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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Why the Cover-up?

Since October, methane gas has been spewing into the atmosphere at a rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. This linked article from The Hill was the most authoritative source I could find on the Internet. Where is CNN, MSNBC, Fox, Time, etc? Some have indicated that this is the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Others would say it is worse.

While some of the oil from the spill could be cleaned up. None of the methane will be recovered. It is 25 times more harmful to our atmosphere than the CO2 we are always talking about. Why are they keeping it quiet? Could it be because they don’t know how to cap the damn thing? People don’t like problems with no solution. What’s the news? More crap got pumped into the atmosphere today?

I suppose that pockets of methane have been released into the atmosphere since we first had one. Without people to capture it, the gas just became part of the environment. This is a bit different. Aliso Canyon is a storage facility. There is more gas there than one might typically find in a single natural reserve.

Between cutting down the Amazon rainforest and pumping more crap into the atmosphere, there seems to a growing question about whether we will be able to continue to breathe what the Earth will have to offer us in the future. Another little-known fact is that the oceans are the primary source of storage for CO2 and greenhouse gases that are pulled from the atmosphere.  There is a growing layer of these gases compressed at the bottom of the oceans. Scientists believe that as the oceans warm, which they will do as the polar icecaps continue to melt, they will not be able to hold that CO2 down there. We could start seeing releases from the oceans on top of what we already pump into the atmosphere ourselves.

Maybe there are some knowledgeable people out there who know that we have already passed the point of no return. Could we clean up our atmosphere if we put all of our knowledge and resources into it? Maybe. It would obviously mean major sacrifices from everyone and a lifestyle makeover that would not be to the better for our ruling class. From an economic standpoint, what is probably necessary to reverse the trend we’re on is a disaster. Entire industries would be abandoned. Other industries would see their funding sources dry up to be diverted to more important things.

We are born selfish and greedy. It is not a good recipe for altruistic behavior. Will some of us on the planet today live to see a time when we will suffer and possibly die for the bad choices we’re making now? I don’t know. It’s like a grand game of musical chairs. We all hope the music doesn’t stop while we’re still in the game, but it always stops eventually and in this game there will be no chairs for anyone.

Ironically, if we are eventually forced to build environmentally contained domes, we will have a much harder time building the infrastructure to get off this rock during the very time we have learned how to live in other hostile environments. Maybe now is the time to start planning our escape? I think so. Other than Elon Musk and few other high tech visionaries, nobody seems to be doing much about it. I guess the money just isn’t there yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur

I’m a serial entrepreneur. Every one of my prior attempts has been a high-tech endeavor. Despite having varying degrees of success, one thing has become apparent -- the high-tech world is fundamentally unstable. Things change, change causes disruption, and one cannot be expected to respond successfully to disruption every time.

When a good friend approached me and my wife about a business selling soaps, lotions and lip balm, my first reaction was “finally, a non-high-tech business!” The thought that I wouldn’t need to deal with constantly changing technology had tremendous appeal. The fact that we’re selling soap was...meh. I guess I was more excited about what the business wasn’t.

Fast forward -- we’re making soap. We’re learning about different soap formulas. I’m still roughly in the “meh” camp. The thing about good soap is that it takes up to six weeks to properly cure. So, when you make it, you need to wait awhile to see how you did. During that time, I’ve discovered that there are lots of people out there that are very enthusiastic about soap.

I’ve been using Dial and Irish Spring and various other household brands for my entire life. I’ve never thought twice about it. Recently, I learned that this stuff isn’t even really soap. It turns out that soap is made when you mix fat with lye to create a chemical process called “saponification,” which turns the fats into salts. Different types of fats produce different effects. Okay, that’s probably more than you want to know about soapmaking. Here’s the thing, look at the ingredients of Irish Spring:


I had to look up tallowate and kernelate to figure out what’s going on here. Apparently, these are fats that have somehow already been converted to salts. This undoubtedly eliminates the curing, which means faster to market. By the way, tallowate is made from beef fat, so if you use this, your soap is not vegan. Bottom line: this stuff is designed to be quick to make first and foremost.

Back to me. Finally, I got around to using actual soap. Wow! What a difference. If you’ve never used real soap. You will probably be as surprised as me. It actually makes my skin feel better. Now, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has a lot to say about when you can make claims about what a product can do for your body and as an owner I need to be careful about making “claims.” So, this is just me talking about me. Your results may vary.

If you happen to have actually gotten this far into my post today, I’m going to make it a bit easier for you to try out some real soap. Just go to the Ti LeBlanc website and pick yourself out a bar of soap. Type in “friendsshipfree” (without the quotes) into the coupon code box when you check out guessed it!...we won’t charge you for shipping (Sorry, U.S. customers only -- for now). I’d love to hear what you think. We have a Facebook page and as a new company, every customer gets the sort of attention that as a customer, you live for. As a matter of fact, if you’ve got some ideas for a product, let us know. We might just whip you up a batch!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Going Private: The New Going Public

Rarely does one get an opportunity to see the effects of “going public” so starkly. My wife worked for Whole Foods Market (WFM) for 21 years. When she started, the company was still privately held. It was a gem. Employees were given extensive training, had substantial autonomy in performing their jobs, and were held accountable to their results. Using an organizational structure modeled on Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, teamwork was highly valued and encouraged.

Most importantly, quality and stewardship were valued more than profits. That did not stop profits from coming. In fact, Wall Street could not wait to get their hands on those profits. Eventually, they won out. Many early employees who were granted substantial stock options cashed out and left the company. What happened next was a slow decline into corporate ordinary-ness.

I will not bore you with details as you can get those elsewhere. What I can tell you is that Wall Street forces all of “their” companies into a straightjacket that is not good for them, not good for employees, not good for customers, and not good for society. It is designed to be good for investors and thus they are the only ones who ultimately benefit...for awhile.

For certain, pumping more money into a company can help it grow faster. In the early stages of public life, this can be a huge boon. With the pre-public structure that brought them still in place, newfound money means more of a good thing. Unfortunately, companies can’t and shouldn’t grow forever. Eventually, they reach the optimal size. For WFM, it was when they had put stores in all the carefully vetted locations that fit their model.

Wall Street is a hungry beast that is never full. They demand either growth or increased capital efficiency. Once a company gets on this treadmill, it is a matter of time before they must tear down the very edifice which allowed them to go public in the first place. For WFM, it means putting stores in locations that don’t fit their model, thus forcing them to abandon that model which was so successful. For others, it is expanding product lines into unfamiliar areas with stronger competition.

First, the employees start to notice the difference. Empowerment becomes a catchphrase with little substance as “corporate” starts pulling back control from the field. With a return of control to the central authority, there is less need for high caliber employees, so they leave. This creates more mistakes, which encourages the central authorities to pull back even more functions. Of course, this precedes another round of layoffs. Layoffs create badwill (the opposite of goodwill).

As the organization continues to have fewer people with less time to reach out and touch consumers, it becomes an empty brand without its original substance. What large publicly held corporation hasn’t gone this way? Oh sure, they try to put a human face on it. You can put lipstick on a pig, but I wouldn’t want to go to work for it (or kiss it).

The answer, it seems to me, is for publicly traded companies who want to get their soul back to go private. This can be done and it is a win-win-win-win situation. Private equity investors get a better company, consumers get a better company, employees get a better company and Wall Street loses one more victim.

Michael Dell has tried to take Dell Computer private. Before John Mackie retires, he should take Whole Foods Market private. Really, any CEO/major stockholder who really cares about what he/she has built ought to go private. Better yet, don’t go public in the first place.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Music Makes You Smarter

When I was in fifth grade, we had a special class in which we got to go to the band room and “meet” all the different instruments. Something about the trumpet just called to me. Later, I found out that fifth graders play the coronet, a smaller version of the trumpet. We rented one and so began my musical career. I was about eleven years old.

I continued playing the coronet until I got braces a few years later. The mouthpiece cut into my lips, which created a bloody mess (literally and figuratively). I switched to baritone, which is like a mini tuba. I liked playing on the low end. When I was fifteen, I started playing harmonica and when I was sixteen, after a failed attempt at playing guitar, I took up the bass. Years later, I added hand drums to my list of instruments. Each new instrument informed my musical vocabulary.

Interestingly, there is a linguistic connection to music. It turns out that FMRI scans of human brains playing a musical instrument shows the same active areas as speaking (plus a few). Furthermore, since music involves not only intonations, but rhythm, tempo and volume, it stimulates the brain even more. Some studies are starting to suggest that musicians keep their cognitive functions longer than non-musicians as they age.

Listening to music triggers some of the same linguistic centers of the brain, but it also triggers six different emotional centers. Surprise! Music is good for the soul. We all knew this already, but scientists are starting to catch up with us. You know how they like to have an explanation for everything.

I have my own theory about music. I think you can stimulate your brain further by listening to more complex forms like jazz and classical. These forms are not easy to listen to, but if you practice it gets more enjoyable with time and as an added bonus, you get smarter! So, listen to some jazz or classical music. Progressive rock has elements of both jazz and classical for all you rockers. It’s good for your soul, your soles (okay, classical not so much as they tend to like you listening to that sitting down) and your brain.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Polarization: Accident or Plan?

Yesterday, I was reading an article in The Economist and, as is my practice, I read some of the top comments. I really like the comment section in TE because it is one of the few places where liberals and conservatives converge. What I find interesting is that there are three basic voices in the fray:
            1. People who identify as conservative
            2. People who identify as liberal
            3. People who identify with a set of ideas that they believe

I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that the first two groups will see themselves as the same as group #3. I don’t dispute that. However, being that I find myself in group #3, I can tell you that there is a difference. The difference is this: I sometimes find myself agreeing and disagreeing with views in both of the first two groups. I do not buy the doctrine of either group lock, stock and smoking barrel. What seems clear from my TE exploits is that I am in the minority. How can someone who is pro-choice and in favor of a single-payer medical insurance system also be in favor of capital punishment and the right to carry a concealed weapon?

The answer is, I don’t buy in bulk. I buy one idea at a time. I don’t buy planks in a platform. I don’t buy all the views of Bill Kristol or Bill Maher. I don’t just watch Fox and I don’t just watch PBS. Basically, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would abdicate their right to free thought in favor of an entire collection of ideas that have been packaged by someone else.

I have spoken with people on both sides of the political fence and they both think they are smarter and know more than the “other guys.” Conservatives are always complaining that liberals think they are smarter than the conservatives, but conservatives know better. Liberals think they are being objective and that conservative ideas just don’t work and if conservatives were better informed they would understand this.

Reality is much more complex. The simple ideas put forth by both camps are almost always bullshit. Liberals say we’ve got to get rid of guns. We can’t! Conservatives say law abiding citizens should be allowed to carry a weapon. Sounds good until the law abiding citizen’s crazy son shoots up a school. It’s complicated.

Our lives are so filled these days. Many work long hours, sometimes at two jobs, to provide for their families. They try to pack some fun and relaxation in around their jobs and there isn’t a whole lot of time for reading up on the latest issues. Having a nice packaged set of ideas that are ready to serve starts to look like a handy time-saving device. For the same reason that eating only McDonald’s food will eventually kill you, doing either set of packaged ideas would eventually destroy this country.

Maybe...just maybe, our leaders like it the way it is. They know that the issues we face are complicated. They understand that to solve most of them, we need to develop solutions that will be complex, hard to sell to the American people and have something for everyone to hate. It’s a whole lot easier to blame the other side for holding up the show. It’s politically safer to cobble together stupid solutions that are compromises of what both sides want and then when they don’t work well, blame the other side for forcing bad compromises on them.

If you want to be part of the solution, do your homework! Read the arguments on both sides, but also do some scholarly reading on the topic so that you have a less politicized view of the issues in question. Throw out your existing beliefs and form some new ones based on something complex that has a real chance of working. Trust me on this: if the big problems we face in the world today had simple solutions, we would have solved them by now. We’re down to the hard stuff. Polarization = gridlock.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Forget Political Correctness

Courtesy of
I would like to thank Donald Trump. I think he’s a baffoon, but I like the fact that he doesn’t seem to care about political correctness. When a Caliphaniac (my term for Middle Eastern terrorist) blows themselves up, they are typically told that their families will be cared for. Trump says we should blow up their families. However clever this may sound, it’s all kinds of wrong.

The fact that he doesn’t care who he offends makes Trump a real trailblazer in the public space -- especially for an actual politician (although I use the term loosely). Imagine, if you can, politicians saying whatever they think regardless of who it offends. It would be the end of political correctness as we know it. At the very least, we’d need to rename it. We could call it Wimp’s Correctness or maybe Overly Empathetic Candy Ass Correctness.

For example, as a white guy, I’ve always wondered why I can’t publicly say “hey nigger, what’s up?” Black guys can say it to me, but god help me if I say it back. Last year, I used the word “Oriental” to refer to Asians and my Asian coworkers almost blew a proverbial gasket. Apparently, “the ‘O’ word” is off limits now. They knew what I was talking about so from a communication standpoint, the word worked just fine. Who’s idea was to make it offensive unless you’re referring to rugs?

This all strikes me as a big waste of everyone’s time. How many hours do we spend collectively every day searching for just the right words to say something? Frankly, it’s bullshit -- and that IS the right word. If you can’t look into someone’s heart and determine whether they’re being malicious or not, go take some empathy lessons - you’re probably an asshole anyway, so you need them.

I cringe every time I see some parent teaching their little ones political correctness. It usually goes something like this:

Child: “Mommy look at that fat man! He’s huge.
Mommy: “Sweetie, it’s not nice to point and he’s not fat, he’s massively challenged.”
Child: “What’s ‘massively challenged’?”
Mommy: “Never mind. Just don’t call people fat.”
Child: “That’s dumb.”
Mommy: “You mean intellectually suboptimal.”

We take simple descriptions like fat, ugly, dumb asshole and change them to obese, cosmetically, intellectually, and attitudinally challenged individual. Just the cost in hard drive space to store all this crap is unfathomable.

As much as a president Trump might get us all killed, he might also shake off a few bad habits. Maybe if we got a few more things out in the open with some straight talk, we could start to heal some of the unspoken (or jibbered up) wounds. I dare to dream!

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Corporatocracy's Icy Grip

Why did we go to war in Iraq when we were attacked by the Taliban out of Afghanistan? Why are we stripping the Amazon rainforest when we know it is the lungs of the world and the source of immense biodiversity (some of which may hold the cure for various diseases)? Some individual or group is making these decisions and their reasons are not very transparent.

We get our information about these decisions from the mainstream media. We assume that the media is free and independent. However, mainstream media is now generally owned by some of the largest corporations in the world. So, the media are corporations. As such, they have the typical self-interests of any corporation. In order to satisfy those self-interests, they need support from the government.

Further, the government is largely made up of the most successful individuals from the corporate world. I’m not talking about politicians (although some of them are from corporations), rather the policy makers. They’re the ones that write the scripts for the politicians. They’re the ones who provide the options and recommendations from which the politicians choose. They pull the strings. They are almost exclusively from corporations. Go ahead, look it up -- I’ll wait…

Okay, so now you know that government and corporations are essentially one big entity. Author John Perkins calls this the “corporatocracy.” The term lays bare the most important fact about our global society. It is run by these people. They have self-interests. Those self-interests do not usually align with those of “we, the people” (or the 99% as some would call us).

What we know is that we have enough food to end starvation. We have enough drug making capacity to end the diseases that kill the vast majority of children and women who die daily. We have the technology to end the use of fossil fuels in the next 10 or 20 years. There is so much we could do to make this a better place to live, but we don’t. Why?

The answer almost always comes down to one factor - economics. The financial factors are not controlled by “we, the people.” They are controlled by the corporatocracy. They are the “they” which we often talk about when we discuss the things out of our control. What reason could “they” have for not solving the world’s major problems if the solutions are within reach?

We can choose to believe when “they” tell us “it’s complicated,” there must be good reasons why they don’t do these things for us. What if the truth is simply greed? How would we know? Is it fair to assume that someone who has climbed -- no -- scratched and clawed their way to the top of the corporatocracy’s food chain has self-interest deep in their heart? I think so. Surrounded by like-minded people, it is not hard to imagine what sort of decisions they make.

Take a look at the world in which we live. It’s not hard at all to imagine. The evidence of their decisions is all around us. Can we take back control? Maybe, but first we will need widespread awareness. Spread the word. The corporatacracy does not have our best interests in their hearts. We need to control the conversation with posts like this one.

Monday, November 30, 2015

More Truth!

I’ve written about the truth before and probably will again. The primary reason for this is because the things I like to write about often go against deeply held beliefs shared by many people. These beliefs are so deeply held that they start to look a lot like “the truth,” but they are not. I’ve met people who think that if they believe something enough, it IS the truth. Wishing doesn’t make it so.

Here’s an example: “smaller government is better than big government.” Not everyone believes this and the people who do believe it call it “the truth.” Thus, they think their political opponents are corrupted by lies. Even science has had to deal with “facts” that have become obsolete. Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein’s general relativity. The reality is - there is very little real truth.

Most of what we know are opinions and beliefs. Strongly held beliefs can become indistinguishable from truth. This is the source of most of the strife on our little planet. Just because you believe something with all of our heart, does not make it the truth and it doesn’t even make it right. In some cases, what might be right for you is wrong for someone else. That doesn’t make them bad, just as it doesn’t make you bad.

I try to approach a difference of opinion or belief with a very open mind. This is not something that comes naturally. It takes effort and training. It starts with conditioning yourself to start by asking questions when you encounter a difference in opinion or belief. Questions are the most powerful tool in your belt.

When you ask questions of someone, you are: A) showing respect for their opinion/belief, B) acknowledging that your own opinion/belief may be based on incomplete information, and C) opening your mind to new possibilities that could expand your understanding. Upon hearing an answer to your question, you might be tempted to think “oh, that’s wrong!” Your obvious next step is to explain the error of your co-communicator’s thinking. DON’T! Ask a probing question. Why do they believe what they are saying? Where did they hear the information that led them to this belief?

Often, differences of opinion/belief come down to events or properties that are facts. Finding a reliable source to resolve the conflict in understanding can bring enlightenment to one or both parties. Even uncovering a disputed “fact” can change the way we think about a particular belief.

What is most troubling to me is the growing number of people who don’t want to know the truth. Their beliefs are “good enough” for them. These people will either shout over you or just tell you outright that they don’t want to explore other possibilities. What is the source of this behavior? Are some people simply designed to latch onto one set of beliefs and hold onto them regardless of evidence to the contrary?

Ultimately, I am one who seeks the truth -- whatever it may be. I am not compelled to hold onto any opinions or beliefs that cannot survive careful scrutiny. Are you such a person? If not, why not? If you are unwilling to open your mind to new possibilities, then you should not be surprised when others are willing to kill and die for their misguided opinions and beliefs. That’s the truth!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Negotiate With Terrorists

Better yet, negotiate with everybody. Hey! I get the general idea of “not negotiating with terrorists,” but what got us there? Maybe terrorism is an act of desperation. If I’m right, not negotiating is just a way of treating symptoms and not a very good one. The better option is to work towards stamping out desperation.

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. There will always be a few like-minded crazies who find each other and decide to blow or shoot someplace up. This usually ends in a ball of flame with the perps dead or behind bars. I’m talking here about organizations that are able to recruit and grow because their central message and goal resonates with lots of people.

What is that message? What’s the goal? Not the spun and redacted one that their enemies pass around, but the one that caused so many people to sign up. Maybe you’d need to put yourself in their shoes to fully understand it. Try. Somewhere at the root of it, there is some truth. There has to be. Most of us have a good enough bullshit detector to weed out the crazies. To grow, any organization needs some truth. Sadly, for some the truth may be that their lives are so miserable that getting paid to kill starts to seem like a good option. Of course, whose fault is that?

We owe it to the world to find the truth. Buried within it is an injustice that could be the basis for discussion. How many future terrorist groups are being ignored or suppressed now? Could negotiating help us to avert the havoc they would inevitably wreak upon us?

Most of us don’t ask these questions. Our government has taught us that this is wrong thinking. We are taught that we have enemies and they are bad people whose sole purpose is to wipe us off the planet. This is tribalism at its worst. If we are going to evolve socially, we need to stop seeing other groups as “them” and start seeing them as “us.” If we can do that, then we might show a bit more compassion for the strife that is causing them to organize against their oppressors (perceived or real).

Is this idealistic? Damn straight it is! So what? Is idealism a bad goal or something? I’m tired of the “we live in a shitty world -- deal with it!” attitude that so many people have these days. Who is selling us this garbage? They are the real enemy. They are the ones keeping us from getting at the truth that will ultimately avoid sending young men and women to die for the military industrial complex. Maybe that’s “they” we should be worried about? I’m just saying.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Life! Thanks for Giving

This is Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. of A. It is a celebration of the harvest and the bounty that the new land provided to settlers from Britain. For a few days back in the 1700’s, they even honored their hosts (you know, the folks that were living here before them). Turns out that showing gratitude is good for your health. I watched a TED talk the other day and some guy was going on about the “3 gratitudes” and this morning on NPR (sorry Fox) I heard them citing the research on gratitude and health again.

It always amazes me when someone puts a new spin on old knowledge and calls it a breakthrough. NEWSFLASH! Being happy is good for your health (both mental and physical). If this surprises you, then it is quite likely that you are an unhappy person. Also, probably not particularly healthy. Stress is bad for your health too. So, is there a cause and effect relationship here? Does reduced stress make you happier or does increased happiness make you less stressed out? Maybe they’re just two peas in the same pod.

So, what’s so special about gratitude? Maybe not getting everything you want is stressful. Maybe that stress reduces your happiness. Maybe being less happy limits the resources you have to achieve your goals. This is what some would call a self-reinforcing negative spiral. These are never fun for the people having them, so the trick is to find some way to break out of them before it goes too far down.

Gratitude shifts the focus to the things you do have. Here’s a little thought exercise for you. Close your eyes and imagine that you are dressed in a few rags. You haven’t had anything to eat in three days. You have had to drink dirty water and now you are sick. It is winter and you have no place to stay. You are lost, broke and you don’t know anybody. Somebody comes by and offers you a dry stale piece of bread. Are you grateful? Damn skippy, you are!

Now, take this lost, lonely, destitute, sick, hungry and homeless you and compare that situation to yours. If your life is even close to as good as mine, it would take you days to list all the things you’ve got going on. The “3 gratitude” idea recommends doing a few every day and spread them out so that you can continually derive the benefit of this realization.

Frankly, I think it’s just a clever gimmick. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great idea to be grateful for what you have. If this little mental trick helps you get to a state of gratitude for what you have then go for it. Some of us just know how lucky we have money, people who love us, food, shelter, health.

If you didn’t get that new Maserati that you really wanted, be content with the Corvette. Some people work so hard to get the extrinsic rewards that they think will bring them happiness that they don’t even notice all the things that they already have that were supposed to make them happy. You know what I call people who require “more” to make them happy? Losers! “More” is another self-reinforcing negative spiral. Try “enough” for a change.

Be thankful for everything that life has already given you. The joy of contentment can be part of a self-reinforcing positive spiral. You might just find that you get some of those things you were stressing about -- without the stress. Wherever you are in the world, have a happy thanks-for-giving day.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Myth of Time-saving Devices

I remember back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when “time-saving devices” were all the rage. I suppose these devices go all the way back the the 50’s. Take the electric can opener. Do you have one of these? We don’t. The dang things take up too much space. It’s a hassle to power them and they save you all of 20 seconds. What the hell will you do with an extra 20 seconds? Okay, I suppose if you’re big into canned goods and open 5-10 cans for every meal, this could add up, but seriously!

And, just because something is electrified, doesn’t mean it saves you time. Toothbrushes and razors are a case in point. It’s actually debatable whether either of these offers any value at all except that an electric razor is less likely to rip open a zit and cause excessive bleeding. Being prone to zits, I use an electric razor.

Then of course there’s all those lovely computing devices we all use. I’m as guilty as anyone on the planet. I have a multimedia computer connected to my big screen that I use to stream Internet content and watch digital TV from the antenna on my roof, an ultrabook (laptop), a tower PC for my recording studio, a Kindle Fire for reading books, a 7” tablet for stuff I don’t like doing on my Kindle because it is the worst Android device ever made, and a smartphone. Oh, and I have a laptop at work.

There is no friggin way any of this crap saves me time. As a matter of fact, these things fill my life. If you took them all away, I would have large expanses of time that would need to be filled with god knows what. I’d probably immediately set about trying to invent one or more of these devices just to occupy myself.

When I first learned to type in high school, I used a typewriter. For those of you under 40, this was a device that used hammer action arms with a raised letter on the end to strike an inked ribbon against a piece of paper to stamp a letter on the page. Many people don’t know this but the dumbass layout of a QWERTY keyboard was devised to avoid the hammers piling up on each other at the strike-point when people typed too fast. Some smart person figured out that if you put the letter is the worst possible position on the keyboard layout, people couldn’t go fast enough to jam the arms. It worked most of the time. Later, a guy named Dvorak invented a proper layout, but most of us still use the dumbass QWERTY one even though there are no longer any arms to jam.

Some devices, like the QWERTY keyboard, are designed just to slow us down. Take the video game console for example. These things scare me to death. I can only imagine the time-sink having one of these things around would impose. You may know firsthand. How many hours a week do you spend killing digital bad guys? If the amount of time spent killing digital bad guys was spent killing real bad guys, we’d all be dead by the end of the day...and I don’t mean just those of us in the USA. I mean all seven billion of us. Let’s face it, we’ve all been bad at one time or another and somebody out there knows it.

If instead of killing digital bad guys one day, everyone who plays video games went out and planted one tree for every bad guy they killed in their last killing spree, we could replant the entire Amazon rainforest, which would be a really good idea because at the present rate of Amazonian tree removal, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere won’t be the problem -- not pumping O2 into it will.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams famously talked about our propensity to derive pleasure from moving little green pieces of paper around and buying digital watches. Well, the green pieces of paper are all but obsolete and digital watches? Don’t get me started! Too late. At least they sat there and displayed the time. Modern digital watches do so much more. I think I have more fun listening to people with smartwatches justify their purchase than they do owning them. This has to be the dumbest thing to blow 500+ bucks on than has come along in a while.

Are you going to tell me that these little things save you the time it takes to pull out your phone? Really? And here I thought the electric can opener was a waste. This thing saves you 2-5 seconds (5 if you have it in a purse), which if you pull it out 100 times a day is a whopping 8 ⅓ minutes per day. Woohoo! That’s almost enough time to savor a Twinkie. Of course, half the time all the stupid thing tells you is that you need to get out your phone to actually see something. Then, you’d need to deduct the 5 seconds from your savings.

“But the watch counts my steps and tells me if I slept well,” you say? Okay, is this really important data? If you’re overweight, you need more steps. Period. If you’re not overweight, you’re getting enough -- keep it up. Counting them won’t help. As for sleep. I don’t know about you but when I had a shitty night, I don’t need my damn watch reminding me about it in the morning. If you can’t figure out how many hours you slept by subtracting when you woke up from when you went to bed, you don’t need a smartwatch, you need a frigging calculator! Better yet, get a 1st grade math education!

Hell, I don’t even wear a watch of any kind anymore. Back before the wristwatch, people had pocket watches. Today, some people still wear them to be stylish. I use my smartphone as pocketwatch. It is one of its many purposes. Someday, we’ll all have a chip in our head. That will really save some time. I can’t wait!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fear: The Freedom Blocker

Most of the world now has an eye on the Islamic State after their exploits in Paris. In true terrorist fashion, they are trying to reshape civil society by preying on fear. Security and freedom are two ends of the same stick. When you pick up that stick, you need to decide where you want to hold it. Elevated security means controls on personal behavior and heightened surveillance. These things reduce privacy and freedom of action.

I applaud those people who went back into the streets of Paris and resumed their lives the very next day. It took a certain force of will to do it. Fear is a powerful agent. When you live in a war zone, your sense of reality -- your expectations -- are fundamentally altered. You learn to suppress fear in order to avoid going completely insane. It would be wrong to compare people living in a war zone with people who live in a place in which daily life is relatively safe.

Israelis may provide the best example of a civil society that faces elevated risk. We can learn from the Israelis who have to board buses to get to work or their home only hours after one such bus was blown up by a terrorist. Israeli citizens practice vigilance, but they don’t succumb to fear.

The fact is, you cannot keep terrorists out forever. That doesn’t mean we should drop our guard completely, but we need to think carefully about where we want to hold that stick. The United States is a country that values it’s freedom above all. Because we are newer than many countries, we have enjoyed the freedom that comes from immaturity. We are catching up fast! Regulations and laws continue to chip away at our freedom in the name of safety and security.

We need to be cognisant of where to draw the line. A certain amount of fear may need to be acceptable. Risks are part of freedom and we need to recognize that the choices we make have consequences. Many writers have explored the tyranny of a state left with the total responsibility for safety and security. It’s usually a very ugly picture. If “we, the people” want the freedom, we need to take up the risks as well. I don’t want to get blown up or shot, but I also don’t want to live in a police state. How about you?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Distributed Systems: The Antidote to Greed

Tonight I watched a documentary about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. Actually, Kamen is an inventor of many things. Look it up...I’ll wait. So, now you know (maybe) that Dean is a pretty impressive guy. He spoke about something near and dear to my heart - the evolution of distributed systems. In this case, he was talking about potable water.

Over 50% of all global fatalities from disease are caused by a lack of clean water. Building large water treatment plants in remote third world areas is not practical. So, he built a self-contained small unit that can service about 100 families. It costs about $2,000. What’s clever about this is that there is no central authority. Once the system is in place, it just works. He’s also trying to improve the design so that it’s easy to fix and at least some replacement parts can be improvised.

The powers that be in our global control system don’t really like these sorts of distributed systems. They remove central control and central control always goes to the most powerful people. Since by now we all know that power corrupts, the best way to serve “we, the people” is to take power away from the powerful and distribute it. We already talked about water. Let’s go down the list.

Money: central banks control the money supply. They manipulate it to ensure their interests are served first. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are distributed. There is no central authority and once there is widespread acceptance, it cannot be manipulated by powerful interests. You can read more about this one here.

Energy: utility companies are regulated by the government. This sounds good in principle. In practice, they work in partnership to ensure their interests are served. The cost of home solar and wind systems have been dropping rapidly. We are almost to the tipping point at which it is cheaper to power your home with one of these systems. There’s still a ways to go on battery technology, but we are extremely close. The utility companies have been doing everything in their power to ensure that distributed power systems are not on a level playing field with their product. Eventually, they will lose this battle, but they will fight it as long as they can. Once we each generate our own power, that’s one less thing that they can hold over us.

Food: Agribusiness has a dirty little (not so) secret. They are taking lots of unhealthy shortcuts in order to cheaply feed the masses. They, too, have a deal with the government that allows them to remain in tight control over their destiny. The local food movement is starting to cut into this a little, but there is a long way to go. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) are starting to catch on, but we need a lot more of them. These are small local farms in which community members pay a subscription fee that ensures that the farmer’s produce is funded regardless of the effects of weather, which can devastate other types of commercial farmers. The community shares the risk of a failed crop. They also begin to untether themselves from corporate food sources. Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) hate these guys. They bring frivolous lawsuits against them to bleed them financially until they go under. They need our support, so that they can eventually win out over the power brokers. Hey! Don’t forget to grow your own food if you have some land. We grew lots of veggies in a 4’ x 8’ plot. It doesn’t take much.

Information: Once upon a time, the media and the government worked very closely together to craft the message and life was simple and good. Our government worked for us and it was run by righteous and good people...or so we thought. The reality is that they lied to us and withheld important information from us. We did not know all the bad things they were doing. They continue to attempt to do this, but smartphones and the Internet are making it increasingly difficult to keep secrets. These two things represent a massively distributed information system that puts the power of information distribution in the hands of “we, the people.” The government and media hate it, but they can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so now we know what’s going on - good and bad. We still need to figure out what we’re going to do about it.

Medicine: the medical insurance industry is doing its best to reduce health in this country and they are getting it done. It is an artifact of history that the medical insurance industry was started back when healthcare was inexpensive and businesses could offer to pay for their employees’ health as a perk. It was a good deal for everyone back then. Unfortunately, as more and more testing and treatment options have become available, healthcare has become unaffordable for all of us. The system is designed to enable large corporations who have many employees to gain a huge financial advantage over individuals. You buy your own auto insurance, your own homeowner’s insurance, and your own life insurance. Why not medical insurance? Because the insurance companies don’t want to insure a bunch of sick people who can’t work. So, if companies pay, they don’t need to worry about the unemployed sick people. We need individual health insurance policies. Obamacare has tried to do this, but it is built on top of the corporate paid insurance scheme, which needs to be dismantled.

If insurance companies had to sign up each individual separately and they could only have one rate per plan type, given that they can’t refuse anyone, they would be forced to focus on the cost side of the equation. This would encourage them to pay for things that drive good health like fitness club memberships and dietary supplements. These things are cheap, but since insurance companies are in bed with healthcare companies that make money from sick people, there’s no incentive under the present system. Distributing insurance down to individual families would fix all of this.

Wherever you find a social problem, look for a distributed system for the fix. Consolidation of power and control is an artifact of human greed. Greed is part of our nature and it will likely take many thousands of years of biological evolution to work it out of our psychic composition. The best way to mitigate its effects is to disburse power and control. As it stands now, a very few people have consolidated massive amounts of power and control over the lives of people throughout the world. They will not give it up without a fight, but they have learned to avoid direct confrontation. Their insidious strategy is to create systems the inherently support their objectives. By seizing individual choices that favor distributed options, we can wrest control away from them in the same non-confrontational manner.