Archive for January, 2013

The Thinker

Arming teachers is crazy

I have long suspected there were more than a few screws loose in the leadership of the National Rifle Association. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, spake Wayne LaPierre, an Executive Vice President for the NRA a few days after the deaths of 26 people, including 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last month by Adam Lanza. The NRA’s reflexive solution to the massacre is, of course, to put more guns in schools, this time to “protect” students from mass killers like Adam Lanza.

To start, they would like an armed guard at every school. There are around 132,000 public schools across the United States. Assuming one armed guard were placed at every school at the modest cost of $30,000 a year, that’s a cost of about $4 billion a year. Of course, most schools consist of more than a couple of classrooms. Here in Fairfax County, Virginia high schools like Westfield, where my daughter graduated, have 3,000 plus students. Assuming 25 in a classroom, that’s 120 classrooms. I’ve been to Westfield High School a number of times of course, and it’s immense. It’s got schools within the school. It’s a huge educational institution. It’s practically a college. It could take five minutes for an armed guard to get to a classroom on the other side of the campus. What do you think the odds are that the campus cop is going to be able to stop a shooter before he has inflicted a lot of mayhem? Okay, so maybe we need more than one guard at one of these larger schools. Let’s say on average we figure we need three armed guards at every school. Suddenly costs have ballooned to $12 billion. And we still have no assurance that a mass murderer can be stopped in a timely matter.

Ah but the NRA and others have another solution. Arm the teachers! Yes, put an easily accessible gun in every classroom in the nation! Put it in the hands of a teacher, a person trained to mentor students, not kill them. If I had a homicidal student, I suspect having a handy firearm would not be of much reassurance. Likely I would be his first target. I would be shot before I could get my gun out of its holster. Guns are like that, you know.

If you think about this for more than a nanosecond, you realize it’s a crazy, crazy thing to do, so crazy that anyone suggesting it is either delusional or simply can’t be bothered to think about it. It’s so crazy that I could scribble on for many pages and still not give you all the reasons why this is incredibly stupid. Here are some of them:

  • Teachers are people too, and they can have homicidal tendencies like anyone else. Do we really want to give a teacher a ready means of killing his own students?
  • If you dangle a carrot in front of a rabbit, it will probably bite into it. If you put students in a classroom with a gun in it that is accessible, even if it requires a code or keylock to gain entry, what do you think they will be thinking about when their mind wanders? How can I get access to that gun? I don’t have one of them at home. It’s like putting out Playboy magazines for your teenage son and expecting him not to look at the centerfold. Put a gun in every classroom and the likelihood that some student (or faculty member) will somehow use one of these guns increases exponentially.
  • It sends the signal that guns are not just okay (they are legal to own, for most adults anyhow) but something that is sanctioned by the school and public authorities in general. Gosh, I want a gun! My cool teacher gets to have one!
  • Even a trained police officer has only a 17% chance of hitting the criminal if he fires his pistol. A teacher is likely to have even a lower chance than that, and considering how panicked and nervous they are likely to be, it is likely they will miss the shooter and kill innocent people instead.

If you really want to minimize deaths by firearms in schools, perhaps the way to do so it not to put guns in our children’s faces multiple times a day, but keep them out of schools, inculcate the value that they should not normally be seen in polite societies, discourage parents from owning guns and if they do have laws requiring weapons to be kept under lock and key. An armed policeman at every school probably has at best a one in ten chance of stopping a shooter with a gun if they get entry to the school.

We could require students to have their person and things scanned prior to entering the school, as we do before boarding a plane. That is likely to be much more effective, but it will also be incredibly time consuming. At Westfield High School all 3,000 students generally arrive within fifteen minutes of each other. It would take a large number of scanners and agents to process this number of students in anything close to a timely manner.

So LaPierre’s suggestion is purely fanciful and speaks of an idealized world, not a practical world. In a practical world we would implement most of the proposals by the Obama Administration instead. It would not be foolproof, because no solution, particularly Lapierre’s suggestion, is foolproof. But it would be a practical and realistic set of steps to minimize these incidents. Law abiding citizens would still be able to keep their guns, just not the clips and ammunition that allow them to pump cop killer bullets into dozens of people within seconds.

If we have to spend $4 billion a year to put armed guards in our schools, I have a great way to finance it. Place a special tax on guns, both when purchased and annually. Place special taxes also on bullets. Use the revenue to hire the guards we need in our schools.

It sounds lawful to me. Considering how lethal guns can be why not also make gun owners liable for illegal use of their guns? I am liable for damages if someone else uses my car and causes an accident. Why should gun owners be exempt if someone uses their gun and commits a crime? Require gun owners to carry a special liability insurance for their firearms. It’s not much, but it is something that helps address the true cost of the mayhem inflicted by so many guns in our country.

One thing is clear to me: we won’t be making schools safer by arming teachers.

 
The Thinker

Republicans keep proving they are shameless

It’s clear that Republicans have learned a few things from the 2012 election after all. First, they cannot win at the ballot box, at least not unless they change their policies a whole lot so they can attract moderates, which they seem unable to do for ideological reasons. Second, they have finally looked at demographic trends and have realized that their party is likely in permanent decline. Having pondered these problems the Republican Party has decided to do more of what they excel at: stacking the cards so even if they lose the popular vote, they still win. It’s the Animal Farm strategy: that votes are equal, but some are more equal than others. Only this time, it will be the law.

Republicans want their votes to count more than Democratic votes.  In the 2012 election, their attempt to move the odds in their favor consisted mostly of intimidating voter ID laws. There were also the usual illegal robocalls designed to confuse minorities about voting and insufficient voting machines at minority precincts, leading to long lines. Those efforts proved largely counterproductive. Perhaps out of spite, minorities waited in lines to vote, sometimes for hours to cast their votes.

The latest effort is to create laws in swing states controlled by Republicans to apportion their electoral votes based on who wins the majority of votes in a congressional district. With the exception of two states (Nebraska and Maine), electoral votes are awarded on a winner take all system. However, if Republicans control a state legislature, they already have congressional districts that are gerrymandered so that Republicans are likely to win most of the House seats. It’s logical to assume that if a Republican represents a congressional district, a majority of its voters will also vote for a Republican for president.

President Obama won 51% of the votes in the swing state of Virginia (where I live) and received all of the state’s 13 electoral votes, 11 for its congressional districts and two for its senators. However based on this analysis, if the candidate who won the majority of the electoral votes for the congressional district got one electoral vote, 7 out of the 11 electoral votes in Virginia would have gone to Mitt Romney. It’s unclear how the two votes for its senators would go under this proposal endorsed by the Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, but with the Virginia legislature firmly in Republican control, it’s likely they would have gone for Romney, meaning that 9 out of 13 electoral votes (69%) would have gone for Romney even though he received just 47% of the vote statewide.

As you can guess, various groups have crunched the numbers. Had swing states had their electoral votes proportioned this way, Mitt Romney would now be president, even though he received just 47% of the popular vote, 4% less than Barack Obama. In short, some votes (Republican votes) would be “more equal” than Democratic votes.

Currently, each state decides how they will award electoral votes. Almost all states use the “winner take all” system. The advantage of this system is that it makes the Electoral College results decisive. With a few exceptions in very tight elections (such as the 2000 election) the winner of the popular vote wins the electoral vote. Of course, the electoral vote is the one that matters. In those exceptions the popular vote mismatch has been very close. In 2000, for example, Gore won the popular vote by .5% but lost the Electoral College vote by just five electoral votes. As we know, the Supreme Court decided this election in Bush v. Gore. The court chose to honor the state of Florida’s dubious certification of its election results.

Most normal people would look at this as a blatant attempt to stack the presidential race in favor of the Republican candidate. Doubtless this is also the intent of the Republican Party, since the proposal is to do this only in swing states where Republicans control the state legislature. The obvious conclusion is that the Republican Party is antidemocratic. In the past, their actions (insufficient voting machines in minority precincts and onerous voter ID laws) were masqueraded. This proposal simply cannot be mistaken for anything other than a blatant attempt when choosing the President of the United States to have Republican votes count more than Democratic votes.

It is a shameless new low for the Republican Party, which cannot win elections using a set of fair rules. It is a tacit admission that they know their party is in permanent decline and that they see the only way to prevent it is to give them disproportionate political power.

One would hope that a case before the Supreme Court would result in a decision to order a level national playing field for allocating electoral votes based on one man, one vote. But most likely the Supreme Court would defer to law and the constitution, which gives states discretion in rules for awarding electoral votes and drawing congressional districts.

Since there are no swing states controlled by Democratic legislatures, Democrats cannot try the same approach, as it will diminish the electoral votes for Democratic candidates. (I seriously doubt it would occur to Democrats, as the principle of one man, one vote is part of our DNA.) So unless the Republican Party can be shamed into abandoning this approach, it is in their short-term interest. If a president actually won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote by four percent my guess is the political cost would be very high indeed. Democracy works on the consent of the governed, and it’s hard to imagine that a majority would agree that the will of the majority should be permanently disenfranchised.

The solution to this mess is simply to elect a president based on the national popular vote. This would require a constitutional amendment that even if it got through Congress would be unlikely to be passed by the states.

This whole proposal is so unbelievably antidemocratic, fractious and audacious that you would think no party in their right mind would propose it. But then, I am not a Republican. I still feel shame.

 
The Thinker

Assessing Obama

I got an invitation from President Obama to the inauguration! Okay, it wasn’t from him personally, just from someone on his staff. Scratch that, it was not even from someone on his staff. Instead, I got an automated email invitation because I donated to his campaign. I was given the opportunity to compete for a chance to stand in the bleachers during today’s Inaugural Parade. I declined the opportunity, which even if I won it would have cost me $25. It seems like everything is for sale in this country, including the privilege of watching the President and First Lady maybe wave at you from Pennsylvania Avenue. I used the holiday instead to remove wallpaper from our downstairs bedroom.

However, I did listen to his inaugural address. This one was better than the last one, at least, which was an amazingly mediocre speech from a usually eloquent writer. Like most Americans, I did not know exactly what I would get when I voted for Barack Obama the first time. With the benefit of hindsight I can now assess his first four years. Did he live up to my expectations? Back in 2007 when I decided to support for him I said:

What makes Obama different in my mind is that of all the candidates he is the one who behaves the most like a genuine leader. In these perilous times, we need a leader that can pull us in their wake. He or she must do this while also moving us in a positive direction that moves us back into the international mainstream, addresses the root causes of terrorism, and moves us toward taking real action on global warming. We need someone with sound judgment who also truly grasps the nuances of the bigger picture. In short, we desperately need a president with real intellect and mojo. I have some concerns that Obama’s mojo may be more for show than real, but overall I feel comfortable that it is real.

It’s already hard to remember what a mess was dropped on Obama’s doorstep when he assumed the presidency. One of the most unusual things about today’s inauguration was how ordinary it seemed. The economy is still not great, but it feels like we are fully out of the woods. 7.8 percent unemployment sucks, particularly if you are unemployed, but it beats the high of ten percent we reached in 2009. Obama’s first four years were mostly about keeping the lights on. Unemployment sucked, but it sucked less because long-term unemployment insurance and food stamps kept the unemployed from starving. The stock market has more than fully recovered. In fact, Obama has been one of the best presidents ever for Wall Street. It’s a mystery why Wall Street would not support him this time. He saved their undeserving hides. In March 2009, our net worth had dropped to $687K, most of it from declines in the stock and housing market. Today it is $1.07M. Granted, we have been stashing away more money and paying down debts, but most of this is due to recovery on Wall Street. This would not have happened on its own. It took a lot of leadership, principally from Obama, to turn the economy around. It’s actually progress that we are arguing about deficits instead of the sinking economy. In addition, Obama and a Democratic controlled congress successfully rescued the auto industry, stabilized the housing market and helped lead a resurgence of manufacturing in the United States. Employment may be slowly recovering, but so far there is a net surplus of jobs created during his first four years. During his first term, he created more net jobs that George W. Bush did in eight years. His most important economic achievement was avoiding another depression. It was not a given at all four years ago. Overall on the economy, I give the president a B+.

We need Democratic presidents simply to keep us out of unnecessary wars. Obama exceeded my expectations. He found and killed Osama bin Laden. We are out of Iraq and will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. From his inauguration address today, it sure sounds like he will not get us involved in a war with Iraq or Syria. The United States is now generally respected around the world again. The only thing about his foreign policy that really disturbs me is his failure to close Guantanamo. I am disappointed that he has continued Bush policies regarding electronic eavesdropping. I expected he would be more of a civil libertarian. Yet overall, Obama definitely gets an A here.

Like most liberals, the Affordable Care Act disappointed me. Had Obama chosen to be more engaged in shaping it, it would have been a much better piece of legislation. Even so, getting it into law was a huge accomplishment in itself, since it had not been done before in the United States. Understandably, Obama had plenty else on his plate to deal with at the same time, including the economy. Perhaps it is just the lackluster economy, but health care costs are easing for the first time in many years. It may be a result of the ACA. A solid B here.

I am most disappointed in his lack of leadership on climate change. He did direct funds toward clean energy solutions, and the EPA has issues new rules limiting particulate matter. His most important accomplishment was probably increasing vehicle fuel efficiency standards. This doesn’t solve the problem of climate change, but it dramatically reduces need for oil and will do much to reduce smog and ozone, at least compared to not having the rules. Given Republican domination in the House, it’s not surprising why he saw it as a lost cause. Still, I feel much more could be done here. I give him a D here.

I expected a more progressive president than I actually got. President Obama turned out to be a ruthlessly pragmatic president, which at times was something of a weakness. Still, his strategy has been consistently long term, with short-term milestones if possible that make progress toward a long-term accomplishment. Obama was given a chessboard with the queen captured and only a rook, knight, bishop and some pawns. He has won the queen back. Winning the game though looks like it will be a problem for a future president to accomplish. Obama’s major accomplishment will likely be that he kept moving the ball down the field.

Overall, I am glad that I voted for him. I’ll take a man of practical action in the White House any day over a rabid ideologue of any type.

 
The Thinker

The virtues of an email client with GMail

There is plenty of upheaval in my office. We are completing a painful (and I do mean painful) transition moving from one email system to another. In this case, we are moving from Lotus Notes to Google Mail. Lotus Notes meant lots of expensive email servers inside our firewall closely watched over by a crew of technicians who, like grease monkeys, spent their days (and nights) constantly oiling Lotus’s gears. GMail of course is “in the cloud”. A Google enterprise team manages it for us. It’s all sort of magic and at least so far seems to mostly work.

Switching email systems in a large enterprise of 70,000 people is quite a trick. It is roughly like switching out your car’s engine while driving down the street. It can be done. Essentially you have to have two email engines running at the same time processing the same incoming email. Eventually all the email accounts are successfully migrated from one email system to the other and you pull the plug on the old email system. But of course there are thousands of gotchas. You also have to migrate calendars, contacts and to dos. All sorts of applications and systems are tied into the email system. Each of these individually has to be taught to use the new email system. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is hard.

Now that our office is all GMail all the time the office has ditched the dependable email client in favor of using GMail inside the Chrome browser. I like GMail at home and on the road and use it all the time. However, the experience of using GMail on the web casually versus using it all the time is quite a bit different. When sixty percent of your day is spent reading and replying to email, productivity is important. While GMail has lots of nifty features (like its swift search engine to find emails) it also has some significant drawbacks. Specifically you have all the limitations and annoyances of working in a browser. GMail does its best to minimize these drawbacks, but when you are reading and replying to hundreds of emails a day and using a browser for an email client the experience becomes very irritating.

Take, for example, simply navigating between emails. Typically you want to just go to the next or last email. When using a browser and a desktop computer, you must use a mouse. This means you have to reach for the mouse, point to the email you want to read and then click on it. It takes three actions to do something that previously required simply pressing your up and down arrow keys. You don’t notice this at home, but at work I find it is more than irritating. It makes reading and replying to email an annoying hassle.

We don’t have a lot of options. Our service desk supports Microsoft Outlook as an option if you whine about wanting an email client, but as Outlook users know it really prefers that you are using Microsoft Exchange on the backend. Plus it’s a Microsoft product, which means it will have the usual mixture of brilliant, quirky and downright annoying features. Most importantly, it has feature bloat. Ninety percent of the time you need to either delete or quickly file an email. The other ten percent of the time you just need to reply or forward it. You probably don’t need to turn your email client into a newsreader, or to have it transparently integrate multiple email accounts or create multiple personalities. You just want to get through the couple of hundred emails in your email box as efficiently and as quickly as possible, with minimal fuss and keystrokes.

In short, you need Mozilla Thunderbird. The open source email client is not dead, and thankfully Mozilla Thunderbird keeps refining its product, in spite of the fact that its big brother browser (Firefox) gets almost all of the attention. Arguably if you really feel you need an email client with GMail, you should ditch all of the other ones and just standardize on Thunderbird. This is because it works across all the operating systems pretty much identically and it is elegantly simple. And should you feel the need to dress it up with themes or add-ons, it’s easy enough to do. Outlook users can even install a theme that sort of makes it look like Outlook.

It’s possible to use Thunderbird with GMail but it is not intuitive. After installing it, you need to go into your web-based GMail and select “Generate Application Password” (click on the More link near the top). It will create a long string of impossible to guess characters, numbers and symbols and you have to use to authenticate Thunderbird with GMail’s mail servers. Then in Thunderbird you have to find its account settings (Tools > Account Settings) and know the names of Google’s email servers (smtp.google.com for outgoing email and imap.google.com for incoming email). When asked for a password, use the applications password. You may need to tell it to use port 993 and SSL/TSL for connection security. You probably want IMAP instead of POP (Post Office Protocol) because IMAP allows you to keep your email in the cloud, instead of moving it to your computer. This is generally preferred since you never can lose it this way. It’s worth the hassle to make Thunderbird and GMail talk to each other because you sure will get sick of using GMail through a browser if you have to do most of your business day.

Certainly there are some features of the web-based GMail that are occasionally desirable. You can assign multiple tags to more than one email rather than just throw it into a folder. You can do sophisticated searching using a host of qualifiers. The nice thing is that the one percent of the time you might need these features, you can just bring up GMail and peck away. Most of the time you will prefer the speed and efficiency of Mozilla Thunderbird.

Curiously, Thunderbird excels as a purely email client. Maintaining a calendar is very much a part time activity, and GMail’s calendar is slick, easy to use and attractive. You can install an add-on to Thunderbird that will integrate a calendar, but it is relatively ugly. Google Calendar allows you to easily see other’s calendars, once they give you access to their calendar, and you can even see calendars outside of your office network. So if I need my calendar, I go into my browser.

GMail comes with Google Talk for instant messaging. Instant messaging is almost as important as email in the enterprise. With the right program placed in your task bar, you can be notified of instant messages even if you are not focused in your browser. Or you may prefer to install an instant messenger that works with Google Talk. If so make sure you keep that application password because you will need it. Warning: if you generate a new application password, you will need to replace the passwords in other applications you may have connected to Google’s infrastructure. Currently I am using Pidgin, which works well. However you really need to select the XMPP protocol instead of Google Talk protocol. Connect to talk.google.com and use port 5222. Also make sure encryption is enabled.

Perhaps one of these days Google will get GMail browser to work more simply and speedily. Right now they seemed more enamored with adding features you are unlikely to use, like conversation view, than in making it more keyboard friendly. In addition, all the logic is executed through Javascript, which is relatively slow. You notice the time it takes to read an email once you select it. This is less noticeable in an email client. Once you see how comfortable it is to use Thunderbird with GMail, you will likely see no reason to use browser-based GMail at all if you have the option.

 
The Thinker

Capitalism’s minuses

This just in: former TV conservative crybaby Glenn Beck is going Galt, John Galt, that is. Galt is the central character in Ayn Rand’s seminal novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Through Galt, Rand fully articulated her philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes the virtue of compete, unfettered Laissez-faire capitalism. It is capitalism freed from the burdens of tariffs, subsidies, monopolies and annoying government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Beck wants to build “Independence, USA” where its citizens can go completely Galt all the time. No taxes ever. Anyhow, it’s not necessarily cheap to Go Galt. Beck estimates he needs about two billion dollars to create Independence, USA. Presumably to construct his capitalist utopia he won’t invite a bunch of capitalists to create the machinery he will need on site. But anyhow when it’s all done, the citizens of Independence, USA will be a completely self-enclosed market. People will make stuff that other citizens will buy. Perhaps they will have their own currency. It’s unclear what governmental mechanisms they will have, if any. Laissez-faire capitalism is not exactly the same thing as no government, but presumably it would be a very austere government, far more austere than the State of Florida after several years of Rick Scott as Governor. That’s pretty damned austere.

Also presumably the city will operate more like its own country, since it won’t want anything to do with state and federal laws. There will be no annoying consumer protection laws and no warranties expressed or implied on anything sold. If your next door neighbor wants to turn his house into a smelter and spew out dangerous carcinogens in your general direction, well, more power to him. You are, of course, free to buy your own anti-pollution devices (presumably made only in Independence) to encase your house so you don’t have to breathe the pollution coming from next door. I don’t know if they will have a sheriff in Independence, but maybe not. So perhaps you can express your displeasure the old fashioned way, and load up your semiautomatic assault rifle and empty it into your neighbor’s house. He, of course, is free to wear only bulletproof clothing and encase his house in steel to deter assaults. You, of course, are free to up the ante, buy yourself a bazooka and wreak your unhappiness that way. Presumably since all residents share the same values about capitalism, there will be only brotherly love and no onerous taxes.

My guess is Independence, USA will never get built, but who knows? Beck can use more income to finance his vision, but the Koch brothers have plenty of it and might put up the two billion dollars. If it gets built, Independence, USA will doubtless become the center of capitalism worldwide. It will become the ultimate enterprise zone.

A friend of mine commutes regularly to China for her small business. She reports that contrary to reports that China is a communist country, it is already a lot like Independence, USA only they have gone nationwide. The truth is that China has pretty much ditched communism and is now a capitalist utopia. The state and the Communist Party pretty much exist to ensure capitalism remains free and unfettered. Freed of archaic concepts like religion, China has become a money-grubbing entrepreneurial heaven. She reports that the acquisition of wealth is pretty much the only thing on the mind of the Chinese. They get together to compare how fancy their Rolex watches are.

One thing she has noticed in particular is that the Chinese (or at least the Chinese businessmen she works with) don’t understand ethics. You might as well try to explain nuclear physics to them. They just don’t get why anyone would want to do anything ethical. They will happily do everything possible, legal or illegal, to allow a competitor to fail and for themselves to prosper without even a tiny qualm. This is hardly news. Even we self-absorbed Americans have read press reports about how copyright law is meaningless within China. DVDs and software are pirated, copied and sold for whatever they can get for them. Famous brand names are cheaply imitated and passed off as branded items. The idea of sales territories seems to not exist. Her company supposedly has sales territories within China where only one distributor is supposed to distribute her product, but of course these territories are widely ignored by their various sales agents.

While lots of people are getting richer in China, there have been a few undesirable effects. For example, there is the rampant air pollution in major cities. Lately it’s been so bad that no one in Beijing goes outdoors without wearing a facemask. So I am betting if Independence, USA ever gets built it will devolve quickly into a place that looks a lot like Beijing. It’s not a hard inference to make since this is pretty much how it has gone everywhere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, at least until government said “Enough!” Capitalism is all about making money and increasing your personal standard of living. The cost is borne by those not skilled, agile or moneyed enough to make the transition. Capitalism without regulation also ensures the land will get raped. This should not be news but just in case you don’t get it, maybe it’s time to reread Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”. I’m guessing Brother Beck hasn’t.

While there are undeniable virtues to capitalism, there are many ugly sides as well. Perhaps its ugliest side is that it strips us of our humanity and appreciation of the connections between each other. In China, dog-eat-dog capitalism means you cannot expect a consistent set of rules because the government will be largely hands off. There is also no religion to speak of, so there is nothing to ground you, and no set of moral standards to use to measure your behavior. There is no reason to care at all about your neighbor, or your community, or your neighbor’s future, unless you can profit from them. It’s all about me, not about we.

Capitalism is simply an amoral system to help facilitate the acquisition of wealth that has the benefit of allowing for the broad distribution of goods and services at reasonably low prices. If there is one thing it is not, it is not a philosophy of living. Here is where Ayn Rand, John Galt and Glenn Beck fall off their moral railings. They don’t get this. Ayn Rand constructed a whole philosophy of life around capitalism, as if it were the shiny city on the hill that Ronald Reagan envisioned. (Independence, USA is literally that city, in Beck’s eyes.) In their eyes, capitalism has become a church, and its cathedral is the inside of a bank vault. They assume that capitalism had a meaning greater than what it is: a meta-meaning. It does not. The consequences of unchecked capitalism though are easy enough to see: the collapse of our moral fiber, the heightening of self-interest over shared interest and the natural tendency to rape the land of resources and the people of their connectedness. It destroys trust and integrity and makes ethics obsolete. It dehumanizes us and turns us from people into profit centers.

There was a time in my living memory where you went to work for a company for life. A company was an extended family. You were a valued worker and were nurtured. You were cared for and your earned loyalty was given back in the form of intimate concern about the company and meeting its goals. Money was put aside into a pension fund so that you could live comfortably in old age. It was paternalistic. Companies reflected the values of the society in which they thrived. Over time, companies changed their values from human-centered to profit-centered. Pensions died. You became a worker, not a strategic asset. Your pension became a 401(k). You became mere a cog in a bigger wheel. You became disposable, something to be used and thrown out when no longer needed.

Sorry Brothers Beck, Galt and Sister Rand. Capitalism is not a utopia. It has its virtues and it has its weaknesses, but unrestrained it will suck the soul out of the society it exists within. It will either use you up as cheap labor or it will crush you spiritually as you acquire wealth. You will have become a slave to profit, loss and wealth and bereft of the values that connect us and enrich us.

 
The Thinker

The tyranny of the extremes

It’s sort of like President Bush’s approval ratings in 2007 and 2008. Every time you wondered if they could possibly get any lower, they dropped again. The same is true today with Congress. Its approval ratings are in the single digits, 9% to be exact, according to pollster PPP. They must have a sense of humor at PPP because they also asked the public the popularity about all sorts of things, to get a gauge on just how unpopular Congress is. Head lice are 48% more popular than Congress. A colonoscopy, which I have to endure in February, is 27% more popular than Congress. Even cockroaches edge out Congress by 2%. The good news is that Congress is 35% more popular than North Korea, and 39% more popular than meth labs.

This is particularly amazing because most Americans simply tune out Congress. Most have no idea who their representative is in Congress, which is not too surprising since in most election years less than fifty percent of voters bother to vote. Heck, most Americans are so geographically impaired they cannot find France on a globe or can state with reasonable certainty what states border their own state. In fact, most Americans slept through their civics classes. It’s amazing they know what Congress is. And yet even institutions like Congress can get attention by the public. It happens when either they do things really right or really wrong. Americans are almost unanimous: Congress is not doing its job properly. Right now, it appears we could fire everyone but Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden. They were the two that brokered the latest “fiscal cliff” legislation, which really didn’t solve any fundamental problems, but did allow us to put it off a couple of more months. They were the only two interested in seriously negotiating.

And yet we just had an election in which 91% of incumbents who chose to run for reelection won. How is it possible then that only 9% of Americans approve of Congress? There are lots of reasons but it amounts to states deciding to create congressional districts that are highly partisan. The result is that the legislator is likely to be highly partisan, which means they are either very right wing or very left wing. The true endangered species in the House is the moderate.

So, if you are a moderate and have this notion that maybe Congress should meet in the middle somewhere, unless you live in California you are out of luck. California is the exception this year. Its state legislature decided that its congressional districts would be drawn in a non-partisan fashion. The result has been interesting to watch. While the state traditionally leans Democratic, there have been a number of very close races between Republican and Democratic candidates. This happens when the votes of moderates can count proportionately. It allows changes in demographics to be expressed in the state’s congressional representatives. More typical is states like Pennsylvania, which voted 52 percent for President Obama state-wide, and yet only seven of its 18 congressional representatives are Democratic. This is because Republicans control the state government, and drew highly partisan districts that favored Republicans and marginalized Democrats.

In short, at least in the House of Representatives legislators simply are not representative of the population of the state at large, and thus the real will of the people is not being expressed. If the House of Representatives were functioning the way it should, it would normally mirror results in the presidential race. In short, the House would generally be closely divided. It is likely that if congressional districts were not drawn in a partisan manner (gerrymandered) it would probably now have a narrow Democratic majority. In addition, the House would likely be far less polarized. There would probably only be a handful of representatives with Tea Party leanings. The bulk of legislators would be political moderates, and they’d be quite comfortable with the idea of compromise or voting based on consensus. Necessary legislation would get passed. Congress’s approval ratings would probably be above fifty percent.

The real tragedy with gerrymandering is that no one wins unless one party controls all branches of Congress and the White House. That situation is unnatural and when it occurs the dominant political party will tend to fracture. This is what happened when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House between 2009 and 2010. When you elect extremes and they control different houses of Congress, you get Congress with nine percent approval ratings. Extreme liberals find no reason to find common ground with tea partiers. And tea partiers, who vowed never to raise a tax rate, find no reason to find common ground with liberals. Moreover, since everyone is wedded to his or her own ideology, no one will budge. Dr. Seuss mirrored our present Congress is his story on the Zax.

I am a liberal that frequents the liberal blog DailyKos. There are constant petitions to tell Congress or the Obama Administration not to compromise on anything. This includes changing Social Security benefits or the retirement age, or any changes to Medicare. Sometimes I sign these petitions and sometimes I don’t. I agree that Social Security is solvent, so it doesn’t need major changes. The same cannot be said for Medicare. It needs major reforms and is the major reason we even have a budget crisis. Something has to change with Medicare. I don’t sign these petitions, not because I don’t want seniors to have health care, but because some compromise is absolutely necessary. It must be fixed even if the fix is painful, providing both sides give a little. This game cannot be won if no one refuses to budge. Otherwise the best result will be more debt than the country can afford and overpriced care. How is this being a good steward of the nation?

What can be done to get a functional Congress again? Unfortunately, this is one of these problems with no easy solution. It’s easy to say that states should create congressional districts that are non-partisan, but it appears it cannot be required through federal legislation. At the federal level, it should require a constitutional amendment, which means you would need to convince two thirds of a highly partisan Congress to vote to sponsor this legislation. That won’t happen. The other process, never tried, is for two thirds of the states to call a constitutional convention, draft the amendment and then get three quarters of the states agree on it.

Of course each state legislature on its own could do what California did, but they won’t because they are looking at their parochial interests, not the national interest. One creative solution I have heard would be for two states that historically are of different political stripes and have similar number of representatives in Congress to each pass laws saying that the districts in their state would be nonpartisan if the other state agreed to the same deal. That way one state does not “lose” because another state refuses to create nonpartisan districts.

Regardless, it looks like nine percent Congressional approval ratings are likely to endure for quite a while, unless disgust at Congress becomes so visceral that citizens protest en masse at their state capitals when their legislature is in session. Which means, as I said some time ago, that more national dysfunction lies dead ahead.

 
The Thinker

Minted

Financial planning is supposed to make your life easier, but it is definitely a hassle. It becomes more of a hassle when you old financial planner has faded away and you feel the need to find a new one. Our new planner has his own ideas about what it means to have your financial life properly planned. It means financial assessments, many client meetings and writing three and four figure checks to our financial planner. Finally you end up in a new place, with your financial life not necessarily simpler, but at least orderly and following a sound financial strategy. And hopefully, you have less anxiety about whether you will be eating dog food in retirement. To lessen the anxiety, your planner generally provides a nice binder with pretty charts, words and numbers in it. In my case, the charts even came colored.

One thing that’s new with this financial planner is that we have most of our investments centralized in a brokerage. I chose Scottrade though I am sure there are other good and cheap brokers out there. Like lots of things related to getting your financial house in order, it’s a huge up front hassle for a long-term benefit. In our case, it meant setting up four separate brokerage accounts (one joint, one traditional IRA for me, and two IRAs for my wife, one traditional, one for rollover IRAs). It meant shuffling papers to the investment firms that gave them permission to let Scottrade buy and sell for us. It meant signing another form so one account could access all the other accounts. And it meant $630 additional to our financial planner, to make sure all the initial trades were done right. Using Scottrade with my planner looking over my shoulders online in a Skype session also gave me some insight into how day traders work. I felt I needed a set of green eyeshades, but mostly I am glad not to be a day trader. Rebalancing funds once a year is fine with me.

It also has meant becoming acquainted with mint.com, a free online web site now owned by the Quicken people to help you manage your finances. If you are hoping that mint.com will balance your checkbook, unfortunately it won’t do that, at least not yet. This is probably good for Intuit, the company that owns Quicken, because it keeps them selling their core product. However, for doing budgeting, minimizing hassle and giving you insight into your finances, mint.com is very impressive.

It took me only about half an hour to get it set up. I had to create an account then tell it about my various checking, savings and money market accounts. I had to give it my credentials for accessing these accounts, as well as for my various investment accounts. But it was super easy to do this. What really impressed me is that it knew about the Thrift Savings Plan, the federal government’s agency for managing federal employee’s 401K accounts. To track these investments in Quicken, I had to input the information from my quarterly statements, available in detail only online. Quicken, or at least Quicken for the Mac which is what I use, cannot access it electronically. Mint.com though just jumped into it, quickly summarized information by fund type and pulled in the transactions as well. It also let me know how well each fund was performing. Yeah, just like that. Slick!

Mint.com sifts through transactions in all your accounts and does a pretty good job of automatically categorizing your transactions into its budget categories. Then based on your spending it will try to infer a budget for each category and tell you how your spending is going compared to the budget. Of course you can refine your budget manually. Most people though are like me: inherently lazy. Mint.com caters to us inherently lazy people, and seems to get smarter the longer you use it.

In short, for general tracking your spending, investments and liabilities, it’s a great tool. For getting an overall picture of your financial health and tracking your finances over time, it’s slick as well. Unfortunately, it’s not smart enough to categorize everything correctly. You really should sift through your transactions and put the ten percent or so that are not categorized into the correct categories. But this seems to be necessary only for those who are anal. If big picture is good enough for you, mint.com is all you need.

As I noted, it won’t balance your checkbook. So if you need this level of detail, you are going to be using Quicken or one of its competitors. If you don’t bother to balance your checkbook and are only concerned if you might overdraw your account, mint.com will do a good job of watching for when you drop below thresholds and sending you notifications when you cross them. You just have to be smart enough not to write checks that are too large.

In short, it’s a site with a lot of potential, bringing financial organization to the lazy. If it can wholly replace the functionality of Quicken, it would keep me from the hassle of entering most of our transactions into Quicken, potentially saving me huge amounts of time. I would like the site to morph into a complete financial solution, so I can pay bills from the site with a few clicks. It already warns me somehow of when bills are due.

It’s about saving my time so I can do more interesting and fun stuff. Software like Quicken helps make managing my finances easier compared to doing it with pen, paper and a calculator, but Quicken is a huge hassle compared with mint.com.

Hopefully, mint.com will figure out a sustainable financial model. I don’t think it comes from their current approach, which is to serve targeted financial ads. I think it comes from selling services that balance your accounts, categorize your spending in greater details, pay your bills with a few clicks and that help you see the big picture. Maybe someday I can trust it to be my impartial financial adviser. If it can be as good as my financial planner, and be impartial, it could probably save me a lot of money on financial planning as well.

 
The Thinker

Review: Les Misérables

It’s hard to understand why it took more than twenty-five years for the musical Les Misérables to make it to the screen. Perhaps Cameron Macintosh (producer of the theatrical musical) thought it was more profitable simply to keep the musical continuously on tour, and it almost always is on tour, including most recently here in Washington, D.C. for its umpteenth appearance. (In fact it debuted in America at the Kennedy Center before moving to Broadway.) I remember first seeing the musical in the early 1990s. The stage bill announced it would be coming to movie theaters soon. Clearly that deal fell apart. Perhaps Macintosh finally realized he could have it both ways. This movie, Les Misérables, will simply stoke interest in seeing the musical on stage, and visa versa.

If you haven’t seen the musical on the stage, you can at least now see it on the screen. If you have seen it on the stage, prepare yourself for the considerable shock of seeing it on digital film. The transition can be a bit rough at times, particularly if you are used to powerful operatic voices. You won’t find much of that in the movie, and you may find yourself cringing at times by just how badly some of the singing comes across. In particular, you may find yourself wishing that Russell Crowe had the male equivalent of Marnie Nixon, the woman who actually sang the part of Eliza Doolittle for Audrey Hepburn in the movie musical My Fair Lady. Russell Crowe’s singing should have been dubbed.

In fact, one of the few things to dislike about this movie is Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the obsessive Inspector Javert. Javert is definitely a stiff upper lip type, and Crowe at least has that aspect down correctly. But his performance is too flat and unemotional. Fans of the musical will cry, from anguish and not from joy, when Crowe tries to sing songs like “Stars” and it just falls flat.

Director Tom Hooper, who gave us the academy award winner King’s Speech, gets to flex his directorial mojo tackling this challenging musical. One of his key decisions was to record the singing live and then go back and add the orchestration. The benefit is that this allows the performers to act without worrying about matching a prerecorded score. The downside is that this sort of singing is less operatic and more breathy. When an otherwise fine actor like Russell Crowe simply cannot sing, the result is like an over-modulated sound; it is just grating. The same is also true with Isabelle Allen, who plays the young Cosette. It’s forgivable in the case of a child. In the case of a lead actor like Russell Crowe, it is not.

Is this a reason to give the movie a pass? Not really. Aside from these minor imperfections, Hooper does a great job of transitioning the musical to the screen. The acting in some parts is so overwhelmingly good that you can overlook the Russell Crowe miscasting. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Jean Valjean, but the real scene-stealer is Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Cosette’s mother. Here Hooper validates his approach of recording the singing live, because through the intimacy of a close up you can get a much richer acting than you would otherwise.

Paris in the 19th century is realized quite well, although it was actually shot in an English studio. The poverty and filth of the time is also captured with uncomfortable authenticity. You can almost smell the shit as Valjean carries the wounded Marius through a Paris sewer. Hooper provides an amazingly intimate look into the life of the poor people of France, with the necessary comic relief provided by the Thenardiers, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perhaps logical choices for these parts, as they can easily ooze the sliminess these roles require, but perhaps they were too easy a choice. There have been so many fine Thenardiers’ on stage that certainly one of these actors could have done an even better job.

The ancillary parts are stocked with terrific character actors, most of whom I have no quibbles with their performance. My only concern was one I see frequently in Eponine: she is played by too pretty an actress, in this case Samantha Barks. Gavroche, the spunky street urchin, is a hard role to get right. Fortunately, Hooper made a terrific choice casting Daniel Huttlestone. Overall, Hooper does a great job with directing this tricky work, supplementing songs somewhat, providing a gritty and authentic feel to the movie, and casting hosts of ancillary characters that fluidly and realistically move through their numbers, such as the women in Valjean’s factory. The intensity of the students in their doomed parts as revolutionaries is also appreciated. We get energetic and deeply humane portraits of pivotal characters like Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the leader Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). We also get plenty of chemistry when Marius meets the adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).

Whether seen in the theater or on the screen, this is a tearjerker. It left me crying at the end, even though I certainly knew all of the plot and the songs. To those few who are not familiar with either the story or the musical, it should come as a great treat. You would be wise to pack an extra handkerchief. It seemed to wow our audience, who applauded at the end of it.

Still, Russell Crowe does grate and is simply miscast in this movie, so impartiality requires me to dock it a couple tenths of a point. 3.2 stars on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Occam’s Razor 2012 Statistics

January 1st means I spend some time pondering my usage statistics for the last year. I spent some time on this last month when the blog officially turned ten years old. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. Measured by direct web traffic, 2012 sucked. Measuring subscriber usage and social media usage shows a different story. Unless noted otherwise, my reference is Google Analytics.

Overall 2012 Statistics

  • Total Visits: 26,766 (72.8 per day), down 45.2% compared with 2011
  • Total Page Views: 34,704 (94.8 per day), down 61.5% compared with 2011
  • Percent of New Visits: 87.96% (89.13% in 2011)

Overall, web traffic is obviously down substantially, roughly in half since 2011. There are lots of reasons for this, but the most likely reason is that I am posting less often. This likely makes this site less interesting to search engines. Overall there were 107 posts in 2012 versus 127 in 2011. There are likely other reasons. My posts are less topical, as topical posts are likely to get more hits. Remember that these statistics measure traffic principally driven from search engines. Content on other sites is considered more interesting. I also strongly suspect that Google keeps refining their algorithms for measuring legitimate traffic too, and this is reflected in lower statistics. This blog is affected by a general trend where search traffic is diminishing but syndication and social media usage is increasing.

Most Viewed Posts

  1. Eulogy for my mother (18,980 page views) (#1 three years in a row)
  2. Blog home page (8,631 page views) (#2 three years in a row)
  3. Danger: Wal-Mart Customer! (5,870 page views) (#8 in 2011)
  4. Craigslist Casual Encounters: Now officially a complete waste of time (5,459 page views) (#4 two years in a row)
  5. The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason (4,764 page views) (#5 two years in a row)
  6. You Porn: A Traveler’s New Best Friend (4,056 page views) (Was #3 in 2011)
  7. Sharon Mitchell: Porn Saint (3,524 page views) (#6 in 2011)
  8. Queer as a Three Dollar Bill (3,139 page views) (#7 in 2011)
  9. The Illusion of Time (3,078 page views) (#9 two years in a row)
  10. The Id unleashed at Craigslist Casual Encounters (1,642 page views) (#10 two years in a row)

The list of top popular content proves to be remarkably stable from year to year, continuing to mirror human nature: interests in death, sex and weirdness seem to be themes that interest casual browsers. The one exception is my essay on emotion vs. reason, originally written in 1997, which has some sort of bizarre staying power.

Top Tags

  1. Civil War (373 page views)
  2. Obesity (170 page views)
  3. W&OD Trail (164 page views)
  4. Battle of Chantilly (136 page views)
  5. Battle of Ox Hill (130 page views)

Top Category: Best of Occam’s Razor (187 page views)

Top Browsers:

  1. Internet Explorer (27.46%, was 35.54% in 2011)
  2. Chrome (25.08%, was 17.27% in 2011)
  3. Firefox (22.00%, was 27.36% in 2011)
  4. Safari (17.76%, was 15.13% in 2011)
  5. Android Browser (4.27%)

Overall Chrome is gaining most of the browser usage. Safari is getting marginally more traffic. Both are gaining at the expense of IE and Firefox. Safari traffic likely is due to lots of iPhones and iPads out there. As Android-based smartphones and tablet computers begin to proliferate, their browsers are showing up.

Busiest month: March (3,954 visits)

Slowest month: June (1,461 visits)

Mobile visits in 2012: 3466 (vs. 3904 in 2011)

%Mobile Visits of Total Visits:  13% (vs. 8% in 2011)

So much for Google Analytics. Lots of you are reading this blog via various newsreaders and content syndication mechanisms. Here is where I can document real growth. Feedburner reports:

  • 83 subscribers as of December 31, 2012 (vs. 66 on December 31, 2011, an increase of 20%)
  • Average number of subscribers per day: 70.02 (vs. 63.23 in 2011)
  • Average hits per day: 198.62 (vs. 196 in 2011)
  • Average number of click-throughs per day: 10.40 (vs. 7.81 in 2011)

I started tracking social media usage in March. It’s a bit too early to infer any meaning from those numbers, except they are relatively modest overall.

I am also tracking the site’s web traffic on quantcast.com. I’ve only been tracking it for a month or so. Their expertise seems to be in matching web traffic with user demographics. It gives me insight into your characteristics as a group. In general I attract a younger but highly educated crowd: ages 18-34 with a disproportionate number of you having a graduate education. Statistics are available for your browsing.

More in 2014.

 

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