Sunday, January 31, 2010

Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.

It's about time that someone started a thorough study of the sun.  It's only the single most powerful and important feature of our solar system.

This study should shed some light on a number of subjects.  The amount of information that we don't know about the sun boggles the mind.  For instance, the next time someone spouts off about global warming, ask him/her "What are the maximum, minimum, and average amounts of energy output by the sun in a day?"

The answer is that we have only performed a few rudimentary measurements and then extrapolated out pretty charts and graphs based upon our theoretical mathematical models.  See 'solar variation' on Wikipedia for a readable summary of the state of our lack of knowledge.

Oh, and the title of the post is a quote attributed to Elvis.  Yes, that Elvis.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Brilliant idea to help the poor

The Worldbank's blog reports a fascinating idea to help the citizens of India fight corruption.  This is exactly the sort of solution that I would like to get involved with.

Why aren't banks lending?

This is a genuine forehead slapper.

Banks aren't lending because they need to keep the cash on their balance sheets so they can be picked by the FDIC to take over some nearby failed institution.

Duh!  Now, what to do about it?

That is a perverse logical loophole that will take some creative thought to untangle.  I'll be working on it.  If you want to get the economy unstuck, then you should work on it too.

See this Reutter's article.  Hat tip to Tyler at Marginal Revolution.

If this is the future, count me out

1:46 movie showing the natural conclusion of hyper-augmented reality.

Be scared.  Be very scared.

Amazing bass guitar solos

I like rock & roll. I took a semester of guitar in college, and stunk at it.  I lived for a summer and semester with two guys who were drummers in Christian metal bands--and hung around with their band mates quite a bit.  But I don't really know much about bass guitar.

After watching these videos I still don't know much about bass guitar.  But there is some amazing musical skill on display.  I especially liked Buddy Hankerson and Larry Graham.  (And a warning, there is some profanity at the start of Cliff Burton's video.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

And so it goes

This blog post beautifully encapsulates the entire genre of 'blog' in a single witty something something something.  Or is it 'emasculates'?

The good news is that you don't have to actually read it in order to get it.  And then you realize that you have read it all before, over and over.  It's like pattern-matching without all of the work.

Well done.

Monday, January 25, 2010

I, for one, welcome our dolphin overlords

Too bad Douglas Adams didn't get to see this.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Extreme poverty may be ending

I am a little skeptical, but this article seems air-tight.  If so then this is clearly fantastic news.  We still have much work to do to bring the poorest of the poor up further.  But here's the headline that is hard to ignore:
"Barring a catastrophe, there will never be more than a billion people in poverty in the future history of the world."
Wow.  I wish we better understood the causes.  I only assume that this will get studied in more detail.

Power corrupts

Now proven scientifically, if only in a few small studies.

The Supremes hit a sour note

The Supreme Court decided today that business and corporations may spend whatever they want in just about any way to influence political campaigns.  They were wrong.  Corporations are not people.  People have guaranteed rights under the constitutions.  Corporations have no such guarantees.

Freedom of the press is not a freedom guaranteed to corporations.  It is an extension of the freedom of speech for an individual to express himself/herself in published written form.

People's rights to spend on campaigns are limited by various laws.  Why are corporations now exempt?

I was greatly amused to see that many CEOs immediately responded by asking Congress to overhaul campaign finance so that they would stop getting asked for campaign contributions.  I don't think that will happen.  I think we will see some companies form internal policies limiting their annual campaign contributions.  But I also think we will see a large number of corporations spend tremendous amounts of money campaigning.

This will not end well.  We just thought we were miserable during campaign season.  We will see campaign spending steadily increase, now.

Jazz and business

I like music.  I like lots of different types of music.  I don't like polka and country.  I have a strong preference for music that is well played; that is played very professionally.  I like energy.  I like intensity.  I really like changes in intensity--the build-up and powerful crescendo followed by mellow denouement.

I find a lot of that in jazz.  But I don't find a lot of jazz that I like.  We lived in New Orleans for three years and I heard lots of jazz there.  It was very hit-and-miss for me.

I understand the jazz model.  An ensemble of musicians plays a rolling, swinging, flowing song, and one or more of the players will step out of the melody to play a solo--maybe several different solos in the span of one song.  The solos are often improvised and demonstrate a virtuoso skill.  While one player is soloing, the others may extend or alter the base melody of the song in reaction to the solo.  This requires a tremendous amount of practice, skill, and teamwork.

I recently picked up Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and John Coltrane's Stellar Regions.  I really like Kind of Blue.  Much of Stellar Regions I do not like.  On the surface these records seem very similar.  Both are highly rated and highly regarded.  John Coltrane plays on both records--and his solo work is outstanding on both recordings.  To my untrained ear the style and structure of the songs is very similar.

Stellar Regions just contains a number of (for lack of a better word) discordant moments where the solo and the background melody clash.  In a few places that clash is very bitter.  I've just stopped listening to those songs.

The fiftieth anniversary of the recording of Kind of Blue passed the other day.  I had listened to the album in my car that day, and then saw the notice on the internet that night.  I clicked the link and read a little bit about the recording of the album.  I found a note about the recording that stuck out with me.  According to Wikipedia, Miles Davis instructed the players to bound their solos on "modal scales" as opposed to chords.

I'm just beginning to explore modal jazz versus other forms.  But the written descriptions I have seen seem to jive with what my ears have been telling me.

Jazz is a very creative art form.  Musicians are given a tremendous amount of freedom of expression.  But in my experience that freedom often leads to discordances that could be easily avoided if the musicians would limit their freedom of movement to certain boundaries--modal scales.

The same principles are often true in real life, I think.  We often overlook how we are playing ensemble compositions in our marriages, families, and businesses.  We often see advice books for how to be a better husband, or wife, or salesperson, or whatever.  But these books rarely consider the ensemble that we are playing in.

One of Journyx's problems, while I was there, was that we could not decide if we were a product or service company.  I ran the service department, and I wanted to transition us to being a service organization.  I have a lot of respect for Walter and Phil (the two VPs of Sales that I worked with.)  They both made efforts to steer towards becoming a services organization, but they never got there.  I'm sure there are things I could have done better to help them.  I'm not blaming them.  I'm just saying that as a team we were unable to ensemble well.  My services department was discordant against the underlying melody of the product focus of the rest of the company.  And when push came to shove my services department was let go.

Next time I will focus more effort on playing in tune with the rest of my ensemble.


I play the lottery, a little bit.  I was called on it and asked to explain it last night.  I thought my faithful readers might appreciate this glimpse into how my mind works.

I enjoy daydreaming about what I would do if I had lots of money--lottery type money.  I even keep a list of people and organizations that I would give money to.  I've been keeping that list since before I got to ETBU in January of 1992.  I have some clear ideas about the house I would build and the hobbies I would get in to.

For a long time it didn't bother me that I had little chance of ever having that sort of money.  When I joined Journyx in January 1999 we were dreaming of internet riches, and for the first time I thought that I might have a chance at that sort of money--not directly from Journyx, but a Journyx IPO would put enough cash in my pocket and success on my resume that I would be headed in that direction.

Then the bubble burst.  The dream of internet riches evaporated.  I was depressed for a while.  After I came out of that depression I remember day-dreaming about what I would do with lots of money, and I came to the realization that the day-dream was clinically insane with absolutely no chance that it could ever happen.  My career was never going to earn that type of money.  And I had never bought a lottery ticket, so that couldn't happen either.

I thought it through.  How many lottery tickets would I need to buy to have a chance to win?  It turns out that the number is quite low: 1.  If you buy no tickets then your odds of winning are zero.  If you buy 1 ticket for a drawing then your odds of winning are astronomically bad, but they are greater than zero.  And if you buy 1,000 tickets for a drawing then your odds of winning are astronomically bad, still.  So buying even a second ticket has no value.  If you buy 1 ticket then your odds of winning are effectively identical to the person who actually wins.

But there are a lot of drawings where no one wins.  So I decided to figure out, as best as I could, which drawings no one will win--and then not buy any tickets for those.  The lottery is all based upon math.  The odds of winning versus the number of tickets was all worked out mathematically before they started selling tickets.

They also worked out the sequence of drawings where there is no winner and the jackpot compounds.  The lottery people figured out that as the jackpot gets bigger more people buy tickets.  When more tickets are sold the jackpot gets bigger faster.  People don't like to think.  People like to react to simple stimulus.  So the designers of the lottery picked simple stimuli as pegs to maximize their ticket sales.

The lottery starts at one million dollars.  There are not enough tickets sold for the one million dollar drawing to make it likely that there will be a winning ticket.  I'm not talking about an individual ticket, I'm talking about the pool of tickets.  I'm guessing here, but I'd say that there are probably about 3 million tickets sold for a one million dollar lottery.  But with only 3 million different number combinations on the tickets there is only (guessing again) a 2% chance that any ticket will win.

So the one million dollar prize rolls over, and the next prize is about 2.5 million dollars.  That is $1M in prize money that rolled over and $1.5M in new money based on ticket sales.  So the 2.5 million dollar lottery will probably sell about 1.5 times as many tickets.  And the odds of any winning ticket being printed raises to about 3%.

This goes on for weeks, with the jackpot growing each week.  And the odds that there will be a winning ticket printed increases each week.  If you watch the lottery and compute the odds based upon observation you will see that most jackpots are won at around $75M - $95$M.  I didn't actually compute the odds.  I just watched a bit and eyeballed it.  I'm guessing that at $75M to $95M the number of tickets sold equate to an overall chance of about 30%.  So about 1 in 3 drawings at that amount will find a winner.

There are very few drawings with total jackpots over $100M.  But when that happens the numbers of tickets sold really takes off, so the jackpots grow quickly.  Somewhere in that range the odds of a winning ticket getting printed approach 50%.  Now the odds are that someone will win.

So I only buy lottery tickets when the jackpot is over $100M.  I only buy 1 ticket per drawing.  And that way I have achieved my minimum requirements:
Probably someone will win.
The person who won had no better odds of winning than I did.

I don't pay a lot of attention to the lottery.  I have to notice on a billboard or a sign at a gas station when the jackpot gets near $100M.  I'm sure that there are several $100M+ drawings each year that I miss.  I'm ok with that.  I really don't expect to win.  I'm just paying a few dollars per year for the pleasure of day-dreaming about what I would do with the money.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Right on queue?

Yesterday I (once again) exhorted Obama to listen to Volker.  And today he seems to be doing it.  Yeah!

I'm not sure why they are drafting a whole new set of legislation.  This was made illegal right after the Great Depression.  All they really needed to do was repeal Gramm-Leahy, which had suspended the depression-era law.  We'll need to watch this new legislation closely.  I have not been impressed with this administration's ability to get the details right.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

One year of Obama

I supported John McCain in the last three elections (2000, 2004, and 2008.)  I was tremendously disappointed with Bush's handling of Katrina and the war in Iraq.  His handling of the financial crisis at the end of his term was perhaps criminal--though we will never know how much Bush participated in Paulson's robbery of the taxpayers.  I think that McCain lost the 2008 election primarily because he misjudged the financial crisis.

All that said, I don't want to see Obama fail.  I can't afford for Obama to continue to flail and fail.

Obama campaigned on "Change".  He promised to close Guantanamo and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He promised to deliver healthcare reform.  He promised to fix the economy without rewarding the incompetent boobs who broke it.  He promised that he would reach across the aisle and embrace real bipartisanship.  And he promised that his administration would be open and transparent in all of these things.

He has utterly failed to deliver on all of these promises.  No changes.  No one believes any more.

I suspect that Obama genuinely thought that he could do those things.  I think he underestimated the difficulties. I think that he appointed several of the wrong people--starting with Geithner.  It's easy to shout from the sidelines that things should be done differently, but actually doing things differently is much more difficult.

Obama needs to regain control of his administration.  He needs to make a speech in which he admits that governing was more difficult than he thought, and apologize for picking some poor advisors and giving them too much leeway.  The speech is important because he is good at speaking and the American public will let him change course as long as he tells us he is changing course.

Then he needs to replace most of his advisors.  He needs to implement the policies on transparency and bipartisanship that he campaigned on.

He should start with putting Volker in charge of the economy--Volker is already a close advisor of Obama's, he is just being ignored.  The economy must come first, because everything is dependent on it.  With an economy in the toilet we can't afford to do anything else.

Then he needs to man up and do the hard thing on Guantanamo.  Give the order and close the base.

After that he needs to prioritize his other administrative agenda items.  He needs to slide in some items that he can negotiate with the other party, to change the atmosphere and try to build some bridges before he takes on the truly contentious issues (like Healthcare.)

George Carlin was right

George Carlin was right about how the economic system works. He uses lots of potty words, so don't watch if you can't stomach foul language.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rock and roll music

I had an interesting talk with Max last night on the way home from his youth group meeting.  The leader of his discussion time had challenged the kids to not listen to music by non-believers, or as he put it, "people who do not honor God with their lives."  I used to believe that way.  I don't any more.  I don't claim to know the right answer, but I know why I do what I do.
Mark 2:15. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
16. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the "sinners" and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: "Why does he eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"
17. On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (NIV)
Jesus was tempted, but never sinned.  I sin regularly.  That's an important distinction between Jesus and myself.  He could go to parties with these people and resist the temptations He faced.  Sometimes I give in to sin while I'm sitting in church listening to the sermon.  But after 37 years of life and 24 years of walking with Christ, I have a pretty good idea of which temptations I am particularly susceptible to and which have no appeal to me.  I know what types of situations I should avoid, and which I can withstand.
Matthew 15:10. After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, "Hear and understand.
11. "It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man." (NAS)
If an activity leads you to sin, don't do it.  Regardless of everything else I say below.  This is the first, and most important point.  Don't use your liberty in Christ as an excuse to sin.

Rock and roll music doesn't lead me to sin.

Now, with that said, I think that the Christian life is a balancing act.  We are in the world, but not of the world.  We have to live here, but our hearts and treasures are to be set in heaven.  We have been called by God to reach out to sinners, but we have the duty to not be re-ensnared by their sin.
Philippians 4:8. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (NAS)
I used to avoid much of the world, like rock and roll music.  Now I avoid less.  I'm no great evangelist, but I think that now I am less of a stumbling block.

People who do not trust Jesus for their salvation are doomed, according to the Scriptures.  They are not doomed because of their sin.  They are doomed because of their lack of faith.  Their sin is part of the equation of their unbelief, but that's a long theological argument that is beyond the scope of this article.  But it is an important distinction that the real, fundamental problem is unbelief, not the other sins.

Yes, unbelief is a sin.  But my point is that God has called us to help them believe.  He did not call us to help them stop sinning.  If they believe and receive the Holy Spirit then He will help them stop sinning.  It is important that we understand this distinction.  The steps go in that order.  Belief first, and then stop sinning.

Therefore any arguments that we have with sinners, telling them to stop sinning, are completely counter-productive.  Telling a sinner to stop sinning is putting a stumbling block in front of them.
Romans 14:13. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. (NIV)
1 Corinthians 8:9. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (NIV)
Yes, that is a serious thing.  I commit a greivous and terrible sin when I tell a lady who enjoys the sin of gossip that God cannot love her until she stops gossiping.  That is not true.  God loves her right now.  He always has.  He always will.  She can come to Him and He will forgive her and wash her sin away.

It is a common saying among Christians that we should condemn sin and not sinners.  I disagree.  I've talked to lots of sinners and they cannot understand the distinction between sin and sinners.  When you condemn sin, sinners believe that you have condemned them.

If you want to lead people to Christ then stop condemning sin.  Focus on the love and acceptance of Christ.  Tell people that God loves them, just as they are.  Don't ignore sin, but don't condemn it.  The stance I take with sin is that once you accept God's love and begin to let that affect your heart and mind, many of the things that you enjoy now will no longer bring you joy.  And at the same time you will find new joys.  The old joys always had consequences--hang-overs, pain, frustrations, etc.  The new joys are more pure and have no consequences.

Most non-believers have heard enough from church people that they know that what they do is wrong.  They will ask.  If you get too close they will throw it in your face.  Be very careful what you identify as sin.

An honest and educated non-believer who is genuinely considering Christ will understand that they will have to stop sinning once they come to Christ.  They will think that they have to do it in their own strength.  They will think that they will be miserable without their pet sins.  Isn't that what you thought before you surrendered to Christ?  And you surrendered anyway.  So will they.  But...

They are making a list of things that they will have to give up.  They have that list on a scale, and Christ is on the other side of the scale.  DO NOT PUT ANYTHING ON THAT LIST THAT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THERE!

Adultery must be on the list.  Homosexuality has to be on the list.  Gossip has to be on the list.  Drunkenness must be there.  Stealing.  Pride.  Pornography.

Cigarettes should not be on that list.  Listening to rock and roll should not be on that list.  Having a beer with friends (distinct from drunkenness) should not be on that list.

Anything that doesn't belong on the list, but that gets there anyway, is a stumbling block our enemy is using to keep that person from surrendering to Christ.  One of our jobs is to remove non-sins from that list.  That's a job that we have historically ignored.
Luke 15:29. "But he answered and said to his father, 'Look ! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours ; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends ;
30. but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.'
31. "And he said to him, 'Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32. 'But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.' " (NAS)
And I would suggest that we should err on the side of liberality, if we have to err at all.  I will gladly spend time in heaven apologizing to a friend that I let him believe that he could keep his pet sin when he accepted Christ.  That is so much better than being unable to apologize to a person stuck in hell because he thought he would have to give up something that he didn't actually have to give up.

Where do you meet non-believers?  What do you talk about with them?

Go to the Louvre.  It's full of beautiful art.  Few of those artists lived lives that honored God.  And yet they made some beautiful art.  Pick a painting that you like.  Study it closely.  Drink it in and let yourself thoroughly enjoy it.  Did you sin?  Probably not.  But you have had a normal human experience that non-believers can relate to.

There is probably someone else looking at that painting, too.  They might be seeing and enjoying the same things you see.  But because they have a different past and different eyes there is a good chance that they see something different, too.  Ask them what they see.  Listen to them.  You might find something new in the painting that you had not seen before.  You might find something new in the human experience that you had not felt before.  Or you might find that their experience is not so different from your own.

You have now connected with this person.  You are open and vulnerable to them.  You hear what they are saying.  You hear who they are.  This is humanity.  This is how people relate to one another.  Welcome.  I'm glad you could join us here, even for a minute.

You don't have to go to the Louvre.  There is a world all around us, and a trillion non-sinful things that you can appreciate.  Pick one and appreciate it.  You will probably find a non-believer there who appreciates it, too.  Speak to them.  Listen to them.  Hear their joys and their fears.  Empathize with them.  You might earn the right to share the deeper things in your own heart.

I enjoy rock and roll.  I think Led Zeppelin's Kashmir is the greatest rock and roll song of all time.  I really enjoy the way it ebbs and flows.  It builds to a crescendo, and then continues.  I like the sounds and riffs.  I've listened to a lot of rock and roll, and Kashmir continues to impress me each time I listen to it.

I can talk to non-believers about music.  When they talk about songs they like, I know those songs.  Sometimes I can hum the melodies or recite some of the lyrics.  I don't have to say "you are acceptable", they understand that I'm human like them.  And at minimum they might say to themselves, maybe accepting Christ isn't the death-sentence of boredom that I feared it would be.
1 Corinthians 9:19. Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.
20. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.
21. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law.
22. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
I've also found that most good rock and roll deals with the genuine feelings of the artists and listeners.  That genuineness is part of what makes the great artists stand out.  And many of those people have considered Christ and struggled with faith.  That comes out in their lyrics--not every lyric, but fairly often.  Some of it is just religious imagery, but some of it is honest struggle.  And even the conversation about whether this is honest struggle or religious imagery is an interesting conversation.  Dave Matthews, for instance, sings these lyrics in a song where he is struggling with his own angry emotions (from Time Bomb):
when everything starts to fall 
so fast that it terrifies you
when will you hit the wall
are you gonna learn to fly

no one would believe it
except for all the people
watching as you fly away

baby when I get home
I wanna pick up the pieces
hammer in the final nail
and lean me up against Jesus

baby when I get home
I wanna believe in Jesus
hammer in the final nail
help me pick up the pieces

baby when I get home
help me pick up the pieces
hammer in the final nail
I wanna believe in Jesus

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A brilliant paper on the financial crisis

I actively look for papers (blog posts, articles, books, whatever) that disagree with me or contain a new idea that I have never seen before.  Marginal Revolution pointed out one such piece, here, on the causes of the recent financial crisis.

If you have any interest in understanding the real root cause of the recent financial crisis, then you have to read this paper.

Have you ever heard of the Taguchi Method?  Google it sometime.  The short version is that it is a method of analyzing problems and plans in order to ascertain the cause of the problem or the real outcome of a plan.  I used to have a shorthand version of it done as artwork on my wall at Journyx.

When you form a plan you ask yourself, "and then what will happen next?", over and over again, at least five times.  If you adequately think through the wants and needs of your competitors, etc., then you will have a very good idea of the real future that this plan will set into motion.

When you find a problem you ask yourself, "and why did that happen?", over and over again, at least five times.  If you keep going you will get to all root causes, like gravity and hunger.  At that point you fully understand why the problem occurred, and you have an accurate map from which you can plan your remedy.

In this paper the authors do the next level of Taguchi analysis, and get beneath the common factors of CDOs and greedy folks on Wall Street.  I can't recap it succinctly, yet.  But on just my first reading the entire picture is different and I understand the world financial system better than I ever have.

Nakatomi space

I found an interesting article discussing a little-known aspect of urban warfare.  The author uses the Die Hard movie as a teaching example.  As an author of police and military fiction, this is something that I need to study further and use creatively.  If you are an author you might want to consider it also.


The BBC has a nice article about a reunion between a former Guantanamo guard and two prisoners.  The story is an interesting read.  I noticed several interesting tidbits that are not actually the main point of the story:

  • Apparently we were unable to discern the difference between Islamic radicals and British college tourists hoping to score some great weed.
  • The guards and inmates had some opportunities to talk to each other.
  • After spending a tour there, the incident that this former guard really feels guilty about is a misunderstanding between himself and a prisoner that ended with the guard "bashing the guys head against the floor" to subdue him.

So we swept the net too wide and arrested innocent people.  Sad, but no surprise, really.  I'm glad to see that the experience didn't completely drive these two into Al Queda's waiting arms.  We can only hope that most of the other innocent inmates will be similarly forgiving.

And apparently the inmates are not just sitting in total isolation all day.  That actually surprises me some.  This is as close to official information about the day-to-day operation of the prison as we have received.  I was expecting each prisoner to be in solitary confinement, or at least fully isolated from other prisoners 23x7.

The former guard explains the misunderstanding that led to his harsh take-down of the elderly prisoner.  Given that explanation, the damage he deals to the prisoner doesn't seem too out of line to me.  I can't say that if I were the guard I would have done better (less damage.)  I understand feeling guilty about it.  But this is not the sort of prisoner abuse story that we were expecting, especially considering the horrors of Abu Ghraib.

So maybe the camp isn't quite as inhuman as we have feared.  Maybe.  Hopefully.

But there are still some 200-odd prisoners there.  This is one of Obama's campaign promises that I wish he would find the strength to keep.  But I shall not hold my breath.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Glad I don't live in China, reason #8476

CNN is reporting that China is facing a shortage of 24 million brides over the next decade.  That's 24 million men who will not be able to find a bride and form a family.

This might seem like good news for women.  They will have their pick of many suitors, and may be handsomely rewarded for divorcing and remarrying.  But I fear the bad news caused by this inequality will overshadow the good news.

These 24 million unmarried men will be predominantly in the lower income brackets.  They will turn to crime, like prostitution and rape, to get their physical intimacy needs met.  They will be unstable and unhappy, a "revolutionary" element within society.  So the government will have to find something productive to do with them.

What would you expect a paternalistic, controlling government to do with 24 million bored and restless men?  Build a wall, perhaps?  Or maybe go on a military campaign or two?

This does not bode well for China's nearest neighbors.

Proof positive that the Obama administration only cares about the headlines

In October the Obama administration passed a rule adding a 90% tax on the top 25 jobs at the companies that accepted certain bailout monies.  At the time I predicted that the people in those jobs would quit and those companies would be leaderless.

Now it seems that the Obama administration is simply ignoring these companies flouting this new rule.  Instead of letting these top people quit, the companies are upping their bonuses by 90% before paying the 90% tax.  So the companies are paying the tax themselves, instead of letting it hit these employees.

Either the Obama administration is completely not paying attention.  Or they realized the real consequences of their rule and decided to not enforce it by blocking this loophole.  Or they just don't care.

Those are the only three options.  The third option is the least damaging to the administration, so I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Apparently they were only interested in the appearance of doing something, in the first place.  This is not how government should be done.

I should have realized that at the time I made that prediction.  My prediction proved to be wrong because I made the incorrect assumption that the Obama administration actually intended to enforce their rule and be taken seriously.  (sigh)

Invisible Government

As I've mentioned before, my life's work is a project I am calling Democracy 2.0.  My idea is to restructure the mechanic processes of democratic government in a way that will end corruption and expand transparency and inclusion.  The whole idea of the internet has been a fundamental influence of what I think is possible here.

I just found an interesting article talking about the changes wrought by the internet in publishing and education.  The core idea here is that once upon a time you had to be rich to own a printing press, and owning that printing press gave you significant power in the community.  The internet has ended that.  Now everyone has a printing press, and the power of owning a printing press has been dramatically reduced.

It used to be the case that only the rich could form a government.  The internet has ended that (although we haven't fully realized it, yet.)  Democracy 2.0 is a government "of the people" in a way that no pre-internet government could ever be.

The article discusses the Invisible University--a movement of chemists who reacted to their secretive alchemist forefathers by publishing and sharing all of their data.  Individuals who were willing to experiment and share their results built the modern science of chemistry, and truly laid the foundation for all physical sciences.

In a sense, then, I'm hoping that Democracy 2.0 can become an Invisible Government.  Governments large and small can be open and honest, and share their triumphs and successes.  Everyone can learn from each others' mistakes and build upon each others' successes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hyprocisy or cognative dissonance?

Many major climate experts are now saying that we are beginning a "mini ice-age" that may last 20-30 years, reports the Daily Mail.  They are predicting cooler than normal temperatures for both winter and summer for the next few years.

I do not understand how these same people can continue to claim that man is causing catastrophic global warming.  It boggles the mind.  The horrible man-made gases and other bad outputs have not been reduced.  How do they reconcile a mini ice-age?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"I'm all blue with gravy spots. And I'm proud of it."

More funny quotes here.  Warning, there are many potty words in use.  So don't click if you are upset by foul language.

The death penalty

I've mentioned before that government should not have the right to execute citizens or the right of imminent domain.  A commenter (yes, someone actually read some posts and posted a comment) asked me to flesh out my thoughts on the death penalty in particular.

I have always thought for myself.  As early as 5 or 6 people were saying about me, "that kid marches to the beat of his own drummer."  I try not to revel in it--to be contrarian for the sake of the argument.  But I feel little to no compulsion to follow along with the crowd or with a leader.

I try to be internally consistent in my values, views, and opinions.  This isn't a complete list, but these are some of my core guiding beliefs and values:
  • I believe that God exists, created all of this, and still acts in the world today.
  • I value life.  I value human life over animal and plant life, but I believe that all life is valuable.  
  • I believe that people are prone to making all sorts of little mistakes, like overestimating their memories and underestimating the part that luck plays in any given situation.  
  • I believe that power corrupts--so I distrust power systems.
  • Communication is difficult, up to the point of being virtually impossible.
  • Control is an illusion--even self control.  There are too many factors influencing every decision/event to say that anyone exercises control.
  • People are communal creatures.  We define ourselves in terms of our community.  Reacting to other people is a primary influence ("systems theory", in psychological terms) on our actions and our own self-perception.
My opposition to the death penalty flows directly from three of those beliefs.  Life is important, and should be protected.  People are prone to make mistakes--identify the wrong person in a line-up or mis-remember events.  And government officials are not to be trusted because they can be influenced.  Given those factors I reason that the government should be denied the ability to put citizens to death.

My natural instincts are an eye-for-an-eye, just like everyone else.  And if I believed that a human justice system could perfectly determine the facts of every situation, then I might support executing sufficiently guilty criminals.  I read about the atrocities of the Germans in WWII, for instance, and I want to execute those responsible.  But I fundamentally distrust our ability to figure out who really was responsible, even for those crimes.

The case of Todd Willingham, told here in the New Yorker, demonstrates those three failings in the execution of an innocent man.  I allow and enable this system of government, and I feel the guilt of this murder that we committed.  This should not be.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Yet another hiring problem theory

The guys on the Freakonomics blog point to a study that shows that medical students who do their med school entrance exams on rainy days score 10% lower than students who interview on sunny days.  Maybe I need to add weather questions to the hiring surveys.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Avatar review and SF general thoughts

I saw Avatar on IMAX 3D about a week ago.  Stunning, beautiful, amazing.  The threshold between live action and CGI was gone.  The 3D effects were beautiful and not showy for their own sake.

All of that said, I have some thoughts and reactions that seem critical.  I'll hide my spoilers behind the 'More' link, below.  But all of these criticisms should be viewed more as open-ended analysis than as a critique of Cameron's decisions.  Clearly Cameron is a genius and his vision is tremendous.  I'm not suggesting changing the movie, exactly.

Avatar is what I would describe as soft science fiction.  That's not a term you hear often, and it deserves a definition.  It's the opposite of hard sci fi.  Hard sci fi worries about the details of how this _whatever_ would really actually work/happen/unfold/etc.  Hard sci fi limits itself to events and technologies that it can reasonably explain.  Hard sci fi insists that a planetary government must be big, bureaucratic, and inefficient--because in reality it must be that way.

Soft sci fi takes more liberties with these details.  Soft sci fi makes the conscious decision to bend its imaginary reality some to suit the needs of the story.  Idealized, as opposed to realistic.

Soft sci fi stories appeal to the heart, where hard sci fi appeals to the mind.  Soft sci fi translates well to the screen, precisely because of all of those details that are being omitted.  Soft sci fi is commercially viable.  Hard sci fi is a niche.

My own natural impulse is to write hard sci fi.  I prefer reading hard sci fi, when I can find it.  But I understand that I will need to strip out some of my details and focus on the human story if I am going to ever find commercial success.

I've said that because much of my analysis of Avatar actually comes in the form of pointing out the places where Cameron went soft on the sci fi, and how it would look it the sci fi were hardened.  I hope that makes sense.

A few wide-angle thoughts before we get in to the details.

See the movie in IMAX 3D.  This is the biggest big-screen movie since Jurassic Park, and it can only be truly appreciated big and loud.

But the 3D experience still gave me a headache.  Troy (my brother-in-law) reported the same thing.  I have great eyesight, Troy wears glasses.  So that isn't it.  With all of the money spent on this new advanced 3D stuff, the headache is a big problem.  If I could somehow short stocks for the long-term, I would short all of the TV makers were are betting big on 3D TVs.  I won't be buying one anytime soon.  The headache stigma will be very hard to overcome.

If you are really interested in the writing process then you might be interested in this detailed analysis of the first writing treatment, called 'Project 880'.  This article is chock full of spoilers, and seriously shouldn't be read until you've seen the movie.  I'll try not to repeat any of Devin's Avatar analysis here.

So with that teaser, if you've seen the movie then click to find out what all Cameron got wrong.  :-)

Source material for good fiction

I regularly read biographical and historical accounts.  I'm looking for source material about situations and personalities that I can use in my fiction.  I just finished a long article that was better than any history book I've ever read.

Lee Sandlin wrote this article describing the causes, experiences, and attitudes around World War II.  I think Lee is male, though I'm not entirely sure.  Whatever.  He or she has clearly done a great deal of research and critical thinking.  I think I better understand the realities of total war now; the berserker rage and the fey resignation.

Beautiful and powerful.  If you are a writer of fiction then you should read it.  Or if you are interested in WWII.

Google Maps feature idea: Service Areas

I want to be able to type this in to Google and get a pretty map and listing:
"furniture stores that deliver to _my address_" (where _my address_ is actually my address)
I want Google to come back with a list of stores and a link to see those stores plotted on a map.  Obviously Google can't do this on their own, but they can define the standards and help companies get their data up on their websites. 

Each company should be able to define multiple types of service areas.  For instance, they could have a "free" area and a "$5 service charge" service area.  Or they could have a "same day" service area and a "next day" service area.  Or whatever they want.

Obviously this would apply to more than just furniture.  Pizza, chicken, burritos, flowers, plumbers, A/C services, tow trucks, hail repair, insurance, etc.  All of these types of companies, and a whole lot more that I'm not thinking of right now, would love to be able to target customers with specific searches like this.  Some companies that have potentially overlapping service areas, like insurance agents, could even use this to define boundaries for each agency.

This seems pretty easy to accomplish.  We just need to agree on a file spec and let everyone publish their service area data--and then Google has to update their search engine to read the data.  I think that the data should be in a simple XML file stored on the service provider's webserver.  I would call it "service_areas.xml".  That file should contain these minimum data types, but could later expand to contain a whole lot more (like a full menu or service times, etc.):

  • Services: A keyword list of the types of services that they provide.
  • Service Area #1-N: Each service area would have a name and a few other attributes:
  • Cost
  • Time
  • Coordinates: A list of Latitude & Longitude pairs that define the boundaries of the service area.

Google could whip up a Google Map application that would let you fill in some blanks and put some pins on the map, and then press a button to generate an XML file that you could use.  Then you would just copy that file into the root directory of your website and the magic would happen.

Obviously it doesn't have to be XML, that's just the format that I am most familiar with that would suit this purpose.   Yahoo, Microsoft, and other map sites can use the data, too, I guess.  But I only use Google Maps, so I really don't care much about the others. 

Somebody get Google moving on this, please.  Thanks.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My next phone

I got a G1 on the day it launched.  I loved my G1, right up until I got laid off and had to pay for that data plan myself.  I turned that off immediately, and found out the phone won't even boot up without a data plan.  I found an old Nokia in my kids' toy box--so now I'm rocking it old school.

I don't like Apple's pricey hardware and superior attitude.  And I dislike AT&T.  So I'm staying away from the iPhone, even though many of my friends and family love theirs.

As soon as my writing income will support it I'll be getting myself a new Google Nexus One phone.  Sweet!

Yet another Chase annoyance

Yesterday the nice guy at Chase unlocked my account.  He did that by erasing the security q&a's on my account.  Yesterday I tried and tried to log in, but every time I got an error that the system was unavailable after I entered my new security answers.

I thought about it last night and realized that I was using an ampersand ("&") in one of my answers.  That shouldn't be a problem, but I've been doing software long enough to know that I should try removing that.  So this morning I tried again and used the ampersand, and got the same error again.  I immediately tried again and replaced the ampersand with "and" spelled out (even though the answer is now actually misspelled.)  It worked.

So their website hasn't been developed to standards, and they aren't properly escaping the security answers.  That probably means that their security answers can be hacked--just a guess.

I did write down my security answers in my folder, and I noted the misspelling.  (sigh)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Classic good news / bad news

Apparently there has been one reputable organization fighting for the death penalty in America.  I've stated my opposition.  So I first viewed this news as unequivocal good news.  That organization, the American Law Institute, has formally dropped its advocacy of capital punishment.


Read a little deeper, though, and the reason for this change is quite disturbing.  The ALI is made up of about 4,000 judges, lawyers and law professors.  Their decision is due to their collective opinion that the criminal justice system is so broken that it can no longer be trusted to decide matters of life and death.

Let that sink in for a second.  4,000 judges, lawyers, and law professors who used to be the sole advocate of the death penalty in America now believe that the criminal justice system is too broken to entrust with that power.

That's bad.

The New York Times has the full story.

I expect this to signal the beginning of the end of the death penalty in America.  I am glad for that.  And I am glad that those in power have the honesty to say that the system is broken and work to remove this power before it is more grievously abused.  But I wish that the legal system were not that broken.

First review of the new 2010 Tesla S

Winding Road has the scoop.  This is a car that I'm in lust with, so I've been watching pretty closely.  It seems that they have finally found a workable solution for their transmission reliability problems.  Glorious!  I'm ready to buy.  Anyone want to loan me $100k?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Move your money!

This idea is so brilliant and obvious, that I am ashamed that I didn't think of it.!

You money is probably in one of the too-big-to-fail banks that caused this mess with their CDOs and increased leverage.  Take it out of there and put it in a bank that acted responsibly.  They might be too big to fail, but they don't have to stay too big.

The MoveYourMoney website has a tool to help you find a stable community bank near you.

You might also look at Kasasa (pronounced with three short a's, "kah-sah-sah".)  Kasasa is run by the folks over at FirstROI / BancVue, who are in the business of helping community banks get onto the web and offer the same sort of web-based services that the big banks offer.  Kasasa is a give-back-to-the-community effort, helping these local community banks find innovative ways to engage their communities to make positive social impacts.

This is the most important New Year's resolution you can make.  Make a difference.  Move your money!