Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What's Wrong With America.... that the people who are obsessed with the news should listen to some music, and the people who just listen to music should pay some attention to the news.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christians Behaving Badly

I'm usually not very interested in celebrity news, but Mel Gibson's recent rantings made me wonder about something. Let me illustrate:

- My wife had her rental car damaged in a parking lot in Minnesota by the wife of a professor of religious studies at a Lutheran college there. When the car rental company demanded compensation for the damage from my wife, she referred them to the woman who caused it. She and her husband initially denied they were responsible, then avoided phone calls from both the company and from my wife until my wife finally threatened them with legal action.

- A former neighbor sold a house on our street with a septic system that was on the verge of failing. The symptoms were clear but the former neighbor failed to disclose the problem, leaving the new owners with an unexpected $20,000 bill. The former neighbors claim to be devout Christians.

- Need I mention Catholic priests?

You would think that people who publicly proclaim their faith would feel some responsibility to live up to the values of that faith, but in some cases it seems the opposite is true. Why is that? Do some Christians feel that, because they're essentially good and moral people, anything unethical they do is OK because they're still good people underneath? Or does the weekly trek to church relieve them of their sins so they can pile more on during the week? Does bad behavior in the secular world not count for much in the spiritual world?

Some right wing Christians, including my mom, seem to think that all morality stems from religion, so atheists can't be trusted because they lack a moral foundation. Like many things, I think this notion is supported more by faith than by evidence.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dear Facebook:

I recently got an email from a Facebook member who I must know from somewhere, with a bunch of recommendations from you of other people I might know. I was curious about how you knew so many people I've encountered in my life, particularly since there wasn't much in common between them: some personal and some business, some here and some from my previous home... I wondered how you knew. IP addresses? Mining public data bases?

So I did a quick Google search and found several hundred posts on numerous forums from Facebook members who were wondering the same thing: how do you know? How do you dredge up someone that a person met in a bar ten years ago and offer them as a friend recommendation? Or an ex-husband, or a stalker? How do you offer a forty year old guy as a potential friend for a sixteen year old girl?

But here's the thing, Facebook: I'm not on you. I'm not a Facebook member, and I have no interest in becoming one. So while your own members find this, let's generously call it "prescience", somewhat creepy, getting a bunch of eerily accurate recommendations from you without having first opted in to your social network asylum is almost scary.

Based on my quick search, I suspect that what you're doing is suckering new members into uploading their address books so you can mine them for new customers. So let's say that Jay and Nancy both have my email address. As some point, then, I get an invitation email from you suggesting Jay and Nancy as potential friends. It may not matter to you that Jay is a psychotic sociopath who claims to be "electrosensitive", rants about radiation from cell phone towers, and has my email address because I once attended a community meeting about cell coverage. Or that Nancy is a consulting client who likes to keep her professional and personal relationships as separate as possible, and co-mingling them may put my professional relationship with her at risk. As far as you're concerned, if someone has my email address, that person is likely to be a potential friend.

Facebook, this is one of those cases where you can have too much of a good thing. When your marketing efforts start reaching past the fruitful fields of friendship into the murky swamp of indeterminate and potentially damaging connections, it suggests that your business model has run out of steam, that growth is at an end, that your valuation has probably passed its peak. Probably should have gone public a couple of years ago.

Sincerely yours,


Sunday, July 4, 2010

How Ronald Reagan Killed America

The June 14/20 issue of Bloomberg Business Week has a summary of why several prominent economists and analysts who have been bearish through the past few decades (in some cases) are still bearish now. At the end is one exception: James Grant, publisher of "Grant's Interest Rate Observer". The article states: "'We observed this in the recessions of 1991 and 2001, which were meek and mild, and so were the corresponding recoveries.' The deep recession of the early 1980s, on the other hand, led to a spectacular recovery. Based on that, Grant believes the rebound from this recession will be job-rich and strong, a position he has stuck to for nine months now."

My intent here is not to pick on Grant, but rather to use this as an opportunity to point out that a lot of economic analysis seems to want to treat the economy like the weather: a complex system that is hard to predict, but that does exhibit historical patterns because it's self directed. This may be true of weather, which has relatively few inputs. But economies are not self-contained forces of nature, but rather complex systems that are tightly coupled to many influences: demographics, technology, politics, and so forth.

So let's take the "spectacular recovery" that followed the recession of the early 1980s. Many people would like to credit Ronald Reagan with that recovery. The analysis quoted above would like to treat it evidence that the deeper the recession, the stronger the rebound. But what else happened in the mid-1980s?

One thing that happened was the personal computer revolution, which kicked off a wave of infrastructure-level capital investment and yielded tremendous operating benefits in almost every industry that continue today. Surely that had something to do with this recovery? And perhaps the subsequent emergence of the internet, another infrastructure-level transition that required, again, tremendous investment as everyone from corporations to grandmothers built web sites, had something to do with the recovery in the 1990s?

I don't think it's merely coincidence that these massive technology advances and infrastructure-level transitions happened at about the same time these recoveries did. So I have to ask, what infrastructure-level technology is on the cusp of maturity today that will lead to a wave of investment and operating benefits over the next ten years?

Frankly, I can't think of one. And without one, I don't think we're going to see a recovery like we did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Where should we be looking for such an opportunity? Well, the government cultivated the nascent semiconductor industry in the 1960s that led to the computing revolution of the 1980s and beyond. The government cultivated the internet in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we started reaping the benefits twenty years later. So to find the maturing technology that will pull us out of the current recession, we should look to the 1980s.

One class of technologies that would fit the bill and was just getting off the ground at that time was renewable energy. At least, it was until Reagan killed government investment in renewable energy programs. Renewable energy is, like computing and the internet, and the national highway system, electrification, water, communications, and railroads before, an infrastructure-level technology that would require massive current investment and reap massive future rewards. Had Reagan not halted government investment in such technologies, we would probably now be on the verge of transitioning from fossil fuels to wind and solar. We might be burning our garbage for energy rather than burying it in landfills. We might not be intimately entangled in the Mideast and a target of terrorism. We might not have a uncontrollable oil well dumping untold amounts of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, all of these are happening, and we have no long term strategy for solving these problems. For the foreseeable future, we'll be dependent on a finite and dwindling resource that pollutes our air and water, and that's largely controlled by entities who may not have our best interests at heart. As the world's biggest consumer of oil, we have the most to lose when it gets expensive and rare.

But perhaps more important than all of this is that, without another maturing infrastructure-level technology waiting in the wings to fuel the next wave of economic growth, we may not have a next wave for a long, long time. Without such a wave, there's nothing to stimulate growth except more borrowing. Without such a wave, there's no mechanism for organic job growth. And the one person most responsible for putting us in this position is Ronald Reagan. I predict that in thirty years or so, it will be widely recognized that he was the one who killed America.

Comments Off

Turning comments off - too much comment spam.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Microsoft, innovation, and Competitiveness

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are famous for not letting members of their families use Apple products. Since taking over the reigns at Microsoft, Ballmer's stance seems to be that guts and determination will beat innovation, even though he claims the mantel of innovation every chance he gets. In the press, Apple is held up as the paragon of innovation, and Microsoft is tagged as the follower who's always a step or two behind. This has certainly been true in operating systems, where Vista and now Windows 7 have basically been clones of the concurrent version of OS X.

The thing is, Microsoft had a nice, fast, light, and highly functional smartphone OS, Windows CE, ten years ago. Third party developers could write applications for that platform and sell them in something like an app store (like Handango). And Bill Gates has been stating for almost that same amount of time that tablet PCs would be the future of computing. Despite its reputation for innovation, Apple is merely refining product categories that Microsoft has been developing for years.

Despite the advantages of an eight year market lead (at the time of iPhone 1.0), a huge installed base, and a clear and accurate vision of the future, Microsoft failed to capitalize, and is now an also-ran in mobile devices (see here and here). Microsoft could have, and should have, owned this space. Why didn't they?

Despite Ballmer's public displays of determination and competitiveness, the bottom line is that Microsoft failed to compete. After winning the browser war with Netscape, they stopped advancing IE until Firefox matured into a viable threat. After developing the smartphone market, they sat on that platform while Apple and Google developed more modern mobile OSs. Perhaps Microsoft's problem is that they declared victory in a competition that never really ends. And perhaps the lesson from that, one that Apple certainly embodies, is that you never sit on a lead.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Might Makes Right

Living in a mostly rural area, we frequently see (and sometimes hear) nature at work, as larger and stronger wildlife (eagles, hawks, coyotes) prey on the smaller and weaker. Thank God that civilization has enabled us to substitute the force of ideas for the force of, well, force.

Or has it?

The New York Times recently ran a piece ("Jon Stewart's Punching Bag, Fox News") describing how the Daily Show is fact checking Fox News and calling them out for hypocrisy, inciting violence, and other offenses. The Times piece was a cautious treatment of the subject, recognizing that Fox doesn't always get its facts straight but not acknowledging the deliberate distortion, misrepresentation, and manipulation of their audience that characterize their programming.

This brought to mind the hand-wringing that went on after Scott Brown won the Senate seat in Massachusetts that had been held by Teddy Kennedy. Drama aside, the general conclusion was that the Democrats were toast because they no longer had a filibuster-proof majority - they had been reduced to merely holding the White House and large majorities in both houses of Congress. Hence, they would be completely ineffective going forward.

The consternation (or glee, depending on which side you're on) was due to a simultaneous high degree of faith in the solidity of Republicans and their willingness to do whatever they had to to advance their agenda (or at least hold back the Democrats) and a complete lack of faith in the Democrats' ability to stand up to the Republicans. Apparently, 41 well organized Republicans outnumber 59 poorly organized Democrats.

Or is it really their relative levels of organization that matters?

Back to the Times article. I wondered why the Times wouldn't go the extra step of pointing out how emphatically correct Jon Stewart is in his criticisms of Fox News. I wondered why congressional Democrats are accurately perceived as being so cautious. And why the Obama administration has been equally cautious in reversing Bush administration policies, abolishing Don't Ask Don't Tell, and aggressively pursuing a progressive agenda.

I suspect that I know the answer. Republicans have guns.

Seriously, when did a liberal every blow up a Federal building? When did a liberal kill a doctor out of a sense of moral and religious self-righteousness? When Bush was in office and trying to take the county back to the Dark Ages, did liberals go off into the woods, form militias, and threaten armed rebellion? Did liberals ever tell a Republican president that he was lying during a State of the Union address? Have liberals ever showed up to rallies for a Republican president carrying guns? And have liberals ever incited violence against elected officials for passing legislation they disagreed with?

People often call Democrats "pussies" for not standing up to Republican bullies. I'd prefer to characterize them as civilized. While liberals try to advance their causes within the frameworks of law, Republicans are resorting to force and the threat of it. And in inciting this behavior, Fox News is the chief obstacle to civilized, law-abiding debate in this country. In this sense, they violate everything that America supposedly stands for.

So why is it that a Comedy Central comedian hosting a fake news show is the only public figure in the country to take them on?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ironies Abound

I have a new theory about why the Republicans have been so successful over the past ten years - or more. Consider the recent health reform legislation: the very people who will most benefit from it (lower income working people) are the ones who most vociferously opposed it. A recent New York Times article profiled Tea Party activists and found that many had joined the movement after losing their jobs. And that many were living on government subsidies - the very ones that they protest against so adamantly. Perhaps the most revealing part of the article, though, was its account of why some of the members joined - that it gave them a sense of belonging, of purpose, and recognition that they didn't get anywhere else.

I think the Republican party has been doing this for a long time, now. Its focus on churches and Christian "values" is really an appeal to that segment of the population who belong to churches because they need the community and direction that those churches provide (see Matt Taibi's description of an evangelical community in his book The Great Derangement). Perhaps the conservative movement is really composed, largely, of people who need the direction, purpose, and sense of belonging that membership in an evangelical congregation or the Tea Party provides. The reward structures offered by those communities outweigh facts, apparently, and make it possible for people to demonstrate, and vote, against their own economic interests. Apparently without thinking about it much.

This suggests that the essential problem with liberals is that they're too, well, satisfied with their lives - they don't need that kind of external support and reward structure, so there's no liberal equivalent of the evangelical church network or Tea Party movement. And the problem with the Democratic party is that it hasn't leveraged similar reward structures, so it has nothing to offer that segment of the population who are searching for meaning from those kinds of structures. Apparently, there are enough Americans who need that kind of support to make Fox News, the Tea Party, and the right wing overall successful. Perhaps the number of Americans who fall into that camp is a measure of our overall well-being as a country.

In addition to the obvious irony that these people are trying to prevent the very progress that will provide them more economic security, the final irony is that all these people, searching for community, do so in the name of individual rights and liberties. Their message is libertarian but their behavior is collective. It's difficult to imagine a political movement that could possibly be more intellectually inconsistent.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Few Thoughts After the Death of a Pet

Our beloved dog died last November. We had about a week with him after the initial diagnosis, during which time he took Prednisone and perked up to the point where he had a few moments of near-normalcy during his last days. We were grateful for the time we had to tell him how much we loved him and mentally say goodbye to him many times before doing it for real. Afterward, I wondered about a few things. It's taken me a while to put them down here.

One of the things we struggled with afterward was what to say about it. It didn't seem right to say that he "died", because he didn't, really - he was euthanized. It was an active process rather than a passive one, done on our terms rather than on nature's. The closest I could come to something that reflected how I felt about it was, "We had to say goodbye to our dog." Because the alternatives just didn't seem to fit.

One alternative was, "We put our dog down." This struck me as too harsh for the kind of relationship we had with him. We made him stay "down" when we punished him; making him stay down was an act of dominance. But euthanizing him had nothing to do with punishing him and nothing to do with dominance. Instead, giving him a relatively painless, dignified death, with minimal anxiety and before uncontrollable pain set in, was specifically an act of respect. This made me wonder if you would talk about "putting your dog down" if you respected him or her, and whether I was strange to respect our dog. I was certainly proud of the fact that he, a Welsh Corgi with short, stubby legs, could leave the ground, twist in the air, and catch a Frisbee in flight. That, while many Corgis become overweight, he was mostly muscle, stayed within his ideal weight most of his life, and played recklessly into his twelfth year. That he was so patient with us and so gentle with others, and so undemanding. And that he connected so well, making direct eye contact in a way that seems rare in dogs.

Another was, "We had to put him to sleep." More respectful of the dog, maybe, but less respectful of the event. This was not an event to minimize, and this phrasing seemed to do just that. Our dog couldn't avoid what happened to him - why should our language attempt to do so?

I'm not sure I ever found the right words, but that might have been appropriate, because there was little that was, ultimately, right about losing him. He, our relationship with him, and the process of losing him were too complex for a simple description to do justice to, and in the end I stopped trying. But that was okay, because most people had been through a similar event, and most understood even without the right words.

Which brings me to the next thought, that how people reacted to the event or to the news became, for me, almost a test of character. I found myself being disappointed by people who I thought were closer or better friends when they failed to express the right amount of sorrow, and being surprised by the comfort and support that came from unexpected sources, people who hadn't been that close lately for one reason or another. When I've been in that situation, hearing of bad news and being in a position to react, I've often failed to speak or reach out, believing that nothing I could say could adequately respect the situation, that an inadequate attempt would be worse than no attempt at all, and that silence was more respectful than platitudes. Now I know I was wrong, and I hope I'll handle those kinds of situations better in the future. Sincerity and sensitivity matter more than eloquence.

My final thought comes from sitting in the vet's office during that final week, knowing that it wasn't his last day yet, but that that day was pretty close. A neighbor, an evangelical Christian, happened to be there with his dog, and he asked what we were in for. We gave him the story, and he blithely assured us that he'd put down four dogs in his time and we'd be fine. On a personal level, his general affect and mode of operation is friendly, loud, relentlessly upbeat, and more broadcast than receive, so I don't blame him for his relative insensitivity. What I do blame him for, though, is the notion that we can give our pets a painless, dignified death, with minimal anxiety and on our terms rather than waiting for the biological crisis of natural death, but we can't do the same for ourselves or for the human members of our families.

Monday, January 18, 2010

If Late Night Talk Shows Were Desserts

The Daily Show
Complex, stimulating, ultimately satisfying
The Colbert Report
Chocolate Mousse
Simple, smooth, deceptively rich
Plum pudding
Mostly conventional, but with a hint of danger when soaked in brandy and lit on fire
Conan O'Brien
Licorice ice cream
Intriguing, different, out of the mainstream, not sure if good or not
Lime Jello with whipped cream
Almost offensively inoffensive