12/11/2018

Awful, Better, Best, and Perfect

image_largeAn acquaintance recently sent me an ad for a President Obama memorial Xmas ornament. I was tempted. He was sarcastic, calling Obama “Uncle Thomas” and “Onkle Tom” followed by a list of Obama’s real and perceived imperfections. He’s an old, middle class, white guy who probably doesn’t know any actual black Americans but he’s convinced that Obama was a tool of the power elites and “that’s how I perceived him, as did and do many in the black community. I knew well before he was elected that he had to be a tool of those who truly govern the country.” I don’t know about the “many in the black community,” but about 10% of that so-called community voted for Trump; mostly proving you can fool some of the people all of the time. I’m tempted to buy one of those  ornaments just to piss off the nutjobs on the far left and right. Anything that irritates those two herds of nutjobs and morons is worth owning and a bargain at $22.

I only wish the world was that clear and simple? My experience tells me that nothing is as simple as it looks from thousands of miles away or even across the street.

I admit that I was and am impressed with Barak Obama’s performances as President of the United States. That is saying something, because I’m mostly unimpressed-to-disgusted by the presidents I’ve observed in my lifetime. Starting with Truman, who was president when I was born and left office when I was five years old, through Bush II there haven’t been many bright moments in American executive branch politics.

While he didn’t stay in office long enough to accomplish as much as he might have, Jimmy Carter was probably the 2nd best president in my lifetime. He was too much of a micro-manager, a typical fault of self-made business men, he had a vision for the United States that would have positioned the country far more soundly than the mess made by his successor, Reagan. We’d have moved into the metric system, evolved away from oil and carbon-pollution energy sources, and our education system wouldn’t fallen to 3rd world status. But Carter lost to a candidate every bit as goofy and unqualified as Trump before anything resembling Fox News existed; when he had the Fairness Doctrine to balance the media foolishness. Today, Carter wouldn’t have a chance even as a Democrat. He’d be too easy a target. All I really know about Kennedy comes from history books. I was 15 when he was murdered, but there was no politics in my life at the time. I do know that many of the adults I knew in Kansas were not unhappy he was killed. So much for the good old days when we were “one country, united.”

Otherwise, the presidents who have mismanaged the country in my lifetime have all been awful or less-awful.

11/28/2018

One Feature too Few

I spent a small part of CyberMonday on the edge of spending $1700 on an electric bicycle. There were lots of good reasons to like the bicycle I was looking at, but one really big reason I ended up passing on the sale: no service information. None. Zero information on how to repair or maintain this relatively expensive (by my standards) vehicle.

imagesThe kiddies who buy, modify, and farkel-up this particular brand of eBike are convinced “the future is internet based” and YouTube is the “wave of the future.” Obviously, YouTube is today and will most likely not even exist in the near future. Everything gets replaced by the next thing and YouTube is barely this century technology. We’ve gone through at least a dozen iterations of the “next new thing” that will replace decent service manuals and we keep coming back to the one way humans have learned to transfer complicated information: writing and technical illustrations.

In the 1940’s, television was the great educational hope. Television’s promoters spent a small fortune convincing the government that television would be the educational wave of the future. It wasn’t. However, the con job worked and television’s promoters got some powerful monopoly protection in the form of FCC regulation under the guise that something about television would be “public service.” For almost 40 years, the only public service provided by television (and radio) was forced by the Fairness Doctrine, but Reagan eliminated that in 1987. For-profit “education” companies are really spending big bucks trying revive television and on-line media as educational tools because it is incredibly cheap to provide. Cheap and good are not often comfortable bedfellows.

Of course those early video training films weren’t cheap, because film and unions were involved, but they also weren’t effective. I remember watching a Burroughs Corporation film training program on cassette tape head alignment in 1975. The presenter had to stop the projector multiple times to explain what we’d just seen because the complicated task of getting azimuth and zenith exactly right was barely mentioned in the video and, with the heads used and the tape speed, that was critical for both data aquisition and storage and head and tape life. Some Burroughs word processing machines couldn’t make it through a day without wreaking a tape or two and losing a day’s work when the tape broke during backup. The video, typically, dwelled on easy shit like installing a tape drive or cassette, magnetic tape theory, and Burroughs’ corporate history and blew past the actual information like it was some sort of contageous virus. A month later, Burroughs flew me from Omaha to Hauppauge, New York to teach a class on cassette head alignment to their in-house techs. A year or so later and Burroughs was out of the mini-computer and dedicated office machine education-teaching-adult_class-adult_learning-gadget-website-upload-aban1537_lowbusiness.

Over the next 40 years, I have had several equally disappointing (if you take training seriously) or hilarious (if you don’t take humans seriously) video training experiences. For the last 25 years of my career, I taught industrial technology in medical devices and, later, music technology at a music college. In that time, I experienced a whole “video revolution” in training; from VHS (far cheaper than film) to digital video and non-linear editing to PowerPoint with a little of everything included. I used both video and PowerPoint in my own presentations, but I never relied on either for conveying complicated information. For that, I had reading assignments, homework, and labwork. After I retired, I took a couple of on-line courses through my local community college; because they were cheap and I was curious. Both classes were, by design and out of necessity, remedial. The instructors were remote and barely technically qualified to instruct in their subjects and the video material used was . . . freakin’ terrible. Obviously, I am infected with confirmation bias, but I doubt that you could present evidence that would make me doubt my opinion even slightly.

So, when I criticised the short-term and lazy thinking of an eBike manufacturer’s simplistic and mostly-useless video “manuals,” I got this repsonse, “Funny you think you are correct because you are in the older generation and your years of experience tell you this FACT. Realistically the future will all be youtube. The headlight LeD kits I buy are all online links to installation (for my truck). My generation prefers online links to learn from watching vs reading. Its all opinion and your views vs others. The difference is your generation thinks your way is better when mine thinks our way is different and works for us. Get off your high horse. The future is internet based.” We’ll see, kiddy. I have been there and done that and while you live in luxury in your mommy’s basement watching YouTube and convincing yourself you’re learning something, I doubt that you’ll have a 55 year career doing anything that requires skill or knowledge.

In the end, I let the lack of product support make the decision for me. I let the sale price pass and decided to stick with repairing (on my own) the used bike in my basement. Nearly $2k for an unsupported product (last year’s model) with an undetermined life-expectancy and no useful repair information is beyond my personal and economic means.

11/26/2018

Men’s Lives Matter?

stop-male-suicide-International-Mens-day-Nov-19-2017tI’m on a mail list with a few local guys. Mostly, the point of the mail list is about motorcycles, but one of the guys is growing some kind of facial hair for the Movember organization. Supposedly, this organization is looking for the magic bullet to slow up the rate of deaths by male suicides (white men are 70% of the 35,000 suicides in the US) and prostate and testicular cancer. I can only say, “Good luck.”

Humorously, the organization claims to "know what works for men" and somehow they expect to reduce male suicides by 25% in 2030. I prowled the organization's website following all of the "how we're going to win the fight" links to the expected proclamations of doing something and I didn't see any evidence that Movember knows more about what they are doing than do the so-called healthcare and mental health "professionals." In fact, as WebMD reports "One doctor commits suicide in the U.S. every day -- the highest suicide rate of any profession. And the number of doctor suicides -- 28 to 40 per 100,000 -- is more than twice that of the general population . . ." And, as you’d expect, for every female doctor who commits suicide there are seven men offing themselves. "Male anesthesiologists are at highest risk," for some reason. If doctors don’t have access to solutions to depression mental healthcare, how will Movember manage to reach everyone else? They won’t. As for Movember, H.L. Menken once said something like “For every complex problem there is a simple solution . . . that won’t work.” I didn’t see anything on the Movember website that looked like they even had a simple solution to propose.

The problem is not just a US-thing, either. Men and doctors and male doctors kill themselves at a higher-than-average rate all over the world. If there isn’t a solution, at least there ought to be some attempt to find the reasons for suicides. One of the most interesting insights I heard recently, when a European psychologist was responding to an American right wing pundit crowing about how societies with the highest quality of life and general satisfaction are also among the countries with the highest suicide rate; again, particularly high among men. The response was that there seems to be some connection to the fact that, in a generally happy society, people who are depressed feel particularly miserable about not being part of all that joy. The distance between the average person living their lives and someone with mental illness may feel exaggerated in a country where the average person is more-than-typically happy.

lucy-van-pelt-psychiatristIn the US, mental “healthcare” is pretty much getting a drug prescription for anxiety, depression, or “tiredness” from your doctor. All of the available health insurance plans pay more for pills than for therapy; if they pay for therapy at all. For starters, there is a severe shortage of mental health professionals in the US. The reason is that insurance companies don’t cover that kind of “healthcare.” For example, in my home area, Goodhue County, Minnesota, there is one psychiatrist for every 15,000 residents. Since estimates of the country’s mental health assume about 7% of US citizens have suffered depression at some time and 3-4% suffer long term depression and another 18% suffer from some form of anxiety, that leaves a lot of people out in the cold; even if they were inclined to put themselves on a decades-long waiting list to see a mental health professional. So, the answer is “take a pill” and call me in a year or two if you aren’t feeling better about yourself; if you are still alive.”

Men and boys are in heavy denial, insisting that the problem with us isn't from the outside. Wrong. It's us and our cultural training. There is a video on YouTube from a trans-guy who commented on how he hadn't realized how inhumane male culture is until he became one. There wasn’t much information in his speech, but the comments were informative. There was a crowd of guys pretending “inhumane” means “inhuman” and lots of nitwits imagining that being a macho bully has a place in normal, rational society. My takeaway from the comments was that the people who comment on YouTube videos are not very insightful.  

40 years ago, a friend and I were swimming out to scuba dive on San Clemente reef on a stormy day with 8' waves and 2' visibility and he wondered what we'd be doing with our lives; since we'd clearly outlived our design parameters. His thought was that guys like us were evolved to die with an axe in our skulls or a sword in our guts at about 22. At that moment, we were both in our early 30’s. Since we’d failed in our evolutionary purpose, his question was “What the hell are we supposed to do with the 30-50 years evolution has unprepared us for?” Obviously suicide is the answer about 30,000 US men pick. It is pretty obvious that there is an oversupply of men on the planet and war just isn't doing the job it used to do with rectifying that imbalance. The overwhelming majority of terrrorists and suicide bombers are men and they are just following nature’s coding to try to take themselves out of the gene pool.

Society provides plenty of cues, too. There wouldn't be OSHA labor laws if those rules were only intended to protect men from work injury and death. The whole concept began when women ended up in factories during WWII. As part of researching noise-induced hearing damage for material in one of my Acoustics classes, I found more information about how quickly work noise rule enforcement vanished once women were back out of the munitions factories. The whining from companies about OSHA's rarely-enforced or obeyed hearing protection rules is pretty hilarious when you learn that those guidelines came from 1944 and they are so obsolete (useless when it comes to protecting your hearing for a lifetime) that the rest of the industrialized world (outside of China) has a whole different set of standards and objectives. Again, if the point is in protecting men, it’s pointless to worry about it.

Likewise, a big reason men die from prostate cancer is men don't see doctors nearly as often as women. When we do we just want to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. I know I do. Many men (and women ) live those lives of "quiet desperation" and just want to get it over with as soon as possible.

nra_protectionAs for men and mental health, forget about it. This country decided long ago that the wealth of a few is far more important than the health and quality of life of the many. It's one of the many awful things we adopted from the UK. I don't see that ever changing. It was something Alexis de Tocqueville commented on in "Democracy in America" in 1835. The rich will have all the healthcare they can choke down and everyone else will be victims of our "wealth extraction" healthcare practical joke. All of that adds up to the obvious fact that we don’t care about any of this, as a nation. The only time mental health gets into the national conversation is after some idiot has shot up a school, church, restaurant, or some other public place. Then, it's just to distract us from wondering why gun manufacturers are so well-insulated from product liability. And we are one really easily distracted public. The NRA and their gangster-owned politicians and pundits quickly go into a “don’t regulate guns, regulate crazy people” song-and-dance that is increasingly ineffective at distracting the majority of Americans. So far, it’s working well enough, though. It will always be true that “you can fool some of the people all of the time.”

11/02/2018

10/29/2018

What Works Is Also Silly

wingnut logic

Memes appear to be the way humans absorb information in this weird “new” age. Nick Anderson is one of the best at this messaging system, so support him here: https://www.patreon.com/editorialcartoons.

10/15/2018

A Better Story Than A Pretty Good One

As good a movie as “Catch Me If You Can” was, the real story is far, far better. Being a parent is one of those things that our fractured, disloyal, unappreciative, corrupt, and uneducated society either devalues or corrupts out of superstition. The real story of Frank Abagnale's father and his relationship with his father to the moment of his parents’ divorce is amazing. The real story of how Abagnale became the criminal that he was well-punished for being is incredibly funny, sad, and amazing. His recommendations for how you protect yourself from cybercrime are insightful and valuable and I am going to stop using my debit card for ANYTHING once my nitwit credit union figures out how to quit screwing up their website.

Knowing and Believing

One of the often fatal flaws in human behavior is deciphering the difference between “knowing” and “believing.” The less you know, the more likely it is that you won’t know what you don’t know and that you will believe things that are not knowable. Got that?

It’s often the same with “need” and “want.” You want a cell phone, but you don’t need one. People survived for a few 100,000 years without them. You don’t need a car, you could live closer to work or take a bus or train. You choose to live where you feel you are forced to drive rather than walk, bike, or take mass transit. You choose to do work that makes you feel the need to drive. You need food, water, and, depending on where you live, shelter and clothing. You don’t need clothing if you live someplace warm, like humans did (and do) in Africa for most of our species’ evolution. There are thousands of things people in western societies imagine they need that are merely wants: entertainment, luxury, territory and wars over territory, philosophy, money and economics, education, and so on. But try living without food and water for a very short time and you’ll discover the meaning of “need” and shortly afterwards you won’t exist at all.

6791492_f1024The same goes for knowing verses believing. People often say they know there is a god and an afterlife or magic and spirits and ghosts or alien invaders from Alpha Centari who stick probes up human asses for inscrutable reasons. All bullshit. None of those things can be proven in any way. Even some of the things we know are hard to prove, but most of the things we believe are just made-up fairy tales of varying qualities and quantities of idiocy.

difference-between-knowledge-and-belief-7-728Gravity, for example, is consistently demonstrable. However, physicists have only uncovered some parts of a complete theory of gravity, regardless of how well we know it works. We know two bodies are attracted to each other in some proportion to their mass. We know there are some qualities of mass and gravity that current physics does not fully explain. Scientists act as if they believe in the current definition of gravity because it mostly provides accurate information; except in extreme astrophysics and sub-atomic examples. When a better explanation comes along, scientific belief will change to reflect that information. That is how theories work.

Biologists know that the theory of evolution is a fact. Examples of evolution in a single human lifetime have been demonstrated in viruses, bacteria, and even small animals under extreme environmental stress. There is no theory of “intelligent design,” only wild speculation based on superstition and desperation. A theory is “a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science.” Religion meets none of that criteria in any way. Interjecting a magical “designer” into an explanation of biology or physics only throws off every inquiry based on that assumption so that all conclusions derived from that concept are demonstrably flawed. 

We may desperately want there to be a god who cares about us, individually, and it is possible that some people actually need to sustain that belief to cling to what passes for their grip on mental health. That, of course, is a perversion of “need” in the real, physical world and it may turn out to be one of the many reasons humans are not a sustainable species. Replacing the kind of insanity that comes from spiritual insecurity with the delusion of religion does not get to the core of the insanity.

a few godsThroughout human history, there have been thousands of religions and probably tens of thousands of a wild variety of gods. While most of the gods looked and acted suspiciously like humans, there were (and are) more than a few animal gods, weird multi-limbed humanoid gods, and outright fantastical things that Marvel Comics couldn’t have dreamed up. All of those gods had one thing in common, some group of humans invented them and believed in them. All of those whacky humans believed they knew how the universe worked and their religion and gods were at the core of that belief. So, pardon me if the religion of the century hasn’t impressed me any more than the ones from previous centuries.

d9f4f5636c09ad874736377df3f774a4One of the vital reasons the founders of the United States of America chose not to base the Constitution and the country’s foundations on religion is that humans have historically gone to weird and terrible lengths to sustain their beliefs. If a nation (as many have) adopts a religion as a core value, it is necessary to force everyone to pretend to believe the tenants of that religion; no matter how ridiculous those concepts may be. When the physical world contradicts almost any of the religion’s beliefs, the promoters/priests of the religion are forced to “burn the heretic” to protect the religion from reality. In many instances in history, that reaction has set back human progress, society, and security enough cause societies and countries to collapse into religious and moral decadence. It is, in fact, a clearly stupid idea.

Even being an atheist requires belief, just not as much. I cannot say I know there are no gods or afterlife. I can say I absolutely believe individual humans only get one shot at life and that what we call our being or spirit dissipates into nothingness the moment we die. Weirdly consistently, a superstitious person can say they absolutely know there is a god and an afterlife. They can say that, but without a shred of evidence what they are saying is “I don’t know the difference between knowing and believing and I don’t care.” No rational person should take that sort of person seriously, ever.

The serious aspect of people who are unaware of the difference between knowing and believing is the danger those people pose to the stability of a society and to the sustainability of the species. History has demonstrated that superstitious people will commit mass murder and cultural suicide in the service of their delusions. So, while their beliefs are nothing to consider seriously, their threat is very real and constant. People driven by belief are dangerous to all life on this planet.

10/08/2018

Facing Red Wing’s Reality

clip_image002What is often called “optimism” is often delusion. In the case of the city of Red Wing, Minnesota the city’s historic planning for spontaneous, prosperous and strong growth has been a city delusion almost since the city’s founding. The Prairie Island Nuclear Plant went online in 1973. As you can see by the city’s population history, the city’s population jumped by about 30% between 1970 and 1980; mostly fueled by the power plant employees’ inflated salaries. The two reactors are slated to go off-line in 2033 and 2034, since Xcel has no plans to renew the 60 year licenses. The Treasure Island Resort and Casino opened in 1983, which provided another smaller spurt in the city’s population. Since 2000, the town’s population has been, essentially, flat at about 16,000 people and the city only added about 1,000 people between 1990 and 2000.

However, the city’s optimism has been fueled by drunken sailor optimism since the city’s inception in the 1850’s. In 1995, the city built a 222 acre high school complex capable of housing a lot more than the current 1,000 8th-12th grade students. Current demographics and population growth trends indicate that considerably less of the facility will be needed or used in the next few years. The city just finished “investing” $3M in the Sheldon Theater, a show place that has no more chance of providing taxpayers a return on their investment than Donald Trump has at competently reading a teleprompter. This past year (2017), the city council voted to add a 2nd fire station to the west side of town, where it is desperately hoped the city’s growth might happen due to the miniscule commuter advantage to the Twin Cities. Over the past two decades, there have been several attempts to encourage some population growth on the west side of town with minimal results. You would think that a growth plan would assume and encourage some kind of mass transit to the Cities, like rail, but the city and Goodhue County both assume similar or increased car traffic in spite of obvious trends away from single-passenger vehicle commuting. When the Prairie Island power plant begins to shut down, it is reasonable to expect that a population roll-back similar to the 1970’s growth will occur and the city will be stuck with several expensive, oversized facilities and a drastically reduced tax base.

New Picture (1)In an effort to reel-in as much property tax as possible, this tiny town has incorporated 41.19 square miles of the Mississippi River valley. As Google Maps aptly illustrates, very little of the City of Red Wing is “city.” About 6.6% of the city is water and at an average of 475 inhabitants per square mile practically a ghost town. If the city were as dense as the Twin Cities, one of the least dense cities in the nation, we’d be at around 1,800 people per square mile and would need only about 9 square miles of that 41.19 square mile city; which means at least 32 square miles is largely unoccupied but still requires the city services and resources.

All of that acquired territory was gathered when a small portion of that real estate (Prairie Island) brought large tax revenues. Fairly regularly, Xcel and the NRC do a little song and dance around the illegally stored spent fuel cask inventory and nuclear facility relicensing. Some part of that dance routine occurs every seven years, with the latest one in 2015. Xcel does an ROI analysis at each approval, inspection, or maintenance interval with political, economic, and risk assessments at each turn. Renewables are becoming a large part of the company’s income with considerably less downside at risk. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that Xcel decides to begin to decommission Prairie Island rather than invest the millions necessary for the next refueling. The company has clearly stated that it “has no intention” of asking for another NRC license extension in 2033. Somewhere between now and 2033, 40-70% of Red Wing’s property tax base will vanish and with it a fair number of the highest paid residents in the area. Unless there is some miracle replacement for that revenue, property taxes will either skyrocket or Red Wing’s city services will take a huge hit along with the higher-than-typical city and county employee salaries.

Red Wing PopulationAt the risk of being accused of being alarmist, I think Prairie Island’s closing is going to be an unrecoverable hit to the city of Red Wing. Based on the city’s sudden growth when the power plant was first installed, this chart is my estimate of what will happen to the population of Red Wing, Minnesota; depending on when Xcel decides to start shutting the plant down. This estimate only considers the effect on the city if just Prairie Island closes. (If you have Excel, you can play with my data on this spreadsheet.) Odds are, as the city’s tax base gets kicked in the ass by the largest property taxpayer the city will first try to shift the burden to other local industries. If that happens, more than just this one critical employer could vacate the premises. If that happens, those nasty looking downturns beginning around 2022, 2029, or 2033 will look a lot worse. If Xcel is followed out the door by BIC, Red Wing Shoes, or any of the other major employers the city could even be forced into bankruptcy.

Atlantic City PopulationThanks in part to our current Bankruptcy King/President, we have a model of this kind of community catastrophe. In 1930, Atlantic City had a population of 66,000 citizens. In 1976, the voters legalized gambling. By 1990, the city had lost 28,000 citizens and after a brief faux-boom the city’s casinos (including Trump’s) began to close their doors, declare bankruptcy, and default on owed property taxes. Residents were left holding the bag and many of them were forced out of their homes by the city’s attempt to avoid defaulting on local government pensions, reducing costs, and downsizing the bureaucracy. If you don’t think Atlantic City tax-ratethis could happen to Red Wing and you are a local resident, you will keep your eyes tightly closed and wish for a miracle. If you are a realist, you have to be worried about the county and city’s extravagant spending habits and exorbitant civil service wages (and the resulting pension expenses).

What kind of “miracle” could prevent this small town exodus and economic downturn? I can’t think of an industry that could replace Xcel and Prairie Island, but it’s not hard to imagine a combination of Red Wing’s strong infrastructure, mass transportation, and internet entrepreneur-ship that could at least stem the tide. Red Wing has affordable 21st Century internet service, which is unusual for Minnesota and the upper Midwest. There is still a train station and AMTRAK service to Red Wing, although it is too unpredictable, slow, and infrequent to be considered much more than a placeholder until (and if) real infrastructure improvements happen.

The real miracle would be a sudden burst of realistic thinking by the City Council, school board, and local residents. The current thinking is “spend it while we have it,” but that’s not what’s happening. The city government is spending a whole lot of money it doesn’t have as most of that spending is financed with bonds and debt and there is little-to-no municipal or county savings for the rainy days that are sure to be coming. It’s easy to imagine that if Red Wing began to build up a reserve of cash for the future, current residents would whine that if the city can afford reserve funds it can afford to reduce taxes. Americans, especially faux-conservatives, are really lousy when it comes to acting fiscally conservative. We are the most timid nation on the planet when it comes to science, rational thinking, education, foreign relations, and pretty much anything that might take more than a sentence to explain, but we are fearless when it comes to long term debt. I can’t decide if its because many Americans either think their gods will save them or if they just don’t care about their offspring; or both. Whatever the cause, it’s not a good trait over the long haul.

10/07/2018

The USA Has Never Been A Country

A1 orE4S85L._SY500_The United States has always been the exact same mess it is today. If you can fool yourself into believing the “good old days” were good for anyone but a small minority, good for you. You probably believe in gods and the power of prayer, infinite resources and a flat earth, you cross your fingers and knock on wood for good luck, and when you recite the Pledge you pretend to believe “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” was something that Christian socialist actually believed just before the 20th Century began. The indivisible nation had already proved itself to be a fragile falsehood in 1860 and 1892 was primetime for the kind of racial inequality America is famous for all over the world. The country wasn’t even five years old when working class people began to realize that they were barely 2nd class citizens and tried to rebel against the rules of the new nation. Local officials and the military led by George Washington make it clear to the people who had sacrificed the most to create the new nation that their sacrifice was going to be wasted on the rich and powerful.

Social and traditional media have done a good job of illustrating how unequal this country’s society is, but that doesn’t mean anything has changed or will ever change for the better. YouTube and cell phone apps regularly demonstrate how quickly and violently police “handle” minority citizens, but that’s just a modern version of what muckraking journalists were trying to tell society 20, 50, 100, 200, and 235 years ago. For that matter, in the 1880’s Charles Dickens was telling the same kind of stories about the country we rebelled against to supposedly resolve those issues.

Emperor-1200x630Not only has the United States always been a magnet for international rejects from the Pilgrims to Irish Catholic potato famine rejects to ISIS wannabes, but even the mainstream is full of people with wildly different views of tolerance, decency, respect, and community. The rise of “popularism” and nationalism and extreme racism in the world probably demonstrates that humans are incapable of building sustainable communities, but the USA has often deluded itself with dreams of being a “melting pot” and presenting a democratic ideal to the world. Today’s racially intolerant MAGA nitwits are just a rerun of the country’s terrible history. Nothing new here, move along.

9/24/2018

Begging for Respect

In a recent Atlantic Magazine video-article, titled “Why Don't Democrats Take Religion Seriously?” Emma Green asks, "Why haven’t liberals tried harder to reach the broad percentage of Americans who identify as religious?' Democrats in Washington often have trouble speaking in religious terms, and they reflect a broader liberal culture that doesn’t take religion seriously.'" The answer lies in reality. Liberals/educated people don’t take all sorts of silly shit seriously. We argue about exposing our children to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, ghosts, vampires, zombies, talking animals and inanimate objects, along with various gods and semi-gods like Jesus and Mohammed. We worry about the slippery slope of letting kids believe in “harmless nonsense” when they are young enough to imprint on that crap. The upside to believing in nonsense is so small it appears to be immeasurable. The downside is immense.

dissentIt is absolutely true that the Civil Rights Movement was driven, mostly, by religious conservatives like Martin Luther King. That was then, this is now. Today, religion has joined forces with the opposite view. Evangelicals and other so-called Christian groups have thrown their hat in the ring with Trump and the Republicans who are trying to turn the US into an oligarchy. Not that this is news, but from the Catholic Church to evangelicals to more traditional Protestant churches, sex scandals, financial scandals, and political wingnutery abounds. For the most part, the practitioners of religion have abandoned any pretense of moral character and its priests have turned religion into a poorly-disguised money machine; just like Republicans.

god warsThere is a reason liberals don’t take religion seriously, it is not a serious thing. It’s dangerous, it holds the whole society back, but it is not a subject for serious philosophical consideration.

Just to sum up the argument, you believe that there is a just, kind, jealous, vengeful god who randomly punishes little kids and other innocents with disease, starvation, war, and general mayhem for “mysterious reasons.” You believe that when Jebus comes back you will rise up from the grave (in prime condition, not the rotting mess your physical body became in the grave or the pile of ashes your kids were supposed to preserve) and go to a heaven that is designed to be ideal for every person (with a god who looks exactly like you). Belief is a funny thing. However, no matter what you believe the universe operates on the laws of physics and could not care less about your faith.  

Ijust practicet’s not the delusions or the superstition or even the arrogance that puts off many liberals, intellectuals, and generally sentient humans, it’s the celebration of death. Not just of death of the self but of the whole world. All of the Abrahamic religions have cults that believe the end of the world will be the beginning of Nirvana or whatever they’ve named their Big Rock Candy Mountain.  Christianity, as it is practiced in the US, is particularly driven to end life on this planet in the hope that the “faithful” will drift up to the sky and sit at “the right hand side” of their god for eternity. With the usual poor math skills exhibited by conservatives everywhere, I suspect they haven’t bothered to visualize how remote a position they are likely to have with the billions of believers stacked up on that side of the god’s throne.

If Christians were able to settle on eliminating themselves, leaving the rest of the planet to get along without them, the aversion to their belief wouldn’t be nearly as strong. Fundamentalist Christians appear to have a weak grip on their “faith” so, in case they are wrong and the whole Rapture thing doesn’t happen, they seem to be convinced it is important to turn the planet into a smoking husk before they drift off to where ever they will be going. That is the reason liberals and other rational thinkers are hostile to religion. If you want to Jim Jones yourself into oblivion, please be our guest. If you want to take the rest of us with you, get ready for a fight.

9/13/2018

Double-Down or Half-Down?

A well-known local American motorcycle gear company is, like everyone in that industry, experiencing a severe down-turn in the business. Motorcycles are not looking like the wave of the future right now. In fact, if I were forced to bet one way or the other I’d have to bet that motorcycles will be solely for recreational use by 2030 with no or limited access to public roads and with almost no affordable options for liability insurance. It’s that serious. Many of the companies that have wallowed in easy money for the last 30 years are now struggling to maintain any sort of visibility or customer base. As the last of the Boomers moves from a Harley or BMW to electric wheelchairs, motorcycle sales is drawing down fast; especially in the high end market. In my Geezer with a Grudge column and blog, I’ve been predicting this decline for at least a decade and if I weren’t a motorcyclist I’d be happily saying, “I told you so.” I did (tell you so), but I’m not happy about it.

jacketsI’ve been buying expensive commuting and touring gear from my friend’s company since the early 1980’s and, mostly, I’ve been a huge fan of the gear this company makes; even though they are almost always the most expensive equipment in their market. Today, with all commoditiesof the Chinese-made ROW-marketed similar-to-equal motorcycle equipment available it is getting harder to justify spending the extra money for made-in-USA gear, simply because it is made in the USA. There is only one thing that can make a company stand out from the pack when the pack is large, well-funded, and quickly becoming a commodity. That thing is customer service.

retail-pricing-perspective-9-728[2]Unfortunately, mismanagement often takes their eye off of the customer service ball too early in the competition game. Like quality, customer service shouldn’t be a profit center subject to simple accounting measurements. Quality and customer service are items that are as hard to quantify and appraise as design and originality. Unlike labor, materials, manufacturing equipment and facilities, the sales force, marketing costs, and management structure and personnel, customer service is one of the intangible things that customers use to assign added value to the products they purchase. Many of the once-great companies in recent history have risen and fallen with their commitment to customer service. People will pay a premium for a product they can assume the manufacturer and dealers will stand behind and they will expect extreme discounts on products without that support.

While company executives often whine that customer loyalty no longer exists, the evidence that it does is overwhelming. The problem is that corporate loyalty is even more rare. The key to loyalty is that the people who most benefit from it have to give the most of it. What a company gets from customer loyalty is the ability to price goods and services at a price that provides a decent profit. What they have to give to get that privilege is beyond-the-expected customer service. Without that expectation, customers view practically every purchase they make as a commodity: a good or service that has many equivalents and deserves no regard to who produced it. Once you are in that bracket, the only thing you have to offer is low cost. Getting back out of the commodity market is thousands of times harder once you’ve dropped into that category.

clip_image004I created this illustration in a lame attempt to get across this point. The basic concept ought to be pretty obvious, but it isn’t to most executives. A zillion years ago, I taught quality courses for the Phil Crosby Quality is Free–based “Quality College” training program. One of the examples we used that I’m going to have to make up the numbers for (because I can’t find this reference anywhere today) related to the restaurant business. The rule is something along the line of “it takes $5 worth of advertising to attract a new customer, 5 seconds of poor service to send them away, and $5,000 in advertising to get them to try you again.” If you look at my illustration, you’ll see there are several nodes where that “5 seconds” thing can happen and what happens next is that your customers will try everyone else before they give you another shot.

For example, I recently paid as much to have some of my gear repaired by the local company as I would have spent on a new Chinese-made equivalent. When the repaired gear arrived, I discovered a good bit of the equipment was in worse shape than it was when I dropped it off for repair. I spent a couple hours  repairing the repair. If I have to buy similar equipment again, I won’t be able to forget that experience. That’s 40 years of customer loyalty possibly blown up with a single half-hearted repair job.

9/10/2018

What American Medicine Does and Doesn’t Do

A recent article in a terrific reoccurring physician’s column in the Duluth Reader titled, “14 Lies that Big Pharma and Their Academic Psychiatrists Teach Medical Students” that details the many fables and fairy tales Americans believe about what the FDA does and doesn’t do. (Hint: What it doesn’t do is insure drugs and devices are safe for use.) This particular article is about the delusions Americans regarding the safety and effectiveness of the drugs and devices approved by the FDA. Americans are weird in that they distrust their government for the easy stuff and are as gullible as newborn babies about the hard stuff. Dr. Gary Kohls article in the Duluth Reader bursts some bubbles about the FDA’s part in the mental health drug business and that is a pretty important story. He describes the lack of sophistication in the actual drug development, testing, and application while pointing out how much better Big Pharma’s marketing and politics are than their science. "The so-called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors have been deceptively mis-named by Big Pharma because those amphetamine molecule-based SSRI drugs do NOT mess only with serotonin neurotransmitter systems! In fact, they do not actually raise total brain serotonin levels as advertised. Actually, SSRI drugs deplete serotonin long-term while only “goosing” the release of serotonin at the synapse level while at the same time interfering with the storage, reuse and re-cycling functions of the serotonin synapses that, by the way, are far more abundant in the human intestinal tract than in the central nervous system." You wouldn’t get that from any of their ads, would you?

clip_image002I have a mixed history with the FDA; the old and the current. When I worked for a pacemaker/implantable cardio-defibrillator (ICD) company in Colorado, Telectronics Pacing Systems, that was eventually closed down by the FDA and bad publicity for a variety of awful Class 1 recalls. While all that was going on, with FDA inspectors and manufacturing experts roaming the halls of our company, many of the company’s engineers were saying, “Thank God there is an FDA,” because the British Pacific Dunlop executives would have been willing to carve the company’s patients up for meals if it meant they’d get a bigger quarterly bonus. As it was, Telectronics had pacemakers and ICDs with defective connector block seals that leaded body fluids into the electronics and caused sudden and unpredictable device failures and leads that included a “forming wire” that would poke through the leads’ insulation and carve chunks out of patients’ atrium walls. Yes, that would often kill them.

Telectronics’ product failures were eventually exposed when an autopsy of a young woman who died from the atrial carving revealed a piece of wire sticking out of the atrial “J” wire’s insulation. The pathologist, a friend of the cardiologist who performed the pacemaker implant, described the wire to the cardiologist; assuming his friend had accidentally left a guiding stylet in the atrial wire. The cardiologist was absolutely certain that wasn’t the case and asked for further investigation, risking his own reputation in the process. The resulting investigation eventually involved the FDA investigators and the discovery that several similar incidents had occurred in the past, with no certain knowledge of how many such failures had resulted in patient mortality and morbidity. That knowledge and the discovery that the company had covered up the knowledge of both types of failure brought the full attention of the FDA. At that time, Dr. David Kessler was the commissioner of the FDA and he took the job very seriously. Appointed by Bush I and replaced in 1997 by Clinton, with practically nothing of substance from then on, Dr. Kessler ran an FDA that was both active and patient-oriented. After Kessler’s FDA, American patients have been pretty much on their own as far as anything resembling federal regulation of food and drugs.

One of the experiences I had with Telectronics was in a team of folks who were writing the clinical trial plan for the company’s ICD products. I got to study chemotherapy and cardiac therapy drug trials and their methods and results. The results were every bit as interesting as the methods, since the results were so ambiguous that I don’t know how anyone could conclude either of those drugs worked worth a damn. Statistically, every clinical trial we looked at demonstrated that the state-of-the-art drugs were inconsistently the equivalent of placebos. Sometimes, the drugs were slightly worse. As Dr. Kohls explained with his, “Myth # 3: ‘FDA approval means that a psychotropic drug is safe long-term’” In fact, FDA approval means nothing. Drugs and devices "are usually only tested in human clinical trials for a couple of months before being granted marketing approval by the Big Pharma-conflicted FDA. " FDA approval is just a stamp applied to practically anything the medical industry wants to foist off on patients and medical providers.

The next train wreck, I mean medical devices company, was CPI/Guidant. When I first applied, it was still CPI, the company that invented the ICD. CPI had a reputation for being “conservative,” in the real definition of that word. Their devices (pacemakers and ICDs) weren’t tricky, but they were reliable, had long battery lives, and had only the features necessary to do the job well. CPI was acquired by Eli Lilly corporation in 1978 and Lilly added a pile of medical devices company to its portfolio until 1994 when it spun those companies off into Guidant/CRM and the rest of the mess that became Guidant. I interviewed  in 1995 and early 1996 and by the time I started work in March of 1996, Lilly had separated itself from Guidant and the retirement and pension package I’d been promised vanished without anyone bothering to tell me about it. Since Telectronics was being pulled to pieces for the patents and valuable employees, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but it would have been nice to know what I was getting into.

What I was getting into was a carbon copy of the situation I’d just left. Guidant eventually collapsed under its own avarice and incompetence. To make a long, painful story short, one “Quality Committee” meeting illustrated the company’s philosophy perfectly. When a team of quality assurance engineers presented their analysis of a defective device that needed to be notified on, the executives in the committee asked, “How will that affect our bonuses this quarter?” Since the device failure was a life-threatening malfunction, no one had done the necessary research to determine how that would affect executive compensation. Imagine that.

Eventually, and after hundreds of patient injuries and a few deaths, a few doctors began to suspect their corporate beneficiary was less than benevolent. Even weirder, a couple of those doctors did the minimal research necessary to discover that even their own small group of patients had been affected multiple times by Guidant product failures. I had collected more than 600 such failures for one of the products I monitored and I waited for more than a year for one patient-oriented cardiologist to ask me, “Have you ever seen this before.” Never happened.

When Guidant died, 95% of the company’s products were under FDA Class 1 recall, but the FDA deserves little-to-no credit for uncovering the company’s many problems. Like the physicians profiting from selling these defective products, the FDA’s attitude was summed up by something an “investigator” said to me not long before I quit medical devices, “We don’t care what kind of product problems you have or how many patients you kill as long as we don’t read about it in the paper first.” As long as the FDA wasn’t embarrassed by being shown up by a media investigation, they will let Pharma and Devices do whatever the hell they want with patient safety and therapy effectiveness. To them, patients are nothing more than “lab rats who clean their own cages.”

9/01/2018

Parents or Not Parents?

June 3, 2014

It’s summer 2014 and I’m getting Facebook, Twitter, and email bombed with “we’re having a kid” notices from ex-students and friends. I guess I’m supposed to be happy for them, but if that’s what they expect they don’t know me very well. Do they?

I’d offer a general rule of thumb (with the original definition of that rule intact) for prospective parents: If you would have hated to be your own parent (think during ages 13-25) you will be a lousy parent and will raise a terrible kid. Sure, there are a tiny number of exceptions to that rule, but they mostly prove the rule.

Remember, even alligators care for their babies as does about every species on the planet, but humans need care, feeding, nurturing, patience, investment (emotional and financial), training, and protection well into young adulthood. Babies are the easy part and if you have never cared for a baby I recommend you put in some time doing that before you consider reproducing. Of course most people aren’t considering reproducing at the time of conception, anyway. They are just fucking. After they discover what fucking leads to, they pretend they wanted to be a parent all along because they’re too lazy and cowardly to hunt down an abortion clinic. Not long after that, a kid is born and lousy parenting ensues.

Still, it’s all easy and somewhat fun and games until the little brat turns into a teenager. Then it all goes downhill fast. The kid turns into a fair reproduction of the parent at that age. The “parent” loses patience with the mirror reflection of him/herself and the kid continues the cycle with another kid; or ten.

And don’t forget, if you reproduce you have to pretend to care about your kid’s future. You can fake-pretend by joining a religious cult (all religions are cults) that absolves you of responsibility for the environmental, economic, and social disasters you’ve left for your kid to suffer and clean up, but that’s just avoidance. Every generation in front of us did the same damn thing and that’s why much of the ocean’s surface and bottom are covered in plastic and human waste. It’s why we stumble from one war to the next, each one driving society closer to total war and global annihilation. It’s why our species and culture gets dumber and dumber, because smart people do not reproduce (or do in small numbers; ie. less than 2).

Of course, you could actually care about the next generations’ futures and try to do something right for your children and your children’s children. But if that’s the kind of person you are you probably didn’t meet the criteria I started out with in the beginning of this essay.

8/28/2018

And God Said

The gods don’t do a lot of talking, except to crazy people and other “prophets.” Nature, however, is pretty communicative; if you bother to listen. Early human religions were slightly more realistic than the clown shows we’re stuck with in modern life. Humans used to pray to the sun, the moon, the winds, rain, and good or bad weather. In other words, they begged nature not to kill them or their families. If you are going to be begging some greater entity for survival purposes, you probably ought to at least aim your questions and requests at something semi-real. Of course, even the most deluded theist or deist knows that nature does not give a damn about the existence of individual humans or even the entire species. We are just one lifeform, out of many, that has accidentally through evolution managed to turn into a marginally sustainable species. If we manage to kill ourselves off through stupidity or viciousness, nature will crank out another attempt at sentience (or not) in a few million years.

So, to an outside non-superstitious observer, what does all of the praying to various representational gods look like? It looks silly as hell, that’s what.

Re-imagine this, “Do not add a thing to what I command you nor subtract from it, so that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I am delivering to you. Then the Lord said to Moses that same day” with “Do not add a thing to what I command you nor subtract from it, so that you may keep the commandments of nature that I am delivering to you. Then nature said to Moses that same day.” Nature is never that wordy, so maybe that line will have to be left to the comedians.

How about this one re-written for sentience, “Then nature told me about some men from Anathoth who were threatening to kill me. They had threatened, “Stop prophesying in the name of nature or we will kill you!” That one is pretty much what Trump and the Trumpanzees are saying to the EPA, National Parks Department, and NASA. Maybe this biblical revisionism has a future? Even though humans probably don’t.

I sort of like this one, too: “The law of nature is perfectand preserves one’s life. The rules set down by nature are reliable and impart wisdom to the inexperienced.  Nature’s precepts are fair and make one joyful. Nature’s commands are pure and give insight for life.  The commands to fear nature are right and endure forever. The judgments given by nature are trustworthyand absolutely just. They are of greater value than gold,than even a great amount of pure gold;they bring greater delight than honey,than even the sweetest honey from a honeycomb. Yes, your servant finds moral guidance there; those who obey them receive a rich reward.” If a society made this substitution and practiced it, humanity might have half-a-shot at sustainablity. And I might have a dramatically higher opinion of my species.

We could add “the environment” to “nature” and really get some value from bibles. “But you who remained faithful to nature and the environment are still alive to this very day, every one of you. Look! I have taught you statutes and ordinances just as nature told me to do, so that you might carry them out in the land you are about to enter and possess. So be sure to do them, because this will testify of your wise understanding to the people who will learn of all these statutes and say, ‘Indeed, this great nation is a very wise people.’” Indeed, that would be a great nation full of very wise people, instead of being a brainless pack of morons driving headlong into oblivion.

8/27/2018

Who’s the Asshole?

The “No Assholes Rule” is a pretty good goal post for a sustainable organization or any sort. There are all kinds of ways to define assholes, but the problem is too often who is doing the defining. If, as is often the case, an asshole is a founding douchebag lucked into the right combination of people to run the business before he decided to wear the CEO hat, it will be tough to enforce (or create) anything resembling a structure that could support “no assholes.” In fact, I don’t see how it can possibly work.

I have, unfortunately, worked in the more typical American “trashcan full of assholes at the top” corporate structure far more often than anything resembling the ideal. A motto I’ve observed to be true is “two things float: cream and shit.” In the sewage pool that is most American corporations, cream is by far not the lightest material in the mix. I’d go so far as to say if you try to keep cream in that stew of garbage it will disolve into the rest of the digested material before if ever has a chance to get to the top of the pool. In fact, real cream seems to be pretty good at avoiding those containers altogether.

The basic terms of the No Assholes Rule is “don’t work with (or associate with) assholes.” A good business rule is “never do business with anyone you don’t like,” which would have saved a whole lot of people from losing their jobs, fortunes, and businesses doing business with Donal Trump. In fact, if you haven’t figured that out by your second or third job, you’re probably an asshole.

8/20/2018

A Disorganized Party or Country?

This weekend, I helped campaign for a local Democrat running for the US House against one of the most corrupt, decadent, incompetent, and dishonest Republicans in the House; and that is saying something in this current pack of do-nothing right Republicans. Standing among the crowd of campaigners waiting for a parade to start, I had a variety of conversations with traditional and less traditional Democrats and was constantly reminded of Will Roger’s quote, “I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat." Like Rogers, in some ways I am proud of that position. Democrats don’t tend to fall in line as do their docile Republican counterparts. Democrats argue because they think, they have independent opinions, they sometimes realize the complexity of the problems the nation and their community face and the fact that some problems have many possible solutions. Those are good things.

foot shootThe down side of Democratic disorder is that an awful lot of people who drift into the Democratic Party have simply wandered to that place driven by their dislike of the monotheistic Republican doctrine of worshiping the rich and powerful. Their grip on the actual issues is so base and simplistic that they might as well be Republicans. The complexity of real solutions just frustrates them and they degenerate into bickering factions easily defeated by the conservative Marching Morons.

dem_vs_rep_prof_vignette_1200_630For instance, there was a pair of conflicting groups at this rally: labor and environment. Two of the new Democratic members were from the steel workers union and they argued that the party needs to focus more on labor if it wants to win, especially in the rural north where people are backwards, uneducated, and completely dependent on outside investment for any sort of occupational or economic activity. So their big issues are the major polluting and high carbon construction projects like the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline and the PolyMet copper mines near the Boundary Waters. It should be obvious that these are both corporate welfare projects with minimal long term employment opportunities for Minnesota and it should be even more obvious that they are both projects with the potential for massive negative environmental impact. It should be, but it isn’t to the labor faction and pressing that issue is likely to drive them back to the Republican hoards. Hearing that “we have plenty of environmental protections in place to protect the environment” from a union guy who clearly could care less about the environment, as long as he got a union wage for his part in destroying it, was pretty depressing. I know someone who was in the EPA during the short period it was allowed to actually protect the environment and I suspect the two union guys at the rally would do everything possible to avoid hearing how limited and powerless the EPA has become, even before Trump castrated it with an oil company promoter.

civil warRogers also said, "You've got to be optimist to be a Democrat, and you've got to be a humorist to stay one." For sure you have to have a well-developed sense of humor, at least. With Trump and a perfectly corrupt Congress full of bought-and-paid-for Republicans and not a few equally completely owned Democrats, you’d think this would be the traditional mid-term election where the party in power loses its grip. I wouldn’t count on it. Democrats and “progressives” have shown an ability and willingness to snatch defeat from the claws of victory in all situations. Part of that comes from the “purity test” mentality and part comes from true fact that all issues are infinitely complex and hard to grasp and a bigger part comes from the fact that America is no longer anything resembling a collection of United States. Humans, as a species, have never shown much will toward creating a better future for our offspring but modern Americans clearly would eat their own children if it came to that or missing a meal. I think we should get ready to accept the possibility that this mid-term election might signal the end of this collapsing empire.

8/13/2018

Locally Smocally

An acquaintance in our little town is trying to promote a “buy locally” program that is loosely based on variations of the food co-ops and small business crowd-funding. It’s a pretty hard sell pitch, which always puts me on guard. On top of that the argument that “the national system is rigged against the small investor, so you should really like investments that you can talk, personally, to the owners and employees” has a scary, familiar ring to me.

Talking to a small business owner is pretty useless, information-wise. I’ve worked for a half-dozen small businesses and what I learned from that experience is that con artists don’t limit themselves to Wall Street. That’s where the Big Cons live, but for every Big Con there are thousands of Little Cons and most of them work their scams in small businesses of a wide variety: from home improvement contractors to car dealerships to investment councilors to small town banks. The thing they all have in common is that they don’t report to anyone until they are on their way to jail or bankruptcy court.

Not many years ago, an acquaintance from high school demonstrated this too well for me when his “investment company” was discovered to be nothing more than a Ponzi scheme and a large number of investors discovered they were broke. I’ve been a low-key investor since the late 1970‘s and I’ve had more than my share of ups-and-downs over those years, but I have never lost everything with any of the mediocre-to-not-awful big brokers I’ve worked through. Merrill Lynch was pretty terrible back in the 1980’s when their “advisors” were steering small investors into whatever heavily discounted piece of crap their executives were shilling for, but it has never been difficult for me to ignore financial advice from people who are not rich. The one decent tip I got from my Merrill Lynch broker was Marvel Entertainment, when that company went public in 1986. We didn’t get out of the Reagan years without a collection of recessions and stock crashes and my Marvel stock didn’t do any better than most of the rest of the economy. I dumped it to help finance a house in Colorado in ‘91 and I’m not sure which “investment” would have done better. I did fairly well with the house. Marvel stock really hit the trashcan in the mid-90’s.

MSCM dumpsterI was in some kind of management capacity in every small company I worked for, except the last one; McNally Smith College (which suddenly, but predictably, went broke in late 2017). By then, I’d decided that I wouldn’t make another nitwit into a millionare and that I’d never again try to manage people in a dysfunctional organization. (The top levels of mismanagement at McNally Smith College was a colection of dysfunction that would have embarrassed Trump. I knew associating closely with that crowd would be self-defeating.) My experiences at the other small companies were relentlessly discouraging; from outright corruption and misrepresentation to the usual series of fairytales designed to keep employees from bolting to more secure or better-paying employment. From the inside of all but one of those companies, no one who worked there would invest a penny of their own money regardless of the promises made by ownership. I didn’t even trust most of those employers to honestly manage 401k funds and my IRAs are the reason I’m retired today. My employer funds consistently lost money, even the Fortune 100 employer IRAs were mediocre investment vehicles.

kickstarterSo, “investing” at the local level rarely gets past the level of “crowd funding” or panhandling. There is no SEC, as weak as that organization occasionally becomes, to make even a haphazard effort to monitor company finances. There is no good reason to imagine that a small business owner would disclose bad news to potential investors. The “investment” is not liquid in any fashion, as I can attest to since I still own some weird and obscure portion of one of my past employer’s business that I’ve been unable to cash out of in 40-plus years. In the end, it’s just crowdfunding/electronic-panhandling and I can always think of better places to put my contribution money than small businesses. It’s not like our government is doing such a good job of protecting democracy, providing a safety net, ensuring “liberty and justice for all,” or even managing national security that there are no more important causes so I might as well try small business crowdfunding.

7/30/2018

Sweet Dreams

I recently connected to an old friend who I haven’t seen or talked to in at least 30 years. He spent his entire life, outside of vacation travel, in Nebraska and most of that in small town Nebraska. I could have easily led that life at one time, but economics, chance, opportunity, and restlessness ended up sending me to a lot of places I would have never expected to see and experience. In one of many conversations with my friend and his wife, we touched on the dreams we’ve had that carried emotion, meaning, and resonance to our lives. My friend and his wife are religious and the dreams they described had to do with that subject. My dream was very different and their perspective and ideals reminded me of that near-spiritual dream that I still occasionally have.

After my decade in medical devices, I was a mental train wreck. Being asked to help the richest people I’ve ever known cover-up device failures that had killed patients, tortured even more patients, and bankrupted many others caused me to lose the ability to read for almost half of a year. In retrospect, I realize that some part of my brain decided that if my consciousness wasn’t going to do the right thing the next best thing was to incapacitate my ability to do the wrong thing. Many people imagine that becoming a whistle-blower is either some form of treason or is as easy as going with the flow and doing what the higher-ups demand. It isn’t and if you have never had the skills or talent to be in a position to be pressed to consider having moral backbone to blow the whistle on corruption and evil in high places you have no basis with which to compare your situation to that miserable place. This essay isn’t about that dilemma, but if it were it would be longer, sadder, and more revealing that I am likely to ever be in this blog. This essay is about the dream that signaled my release from that situation.

About three months after I quit Guidant, a St. Paul medical devices company and my last corporate employer, I had the dream that turned out to be an important part of my release from the hell that had become my employment “contract.” I was mostly unemployed, living on savings and some meager self-employment and contract tech work, the economy was in free fall because of the 9/11 attacks, and my future as a 52-year-old mid-tech technical writer and engineer was totally in doubt. I still could not, yet, read and comprehend the captions below pictures in newspapers. My sole dependable income was teaching motorcycle safety classes on weekends and, occasionally, weekdays. That particular early morning, I would be teaching my first classroom in this new career. To that day, studying the materials I had to absorb to become an MSF instructor had required that I read a list of 132 questions and memorize the course-accepted answers. Because of my reading disability I had spent hundreds of hours staring at the study guides and instructors’ manuals to get to the point that I had the gist of those documents memorized. The chance that I might have a clear moment and would be able to read the test questions to my students was too much to risk, so I memorized the test. That evening I had spent six hours just going over the test questions and I could spout “What is important to know about a convex mirror?” and when #19’s time came or when I heard “#39” my kneejerk response was “List the three-step process to shift to a higher gear.”

The last thing that I remember from the fleeting moments of sleep the morning of the day I regained my ability to read again was an incredible feeling of well-being as I rode my motorcycle from my garage into the street and in every direction I saw “suits” hanging from every telephone pole down my Little Canada street, along Little Canada Road to the I35E freeway entrance and all along the freeway to the Century Avenue exit on I694. Then I woke up. I don’t remember what led to that image, if there was a story that precluded the sight of so many corporate executives getting their just deserts. The dream was more a release from the self-torture I’d subjected myself to as a consequence of working for one of the many entirely self-serving, psychopathic, and outright evil corporations this greed-loving country has spawned. There wasn’t much of a story behind that grand sight, as I remember it. It was just a beatific scene from a world gone wrong that had self-corrected.

I had that wonderful dream repeatedly for about a month and intermittently for the next year or so. Then it stopped. The part of the dream I remember always woke me up about the time I needed to be getting out of bed. The feeling it left me with was always a great sense of peace because “truth, justice, and the American way” had been restored in my world. Sometimes, I suspect that there is a lot of French in my English and German heritage because the revolution I most empathize with is the French Revolution. Being a savage US citizen, I see the 1% being hanged from telephone poles rather than guillotined, but the end result is the same.

Of course, none of that will ever happen here. We’re a nation of serfs who love to serve and obey our masters while they misdirect our anger and violence toward other members of the 99%. The chances that Americans will rise up and throw off the shackles of failed and corrupt capitalism and its bedfellow, fascism, are about as good as are the odds that we’ll figure out space travel before the next ecological catastrophe wipes us from the earth: zero-to-none. But . . . damn! That was one sweet dream and I go to bed every night hoping I’ll get to experience it again.

7/23/2018

Students Strike Back!

I was pretty much a “career student” for the first 40+ years of my life. After a dismal Midwestern K-12 and community college experience, I pretty much gave up on education by the time I was 19. I loved to Dallas, Texas for a computer programming school in 1967 and after that experience and investment turned to crap, I ended up attending El Centro Community College in downtown Dallas, mostly to clean up some disastrous grades I’d received when I dropped out of my awful hometown college to go on the road with a rock and roll band. For the first time, I experienced overwhelmingly competent and well-versed college instructors and I was hooked. From 1968 until 1991, I attended evening classes in community and 4-year colleges everywhere I lived; from Texas (2 schools) to Nebraska (3 schools) to California (4 schools) plus two correspondence schools. 

As a “non-traditional student,” (someone who does not attend school full time and during the day) I was subjected to a wide range of educator talents. The absolute worst was a Calculus I & II instructor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha who was a native German who learned to speak English as an adjunct instructor in Pakistan. His whole classroom plan was to copy the formulas from our textbook to the blackboard. His tests were so old that the mimeograph (remember those) contrast was pretty much slightly darker blue on light blue paper. That didn’t matter to the Offutt cadets or to the frat brats because the instructor hadn’t changed his tests in at least 10 years so they knew all the answers before they entered the classroom. Most of the Air Farce guys just wrote the answers on their papers and didn’t even pretend to know how to display their “work.” But the best instructors were people who made a mark on my life forever, both from the information I received in their classes and from the role models they provided as leaders and classroom managers.

By the time I got to California and discovered that transfer credits are something that is arbitrary as the weather, I needed to become more efficient in my course and instruction selection. Because I lived and worked fairly close to Orange Coast Community College in Costa Mesa, I decided to reboot my attempt at obtaining bachelors there. I quickly discovered that the range of instructor quality was all over the place; from amazing to depressingly, amazingly awful. Since I lucked into a friendship with one of the great instructors and a business relationship with one of the decent instructors, I started milking those sources for information about who is who at OCCC. That was helpful, but even more helpful were the opinions of the better students I met in my classes. By the time I transferred to Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) in 1988, I had a process for selecting instructors and courses:

  1. Late in the semester, I began asking classmates and other students about instructors and courses that were “possibles” on my next semester’s class schedule. I documented those opinions so I wouldn’t have to refer to memory when it came time to register for classes.
  2. As part of that student opinion gathering process, I created my own course/instructor evaluation questions, since the questions the schools ask are designed by instructors to obtain minimal criticism and to keep the answers meaningless and neutral.
  3. I shopped for academic advisors, looking for someone who might actually be honest about classes and instructors. This was marginally useful, but sometimes not totally worthless.
  4. Whenever possible, volunteer to be the student proctor for course evaluations. That allowed me the time and access to see what other students said about a class and instructor I’d just experienced. That allowed me to weight the opinions I would receive from Step 1.
  5. Finally, and most importantly, I let my gut drive my participation in a class at a level I have never before or since allowed. Initially, because of the cost (money and time) of school, I made my whole decision to stay or leave from the first day of class. Since CSULB the add/drop date and the associated financial penalties were pretty lenient up to the end of the 2nd week of class, I sometimes held off making that decision to that last moment. However, if I disliked the instructor or the material on the first day, I dumped the class like a wet handful of poison ivy. In my last year, CSULB instigated an Undergraduate Withdrawal Limit that was punitive (now it is a total of 18 units over the course of a CSULB student’s undergrad career) and I got stuck with a couple of instructors and courses that were among the worst I’d ever suffered.

Today, there are options other than all of the work I put into my course and instructor selection. The best—and most reviled by academics—is RateMyProfessors.com/, a website born in 1999 and still barely known to or used by college students. College instructors are all over the map on whether they think those reviews are “fair” or not. Of course, their biggest bitch is the loss of control. Faculty unions do everything possible to protect incompetence and corruption among their ranks; proving, again, that self-regulation is a libertarian wet dream. It never works. In an Inside Higher Ed essay, “How To Fight RateMyProfessors.com,”James Miller wrote, "The cure for bad information is better information." He followed that with "There’s a lot of unhappiness among college faculty members about RateMyProfessors.com, a Web site containing student ratings of professors. Many college students use it to help pick their classes. Unfortunately, the site’s evaluations are usually drawn from a small and biased sample of students. But since students usually don’t have access to higher-quality data, the students are rational to use RateMyProfessors.com. Colleges, however, should eliminate students’ reliance on RateMyProfessors.com by publishing college-administered student evaluations."

Instructors who read this typically replied with snarky nonsense like this brave and anonymous prof's whine, "The only person who rated my outstanding colleague was a whining, lazy, slow-witted student who thought the professor was too demanding in requiring her to show up to class and to be prepared for class. The professor's many bright, good students have too much respect to post comments, good or bad, on a shoddy, inadequately managed, and poorly designed whine post for weak students. The professor now has a very low score, thanks to maintaining some modicum of academic standards. Any reputable study or survey would require a minimum number of subjects or sources before publishing data. Letting one sour apple tarnish a fine professor's reputation online is irresponsible, unethical and dishonest!" There is obviously so many “irresponsible, unethical and dishonest” delusions in this response that is probably ought to be republished with the instructor’s name.

In my last decade at McNally Smith College, our Faculty Committee had so watered-down the student evaluation forms that they had become useless to any instructor who wanted actual student input to future class work. For one semester, I re-introduced my own course evaluation from almost 30 years ago. It didn’t seem appropriate for me to directly review the results. I am fairly good at identifying handwriting and style and that defeats the whole concept of anonymous student course reviews. Ideally, instructors would receive a summary of the evaluations and wouldn’t be allowed near the actual forms. The fact that most students already do not trust the course evaluation process (and shouldn’t) means that most students just check the boxes and leave the comments sections blank. A not-insignificant percentage of students don’t even check the boxes for fear of being identified. Characters like “another southern prof” would be fine with that, “TMP is whining about how I was unfair or boring and nasty personal comments (which are taken off, while the numerical ratings of those who did this are left up). &#*@ RMP.”

A New York Times article, titled “The Prof Stuff,” postulates, “But like many online experiments, Rate My Professors has turned out to be a companion to nothing. It is its own world. Sure, hot, easy teachers get the laurels traditionally denied them by tenure committees who have that fetish for credentials and scholarship.” Actually, an adult (non-academic) reading of the reviews would demonstrate that many students are more concerned with getting value for their education dollar, rather than easy grades.

However it is absolutely true that, "The top professors on Rate My Professors, after all, are not the top professors in the nation. Rather, they’re the top professors on RateMyProfessors.com." Unfortunately, there is no other way for students to rate prospective course and classes and, by design, no useful way for school administrations to evaluate instructors. The usual rubric is “student retention,” a measure of how much money the instructor puts in the school’s bank account by being fast and loose with grades, attendance, and participation. Otherwise, most school administrators would just as soon not be bothered with the “classroom crap.” They are busy inflating their salaries and padding the departments with layoff fodder.

One article on this subject, “Should We Stop Asking College Students to Evaluate Their Instructors?”, was so irrationally biased and uncritical of academic corruption that it was hard to decide if the article or the whining profs were the least sympathetic. “If this sort of customer satisfaction survey works for your car insurance salesman, why wouldn’t it work for a teacher? For a long time, many academic researchers thought that these evaluations were a good thing; by the 1970s, evaluations were widespread in academia. Surely, the argument went, students could distinguish between a punctual and prepared professor, and the chaotic and disorganized instructor. . . research showed that teachers could increase student evaluation scores by simply smiling more or being more enthusiastic.” In other words, if an instructor is interested in the subject manner and creates an environment friendly to active learning, that instructor receives "unfair" preference from students. Amazing. Students can be so shallow. Worse, "More recent research showed no consistent pattern and many studies showed that student evaluations were riddled with biases." Those damn students are like every other human being on the planet? Unacceptable.

Someone called the NUWildcat wrote, “The easiest way to get high marks from the students is to give them good grades, regardless of their actual performance. The effect of that is that the students, getting good grades, think they are really proficient in that course. By inflating their grades, the students don't have the face the reality that there are some areas where they are weak and perhaps should change their majors.” It’s easy to make a claim like that, but difficult to prove. Lucky for profs, they can get away with claiming silly shit and call it “proof.” Another equally prof-biased Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Why We Must Stop Relying on Student Ratings of Teaching,” claimed, a "study also showed that ‘a male instructor administering an identical online course as a female instructor receives higher ordinal scores in teaching evaluations, even when questions are not instructor-specific.’ Kristina Mitchell, one of the study’s authors, summarized its findings in Slate last month and concluded: 'Our research shows they’re biased against women. That means using them is illegal.'" Typically, no real evidence was provided, other than a minimal study description, to justify that claim. Of course, the study does not prove that student evaluations are “biased against women.” It might prove that students (male and, possibly, female) are biased against women, though. Careful analysis might even find that women are less likely to approve of a woman instructor than are men. What do you do with that information? The next thing a reasonable person might ask would be, “Is there a reason students are inclined to be biased against taking classes from women?” Mitchell’s response falls solidly in the “shoot the messenger” category. Most of this propaganda is academia trying to protect itself from quality standards. I can not generate much sympathy for that.

There was one area from the Chronicle of Higher Education article that I totally agree with, “Student evaluations have also become less reliable over the years because most institutions have switched to online systems. In 2016 the American Association of University Professors released a comprehensive survey of faculty members about teaching evaluations. which found that . . .  the rate at which students were filling out evaluations has gone down precipitously in the electronic age.” Not just students, but everyone.

Tools like SurveyMonkey have allowed data collectors of all sorts to delude themselves into believing the are collecting useful information. As I said earlier, from the first day I started teaching at MSCM I begged my students not just to review my classes on RateMyProfessors.com but to add as much good and bad information about my class materials and presentations as they felt might be useful. Over 13 years, I had a total of 3,000 students in my classes. That total and regular promotion and nagging got me 33 RateMyProfessor reviews. As a member of the faculty senate, when I attempted to survey the faculty about issues as important as salary, required hours of instruction or office hours, or curriculum changes, I was lucky to get a 10% response from the faculty. When the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center went from paper reviews handed out while the license paperwork was being handled to emailing a SurveyMonkey link, responses dropped from 100% to less than 20%. The problem isn’t that student reviews are marginally complete and useful. The problem is that electronic surveys need to be tied to something the reviewers want and/or need.

During that short period in the early 80’s when American companies still had the vitality to manufacturer products and the management capability to do that, a basic rule of quality management was that “any paperwork generated has to benefit the people who do the paperwork.” If colleges and instructors are ever going to be responsive to students’ needs and interests, it will be because there is a feedback system from students to instructors and academic mismanagement. Obviously, the worst instructors want that system to be totally under their control. Administration bureaucrats are also mostly driven by their laziness, so their motivation to improve the educational quality of the facilities they mismanage is tempered by the fact that doing so would require work from . . . them. That leaves students with one remaining outlets with which to provide unwanted, unread feedback to the schools stealing their time and money and a warning or recommendation to future students: RateMyProfessor.com. Until that changes, teachers will continue to whine (and even sue!) and students will probably continue to be too lazy to use the only resource they have for avoiding lousy instructors.