogging time. A simple character count of each of my category files reveals that politics and general observations about my life account for over 60 percent of my entries.

How am I doing in getting people to notice this site? Not very well. Marketing has never been my strong suit. I look at my wife’s blog, which she avoided for years and instantly comments inundate her. But most of her comments are from friends associated with her community of slash writers. It’s a fairly chummy bunch. I have a few dedicated readers (mostly friends or family). But in my case most of my readers visit me by accident. And overall they aren’t inclined to leave comments. (I have a total of 108 comments, so I average about one comment per two blog entries. Still I am doing better than many blogs I look at that seem to consistently get zero comments. ) For each comment I figure fifty to a hundred people are probably actually reading the entry, so I don’t feel bad. My thoughts are getting out there. As for my hits and such, I didn’t started metering my site until March. My statistics haven’t been as bad as I feared and seem to be improving. My Sitemeter report says I average 61 visits a total of 76 page views per day. I attribute the improvement partially to getting lucky, some word of mouth, but mainly because I have more content that is searchable.

Fortunately the goal of this blog is not to be popular. I can’t let my life get consumed by blogging. Poor Billmon’s blog got so popular that it appears to have strained his marriage. He couldn’t manage the hundreds of comments on political topics he was getting every day. A whole community of Billmon fans has formed and are putting together their own forum just to trade comments on his entries. I should be so lucky! But as a coping strategy for his popularity he just turned the comments off. And occasionally he has to disappear for a week or more to recharge.

Billmon knows what most of us bloggers have discovered: in the blogging business there is no relationship between quantity and quality. If Billmon posts three entries a week I know they will be excellent. On the other hand Steve Gilliard was much better when he did a couple entries a week. Now he is doing a three or more a day and largely repeats news items. Less is often more for those of us who are hoping to be taken seriously.

So it is unlikely demand for my blog entries will cause me to exceed my 2GB of bandwidth per month. If it does then blogging will become increasingly and perhaps prohibitively expensive. It would mean I have to pay more for hosting, or need to get a dedicated server. In either event I will have to spend more time managing the blog and less time on its content.

I am working on dressing up this place. I have determined that although I teach web page design (from a technical perspective) I have no artistic design skills. So through my friend Lisa I am having her goddaughter Lauren work on redesigning my blog. It will likely take a while since Lauren is working through an incident with cancer. Fortunately I am in no hurry. But perhaps in the next couple months this place will be more pleasant to the eyes.

My first entry was on December 12, 2002. Today is July 18, 2004. I figure my blog has been up for 584 days. With 200 entries I am averaging an entry every 3 days or so (actually 2.92 days). I try real hard to put up an entry every other day but it is of course not always possible. I need time to recharge.

I hope I can keep my blog a blog of interest to many of you. My motives are not entirely selfish. I consider myself a humanist and a man of peace. Every day brings more and more reports of man’s inhumanity toward man. I can’t be another Mother Teresa. But I can use the power of this medium that I know well to spread what I hope is a little enlightenment. Perhaps as a result I can make the planet a less hostile place. It’s not much of a legacy to leave I guess, but it’s a start.

 
The Thinker

Love those Firefox Extensions!

Some time ago I wrote about my preferred browser: Mozilla Firefox. It was obvious to me months ago that those who tried it would probably feel the same way about giving up Firefox as the gun nuts would about giving up their firearms: when you pry our cold, dead hands off our keyboards. In a word Firefox rocks! It is now up to version 0.9 and only keeps improving.

As if the lovely standard features like tabbed browsing, easy in page search, Google search box and easily customizable toolbars weren’t enough, perhaps the best thing is how extensible Firefox is. That alone is reason to prefer it to Internet Explorer. Can you imagine Microsoft opening up its IE source code and allowing the user community to improve it? Actually it might happen one of these days since there is little money for Microsoft to make in the browser business and they are inept (at best) at patching its many security holes. Since Microsoft gives IE away it may make some sense to let others develop the code for free. Shareholders might appreciate it. For now its value is dubious and exists largely to market products by Microsoft and its affiliates.

But Firefox is wrapped around open source components like the Gecko rendering engine and the XUL framework. As a result very clever developers who don’t mind giving away their work for free are having a field day extending the usefulness of the browser. One fun thing you can do is simply download and install the many readily available themes. If you get bored you can just toggle from theme to theme. Suddenly the same old boring web pages aren’t as boring because the frame is jazzed up!

To me the coolest thing about Firefox is its tabbed browsing feature. Granted it inherited it from the Mozilla 1.0 framework, although most people first encountered it in Netscape 6 (which of course is Mozilla 1.0 under the hood). Once you get the hang of browsing with tabs you can’t let it go. Well earlier this week I discovered the Tabbrowser Extension for Firefox. Now I am not just in love with my browser but I am in ecstasy.

When I am online I live in my browser. I perfer having all my favorite pages open at once. Tabs give me an intuitive and easy way switch from page to page. Out of the box Firefox has cool features like the ability to open a whole folder of bookmarks with each page in a tab. But with the Tabbrowser extension I can finally have links behave the way I want them.

For example when I am in my email client and click on a link I don’t want it to open up a new browser instance. I want the page to appear in a new tab in the existing browser instance. Now I can do this with the Tabbrowser extension, after first adding a line to my prefs.js file and tweaking the Tabbrowser controls a bit. The Tabbrowser extension itself downloaded and installed in less than a minute. I had to close and reopen my browser. I discovered an extremely feature rich set of things I can do with tabs, thanks to the clever programmer Shimoda Hiroshi, who authored the Tabbrowser extension.

It took a lot of experimentation to get things the way I want. I will still tweak it from time to time. But most of the time I want any link on a page to open in another tab. But if the link belongs to the same site I don’t want it to open in another tab, I want it to overwrite the content in the current tab. It took quite a bit of experimenting but I finally figured out a way to get the extension to do just this.

And I’ve just scratched the surface. There are lots of things you can do with tabs with this extension. These include making bookmarks or items on your toolbars open in tabs. But I found most of the time I don’t want to enable this feature. Other neat features include displaying tabs in groups and anchoring tabs to the top, bottom, left or right sides of the browser window.

There are hundreds of extensions that can make Firefox behave the way that fits your mental model, not someone else’s. Admittedly some are more useful and professional than others. But all of them are fun for those of us who like to tinker. But even if you are not the tinkerer type for most people plain old Firefox out of the box will be just fine and a huge improvement over Internet Explorer’s many annoyances.

Firefox is not up to a production release version 1.0 yet but it shouldn’t be too much longer. It seems very stable to me. One tweak I would make to the out of the box Firefox interface would be to add the Print icon to the toolbar. It seems odd that you have to go to File>Print to print something out by default. Most novice users won’t bother to play with the customized toolbars.

At last: the browser done right! And it’s all free and cross platform. Do yourself a favor if you haven’t tried Firefox and download it now.

 

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