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Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Today, Wikipedia sent me an email asking for money. I gave them some. Probably not as much as I should when I consider the value compared with what I pay for other services. I suspect lots of people won’t pay anything. They use Wikipedia just like I do, but they won’t pay because they don’t have to.

If you’re one of these people, you probably don’t pay for downloaded music either. In your defense, the music industry hasn’t exactly got onboard with the “pay what it’s worth” model. Too bad. I suspect they could get more money if they did. Studies show that people are willing to pay for value. Have you ever received a survey in the mail with a dollar bill? A company has to spend more on mailing expenses to get the same response as they get if they include a dollar in the envelope. For most of us, the time to fill out the survey is probably worth more than a dollar, but we feel the need to reciprocate.

Wikipedia is huge. They have numerous data centers and only 200 people to manage all the infrastructure as well as curating the content. Fortunately, they also have many many volunteers that watch over various pages. While it’s important to be on the lookout for inaccurate information, Wikipedia tends to have good information on most topics. It puts the old encyclopedia that I had when I was a kid to shame. I don’t remember what my parents paid for that thing, but it was expensive enough that they paid it off in installments. Further, with each passing year, it got more out of date.

Even history gets updated. New discoveries about our past are made and new perspectives are brought to light. Wikipedia encompasses all of that. Fifty years ago, if someone had said they had one place they could go to search the bulk of human knowledge for answers, you would have thought they lived 500 years in the future. What’s it worth to have that sort of jump on the future? Five dollars? Ten? Maybe even $25?

You could wait for the other people to cover your tab...or you could just pony up yourself. Go ahead, do it. I’ll wait...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Edward Snowden -- Come Home! is at it again. They are trying to get Edward Snowden a pardon. I’ve heard the arguments. I don’t fault Snowden for leaving the country initially. He needed to get the word out about what he had done and that would have been hard to do from a jail cell.

It was a great thing that he exposed the government’s hidden strategy of collecting data from almost everyone. We have a right to know and without Snowden, we (most of us) probably wouldn’t know. Further, lots of the information he leaked to the press was by no means secret to protect national security. Embarrassing? Hell, yes! Security compromising? Hell, no!

Unfortunately, some of the information he leaked was damaging to national security. Granted, he gave the information to responsible news agencies who had the ability to decide whether information should be shared with the public or not. However, it is not the job of the press to make that determination. Clearly, they’re not very good at it either.

So, now Edward is stuck in Russia. He has two choices: 1) remain an international fugitive, or 2) come home and face prosecution. He may fashion himself as a Mandela or Gandhi, but they both did their jail time. Doing jail time is an essential part of being a conscientious objector. From jail, he would be in a better position to ask for a pardon.

It’s as if they are asking the courts to find him not guilty before the trial. How can he be pardoned for a crime he has only allegedly committed? Is he not innocent until proven guilty even if he has confessed? That’s the law in this country.

Edward, if you are listening -- come home! Be the hero we all want you to be. You called the dance. Now, pay the piper. Come on in, be found guilty, and then we can lobby for a pardon when you’re a convicted felon. If you don’t get a pardon, serve your time in Club Fed. When you get out, you can make a fortune on the speaking and book-writing tours. If you don’t get a pardon, you will have plenty of time to write your first book or two from prison.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Honesty: What Gets Said

When I was a kid, lying got me an automatic spanking. My kids grew up with the same rule. I’ve written about honesty before because it is important to me. Today, I don’t want to talk about lying. I suspect most people try to avoid lying unless they find themselves in a particularly tricky situation.

Honesty is more than not lying. It also includes saying things that need to be said, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. This may be easier to do with people you know well and trust, but doesn’t everyone deserve the truth?

I am a musician and I happen to be putting together a band. We have been auditioning musicians. Before we invite them in, we like to listen to their music and have a conversation with them. A week or two ago, I was in conversation with a guitar player. He seemed to be a nice enough guy, but he sent me links to his music and he just didn’t have the skills we are looking for.

I sent him an email back explaining that I didn’t think his style and skill level matched our needs and wished him luck finding a group to play with. His response was very defensive and it was clear he was upset. I could have come up with some bullshit story that would have made him feel better, but I felt he deserved the truth about why we were not inviting him. It was up to him to decide whether I was just an asshole or if there was something to be learned from the experience.

I’ve come to a point in my life at which I no longer wish to deal with people whose egos are so fragile that they need to be lied to in order for them to continue to feel good about themselves. That doesn’t mean I don’t need to deal with these types of people. Everyone does. However, if my honesty's too much for them, they are welcome to choose not to deal with me. If it is someone that I must deal with, I am fully capable of moderating what I say.

By moderating, I mean reducing what I say. People with fragile egos will be told what they need to be told. I may even say things that help them feel good about themselves. There’s no harm in that. You can’t help people that don’t want it. I draw the line at lying or obscuring the truth as I see it.

If you’re like me in this regard, you may think about saying something that is not exactly honest in order to avoid the potential emotional pain you might cause them. I’ve made a decision that it is not my place to encourage someone’s ego problems. Maybe if people had to confront their ego problems more regularly due to people being honest with them, they would have a better chance of addressing their issues.

People who don’t have ego problems almost always appreciate honest feedback. So often, they don’t get it because people are “just being nice.” Sometimes, the messenger gets feedback after being honest that helps them realize that their understanding was mistaken. In either case, both parties can benefit from an honest exchange. Be nice. Tell the truth.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Political Correctness

Having been in the information technology biz for most of my life PC has been very important to me. I’m also not an Apple fan. I know that’s not fashionable, but I just generally don’t give a shit about fashion. Imagine my surprise when I found out that PC also stands for political correctness. Here I thought people were just dissing Microsoft.

No, they are trying to tell me that there are certain things I cannot say about people even if they happen to be true. Once again, I generally don’t give a shit. Let me make something clear up front before you judge me too harshly. I see all people as equal. People who are rich and powerful get no more respect from me than what they earn. By the same token, a homeless person on the street gets no less respect. If they ask for some change, I always apologize for not having any. I don’t like carrying change.

I happen to receive emails from I’m not a huge fan, but I like to keep abreast of their latest bitch. This week it’s about Donald Trump being on Saturday Night Live (SNL). Really? Apparently, the Latino community is all up in arms because they don’t like his views on Mexicans. Frankly, I don’t even know his views on this issue. I just know his show got kicked off NBC for having them. Now, everyone thinks because he’s on SNL it is some sort of betrayal. It’s fucking satire folks! C’mon!

What the hell is PC anyway? I liked it better when it had a disk drive and RAM. I like to think of it as “when egos collide.” I’m an old fart now. I know this. I don’t like it, but I know it. I referred to Asians as Orientals once. My Asian coworkers were up in arms. What did I say? How was I to know that the “O” word is offensive now? I must have been off that day. They knew what I was talking about, but apparently I bruised their little egos. In the words of a former SNL cast member, “well EXCUSE ME!”

I’ve been called insensitive. Insensitive to people - hell no. Insensitive to PC - hell yes! In a world where we have enough real differences to go around, sweating over the wrong words seems like a waste of emotional energy.

I’ve got an idea. Get a clue! Look into someone’s heart. It’s not that hard if you practice a little. If their intentions are good - let it go! Maybe Donald Trump is a bigot. I don’t know because I’ve never met the man. If you have, and determined that he’s a bigot and you’re not one yourself, don’t vote for him. Millions won’t anyway. If he wins the presidency, move to Canada. There aren’t very many people there and they speak the right language. Better yet, maybe we could convince Trump to go to Canada. They have a higher percentage of “his people” there.

What’s wrong with people? They don’t get offended when the U.S. government backs a bunch of Fascists in the Ukraine because they want to oppose the Russians (apparently even if Putin is right). But, they get all cranky when a guy says let’s deport a bunch of illegal aliens. It’s bullshit anyway. The U.S. would fall completely apart if we deported all the illegal residents.

The only good thing that could come from it is that we’d solve the water problem in California because without Mexicans to pick the crops, we’d need to get all our fruit from south of the border. Why? Because Americans are too wimpy to do that work even for $15/hr. let alone the piece-rate pay being paid now.

In conclusion...LIGHTEN UP! What matters is the heart. If people have love in their hearts, give them some slack. If they have hate in their heart, who gives a crap if they say it right?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Social Media Life

I don’t feel like an old fart, but then I’m reminded of things like the fact that there are adults running around out there that have never lived in a world in which the bulk of human knowledge wasn’t more than a few mouse clicks or finger taps away. As remarkable as this is (that this could happen within a lifetime), it is nothing compared with the realization that for many people, what I call “a life” is only part of a life.

I use email. I know that’s old school, but it saves me a lot on postage. I recently started using Snapchat with some of my younger friends and family. It doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to them. For me, it is a way to communicate with them. For them, it is one of the online tools that they use to define their virtual lives.

I remember when my then 10 year old son started talking about his friend from Brazil at the dinner table. He had never been to Brazil and to my knowledge, he didn’t have any Brazilian friends from school. This particular friend was exclusively online. The concept of an online friend was new to me then. Anyone who is or knows some young peeps today has experienced the phenomenon of “in-room” texting. This is when two parties are communicating electronically despite being within earshot.

To the older generation, this simply makes no sense. However, relationships that grow and develop online live there. For certain, the lines are blurred. My other son recently took a vacation together with an online friend from the other side of the country who he had never met face-to-face (or IRL - in real life, as I prefer).

The point here is that people now have online lives that are as important as the IRL part of their lives. There are no rules about the proper balance between these two lives. Some live mostly online and other less. As the tools supporting our online lives become increasingly robust, the experiences we have in them start to feel more real to us than...uh...reality! What is real? The online relationships we have are real. Maybe reality is overrated.

New technology supporting haptics (touch) and olfactory (smell) input/output are making it possible to share full sensory experiences. Early research into brain controller interfaces (BCI) could circumvent the need for all other i/o devices by allowing people to share full sensory experiences brain-to-brain.

What’s clear is that people are growing more comfortable building intimate relationships that exist exclusively online. These relationships are no less real that IRL relationships -- just different. Our identity is shaped by our experiences and as more of them move online, a greater part of us lives there too. Would you escape to the online world if you could use all five senses there? Go anywhere? Be anyone?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Making Choices

I was listening to some political debate the other day and I was struck by how politicians rarely talk about trade-offs. They wish to offer solutions to very difficult problems, but they offer them as if there were no price to be paid. When was the last time you watched a cow get slaughtered in order to get your hamburger? For most, the answer is “never.” Cow slaughtering is a messy business and the cow comes up very short on the deal. Ground beef looks so much more friendly and delicious, especially when it’s charbroiled and put between halves of a freshly baked sesame seed bun.

Just as hamburger has consequences for the cow, political solutions have consequences. Examples like this have stark consequences, but political problems tend to be more subtle. When I try to sort out consequences, I like to think of the two extremes as a benchmark. Regardless of party affiliations, there are two basic political systems at work: capitalism and socialism.

In a purely capitalistic system, the government offers no support for the individual. Taxes are collected to maintain national defence and public resources (roads, parks, and maybe utilities). For EVERYTHING else, people are on their own. It is left to the charity of those for who have found success in the capitalistic system to help those who have not.

In a socialistic system, the government collects up all the income and redistributes it according to individual needs and if there’s any left over, for desires. All infrastructure is maintained by the state. In its pure form, socialism makes no allowance to reward those who are successful at commerce.

The problem here is that in their pure form, both of these systems suck. The “fix” is to borrow ideas from both of them. That’s what we have in the United States and lots of other countries. The role of government seems to be to decide where on the line between pure capitalism and socialism we want to be. The general consensus seems to be that Democrats lean socialist and Republicans lean capitalist. This, like so many political realities, is bullshit.

To be sure, each party has their pet positions, but they have nothing to do with their support of some political ideal. Republicans are happy to support tax breaks for rich people, which sounds a whole lot like government meddling to me. And, the Democrats love a good infrastructure project, which is exactly what the government should be doing in a capitalistic system.

So, both parties pick and choose from both socialism and capitalism to suit their individual tastes. I don’t like that we get two choices (Republican or Democrat) and politicians get a zillion choices. Republicans get to decide to reduce the size of government, which a lot of people think is a good idea, but they also get to choose to control social behaviors like abortion and marriage, which a lot of the same people think is a bad idea. It is ironically un-capitalistic to interfere in social issues.

The bottom line is that every choice has consequences. We don’t always like to see the blood and guts of our choices because it makes things less clear. And, let’s face it, we like clarity. It’s easy to cut spending to help refugees. It’s not so easy to watch a three year old girl die in her mother’s arms from an illness that could have been cured by a $5 trip to CVS. This shit happens, but we don’t want to know. Our politicians are happy to hide the consequences of our choices from us. It’s up to “we, the people” to look at the consequences of our and their choices.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Are We a Virus?

I was listening to an author on the radio this morning and she was talking about living in the desert. She made a remark that stuck in my head. It reminded me of the scene in the Matrix with Mr. Smith and Neo, in which Smith was pointing out that humans believe themselves to be mammals, but mammals generally know how to live in balance with their environment. Humans exhibit qualities found in another kind of life form -- the virus.

That view seems at best cynical, but it is worthy of some scrutiny. Viruses invade their host, but they do not always completely consume it. Most viruses want to keep their host around so that it can spread the virus around some more. However, there are viruses that do kill their host.

One of the problems an extremely deadly virus has is the potential to wipe out all available hosts and thereby bring about its own demise. Some of these viruses (like ebola) have found a way to live outside their target host either by being able to remain dormant, but viable; or by residing in a secondary host that is only a carrier, but not symptomatic (what is sometimes referred to as a vector).

The underlying question here is: does any species have built-in limiters that cause them to self-regulate their numbers. Evidence would suggest otherwise. Recently, Pollsmoor prison (where Nelson Mandela was once held) was evacuated due to a rat infestation. It seems that the prison was overcrowded by 250% causing issues with excess waste and drain blockage. This provided additional food and the rats prospered.

Humans have been able to successfully subdue any limiting factors to population growth...until now. We may be hitting a planetary wall. We can learn from smaller scale infestations. They are usually devastating to the surrounding environment. The Earth may never have experienced an infestation of the magnitude that humans are foisting upon it. We don’t really know what the end game looks like or if it will truly be an end game.

If small scale infestations can be used as a model, when the population overruns the available resources, there will be some sort of catastrophic population adjustment. The end of an infestation is rarely an orderly affair.

Life, whether protozoan or human, has certain characteristics in common. One is that we are all trying to be as successful as we can. It appears that “success” is measured in shear numbers. Seven billion is better than six billion. The problem is exponential growth. The larger the numbers, the faster the growth rate. We find ourselves at the elbow of a growth curve that is about to go ballistic unless something intervenes. What will intervene and when is hard to predict.

The only chance for an orderly conclusion is a planned reduction in growth. There are ways to do it. I’ll be sharing some ideas about that soon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Surreal Experience

Yesterday, I had a non-surgical exploratory medical procedure of the non-esophageal variety. You do the math. I don't get sick enough to go see a doctor very often and specialists even less. The few times I've been to see a specialist, I was ready to gnaw my own foot off to escape by the time I got out of there.

For this procedure, I would need to be put under general anesthesia, so my wife had to come with me. I couldn't give you an exact timeline because I wasn't watching the clock too closely, but here's the gist:

  • We arrived shortly before 9a for a 10a procedure.
  • I was immediately invited to sit at an open intake cubicle. This procedure lasted about 15 minutes and required the exchange of documents, some reading, and some signing.
  • I was directed to the patient waiting area, where I read about four pages of my book. This was less than 15 minutes.
  • A nurse called my name and escorted me to a scale. I had lost a few pounds while preparing for the procedure. I probably won't keep them off.
  • She then led me to the preparation area where I reviewed and signed some consent forms, had vitals taken and changed into my operating room garb. They also provided me with a warm blanket (really! it had been warmed). The nurse also told me about he team that would be working me over and said they would be by for a visit. This all took about another 15 minutes.
  • As she left the area, the anesthesiologist arrived right on cue. We discussed the sort of drugs I prefer and he told me what he was planning for me. It all sounded pretty good, so I signed the anesthesia consent form that I had refused to sign prior to talking with him. This took about 5 minutes.
  • As he left, Dr. Fine arrived. He's a nice young Jewish doctor just like I wanted. I didn't ask him how many generations of doctors were in his family, but I'd like to imagine that the Fines have been practicing medicine for over a 1200 years. Because he's younger, I know that he's had an updated education and didn't learn modern medicine while on a ski trip in Aspen or on the beaches of Hawaii. We spoke briefly about my last visit and what I could expect this time. The whole visit lasted maybe three minutes.
  • As he left, the two lovely OR nurses arrived to wheel me out. I don't remember much of Sara and Tamara as once I got to the OR, I wasn't conscious for long.
  • In the OR, I met the nurse anesthetist and saw Dr. Fine briefly before going nighty-night.
  • Next thing I know, I'm waking up in the recovery room on the other side of the building from where I started with a new nurse and my wife sitting by (that's like standing by only with a chair). After a few minutes, I was able to get dressed and bail. It was about 11:45.
I'm not sure this sort of machine-like efficiency occurs only within the gastroenterology specialty or just this practice, but there are clearly some lessons to be learned from this operation. That's what I call modern medicine.

Friday, October 02, 2015


Portrait of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Recently, I have found myself repeatedly referencing an idea. The idea is our desire to find simple solutions to complex problems. There is so much going on in the world today. If everything that is going on in the world today could fit in a box of matches, you could put everything going on in the world 200 years ago in that same box of matches...without taking out the matches.

The world is full of issues to be tackled. Many of these issues are interrelated. Having a war has economic implications. Changing social values have political and economic implications. Whether it’s religion, science, technology, business, environment, social, medical, political, or economic, issues interact. That would add enough complexity by itself, but each of these areas has grown in complexity. There are many issues within each and each issue is more complex.

It boggles the mind. In 1486, an Italian philosopher by the name of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola held a public event in which he attempted to defend his knowledge of everything. The thought that anyone could know everything there is to know today is utterly absurd. Even knowing the existence of all there is to know is absurd.

Yet, as members of a democratic society, we are expected to weigh in on issues. We’re expected to support candidates that will represent us. We know almost nothing about the issues, nothing about their effects on other issues, and almost nothing about what the candidates know about issues and their interactivity. Does your brain hurt? Mine does. Writing this post isn’t helping either.

We need to at least think about this stuff. The first step towards making better choices is acknowledging our immense ignorance. Knowing that you don’t know leads you to ask better questions and make fewer assumptions based on what little you do know. Just acknowledging that our issues are complex causes us to dismiss oversimplified solution proposals.

Of course, complex solutions are a lot of work. They require a lot of work to design and a lot of work to explain to others. The others who are getting the explanation need to commit the effort to understand. It sounds tedious and boring and not how most of us want to spend their time. I do, but any who knows me will tell you that I’m not normal.

So, we accept the oversimplified proposals that come our way because they are easy to understand and require little effort to accept as the truth. They are bullshit! Accept them if you want, but just know that they won’t work. It’s just too complicated. Most of the really simple solutions require destruction on a massive scale, which may be why war is still so common. It’s the easy way out...sorta.

Do yourself a favor. Pick one of your favorite issues and spend 2 - 3 hours on the Internet reading different articles and academic research about it. I can guarantee that you will end up feeling like you know less about the issue than when you started. Only then will you truly understand what I’m trying to say here. It may not make any difference in the grand scheme of things, but as Pico, the Italian philosopher thought, it’s worth a try.

Thursday, October 01, 2015


Yesterday, I was home recovering from a flu shot gone bad and had the opportunity to watch parts 1 & 2 of Vladimir Putin’s interview with Charlie Rose. I thought Putin scored some good points even though I recognize that he is master politician able to spin a brick.

During the interview, I paused the recording to have a debate with my wife. It was about the definition of a terrorist. Putin referred to what they call DASH and we call ISIL or ISIS as a terrorist organization. I was arguing that they are not really terrorists, but rather non-state actors. My wife argued that they rape the women and kill children. I countered that this behavior has been part of war since time immemorial.

One of the hallmarks of terrorism is asymmetry. Terrorism uses fear of random attacks as a tool for leverage against a bigger foe. Terrorist actions are also always directed at innocent citizens. ISIS has troupes and equipment on the ground and they are pushing opposition forces back in classic military fashion. This is not terrorism. This is war. What happened on 9/11 was terrorism.

To be sure, these distinctions are not black and white. What troubles me is that governments and the media use the term “terrorist” to put our enemies in a special category. Few would argue that terrorist tactics go against the basic principles for an honorable war (if there can be such a thing). While atrocities are almost the rule rather than the exception in war, they generally occur when citizens find themselves in the way of a war between military forces.

Terrorism is a certain type of act. Terrorists are the specific people who perpetrate such an act. Sympathizers to such acts are not terrorists. They are enemies to those who have been attacked, but they are not terrorists. To use the term to gain public favor for military operations is abhorrent. It’s tantamount to trying to evict a neighbor you don’t like by telling other neighbors his is a child molester when all he did was spank his kid for being bad.

It seems to me that one of two things can come of this trend:

  1. We become desensitized to the term and start thinking of it as another term for enemy
  2. We start to see all of our enemies as the evil people who perpetrate such acts

I’m sure governments are rooting for #2. Lord knows we don’t want people questioning the motivations of our enemies. We wouldn’t want them thinking there may be grounds for negotiation. After all, we never negotiate with terrorists. Hamas is a case in point. They now run a legitimately elected government, but we’ve forced ourselves to treat them differently because of how they’ve been labeled.

This is not a simple topic with clear-cut answers. As citizens, we need to remain vigilant against rhetoric that is designed to pull our emotional trip wires. Our propensity to fight is almost always triggered by strong emotions and “terrorism” is a new psychological tool to gain the public opinion needed for war. Watch out!