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Mike [userpic]

From the "Seaons Greetings" Department

December 31st, 2008 (08:51 pm)

current mood: optimistic

Wishing everyone reading this a safe and happy New Year and a wonderful start to 2009. I know that this has been a rough year for a lot of you and, indeed, it has been a bumpy one for me as well. Here's hoping that 2009 will be a lot better.

I hope someone throws a shoe at this year on its way out. Of course, it's going to be one second longer. Because The Fates like to mock me.

Thomas Frank over at The Wall Street Journal has expressed a hope that 2008 will come to be known as the year that ended an illusion. Specifically the illusion among so many that the "invisible hand of the market" will ensure that all is for the best.

I'm still too much of a cynic to think it will be this easy. We can only hope that the financial meltdowns and economic stagnation of 2008 will start to make people realize that the notion of an all-knowing class of Wall Street barons who have earned their outrageous sense of entitlement by creating prosperity is nothing but a useless and destructive myth.

If this lesson is finally learned and if we really do come to understand that a society based on nothing more than an insatiable lust for profit has very ugly consequences, then maybe the financial pain so many people have felt this year will at least turn out to have a silver lining.

2009 will be a lot better. For myself, for my business, for my friends, for those I love, and for my country. This will be our year. I have to believe that.

Yes we can.

And with the end of 2008--a year that, for the most part, I'd rather forget--I'll be closing out this journal (although not deleting it). This will be my last entry here. Beginning tomorrow, I'll be moving over to my new one, dimensionm. See you all there.

Happy New Year everyone.

Mike [userpic]

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise...

December 30th, 2008 (10:27 pm)

current mood: thoughtful

The other day I watched Star Trek: A Captain's Log which I had not seen before. Although it was not the best work about Star Trek that I've ever seen or read, it is definitely worth watching. Something that always strikes me about these shows is how Leonard Nimoy is more thoughtful and introspective while William Shatner has more of the qualities of a good host, thus making for a good team--just like on the show itself.

One aspect of A Captain's Log that I liked a lot was its heavy emphasis on interviews with cast members of the original series, including Nimoy, James Doohan, Deforest Kelley, Walter Koening, George Takei, and Nichele Nichols. The interviews were wide-ranging and there was a lot of discussion about what the show was trying to accomplish. Very often a lot of things can be said through science-fiction that can't be said in other ways. This is particularly true in the medium of television, where there is a constant need for keeping an eye on the political and social attitudes of the day--the latest chapter in a long history of using fiction and literature as a way to say what desperately needs to be said and yet can't be said directly.

And of course, Star Trek inspired many in the next generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers who would grow up to make much of the technology predicted in Star Trek into actual reality--the flip phone, desktop computers, portable electronics, medical scanning technology, bedside monitors in hospitals, and so forth. One particularly touching moment was the cast members talking about how they all got together (along with Gene Roddenberry and many others connected with the show) for the launching of NASA's space shuttle Enterprise, named for the show, with the band playing the Star Trek theme in the background.

But what so many people (particularly those who are only casual fans or not fans at all) miss is that Star Trek is not about cool gadgets and dazzling special effects. It is, rather, about our society and ourselves. Almost all of the episodes have something to say and you can often get something a little different out of them if you watch them several times over the course of your life.

The first interracial kiss shown on television was on Star Trek, between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura in the episode "Plato's Stepchildren". The Federation's long Cold War with the Klingon Empire paralleled America's own Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Federation's Prime Directive speaks to the issue of when or whether it is appropriate to interfere in the affairs of other cultures, an extremely complex problem that all modern nations wrestle with. More recently, Deep Space Nine used the Dominion War as a vehicle to explore a whole host of issues foreshadowing the modern struggle against terrorism, such as how fear can destroy a society and just how difficult it can be to balance civil liberties with the safety of the public.

Also explored are some of the deepest aspects of human nature and human relationships: friendship, loyalty, love, exploration. Or what happens when these things are tested to their limits. In Mr. Spock, we have an internal conflict between emotion and rationality that nearly everyone deals with over the course of their lives. Many Buddhist teachings say that an excess of reason is itself a form of madness, but with the history of the Vulcans and Romulans, we have madness channeled into either an excess of reason or an even greater madness.

In the daily problems of individuals trying to uphold the highest principles of the Federation--Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations--we have a metaphor for the day-to-day difficulties of personal growth and growth as a society, of trying to become more than we are. In the Borg or the Dominion, we have powerful examples of what can happen when those choices go wrong. In all of the various time travel episodes, we can take a look at that profound question that most people ask of themselves regularly: "What if...?"

Gene Roddenberry, like writers and visionaries before him, believed that through telling a story one could affect change and make things better. He once referred to Star Trek as "a wagon train to the stars". But in reaching our minds to touch the stars, we have learned a lot about ourselves. We can only hope that this will also be true when the day comes where reaching for the stars is not just a mental exercise, but also a reality. After all, that day is likely not very far away.

To all of you, as we begin a new year: Live long and prosper.

Mike [userpic]

From the "It Starts With An Earthquake" Department

December 29th, 2008 (10:42 pm)

current mood: blank

(In collaboration with the "Uh-Oh" Department)

Scientists eye unusual swarm of Yellowstone quakes

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Yellowstone National Park was jostled by a host of small earthquakes for a third straight day Monday, and scientists watched closely to see whether the more than 250 tremors were a sign of something bigger to come. Swarms of small earthquakes happen frequently in Yellowstone, but it's very unusual for so many earthquakes to happen over several days, said Robert Smith, a professor of geophysics at the University of Utah.

"They're certainly not normal," Smith said. "We haven't had earthquakes in this energy or extent in many years."

Full Article...

jajy1979 and I have discussed Yellowstone quite a bit so no doubt he'll be hearing from me in the near future.

Some years ago, FEMA (that would be the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is well remembered by Gulf Coast folks for its former director, "Heckuva Job" Brownie and for the superb efficiency with which it oversaw the Hurricane Katrina relief effort) made a list of the three most worrying natural disasters that we may face over the next decade:

1. A major terrorist attack on New York City
2. A major earthquake--"the Big One"--in California
3. A major earthquake--"the Big One"--making a direct hit on New Orleans

So far on Bush's watch, we've had two of the three, but nevermind.

In any case, these are not the most worrisome natural disasters, although they may well be the most worrisome that we have a snowball's chance in hell of doing anything about. As bad as all of these scenarios are, recovery is possible and will no doubt happen in time. They do not pose an existential threat to the survival of the United States (and the world for that matter).

There are other natural disasters which are far more worrying in that they are disasters from which we'd likely never recover. These are:

1. A major earthquake along the New Madrid fault line in the Midwest.
2. A major eruption of Yellowstone.
3. An eruption of Mt. Rainier.

We might manage to make it through the last one. The first two, well--we're probably toast. A Midwest earthquake would, in a very short time, leave millions dead, countless billions in property damage, all kinds of infrastructure destroyed and major supply lines disrupted, threat of a breakdown of law and order, and a lot of other very bad things.

An eruption of Yellowstone would likely create a huge area covered in hot ash and poisonous chemicals that would possibly stretch for hundreds of miles. It may well produce enough of a cloud cover to plunge much of a the planet into another ice age.

I also wanted to let everyone know that I'm going to start using a new Livejournal account starting in early January 2009: dimensionm. One reason is that I no longer think my current user name particularly fits me or where my life is heading right now. Another is that I am making an effort to integrate my blogging and social networking accounts more closely with my personal web page to try to drive more traffic to my sites.

I will not be deleting this journal, merely putting it in mothballs. I will not be writing all that many more new entries here and then I will not be updating this at all once my switch is complete. I'm starting to go ahead and add people to my friends list and join communities on the new account so if you see this strange new name (lj user="dimensionm">) show up and find that the journal doesn't yet have any entries, that's me. If you could re-add me to whatever filters you have me on, that would be great too.

Mike [userpic]

Well, so much for my predictive abilities

December 28th, 2008 (09:45 pm)
Tags: ,

current mood: blah

How embarrassing. My original NFL playoff picks at the start of this season, with their final records (original entry):

NFC East: Dallas Cowboys (Final record: 9-7, 3rd place, did not make playoffs)
NFC North: Green Bay Packers (Final record: 6-10, 3rd place, did not make playoffs)
NFC South: New Orleans Saints (Final record: 8-8, last place, did not make playoffs)
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (Final record: 4-12, 3rd place, did not make playoffs)

NFC Wild Card: Minnesota Vikings (Final record: 10-6, 1st place, #3 seed in playoffs)
NFC Wild Card: New York Giants (Final record: 12-4, 1st place, #1 seed and home-field advantage throughout playoffs)

AFC East: New England Patriots (Final record: 11-5, 2nd place, missed playoffs in final weekend of season)
AFC North: Cleveland Browns (Final record: 4-12, last place, did not make playoffs)
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts (Final record: 12-4, 2nd place, made playoffs as wild card and #5 seed)
AFC West: San Diego Chargers (Final record: 8-8, 1st place, #4 seed in playoffs)

AFC Wild Card: Pittsburgh Steelers (Final record: 12-4, 1st place, #2 seed with first-round bye in playoffs)
AFC Wild Card: Houston Texans (Final record: 8-8, 3rd place, did not make playoffs)

Actual playoff teams (listed by seed):

1. New York Giants (12-4, NFC East champs)
2. Carolina Panthers (12-4, NFC South champs)
3. Minnesota Vikings (10-6, NFC North champs)
4. Arizona Cardinals (9-7, NFC West champs
5. Atlanta Falcons (11-5, NFC Wild Card)
6. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1, NFC Wild Card)

1. Tennessee Titans (13-3, AFC South champs)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, AFC North Champs) (*gag*)
3. Miami Dolphins (11-5, AFC East Champs)
4. San Diego Chargers (8-8, AFC West champs)
5. Indianapolis Colts (12-4, AFC Wild Card)
6. Baltimore Ravens (11-5, AFC Wild Card)

Bottom line: 5 out of 12 playoff teams predicted correctly, 1 out of 8 division winners predicted correctly.

In my defense, who could have seen the complete collapse of the Browns? The coaching staff and management are worse than I thought and half the team is injured. I believe they were down to their sixth-string quarterback, who is a guy who used to deliver newspapers in Shaker Heights.

I guess on the semi-bright side, getting shut out by the AFC's number 2 seat is slightly better than getting shut out by Cincinnati, which was truly a new low. Then again, I don't think there can really be a bright side to losing to the Steelers.

To make matters worse, the Browns did not even score an offensive touchdown in their last six games--in fact, their only (defensive) touchdown at all was a return off an interception against the Eagles. For the first time in history, they were shut out in two consecutive games.

I'm inclined to think of Casey Stengel, who, when he managed the New York Mets, was asked after a loss what he thought of his team's execution. Stengel replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

The Browns have already fired General Manager Phil Savage, who famously replied to an email from a fan by saying "Well go fucking root for Buffalo then". I guess now Mr. Savage can go work for Buffalo if he wants.

Next Weekend's Playoff Match-ups (First-round)

Philadelphia at Minnesota
Atlanta at Arizona
Baltimore at Miami
Indianapolis at San Diego

Mike [userpic]

Noted from the News

December 27th, 2008 (10:53 pm)

current mood: sleepy

From the "We really need to do something about our infrastructure" Department:

Obama's Hawaii retreat loses power for 11 hours

HONOLULU – President-elect Barack Obama's Hawaiian vacation was darkened for 11 hours Friday night and early Saturday when a power outage enveloped the island of Oahu.

Obama, wife Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha are staying in a $9 million, five-bedroom oceanfront house near downtown Honolulu. Power to the compound went out around 7 p.m. Friday and was restored just before 6 a.m. Saturday, about the time as that of the neighbors, Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said.

"The Obama family is grateful for the offers of assistance from local officials," LaBolt said.

Full Article...

From the "Now will you be quiet during the movie, dammit" Department:

Police: Pa. man shot for making noise during movie

PHILADELPHIA – A man enraged by a noisy family sitting near him in a movie theater on Christmas night shot the father of the family in the arm, police said.

James Joseph Cialella, 29, of Philadelphia, faces six charges that include attempted murder and aggravated assault. He remained in custody Saturday.

Police said Cialella told the man's family to be quiet, then threw popcorn at the man's son. The victim, whom television reports identified as Woffard Lomax, told police that Cialella was walking toward his family when he stood up and was shot.

Detectives called to the United Artists Riverview Stadium theater in South Philadelphia found Cialella carrying the weapon, a .380-caliber handgun, in his waistband, police said.

Full Article...

From the "EVERYTHING Must Go!" Department:

Cash-strapped states weigh selling roads, parks

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Minnesota is deep in the hole financially, but the state still owns a premier golf resort, a sprawling amateur sports complex, a big airport, a major zoo and land holdings the size of the Central American country of Belize.

Valuables like these are in for a closer look as 44 states cope with deficits.

Like families pawning the silver to get through a tight spot, states such as Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois are thinking of selling or leasing toll roads, parks, lotteries and other assets to raise desperately needed cash.

Full Article...

From the "Confidence in the banks is not what it used to be" Department:

Calif. family finds $10,000 in box of crackers

IRVINE, Calif. – The box of crackers Debra Rogoff bought from the grocery store had some crackerjack in it — an envelope stuffed with $10,000.

Rather than go on a shopping spree, the family called police and was initially told the money could be part of a drug drop.

Police later heard from store managers at Whole Foods in Tustin that an elderly woman had come in a few days earlier, hysterical because she had mistakenly returned a box of crackers with her life savings inside. In a mix-up the store restocked the box rather than composting it.

Full Article...

From the "Moving toward the light" Department:

MP3 player lights rescuers' way to missing skiers

SAVOGNIN, Switzerland – Swiss rescue officials say they have found two missing skiers after spotting the light from their MP3 music player.

The Swiss air rescue association Rega says it received a distress call from the French tourists late Friday but the skiers' phone battery went dead before they could be reached.

Rega spokesman Gery Baumann says the two men were eventually found after midnight in steep, wooded terrain by a helicopter crew that spotted the light from their digital music player.

Full Article...

From the "Start your own biotech company on your kitchen table" Department:

(in collaboration with the "OK you can try this at home, but be realy, really careful" Department)

Hobbyists are trying genetic engineering at home

SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she said.

So far, no major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody's kitchen or garage.

Full Article...

A careful reading of the history of science and technological innovation will uncover plenty of examples of contributions by self-taught amateurs. Many Fortune 500 companies were started on someone's kitchen table or in someone's garage. There is a long history of amateur inventors, backyard tinkerers, hobbyists doing astronomical observations with telescopes set up on their decks, and many other examples of relatively ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

It is a great reminder that not all of human progress comes from people in white coats with university degrees working in well-funded offices or research labs. Sometimes, the extraordinary is discovered or invented by people who have little more than a good idea and a burning passion to push the limits of their own knowledge. Whether or not we end up with major biotech breakthroughs from these kitchen table labs, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has value too.

The ingenuity and creativity of the human spirit is something that amazes me again and again. It's one of the things that gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, this world will be OK after all.

Mike [userpic]

From the "It's Not Just China" Department

December 26th, 2008 (10:34 pm)

current mood: blah

Uproar in Australia over plan to block Web sites

SYDNEY, Australia - A proposed Internet filter dubbed the "Great Aussie Firewall" is promising to make Australia one of the strictest Internet regulators among democratic countries.

Consumers, civil-rights activists, engineers, Internet providers and politicians from opposition parties are among the critics of a mandatory Internet filter that would block at least 1,300 Web sites prohibited by the government — mostly child pornography, excessive violence, instructions in crime or drug use and advocacy of terrorism.

Hundreds protested in state capitals earlier this month.

Full Article...

"Hundreds" protested? With a country of over 21 million people, I certainly hope that more than "hundreds" are advocating against this. This kind of blanket censorship of the Internet--in a democracy with a Labour-controlled government, no less--would set an extremely bad precedent.

"Child pornography"? "Excessive violence"? Excessive by whose standards?

What constitutes "advocacy of terrorism? Criticizing the government, perhaps? Well why not, since it is apparently the government that gets to decide what constitutes advocating terrorism. Not that this is a conflict of interest or anything.

This whole thing is all a little vague, isn't it?

Mike [userpic]

Bah Humbug

December 24th, 2008 (11:14 pm)

current mood: good

I have three versions of "A Christmas Carol" on the DVR, but not one of them is my favorite version: the one with Patrick Stewart (aka Captain Jean-Luc Picard, aka Professor Charles Xavier) as Scrooge. He really does a remarkable job in that role.

Hope everyone else is having a great holiday. And in case anyone needs an extra dose of holiday cheer, just remember that there are only 27 more days until George W. Bush flies home to Texas (hopefully).

Mike [userpic]

In Defense of Christmas (To a point)

December 23rd, 2008 (10:29 pm)

current mood: tired

Back in elementary school, I was one of those little jerks who didn't want to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it had the words "under God" in it. To this day, I still loathe the fact that "In God We Trust" is printed on our money. I am vehemently opposed to prayer or the teaching of creationism in public schools.

But I really have to wonder about the degree of utter absurdity that caused some student activist group or other to manage to have all the Christmas trees removed from all of the campus libraries at UNC. While I usually try to avoid minimizing the causes of activists, this is one case where I really have ask if there isn't something more important in the world to worry about besides walking past a little tree strung with colored lights in a lobby.

What is so Christian about little conifers decorated in lights and tinsel? Well, nothing, actually. Christmas trees are one of those pagan influences that became part of the Christmas holiday that didn't particularly have anything to do with Christianity itself. Way to go, politically correct crowd: In your self-righteous zeal to rid the world of Christian influences, you've managed to start ridding the world of one of the few pagan influences that has managed to stay mainstream. Instead of, oh, I don't know, maybe using Christmas trees as a teachable moment to educate more people about the influence of faiths under than Christianity.

Besides which, I like seeing Christmas trees and lights and holiday decorations this time of year. I have a Christmas up at home, in fact. If anyone gave me a menorah or something else from their faith, I'd put that up as well. I like Christmas carols--some of my favorites are the religious ones. If you really hate holiday decorations that much, simply ignore them. If someone out there is going to have their whole day ruined from walking past a decoration, they should probably feel blessed that they have so few problems in life.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention how many Christians have become just as obnoxious over the holidays, however, with their insistence on attacking those who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". Oh so this is suddenly what one of the most important Christian holidays is about now? Looking for every petty way you can possibly find to extend the culture wars? My friend Sandy--who actually is a devout Christian--wrote a great blog entry on this particular bit of nonsense. While I obviously don't share her religious sentiments, I do agree with her about just how silly this argument really is.

I don't want to associate Christ with spending mass amounts of money and sugar overloads and long lists of things I want. To me, that's a superficial way to try to make the holiday holy.

Many people simply need to regain a sense of perspective, particularly in light of the fact that so many people are suffering in a bad economy and many others are stationed far from their homes and families serving our country over the holiday season. People saying "Happy holidays" to be more inclusive isn't some outrageous blasphemy that's going to bring fire and brimstone upon us, nor is it going to affect how you choose to live your faith. And on the other side of this, displaying Christmas trees and nativity scenes are not a dangerous assault on religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

I think we would all do well to keep in mind, whether we believe in the literal truth of the Bible or not (and I am firmly in the camp of those who do not), that there is a worthy meaning to the holiday season: peace on Earth, and goodwill toward others.

So if you celebrate it, Merry Christmas. To my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah. To those of you who celebrate the winter solstice or something else, Seasons' Greetings and Happy Holidays. No matter what you celebrate, I wish you and your families a joyous holiday season and a bright start to the new year.

Mike [userpic]

From the "You don't say?" Department

December 22nd, 2008 (02:13 pm)

current mood: cynical

Mugabe "a mad dictator," U.N. rights expert says

(No?!?!? Really?!?!?)

GENEVA (Reuters) – Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is "a mad dictator" who has lost all sense of reality, a United Nations human rights expert said on Monday.

(I would never have guessed! I'm shocked! Shocked I say!)

The only way Mugabe can be removed from power is for Europe to convince his "great protector South Africa" to withdraw all support for him, Jean Ziegler, an adviser to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, told Swiss Radio.

Full Article...

Wow, I wonder what led Mr. Ziegler to this profound conclusion. But then again, considering the UN's usual reluctance to take a stand on anything (meaning it usually falls for everything), I guess we should be glad that someone in the UN is willing to call a spade a spade--at least in this instance.

Then again, Mr. Ziegler also called Mugabe a "former hero of the liberation struggle".

I realize that the Western world has a shameful history of colonialism and mistreatment of the rest of the world. But I wonder if a day will ever come when Westerners will stop using guilt about history as an excuse to ignore modern-day human rights abuses. My guess would be it won't happen so long we have a small radical left-wing fringe that is more concerned with looking backward than looking forward to come up with real solutions to problems.

The problem is that this radical fringe seems to dominate all discussion at the United Nations. Combined with the United States turning into a virtual rogue nation thanks to Bush and his cabal of neo-cons, international relations seem to have become so poisoned that there is little room for pragmatism. And it's the common people who suffer while the ideologues, academics, and politicians bicker over nothing more than preserving their own status.

It doesn't help that the most powerful nation in the world has become just as caught up in this clash of extremes in its domestic politics. Americans tend to be polarized into two camps regarding relations with the rest of the world: a knee-jerk superiority complex that looks down on the rest of the world on one hand and a knee-jerk support of the United Nations regardless of its obvious problems on the other.

What about the middle ground that says that international cooperation and building global institutions is necessary and desirable but at the same time, the UN in its current state, has lost all kinds of credibility? Is this not obvious if one can simply take a look at the world as it is instead of through the distorted lens of knee-jerk ideology?

While one might applaud an adviser to the UN's Human Rights Council actually having the audacity to (gasp! shock! awe!) criticize a violator of human rights, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Zimbabwe has a seat on this same Human Rights Council. And Zimbabwe is hardly the first gross violator of human rights to sit on that council.

There are many ways in which the modern UN has become completely ridiculous, but this particular example has to be at the top of the list.

Perhaps it really is time for a league of democracies which, while not competing to be an alternative to the UN, would at least be able to address issues the UN seems completely unwilling and unable to deal with. After all, the UN seems to consider bashing the U.S. and Israel a full-time job.

It would not be hard to get new leadership with fresh ideas in such a new international organization. All you'd have to do is create a rule saying anti-Semites are not allowed to serve, which would disqualify three-fourths of current UN delegates and officials.

Mike [userpic]

More thoughts on bailouts

December 21st, 2008 (09:10 pm)

current mood: annoyed

A lot of people I know have been talking about the recent loans made to the auto industry, with most people tending to vehemently oppose this federal aid. I agree with nearly all of the criticisms made by bailout opponents.

But the alternative to helping the auto companies is a complete collapse of the American auto industry, similar to the collapse of the American consumer electronics industry. And if one of the Big Three were to fail, we'd have massive job losses spreading through the economy in the midst of already high unemployment, a financial crisis, and a severe recession.

Both options are incredibly bad in the short term. Over the long term, I believe that, handled properly, federal aid stands at least some chance of helping the U.S. auto industry return to respectability. On the other hand, it's hard to see any long-term benefits from losing yet another key manufacturing industry.

And even if we did agree that the Big Three should collapse, the economic peril cannot be ignored. The government would have to be ready to step in with immediate and significant aid to those who lost their jobs, along with concrete plans to rapidly deal with the ripple effects across the economy. The government has no such contingency plan for this scenario in place.

Knowing that, knee-jerk opposition to a bailout without considering the consequences to those who would be affected is reckless and shortsighted. This is not theory we're talking about. This is the ability of hard-working blue-collar families to make their mortgage payments and put food on the table.

This is not to say that I am happy about handing over so much taxpayer money to companies that have been so badly mismanaged for so long. As much as I loathe to give the Bush Administration credit for anything, I think the temporary loans the White House has offered may be on the right track and could be a foundation for how any longer-term deal could be structured.

Specifically, companies must limit executive compensation, sell some assets like their corporate jets, open their books to the government, and come up with a long-term recovery plan. Companies will not be allowed to pay a dividend until all government money is paid back. And if any of the strict terms are not met, the loans will immediately come due in 90 days, likely forcing the companies into bankruptcy.

I would like to have seen, as a part of the plan, the appointment of a federal "car czar" to oversee the industry's efforts to recover and thus ensure that federal loans have a long term benefit. Ideally, this would be someone who had experience in the auto industry or at least with running a large corporation. In the latter category, retired GE CEO Jack Welch comes to mind.

I would also have liked to see management changes as part of the requirements for getting federal money. If management has been so bad that companies are reduced to begging the government for handouts, these managers need to find other lines of work. Many auto industry directors and executives have been in their posts for a long time. And Citigroup, which has already received government bailout money, has directors who have been in office for ten years who kept their jobs.

Where, exactly, is the accountability here? Oh, right, it's laid in the laps of workers. The ugliest part of the federal loans are the requirement that workers accept concessions on pay and benefits. Thus, we're led to believe that the inability of badly managed auto companies to be competitive in the world economy is the fault of those who have the least decision-making power in the companies.

This nonsense is particularly hard to swallow when one considers that practically all industries have to compete with an availability of cheaper foreign labor and yet, not all industries are running to the government for help.

Mike [userpic]

The high costs of being poor

December 20th, 2008 (10:21 pm)

current mood: sleepy

One thing that has always bothered me about stores like Whole Foods and other stores that focus on healthy or organic foods is that so many people are unable to afford to shop there. Perhaps it is simply another manifestation of some of my socialistic tendencies that I've always believed that healthy, wholesome food should be available to everyone.

But in many places, the problem for the poor is not simply a lack of funds to shop at Whole Foods--a problem which could theoretically be solved by increasing funding for programs like food stamps. In many cases, though, the problem is a lack of stores in poor neighborhoods, so that even if there was money available, there would be nowhere to spend it on healthy food. Often, the only options available in poorer neighborhoods are liquor stores and corner convenience stores, which, in addition to being more expensive than supermarkets, are more known for alcohol and junk food than milk and bread and fresh fruits.

One telling statistics: Out of the three top grocery chains in southern California, there are only 6 supermarkets to serve a population of 688,000 in South Los Angeles while in West Los Angeles, there are 19 supermarkets to serve a population of 395,000.

The result is that poor communities are hit hard by obesity, alcoholism, diabetes, and other serious health problems. There is a growing body of research that also indicates that the additives in junk foods may contribute to hyperactivity and other problems in children and teenagers, causing them to be less likely to succeed in school. And naturally, all of these health problems are hitting people who are far less likely to have insurance and access to quality medical care. Thus, a vicious cycle of poverty and desperation spirals ever more out of control.

Mike [userpic]

Not the most desirable of domain names

December 19th, 2008 (07:20 pm)

current mood: amused

In doing some research for a client, I stumbled on a map of the world that tells you the domain extensions for each country--.uk for the United Kingdom, .ru for Russia, etc.

The extension for the Bahamas, it turns out, is (I kid you not)--.bs

Yeah, that's really what I want a domain to end in.

Although, I can certainly think of some websites where it would fit. Politics.bs, for example. Perhaps Lawyers.bs?

Mike [userpic]

Followup on black college football coaches

December 18th, 2008 (12:01 pm)

current mood: disappointed

After numerous constructive attempts to find a solution for the lack of opportunity for black football coaches and getting only excuses as a response, the association of Black Coaches and Administrators is now setting up a legal hotline. One of the purposes of the hotline will be to gather facts for a possible lawsuit targeted at a university under the federal civil rights laws.

“I would still love to think that student-athletes and parents who have athletes of color would look at schools and say ‘If you can’t be a coach or administrator there, why would you attend?”’ Keith said. “If we start getting that done, I think there will be some real changes. And it may come down to the legal aspects, as much as you’d hate to say that.”

It really is a shame that it may have to come to this. Universities have been given every chance to change their ways. We can only hope that threats of a lawsuit will finally make the good ol' boys come around.

Even the NFL (hardly the most progressive of institutions) has made major strides in equal opportunity--it was only a few years ago that we had two black coaches in the Super Bowl.

Mike [userpic]

As if 2008 really needed to be any longer than it already is...

December 17th, 2008 (10:36 pm)

current mood: amused

I have all the respect in the world for science. But as with anything, some people can take respect for science too far. This usually comes in the form of portraying science as some sort of inherently rational arbiter of everything in the world and science as being run by scientists who are only concerned with a noble pursuit of pure truth. In this fantasy world, scientists are all completely logical and reasonable human beings, only doing what is for the good of the greater society.

Bullshit. Case in point (yanked from gillen):

A single leap second will be added at the end of the year to accommodate accumulated slow-down in the Earth's rotation.

The decision, made earlier this year by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, will adjust Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is used to calibrate clocks worldwide.

This will be the 24th leap second added to the world's clocks since 1972, and the first one added since the end of 2005. No leap seconds were added between the end of 1998 and the end of 2005 due to a temporary acceleration in the Earth's rotation.

The leap second will be added on 31 December 2008 at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds GMT, so you perfectionists on the west coast of the US should make your adjustments at 03:59:59pm PST December 31st.

Q: If it's 'Coordinated Universal Time', why is the abbreviation 'UTC'? Is that the abbreviation for the French? And, if so, shouldn't it be 'TUC'?

A: When the International Telecommunication Union decided that they wanted a single acronym for Universal Time across all member languages, they couldn't get sufficient agreement on whether the English 'CUT' (Coordinated Universal Time) or the French 'TUC' (Temps Universel Coordonné) should apply, so they compromised on the acronym 'UTC', which fits the phrasing and word order in precisely none of the member languages. The English-speaking members then retroactively argued that it stood for 'Universal Time - Coordinated', even though 'Coordinated Universal Time' is still the official term in English. Yes, public monies were spent on this stupid argument.

A "compromise acronym". Wow. Now that will certainly go down as one of the all-time great moments in international diplomacy. I feel so much more confident about our ability to solve the whole Middle East thing now.

Sorry to say it, pdx42, but I think the following story outdoes all of your help desk calls of the week, much as I enjoy reading them.

Beware the Spartans, shadowy and deadly enemies of computers everywhere (yanked from "apocalypsos):

Spotted on Not Always Right ...

Customer: “Hi, my son says that I have spartans on my laptop and I should bring it to you guys.”

Me: “…Ma’am? Spartans?”

Customer: “Yes, I called my son at school and told him that screens keep popping up all the time, and he said that I have spartans.”

Me: “Oh! You mean trojans! That’s a possibility; let me run this analyzer on your laptop real quick and we’ll see what’s going on.”

Customer: “Young man, my son is in college and he says it has spartans. You just stand here in a little uniform and make minimum wage. I think my son knows what he is talking about.”

Me: “You’re right ma’am. I was hoping to run a diagnostic and find out that it wasn’t spartans, but just by looking at the login screen, I can tell that you probably have about 300 of the little guys running around.”

Customer: “300?! Is that bad?”

Me: “It’s horrible. They cram themselves into a bottleneck and kill wave after wave of data, until there is a wall of dead programs blocking any more traffic through your computer.”

Customer: “Oh, that just figures. I’m going to go buy a new computer.”

Me: “Ok, ma’am, I think that would be best.”

And anyone who wants more scary stories of creepy things that go bump in the night, stay tuned for...ATTACK OF THE INVISIBLE HAND!!!. All together now...AHHHHH!!!!!!!

Also, don't forget today's bonus feature, How to Use Your Drawing Skills to Quickly Become Debt-Free

Mike [userpic]

The Persistence of White Privilege

December 16th, 2008 (12:25 pm)

current mood: disappointed

Many people may be tempted to say that with the election of a black President, the United States has magically turned a corner and made racism go away. But this is far from the truth. And it's worse than just some hypothetical fringe who hold racist attitudes or subtle racism that permeates our daily life. There are in fact areas of our society that are still dominated by "good ol' boy networks" and deeply ingrained institutional racism that inflicts serious harm on minorities.

Take college football. The behemoth that is Division I-A college football (the major leagues if you will) encompasses 11 different conferences and well over 100 teams. In this entire huge landscape--which, let's remember, makes untold millions from the successes of minority student athletes--there are a grand total of four black head coaches. When you look at the six elite conferences that make up the sport's Bowl Championship Series (the Big East, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Southeastern, Big Twelve, and Pacific Ten), there is a grand total of one black head coach--Miami's Randy Shannon.

As a case in point, let's look at Turner Gill, a former African-American star quarterback at Nebraska who led his team to a 28-2 record in three seasons and was a 1983 Heisman Trophy finalist. He also won numerous awards relating to character and leadership. After a series of lower-profile entry-level coaching jobs, Gill returned to Nebraska where he spent 11 years coaching quarterbacks and another coaching wide receivers. Gill's tenure as a Nebraska assistant included elite nationally ranked teams, superb offenses, and players contending for the Heisman Trophy, including 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch. In 2005, Gill joined the staff of the Green Bay Packers where he helped coach offensive players and helped former college players in making the transition to the NFL.

None of this was good enough for numerous head coaching vacancies, including the vacancy at his alma mater, Nebraska, for which he was passed over. The only head coaching job he was able to get was at the State University of New York at Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference, which had only been playing Division I-A football since 1999, during which time they had a record of 10-69. The program had very little history and practically no money or resources. Buffalo was arguably one of the worst jobs in college football, the place careers go to die. In three years, Coach Gill turned the team around, leading Buffalo to this year's MAC championship with an upset victory over Ball State, which had been undefeated and ranked number 12 in the nation going into the MAC championship game.

With this kind of resume, you'd think at this point that Turner Gill would be able to get a major head coaching job somewhere. But nope, you'd be wrong. Even the miracle he engineered at Buffalo (on top of a stellar career even before that) was not good enough. Not good enough for Kansas State, who hired a former coach they had fired a few years ago. Not good enough for Clemson, who hired Dabo Swinney, who has no experience as a head coach or even as a coordinator. Not good enough for Mississippi State, who hired Dan Mullen, also someone with no head coaching experience. Not good enough for Syracuse. Not good enough for Tennessee. Not good enough for Washington.

And not good enough for Auburn. Auburn actually granted Turner Gill an interview and then decided to hire Gene Chizik, who had spent two years as the coach at Iowa State. Chizik's record during those two years? Five wins and 19 losses. But Auburn said Chizik was "the right fit" for the program. Meaning what, exactly? Well, turns out that Chizik has an "understanding" of the expectations at Auburn. These are apparently very difficult to understand for mere mortals, requiring special insider knowledge to truly grasp. Auburn wants to beat Alabama every year, play in SEC title games and BCS bowl games, and contend for national championships. Those are the "expectations". Really complicated stuff here.

But see, Gene Chizik is a white guy. And Turner Gill is an African-American who is married to a white woman--factors that caused him to doubt his chances of landing the Auburn job from the beginning of the process. Not because he lacks confidence in his own abilities, because you don't become a star college quarterback and successful football coach if you don't have confidence in your own abilities. But like many successful African-Americans, Turner Gill likely understood from simple experience and observation that good ol' boy networks don't hire people based on their abilities or even their history of real results.

This is what white privilege is all about. White privilege is what allows mediocre white people to continue to get ahead while minorities who work hard and demonstrate a commitment to excellence have to face the reality that in spite of their abilities, there is a limit to their success. White privilege is what puts the lie to the notion that in America anyone can work hard and achieve dreams that are only limited by one's imagination and determination to succeed. Sure, that's the kind of country we would like to be. That's the kind of country we try to pretend that we are. But it's not really true.

It's not true because so many institutions are still dominated by good ol' boy networks that haven't so much done away with the "Whites Only" signs, but have merely dressed them up a bit so as to not be so visible. It's not true because women still earn 70 cents on the dollar. It's not true because gays and lesbians, in most places, still can't enter into relationships that enjoy that fundamental American right of "equality under the law". It's not true because so many people because of their race or gender or sexual orientation or gender identity or socioeconomic position can't even enjoy the freedom to walk the streets of their neighborhoods without putting their safety or even their lives at risk.

Above all, it's not true because so many members of privileged groups refuse to look at the everyday reality of so many of their fellow Americans simply because they themselves are insulated by their privilege from ever having to experience that reality. There are entirely too many people who refuse to acknowledge the truth that discrimination affects every one of us. It prevents us being the kind of country we're capable of being. It prevents us from striving for higher standards and from setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. And yes, in so many cases, it lessens our potential for economic growth, to say nothing of our potential to be a truly moral and decent society.

Mike [userpic]

Speech Recognition Period

December 15th, 2008 (10:14 pm)

current mood: impressed

I've been testing out this little speech recognition program and although it has its bugs and limitations, the thing that surprises me the most is just how far the technology seems to be coming along. You can close windows, switch between windows, open and switch between programs, and even dictate documents and most of it works surprisingly well. Of course, it is quite possible to get into corners from which there is no real way out except to break down and use the keyboard or mouse. And sometimes during dictation, the computer will write things that are rather bizarre. The bright side is that you can teach the program to do a better job of recognizing your voice. Over time and with practice, it will start making fewer mistakes.

The syntax can be rather weird. For instance, you have to say each punctuation mark, line break, or new paragraph. All well and good for word processing files, but there is a long way to go before it will be ready for things like complicated emails, databases, programming, or design tasks. For instance, it doesn't even seem to recognize the "Compose mail" link in Gmail so you have to use the mouse to simply open a new message by hand.

I would certainly not recommend this sort of thing for someone who's trying to get real work done on a deadline. But it's amazing to consider the potential and where this technology will be in another five or ten years.

And on another note, I recently bought a fancy new headset with a microphone for my laptop, so I've downloaded Skype now (free PC-to-PC calls and very cheap PC-to-phone calls). If anyone has it and wants to find me on there, let me know or just search for rm_mcgee.

Mike [userpic]

Predictions are hard. Especially ones about the future.

December 14th, 2008 (10:17 pm)

current mood: sleepy

I rarely find anything worth writing about on Livejournal's writers block prompts. But today's is asking about Nostradamus and whether people believe it is actually possible to predict the future.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a professor at NYU and a fellow at the Hoover Institution believes that he can, at least to some extent, using mathematics. The history channel recently aired a documentary about Professor Bueno de Mesquita entitled "The Next Nostradamus".

Naturally, the jury is out about whether the good professor is for real or if he has simply been reading too many sci-fi stories about Hari Seldon.

Mike [userpic]

Breaking News: Blagojevich Announces Sotheby's Contract

December 13th, 2008 (11:45 pm)

current mood: good

From Faux News staff reports:

Known for its extensive experience in managing auctions for everything from high-end art to expensive memorabilia connections, Sotheby's is now entering the political arena. Sources have confirmed that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has chosen Sotheby's to manage the auction of the Senate seat formerly held by President-Elect Barack Obama. A Sotheby's spokesperson indicated that the company had no immediate comment.

But sources close to the Illinois governor's office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed earlier today that the governor had decided on Sotheby's. One source went on to mention that the decision had come after some amount of debate among members of Governor Blagojevich's staff over whether a less expensive alternative to Sotheby's could be found. Chief of Staff John Harris was reported to be in favor of choosing online auction site Ebay, Inc. or online-classifieds site Craigslist.

A call to Ebay headquarters requesting comment was not immediately returned. A spokesperson for Craigslist declined to respond to questions.

"Clearly, Governor Blagojevich, by going with Sotheby's, indicates his administration's commitment to getting maximum value for the taxpayers for assets held by the state," said former Illinois governor George Ryan, currently an honored guest of the U.S. federal government. Governor Ryan's administration developed a state program for the sale of Illinois driver's licenses, but many political observers believe that program was not run as smoothly as programs in the Blagojevich administration.

Mike [userpic]

Can we finally put this pretend issue to rest?

December 8th, 2008 (08:43 pm)

current mood: blank

Out of all the absurd allegations about President-Elect Obama, perhaps none is as much of a complete waste of time as the supposed "question" about his being a natural born citizen, which the Constitution requires to be President. Notice that the Constitution does not say anything about the father of a presidential candidate being a British subject as being something that disqualifies someone from serving as president. Nor does the fact of having been born in Hawaii disqualify someone, in spite of the apparent misunderstanding (who knew?) about Hawaii being an actual state. In addition, the insinuations of there being something wrong with the President-Elect's birth certificate have been thoroughly examined by many different people and have been determined to have no merit.

And today, the Supreme Court weighed in:

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has turned down an emergency appeal from a New Jersey man who says President-elect Barack Obama is ineligible to be president because he was a British subject at birth. The court did not comment on its order Monday rejecting the call by Leo Donofrio of East Brunswick, N.J., to intervene in the presidential election.

Full Article...

So can we please put this pseudo-issue to rest now and stop wasting the time of courts all across the country with frivolous lawsuits about pretend complaints brought by people who have no actual standing to bring them before a court? Well...apparently not. There is still a pending appeal brought by Philip Berg of Pennsylvania over the authenticity of the President-Elect's birth certificate. Sigh.

At least in Mr. Berg's case, we can't chalk his motives up to being sore grapes over the lost election. You see, according to Mr. Berg, John McCain wasn't a natural-born citizen, due to being born on a military base and thus, he wasn't eligible to serve as president either.

Mike [userpic]

Wait, aren't the markets supposed to be rational?

December 5th, 2008 (05:42 pm)

current mood: confused

Call me confused. Today saw a range of bad economic news, starting with the jobs report from the Labor Department, which showed employers shed 533,000 jobs in November--the worst monthly performance in 34 years. The unemployment rate rose to 6.7%, and keep in mind that this is defined as those who are out of work and still looking, so this is probably well below the true number. It does not include people who are working part time, seasonal, or temporary positions, people who've taken part-time jobs when they'd rather have full-time jobs, people who have taken jobs earning considerably less than they were earning at their old jobs, or people who have become so discouraged that they've given up even looking for work.

And yet...stocks were way up. The well-known Dow Jones Industrial Average (which is only an average of the 30 largest companies) was up 3.1%, and the broader S&P 500 index was up 3.7%. NASDAQ, which is heavily laden with technology stocks, was up 4.4%. Meanwhile, oil prices continue their historic slide, falling 6.5% (the sixth straight day of declines) to $40.81 per barrel. Compare this to early July, when oil was around $145 a barrel.

Most people consider the drop in gas prices a good thing and in some ways, it is, as it provides some immediate relief to a lot of struggling people. The sharp fall in mortgage rates is also allowing some people to refinance, thus they save money that they can then spend on other things. Theoretically. There are two big elephants in the room, however.

First of all, America's oil addiction is one that we really need to kick in the interest of long-term economic health. The collapse of oil prices leads to both less investment money and less political support for alternative energy development. Second, the fall in mortgage rates doesn't solve the fundamental problem of a glut of unsold homes on the market that is depressing housing prices and killing the economy. What we really need is for home builders to stop building.

Nor does any of this address the freeze in the credit markets or the troubles of the Big Three auto makers. As for the auto makers, it's very tempting to say to hell with them because they have made so many idiotic business decisions over the years. But is allowing the American auto industry to collapse really the right answer? I would say absolutely not and we really need a third option here because the two we've been given (bailouts or collapse) are rotten.

Sure, you can argue that there will still be an auto industry, albeit one run by the Japanese. We've seen this sort of thing before with the complete collapse of the American consumer electronics industry. Yes, this too was caused by a lot of bad business decisions and these companies likely deserved to fail, but no one looked at the larger issues involved. Namely, do we really want to keep losing manufacturing industries to the Japanese?

There's a myth in this country that manufacturing is something we can afford to lose because we are in the process of shifting to a service and information economy. This logic defies history. When the Industrial Revolution came into its own in the United States and we shifted from agriculture to manufacturing, this did not mean that the U.S. ceased to be an agricultural power. Quite the opposite, in fact, as even today, the U.S. is one of the world leaders in agriculture, even though the number of people working in agriculture is far fewer than it once was.

I find the idea of bailing out Detroit and rewarding the appalling incompetence of the auto executives extremely distasteful. But I find the idea of losing yet another American industry (one that, like consumer electronics, we invented) to the Japanese and the Pacific rim to be just as distasteful. I'm not quite sure what the solution might be, but we need something creative and probably drastic. Nationalize the car companies if we have to, come to think of it.

Much of Paul Kennedy's reasoning in his classic work "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" was flawed. But his underlying idea that nations cannot maintain their power without a strong economic foundation is as true today as it ever was--if not more so.

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