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Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Our founding fathers were mostly entrepreneurs. Sure, many were doctors and lawyers, and some of them inherited their businesses from their fathers. Back then, all it took was a good idea, determination and persistence to have a good business. That doesn’t mean that some businesses didn’t fail even back then, but the entrepreneur always owned their failure.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Things have changed for the worse. It seems that there are a lot more barriers to success and far more barriers to entry. Let me give you a quick example from my own family. Years ago, my sister became a certified midwife. We come from an entrepreneurial family, so after working in a clinic for some time, she wanted to start her own practice. She had suitable partners among her colleagues, a proper location and the capital to start the business. Finally, she got around to insurance. Because they were not planning to have a doctor on staff, the insurance rate was going to be in excess of $1 million per year. The alternative was to pay less insurance and a doctor they didn’t need. It was mostly a wash. They abandoned the idea.

I have another friend who is a clinical psychologist. His education debt is so high that he will never be able to pay it off. Instead, he is forced to work for a public institution for a decade after which time they will forgive his debt. Needless to say, he will not be having a private practice anytime soon.

It seems the barriers to pursuing happiness are getting higher and more numerous. Education is more expensive, regulations mandate additional expenditures for compliance, and insurance companies exact an increasing toll. If you ask them, they will tell you that trial lawyers are the problem. Since lawyers were granted the right to advertise in 1976, the number of cases both legitimate and frivolous have increased dramatically. It is common knowledge that even a settlement can return massive financial rewards by middle class standards. The temptation to sue is so great that we have erected our own barrier while money flows to lawyers and insurance companies.

In industries that contain multi-national players (which is quickly becoming most of them), the big boys erect their own barriers to entry. Monsanto has been attempting to eliminate small farmers that don’t use their seed by suing them when genetic drift causes their intellectual property to show up in a neighboring field. The major players in the fast food industry have utilized their economies of scale to drive the margins down so low that it is difficult for a single location operator to make a profit.

I could go on, but you’re probably already bored with all the examples. There are businesses with low barriers to entry. You could be a web developer. Hey! There’s only about 10 gazillion of those. How about a personal coach? That’s great, but what are you going to do when you’ve finished coaching all your family members? I know! You could be a business consultant. Wait while I check LinkedIn to see if there are any of those...I’m back! And, you’re in luck because there’s only about 133,000 of them listed. Jump in line.

The American Dream is still alive and well. There are just a few more barriers to get past. People with a good network and financial resources have a much better chance. If you don’t have those things, you will need to make some sacrifices just so you can risk it all. I guess it’s no wonder most of us are working for someone else.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Who Lobbies for Us?

One exercise that I like to do when trying to understand a situation is to try to imagine what I’d be thinking and feeling if I were the other guy. To that end, I sometimes imagine what it must be like to be a Washington lawmaker. Members of Congress probably have very full days. Because they are members of their party and the ones who decide what laws we will have, what programs we will fund and what governmental agencies will and won’t do, there are lots and lots and lots of people who would like to talk with each and every one of them.

These people who want to talk with them are mostly paid to do so. It is their job to gain access to lawmakers for the express purpose of influencing their thoughts about a particular area of interest to their employer or client. If a company or group has enough money to employ a lobbyist full-time, they will have a person on The Hill every day trying to get appointments to talk with lawmakers or their staff.

Let’s pause and think about this. We’re talking about an entire industry. According to Wikipedia, the modern source of truth, there were over 12,000 registered lobbyists in Washington as of 2014. There are less than 500 lawmakers. You do the math. Between actually spending time on the floor and in committee, they have a continuous stream of professionals coming through their offices.

Each lobbyist is trying to persuade lawmakers to craft (or support) legislation favorable to their particular mission at the time. Some of these missions might actually be helpful to us regular folks, but most of it is favorable to the industries and groups that fund them. These generally break down into two major classifications: industry groups and citizen groups.

Citizen groups are supposedly lobbying for us, but here’s what they have to offer a lawmaker:

  1. Ideas
  2. Ability to help get support for other favored agenda items

Industry groups, on the other hand can offer:

  1. Ideas
  2. Ability to help get support for other favored agenda items
  3. Campaign funding
  4. Financial support for pet projects
  5. A job if and when the lawmaker decides to retire from public life

This explains things like why medical insurance companies still exist after healthcare reform. Did you know that 62% of all personal bankruptcies are caused by the inability to pay medical bills? And, 78% of those folks HAD medical insurance. Insurance companies make huge profits. They do this by using very creative tactics along with legislative support so that they can legally get away with said tactics. On top of corporate profits, they employ many expensive people as executives and lobbyists.
Nobody wants to put a whole industry out of work, but we’ve done it before and we will need to do it again. How many whalers do you know? The fact is, when an industry is sucking the life out of the economy, it’s value proposition needs to be reevaluated.

It won’t be. Because there is no lobbyist in Washington with the resources to compete with highly profitable industries like medical insurance. It starts with election finance reform. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people. This put the nail in the coffin of any hope that we could stop industry from funding elections. Winning an election requires lawmakers to be pragmatic. You need to take care of the folks that are buttering your bread. Until that’s an average citizen, citizen lobby groups are at a serious disadvantage.

Since corporations are now people, you’d think the limit on personal campaign donations would apply, but until we eliminate soft money, there will always be back channels. The other option would be to ban lawyers from being lawmakers. Of course, if we did that, we might not be able to find enough willing individuals to serve in Washington.


This morning, only one day after writing this post, I came across a new initiative that is starting to take hold in the medical insurance industry, which I used as an example above. It is called value-based insurance design (V-BID) and elements of it were actually included in the Affordable Care Act. It's a step in the right direction and will make a significant difference if it is widely adopted.

Friday, September 25, 2015


Yesterday, the Pope spoke about congress working together. The talking heads in the media were unified in hoping Congress heeds that message. I hope for world peace too, but C’MON! That shit is not going to happen any time soon.

A brief look back in history shows that Congress wasn’t always so bifurcated along party lines. Oh, there have always been some issues on which the parties disagreed. But, everything? I swear, if the Republicans came out with a policy statement saying that Pepsi was the best, the Democrats would have a policy stating that Coca Cola was the best. Really, people -- GROW UP!

This fifth grade schoolyard crap is getting old. As a matter of fact, it is an insult to fifth graders. Maybe what Congress needs is a good stiff detention. I don’t think there’s a corner in D.C. big enough for the time-out that would be needed.

I blame modern marketing. Branding. Positioning. Demographic analysis. Messaging. It’s all a bunch of psychological warfare. They know more about how your mind works than you do. There is a science of knowing which psychological buttons to press and how many people will respond to them. It’s a numbers game. In the high-stakes game of federal office, nobody gives a crap about their own beliefs anymore. Oh sure, everyone has a few pet ideals that they will stand by if they can, but the rest is up for grabs. Whatever will get them elected.

The argument goes: if you’re not willing to compromise, you can’t get elected. Since we have all this data that tells you what you need to say in order to get the necessary votes, it’s best to just say it. If you’re a career politician, you can’t stop saying these things (and acting upon them) because you won’t get elected the next time around.

The system has been trashed by marketing experts. The problem is, you just can’t “unknow” stuff. Also, our problems are complicated and we live in a sound bite world. Imagine trying to explain quantum mechanics in two sentences or less. You could say something relevant, but the listener would have no better understanding of the topic than before you said it. They might think they know, because they know more than they did before, but I wouldn’t hire them as my next chief physicist.

Furthermore, it is a proven fact that people don’t know what they want. Yeah. Yeah. YOU know what you want. It’s everyone else that is confused. RRRIIIGGGHHHTTT! The best example of this is focus groups. Marketers love these things. You get a bunch of actual consumers in a room and show them a product and ask them if they would buy it. Everyone says “oh, yes. It is just lovely.” Armed with this “data,” they go to market only to find that not only does the product not sell in large volume, even the people in the focus group who said they’d buy it don’t. What is that?

This is how we end up with the same members of Congress year after year. People say, “throw the bums out...but not my bum. She’s not like the others. I’ve got news for you; she IS the others. If you really want to end gridlock, in the next election cycle, vote for the worst politicians you can find. That will send the message that gridlock is over. Otherwise, you get the government you deserve.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Preacher

I’ve never been “religious,” but I’ve always been spiritual. It’s the dogma that bothers me. Religions, like other structured institutions, are designed to control the masses. Maybe this is a cynical view, but I don’t give a shit because my opinion is not controlled by any of them.

Here’s the annoying thing: I preach all the time. I can’t help it. Because I see things differently than people who are programmed by their favorite organization, I feel the need to spout off about my beliefs. It’s terrible, I know. And, entirely hypocritical. I’ve just never been good at keeping my thoughts entirely to myself. I could justify it as some deep-seated need to be helpful, but who am I kidding? I’m not going to change the world.

So, I preach on. This blog has given me an outlet for some of my preaching, but my poor friends and family probably get the brunt of it. I guess I don’t really mind if people buy into my point of view or not. What I’m really after is for people to try to step away from the dogma that has been systematically programmed into their thinking over what has usually been a very long time. From my experience, this is an almost hopeless cause.

Still I preach on. Like I said, I can’t help myself. I’m reminded of the beginning of the book Life of Pi. The hero became a member of the three major religions, one after the other. In the end, he quit them all. By experiencing the similarities and differences between the religions, he was able to separate the dogma for the true spirituality that each had to offer. In the end, one doesn’t really need an organization for true spirituality.

Krishnamurti, one of the greatest spiritual teachers of modern times, distinguished between teaching and preaching. The difference is subtle. Preaching is a much more coercive affair. That may not be the intention of the preacher, but it is the nature of the act. Teaching is about a journey of self discovery. I suppose that whereas preaching focuses primarily on the message, teaching focuses primarily on the learner.

My pledge is to try to do less preaching and more teaching. To that end, my writing should have more facts and questions and fewer conclusions. Blogs tend towards preaching because the whole point is to publish your beliefs and experiences. I won’t be able to leave those things out completely, but maybe I can be more self-aware.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


At lunch today, I had an interesting conversation. Part of it centered around the idea of integrity. My friend is a man of exceptionally high moral character. I don’t say that lightly. It takes a lot of courage to follow your beliefs regardless of the consequences. Few people have that sort of intestinal fortitude (i.e. they just don’t have the stomach for it).

History loves to hold up heroes like Gandhi and and Mandella, who stood by their beliefs in the face of horrendous pressure. Out there, right now, there are people of similar character. They may not be tested quite so vigorously, but make no mistake. They are uncompromising in the belief that who they are is defined by their ability to follow the path of righteousness. Even for them, there are consequences. They may not make the news, but on a personal level may be no less devastating.

Morality is not some sort of absolute. There are cultural variations. In some cultures, lying to protect someone else is perfectly legitimate and the sort of self-sacrifice that you would want your children to model when they grow up. Certainly, there are situations that are morally ambiguous in which one party suffers regardless of what choice is made.

I’m not talking about whether “you” believe that what someone else has done is right. I’m talking about what “they” believe. I may do something illegal that aligns with my moral code. I still sleep well at night. When my kids were growing up, we tried to instill the proper values in them.  Once, when we were out at lunch, the kids wanted refills of their drinks. We did not see any indication that they offered free refills, but we agreed to ask. The waitress told us that she’s not supposed to, but she does it anyway. We said “no, thank you.”

We had to explain to the boys that the owner of the restaurant had priced the drinks assuming there would be no free refills. Further, the waitress is likely to get a nice tip for breaking the rules in favor of the customer. We had similar discussions at the movie theater ticket window. Because the boys were small for their age, when they were over 12, they could easily pass for younger. We often had to literally argue to be charged the proper amount.

The world is a very big place now. I think it is easy to depersonalize various situations and justify immoral behavior because we don’t know the people we’re hurting. Maybe we think that we’re just leveling the playing field for the little guy. If that’s how you feel, show the moral courage to really back it up. I’d have a lot more respect for that waitress if she went to the owner and said it is unfair to charge extra for refills. Maybe if she had told me that she had told the owner that she planned to offer free refills anyway and he chose not to fire her, I’d feel differently, but she was a moral coward.

We face moral decisions almost daily. Some are easy. Others have major consequences. We must choose to live with the consequences or compromise our integrity. It is a choice that is taken all too lightly by far too many people. Each bad choice we make appears to make our lives better, but in fact is drags society down a little bit more. It requires us to make stupid laws and regulations, lowers trust, and reinforces further bad behavior. The fix starts with you. Do you have the courage?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


A couple weeks ago, the dehumidifier I purchased a little over a year ago failed. I think the coolant must have leaked out because it was still making lots of noise. So much noise in fact that I had to turn it off when I was in the room. I went without it for about a week, but the humidity outside wasn’t abating like it’s supposed to this time of year.

Then, I remembered that I still had the old unit (a Frigidaire). I pulled it into the room, turned it on and lo and behold, it is now quieter than one. When I bought the new one, it was quiet and it has a humidistat to set the actual humidity level rather than a dial with some numbers that have nothing to do with humidity percentages. The reviews were good on it so I was hoping it would work well.

After a few months of operation the new one started getting a bit louder. It was still quieter than the old one. By the time I pulled it out, even if it hadn’t been broken, it had no redeeming features over my seven year old one that had lasted for about five years of summer use. The reason I didn’t run right out and buy a new one was because I will only need it for a few more weeks and then the air around Michigan will dry out enough that I’ll be thinking about switching in my new humidifier (that will be on its second season) and I didn’t want the warranty clock to be ticking while it sits all winter long.

Now, I’m rethinking the whole purchase thing. I need to acknowledge that I’m as guilty as many of us in that I buy things I want because I can afford them. I like buying things. I don’t even know why. I guess the desire to acquire is built in. This probably worked out well for us humans when there were just a few of us running around the planet, but now things have gotten substantially more crowded.

As we face a planet that seems increasingly small and inadequate to the task of fulfilling our every desire, we have two stark choices: A) get off this rock, or B) stop consuming so much. Since our government seems unable to organize a company picnic let alone space colonization, I’m thinking we need to focus on consumption.

The challenge there is that our entire economic system depends on it. The more consumption we have, the better our economy does. As a matter of fact, if the talking heads in the media start saying the economy is going to go bad, we stop buying stuff just in case they’re right and...BAM! They’re right. All the pundits can pat themselves on the back and go home for a nice steak dinner because they don’t lose their jobs even when the economy sucks.

So, if our economy wasn’t based on consumption, could it be based on conservation? I’ve spent far more time thinking about this than I should. I think it could be done. Currency could be in the form of conservation credits. We would need to set up baseline consumption values for everything (and I mean everything -- just like we have dollar values on everything now).

Any time someone conserves below the baseline, they earn a profit. If they go over? It’s a loss. People could get all creative trading high consumption products and services for more conservative ones. Hey, it could be fun! We’re already seeing some evidence in this direction. When I was in Colorado last month, they charged for grocery bags. If that’s not a consumption loss, I don’t know what is.

Personally, I’d rather see us get off this rock, but until that happens. I’ll settle for more conservation.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Work Fun Balance

Recently, the New York Times published an article about the competitive work culture at Amazon and how Jeff Bezos, the president was pushing people to work long and hard in the pursuit of excellence and innovation. Nobody can deny the success that Amazon has had in online retail innovation. Their list of firsts is unchallenged in the industry. Many acknowledge that they single-handedly put the largest book seller, Borders, out of business.

The NYT article quoted former employees who spoke of broken home lives and grueling joyless work days. Is this a case of the ends justifying the means? Can the success of the company be attributed at least in part to this work culture? Or, is their success in spite of it? Since we can only travel on one path in life, it’s hard to say.

Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have some inherent advantages, not the least of which is their first mover status. They have been very successful at recruiting the best and brightest from universities. As a small businessperson, I have not enjoyed these benefits. Yet, I must attract the best people available and get the most out of them.

Back in the slavery days, a simple whipping was all that was necessary to motivate the “staff.” The threat of “no food” was almost as effective. Unfortunately for modern managers, indentured servitude and corporal “motivation” are no longer an option (although EDS did try a form of indenturing with their mandatory personal loan co-sign technique). Nowadays, it’s all carrots and no sticks.

Don’t get me wrong, I love carrots. Heck, by the time you get to the stick the situation is usually unsalvageable anyway. In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he discusses how studies have shown that carrots (extrinsic rewards for the technically minded) can have the opposite effect on workers who must engage their creativity and judgment in the line of duty (i.e. white collar workers).

In my experience, the smaller the reward, the better. I used to keep some $25 gift cards in my desk. I liked to hand them out randomly when I caught someone doing something extraordinary. People always seemed so appreciative. Far more than when their bonus was direct-deposited into their bank account. It seems that rewarding specific behavior spontaneously and on-the-spot means more to people.

More than carrots, the culture can be the biggest motivator. Sometimes I really needed people to work longer hours. The best way I’ve found to do that is to create a fun environment. That means flattening the organization -- and not just in name only. It means removing fear from relationships. I encourage what I call “healthy disrespect.” I’ve had employees come to me and ask me “why do you let that guy talk to you like that? He works for you.” I need to explain to them that I work for that guy as much as he works for me.

If I alienate him, he might not feel free to tell me what’s on his mind. I can’t do my job to guide the company if I don’t know how people are feeling and what is troubling them. Keeping the lines of communication open means removing fear from the relationship and that’s not easy. We’ve all been programmed to fear “the boss.” Bosses hold the keys to our professional future in their hands. We think that if we tell them something they don’t like, especially about their own bad behavior, the repercussions will not be good for us. It takes a lot of work to convince people that they have nothing to fear; that if they’re doing a good job, they can say whatever they want (within accepted social bounds) with no negative consequences.

Building that sort of trust in an organization has many dividends. People will work harder. They will care more. Most importantly the honesty surfaces issues quicker and suppresses bad ideas equally fast. The thing about balancing the joy of a great working environment with the work is that it emerges naturally. Any attempt to modulate it will be disruptive. As a matter of fact, I have been known to be the head joker. Sometimes people get a little too serious. So, my business advice for today is from the immortal words of Sgt Hulka in the movie Stripes, “lighten up, Francis!” You’ll live longer and have more fun in the process.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Needle in a Haystack

Lately, I’ve been writing a daily blog post every weekday. Today is a Sunday and I was reflecting on my vast readership. I haven’t broken 20 views per day yet and I can’t say for certain that some of those views aren’t me. Have you ever wondered how many pages of content are generated every day on the Internet? It staggers the imagination. Anyone with a smartphone can create a post now.

I have family members (who probably make up about 80% of my readers who aren’t me) that use Reddit and Facebook along with other “feeds.” These services stream random content to you. In some cases, you can filter content be topic categories, but I’ve messed with some of these and even within a category it just seems like the material is...well...random.

How does anyone get above the noise? I seems like the stuff that goes viral is trivial nonsense. Gangnam Style. Really? WTF? I try to write about big ideas or at least small worthy ideas. You know, stuff we should all be concerned with. Things that will affect our future or help us understand who we are.

I guess that stuff is just too heavy for the masses. It’s disappointing. It also helps explain why Donald Trump actually has a chance of becoming president of the United States. If the Gangnam dude wasn’t from South Korea, maybe he’d have a shot too. It breaks my heart. We face serious issues and most people think the whole social system is a joke. They’re probably right, but whose fault is that?.

I’m still looking for the Internet equivalent of shouting in the public square. It seems that the public square on the Internet is about one square inch amidst a million square miles. Maybe I wouldn’t even care if my blog didn’t go viral. I just wish something more profound than Lindsay Lohan’s new extracurricular vomiting exploits would get the nod. Hey, I like Lindsay Lohan’s acting. I think she’s talented, but who cares if she can’t control her drug intake?

I have a good friend who is a deeply religious Christian. We had an interesting discussion in which he concluded that God has put us here on Earth to parrish. We seem to be making good progress in that direction, but I just can’t believe that. I keep hoping. Maybe if my blog went viral, I’d feel better about it. Maybe I’d feel better if we weren’t considering a president whose campaign rhetoric consists of statements like “we’re going to be doing stuff about those things.” I’d say “god help us” right about here, but if my friend is right, that’s not the sort of help I’m looking for.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Men & Women: The New Sexual Revolution

Cro-Magnon Skull
Years ago, in what may have been a major mistake, my wife gave me a copy of The Selfish Gene by Dr. Richard Dawkins. This was a seminal work that may have quite literally defined the field of sociobiology. Sociobiology is the study of how our biological needs drive social behavior. To say the book rocked my world is putting it mildly.

More than introducing me to new ideas, it changed the way I understand why we do the things we do. Let me share a few of the book’s highlights. First, it is important to understand that we are still cavemen. I know, we’ve built some extremely slick stuff. Who would have guessed that in 4000 years of civilization, we’d have the smartphone? But, world peace? Nowhere to be found.

I like to say that we have one foot out of the jungle, but this may be optimistic. Just because we clear cut the place, doesn’t mean we don’t belong there. Let’s start with the men. If we buy Dawkin’s thesis that our primary goal in life is to achieve immortality by propagating our genes, then men have one obvious strategy: have sex with as many beautiful women as possible.

Why, you ask? Because men have an unlimited amount of sperm. They are capable of impregnating large numbers of females and even if a small percentage of them come through with offspring, the numbers will be far better than if they stay with one female. Plus, if they are beautiful and healthy, the odds of their offspring propagating their genes goes up.

Females, on the other hand, have a serious problem with that strategy. First, they need nine months to gestate a fetus. During those last few weeks, they’re pretty helpless -- especially back 4000 years ago. Second, when they finally give birth, they’re now stuck caring for a more or less completely dependent being. Hunting and gathering activities are severely curtailed.

So, you can see how women might be motivated to keep a man on tap to assist. You can hopefully also see why men have no interest in hanging around. Yet somehow, these opposing drives have attenuated each other to make us willing to compromise. The average length of a marriage in the developed world is 13.6 years. In the United States, it’s about eight. I guess we have a shorter than average attention span.

Marriages have historically been used to strengthen families. Until recently, women were chattel, used to combine two family trees for financial or other benefits. About 50 years ago, the women’s liberation movement finally gained traction. New career opportunities opened up for women and companies were forced to balance the workforce. Pay equality may still be somewhat of an issue, but it is now possible for young women to earn enough to be self-sufficient, thus destroying a world order that has presided for millennia. Thanks ladies!

Suddenly, educated women with good jobs aren’t quite as interested in propagating their genes. Their attitudes about sex are purely recreational. Apparently, the underlying biological drive to procreate is still with us despite the lack of interest in parenthood. The effect has been to overcome the social imbalance men have faced between desire and access to sexual partners.

Despite the apparent windfall, there are great forces against this trend. These forces call themselves fundamentalists and they can be found everywhere - from Christian conservatives in the United States to Muslim radicals in the Middle East. I often wonder how a devout Christian can shoot a doctor in the head or a devout Muslim can blow themselves up on a bus full of school children. These acts are inconsistent with the  teachings of the Bible and Quran respectively.

However, fundamentalists seem to be far more concerned with traditional gender roles than any religious dogmatic details. Basically, they want their women covered up, barefoot and back in the kitchen where they belong. They are fighting a losing battle. In order to shed our caveman nature and evolve socially, the balancing of genders is necessary. Our barbaric past is ultimately all about male dominance for the purposes of gene propagation.

Evolution is undoubtedly messy. I suspect that the Cro-Magnons had run-ins with the Neanderthals before they eventually put them down. Progress can be slowed down, but not stopped. Women have tasted freedom. Good luck putting them back in the box. Social evolution may not keep up with technological evolution, but we’ll need to pick up the pace if we don’t want to destroy ourselves.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Geddy Lee from
This morning on the way to work, I got stuck behind a woman in a white pickup truck. She kept putting on her brakes. At first, I assumed that it was because someone in front of her was doing the same. Then I noticed that there was nobody right in front of her. When we finally passed the semi in the right lane, so I could go around her, I was reminded of Geddy Lee of the band Rush.

I know what you’re thinking; “this dude has attention deficit disorder and needs to see someone.” Hear me out. As you may have guessed, she was on the phone. It seems that every time she laughed, she put her foot on the brake. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to talk on the phone and drive. Hell, some people shouldn’t be allowed to chew gum and drive at the same time.

So what does this have to do with Geddy Lee? I am a big fan of the band Rush. Never have three guys made so much noise. I always assumed that it was all studio magic until I went to see them. The first time I saw Geddy singing, playing the keyboard and playing the bass line with his feet, I was blown away. These were not simple parts, each part was reasonably complex and not rhythmically parallel. Being a bass player myself, I can tell you that it is hard to sing and play at the same time even if everything is parallel, let alone do three things.

What makes this ability so remarkable is that scientists now believe that we are incapable of multitasking. The best the brain can do is what is called timeslicing. In computer terms, this is called single threaded. Each thread in a computer represents a separate stream of parallel processing. Human’s don’t have multiple threads, so they must switch tasks. Guys like Geddy Lee have learned to switch tasks very rapidly while allowing pure muscle memory to keep them afloat while their brain is occupied elsewhere.

Geddy is great at doing this. The woman in the white pickup? Not so much. There are exercises that can help you improve this ability (like singing and playing an instrument), but I don’t think she practices. Some people may just have a natural ability to do very fine timeslicing. They should be allowed to drive and talk on the phone.

A Proposal

I would like to see states adopt a practice of offering endorsements for driving while on the phone. People would need to take a road test to prove that they are capable of navigating and responding to unexpected situations while being distracted by the phone. If they can, they get a special license plate. If not, they get the regular plate.

This would make it easy for law enforcement folks to identify people that don’t belong on the phone while driving. The penalties for this should be right up there with DUI as it can be just as deadly. The only affordance I would make is that I would allow them to talk on the phone while they’re picking up trash along the freeway. It’s good practice and a lot safer than doing it while driving.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Exodus - Movement of Ja People

When Bob Marley sang about an exodus, he was referring to Zion -- returning to the land of origin. The exodus we see today is all about people taking refuge. As westerners, we tend to look at the people coming from Syria and Iraq simply as refugees, but a quick look below the surface reveals that these are people of means and many of them are well educated by local standards (some by any standards).

How many Americans could afford $3,000 to $5,000 per family member to escape? I dare say that even here it would require a family of some means to accomplish this. To do so with the attendant risks of dealing with shady smugglers, crappy transport vehicles and unknown timeframes is unthinkable for most of us.

These people are self-starters who achieved a modicum of success in their home countries and now that has all been taken away. Naturally, they believe they are capable of making a new start somewhere...else! The problem with this thinking is that in these other places, they are refugees -- people looking for “temporary” refuge. If they plan to emigrate, the host countries need a whole different mindset about what they’re taking on.

Countries like France have been dealing with the social implications of a large Muslim population, but Germany -- not so much. Beyond the social implications, the cost of integrating so many new people into either the welfare system or workforce may be more than some countries can handle.

At what point is it less expensive to capture and hold territory in-country? If the international community established a perimeter within Syria within which the refugees could rebuild their lives, permanent resettlement could be a possibility. Remember, these are some very resourceful folks.

The greatest challenge with this plan is also a growing fear amongst European hosts -- infiltration. How to keep terrorists from coming in with the legitimate refugees. Performing extensive background checks on everyone is simply beyond the capability of anyone. One strategy might be to use references. Background checks could be performed on key influential people. Others could receive references from them and then those folks could provide references to still others. It’s not a perfect system, but it is far better than nothing and would at least make it more difficult for infiltrators.

What seems clear is that the middle east is in for a long period of instability. There are plenty of countries willing and able to sell arms to any and all combatants. Anyone trying to lead a normal life and raise a family is not going to want to be in the middle of it all. If all the high achievers (warlords excluded) bail, the chance of reason taking hold is slim to none.

In Iraq, we had a Green Zone. While there were occasional incursions, it remained generally a safe haven for those inside. Maybe it is time to establish green zones in the countries of origin for the growing number of refugees. Then, we could have a Bob Marley style exodus -- back to the homeland!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Open Mindedness

Last night I had dinner with some folks and we got to talking politics. It seems like the hardest thing to do when discussing this topic is talking “with” each other rather than “at” each other. Really, there are lots of topics like this. We formulate an opinion about how it ought to be and then we just dig in. We convince ourselves that the approach we “believe in” is the righteous path - the one true way.

As soon as someone starts talking smack about some alternate approach...well is just sounds wrong. We have this sudden urge to place duct tape over their mouth so that we can explain how it really is without being interrupted. We figure if we could just shower them with our eloquence, they will be overwhelmed by the solid reasoning behind our position.

Of course, they’re thinking the exact same thing. There’s just never enough duct tape to go around! I try to be open minded. Before I offer up my opinion about things, I’d like to think I’ve done enough research to be able to defend my position by understanding as many sides of the argument as I can find. This is just good debate preparation.

Last night, I was with some hardcore conservatives. They were convinced that big government and too many regulations were just destroying our country. That sort of absolute, oversimplified view sounds too much like political speech than real doctrine and that’s probably where it came from. Real solutions are much more complex and nuanced. To understand this, one must drill into the arguments of the other side.

What I heard last night is that conservatives feel that government is inefficient. I agree with this. They think that the private sector, driven by the profit motive, will always be more efficient that people who work in an organization in which the money is just handed over to them (i.e. the government). Maybe we can all agree on this point. Certainly there are plenty of progressives (read “Democrats”) that feel this way too. This is a good indication that there’s considerable truth to this belief.

So, what would happen if the conservatives had a total victory and got their way? What would that look like? Would we privatize everything? What would happen if every aspect of our functioning as a nation needed to be profitable? What if there were no regulations to impede the pursuit of profit? Maybe we would have full employment. The environment would probably suffer, but who really cares? Everyone alive today will probably be dead by the time the ecosystem changes enough that it won’t support human life.

And what about poor people? Without a social welfare system, they would be completely dependent on the charity of others. That’s sort of what we have now, but that charity is compulsory. Would their living standards drop if it was voluntary? Probably. It’s hard to feel sorry for a homeless person when you catch them drinking and smoking. What is that? I guess if they made good fiscal choices, they might not be homeless. Of course, the money they use to buy those things came from voluntary donations. The food and shelter is more likely to have come from compulsory funds. If it was all voluntary funds, they might be more careful about being caught drinking and smoking.

Most of the time, when people engage in an open minded discussion about any topic, they find truth on all sides. They will also need to call bullshit. Sometimes, they will just need to agree to disagree. Sometimes there are no ultimate conclusions to be drawn. The Buddhists like to talk about something called “the middle way.” They believe that most answers lie there. I tend to agree. Finding the middle requires one to embrace both sides. That’s not an easy thing to do. We’re built to pick a side. We must fight that urge.

If we don’t, we’ll end up with a compromised system that is a patchwork of whatever is left after to entrenched camps give up the table scraps between their opposing views. Oh wait! That’s what we’ve got. That’s not the middle way. That is crap, which is pretty much what we’ll keep getting if we don’t change our ways. Please! Save the planet -- open your mind.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Is it Art?

I write a lot about technology in this blog. I’ve already made the case that technology is eating up jobs. So, what are we going to do when all the jobs are gone? How about art? Even if computers can do art, we would rather experience human art -- except for maybe the stuff a five year old does. Only a parent could see beauty in that crap. I guess you’ve gotta start somewhere.

I’ve noticed that most people associate “art” with the visual arts. If I ask a friend if they are an artist, they might say something like, “I can’t draw for shit.” My friends have foul mouths. Lot’s of things are art though. Obviously, music is art, but what about food? People who cook use a pallet of ingredients combined with various equipment to produce an olfactory and gastronomic experience that, like a good painting, runs the gamut from nasty (see 5 yr old art) to amazing.

I have some friends that do woodworking. They just call it woodworking, but I call it art. The crap I make, you wouldn’t put in your attic. The stuff they build, you’d probably pay good money for. Why? Because it looks good -- just like a good painting.

Some people design their own clothes. Others vandalize the neighbor’s trees with toilet paper. I think that looks really cool. Once, the kids in my neighborhood put toilet paper in one of my trees. I went out and added more. I didn’t feel their work was thorough enough. My neighbor asked when I was going to “clean it up.” I said I already had. It looked much better.

After a few days, it rained and I had to pick up the paper off the lawn. I thought about mowing it, but decided against. If you’re from Ann Arbor, you will know that green and white doesn’t go over big with the locals. My point is that art is where you find it. There are no rules about art except that you generally need to do something to create it. Here’s me with my band Sweet Melissa making some live art. I’m the guy who’s not allowed to sing (but they let me talk) who is just playing bass.

Here’s a pizza I made. Sure, it was dinner, but it was also art. Treating the things that you make as art makes the effort more fun and probably improves the results too. Whether something is art or not is more a matter of the creator’s attitude than the type of thing produced. Maybe you’re an artist after all!

Friday, September 11, 2015


I realize that I’m not a great blogger. My posts are longer than the line at the new Disneyland attraction in July. I promise to keep today’s short. It is about the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) phenomenon. which means I'm writing for those of you who can’t read through the entire ingredient list on a box of cereal. Clearly, we have entered the age of the image.

Images are cool to be sure. Who could forget the dog who sings while playing the piano? But really, whoever solved a major world problem with a poster? I’m not saying you can't do it, but you’d need to be one hell of a writer to get enough detail for a master plan in one sentence.

Even if you don’t read books, read articles. Read them right to the end even if every fiber of your being is telling you to move on. It is only through knowledge acquisition that we grow, and it is only through growth that we fulfill our true potential. As an Army recruiter once said, “be all you can be.” Read on, my friends -- read on!. Our battle cry should be: LBRA (long, but read anyway)! Coincidentally “libra” in Albanian means “books.” Go figure.

Oh, and while you’re at it, subscribe to my blog. I promise to give you lots of LBRA fodder for practice.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bitcoin: A Bloodless Revolution

I have written here about economics, government, the corruption of power and revolution. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about the symptoms of a system in decline. History tells us that no matter how good a system is, it will ultimately be co-opted by those few people who are the best at exploiting its rules. Humankind has always prospered on the backs of the working class. The masses are the engine of material prosperity.

Those in power ultimately have no obligation to the masses. At some point, their power becomes so entrenched that they forget about sacrificing for the greater good. This is not conjecture or opinion. This is an historical fact.

Einstein famously said: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Are we doing anything different this time around? Has our global civilization made some fundamental shift that puts us beyond the reach of history? I suspect not yet.

There are two fundamental changes that could make the difference this time around:

  1. We are now all part of a single interconnected global economic system
  2. We have computer algorithms capable of surpassing human capabilities
The first change means that we are capable of fixing or destroying our system on a global scale. Something we’ve never been able to do before. The second point suggests that we no longer need to leave major economic decisions in the hands of humans.

Every time I pondered ways in which we could take back an economic system that has become increasingly corrupt, I came up with the same answer -- revolution. Most revolutions are messy, protracted and bloody affairs. Nobody really wants one, so they endure the status quo for as long as they can. Since I couldn’t see a way to avoid a revolution, I started to think about the possibility of a bloodless revolution.

To my knowledge, there has never been a true bloodless revolution. Even England’s hand-over of India came at some human cost. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the removal of King James had minor violence followed by even more death. Could it be possible to engineer a truly bloodless revolution?

What if…

As I see it, the main problem is that extremely wealthy people have the ability to use their wealth to create additional wealth in a way that has no impact on the real economy of regular folks. For a better understanding of this, just read this post. What would happen if us regular folks started converting our liquid assets to bitcoin? Bitcoin is the first successful attempt at what has come to be called a cryptocurrency. The main hallmark of bitcoin is that there are no intermediaries to tamper with transactions or supply. It is algorithmic and the code is open source for all to see (i.e. transparent). You can read more about bitcoin here.

Let’s play out one possible scenario. Suppose that millions of average folks with under $100,000 in savings were to move their savings into bitcoin. As this movement takes hold, the price of bitcoin starts to go up. Suddenly, early holders of bitcoin receive newfound wealth. Before long, wealthier individuals start moving larger portions of their wealth to bitcoin in order to diversify their portfolios. This will drive the price up even quicker.

The effect of people all over the world switching their holdings to bitcoin will be the decline in value of other currencies. This will also encourage better tools and supports for bitcoin such that people will be able to transact even more seamlessly than they can now. During the global transition to bitcoin, there will be new winners and losers. Fortunes will be disrupted. As with any major market correction, some people will suffer more than others.

The Net Effect

Some of the same rich and powerful people may still be rich when the dust settles, but they will find their power significantly curtailed. As George Gilder points out, $5.3 trillion worth of currency is traded daily. This is approximately 25 times the amount of goods and services. This means that far more wealth is being created (and lost) by manipulating currencies that real economic activity.

A bitcoin economy eliminates anyone’s ability to manipulate the currency regardless of their power and wealth. It is hard to even imagine the direct and indirect effects of this, but one thing is certain: nobody will ever again be able to cut your wealth in half by doubling the money supply. Digital currencies can be held online or offline in as complete security (maybe more) than your bank. Banks could decide to give you a haircut by confiscating 30% of your money, which seems increasingly likely in Greece. If you hold a digital currency, nobody can touch it without your permission.

Other Possibilities

If this sort of algorithmic solution can work for economic security, what other areas where human power corrupts can we implement it? Open source programmatic solutions to social, environmental and resource issues could be next. This does not need to be big brother. Smart people working together can come up with good solutions.

Every time a new system goes online, there will be new winners and losers. If the system is properly designed, those who are doing the most good for society will be the winners. If the system is not properly designed, we can fix it incrementally like we do other software. The key is these changes will be transparent. With open source, there can be no backroom manipulation to trick people into compulsory sacrifices for the benefit of the few.

What I propose is not intended to bring equality to capitalism. Capitalism is based on human nature and it works because it creates a space for people of all levels of ambition and drive. There may come a time at which our level of technology precludes anything close to full employment and we will need to rethink capitalism. For now, what we need to do is make sure that all capital is working for the markets we all live in and not some metaphysical currency or derivative market that is only for the ultra rich and powerful. I dare to dream!