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.

7/18/2018

Your Russian Representatives

How do you know if your politician is a Russian plant? Easy, he or she is a Republican. How do you know if your personal issue lobbying organization is a Russian front? Easy, is it the NRA? If it is, you are giving money to an organization that already has plenty of cash, mostly rubles.


7/16/2018

Parent Propaganda

Recently, a young woman on LinkedIn.com wrote about the pleasure she is deriving from her childless life and how other friends and family don't believe her. Her problem isn't that she is delusional. Her problem is that misery loves company and is intolerant of happiness. Many people have been coerced into parenthood through guilt and social pressure and have discovered it isn't a fraction as positive an experience as advertised. Once the little darlings become teenagers, the last of what pleasure existed vanishes; leaving only the desperate hope that some sort of adult compromise will end the wars.

kidhappySome people are naturally smart enough to see through the breeder marketing, but that won't save them from guilt trips and myths and propaganda. A few of us realize that having a family is a choice that eliminates a host of other possibilities. People who are successful in business or who become expert in a field of study or who master an art form are not multitaskers. Parents are primarily multitasking amateurs for at least 18 years; mastering nothing except, ideally, their own tempers and lowered expectations. If having kids makes us so “happy,” it must be really hard to explain the repeated results of marital satisfaction surveys that demonstrate just how unhappy kids make their parents (see the survey chart attached to this paragraph).

In one of his many excellent routines on the human condition and delusions, Jim Jefferies asked his audience to “put up your hand if you truly believe you have a stupid child.” Seeing no response, he yelled, “None of you? Well guess what? It is statistically higher than that!” He chased that down with, “You child isn’t stupid. Your child has a ‘learning disability.’ That’s the definition of stupid. If you have difficulty learning, that’s what stupid is.” Humans desperately want to imagine that their offspring don’t fall into the 50-something-percent of below-average nitwits (and “average” isn’t an improving characteristic in our dumbed-down society). The only way to cling to that delusion is to keep the little nitwits in constant motion through sports and other activities so that the school system will value them mostly because of your participation in functions that would otherwise require teachers of school administrators to manage alone. As someone who spent a dozen years teaching at a for-profit college that, eventually, dumbed-itself-down to catering to momma’s little rejects, I can tell you that many of your children couldn’t outsmart a pet rock. And if that is not an unfulfilling way to spend your life, I don’t know what is.

But your mileage very definitely may vary.

Recently, I have decided there are a couple of categories that people fall into: 1) people who have something to do with their lives that obliterates all other options and 2) people who have unfocused and scattered interests and who just need stuff to burn up their time and years. If you are the first, having a family will slow you down or defeat you in your life’s purpose and you will burn up your years searching for that mythical “balance” bullshit that is no more real than fiction’s “true love.” If you are the second, you will fill your life with kids, pets, trivial activities, and lots of friends who share these likeable non-passions.

In saying this, I am not making a value judgment. If everyone were the focused and driven type, the species either wouldn’t reproduce or reproduction would always result in either the single-parent or the distracted parent model (No, they aren’t substantially different.) People who are not driven to accomplish some specific thing in their lives make good parents, committed pet owners, family member caretakers, and community contributors. Those are among their best qualities and activities. At the other end, the undriven are often called “slackers,” but the driven are just as likely (or more) to end up burned out young and useless thereafter.

The thing most humans don’t comprehend is that we can’t have it all. Type 1 driven folks are unlikely to have anything resembling a happy or healthy home=life. The choices are either follow that passion all the way to the logical conclusion or flail away unsuccessfully at having a “balanced life” and fail at both hitting your goals and succeding at your chosen field while you raise unhappy and dysfunctional children and do that ridiculous serial monogamy thing every few months or years at a time. Type 2 undriven folks often want to have the money, power, and recognition that only Type 1’s ever achieve and their jealousy turns into a dysfunctional society that attempts to drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Very much like what is happening right now with the Trumpanzees and their Tangerine Misleader.

7/09/2018

Historic Detective Work



I just assumed everything I learned in church as a kid was based on delusion and lies.

6/27/2018

Incentives Are Everything

A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a “This I Believe” presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls (WI) society. If you know me at all, you know that was a tough subject because I'm not much of a "believer." I found a few things that turned out to be more core to my belief system than I'd suspected and among that small list was "incentives." The study of economics has been pretty much a waste of air until the last few decades. For most of my life I've been in agreement with John Maynard Keynes who supposedly said, “Capitalism is the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.” Our current executive branch is consistently demonstrating that fact and the last four decades of American economics ought to be enough to put the last nail in most of capitalist theory. Market-driven capitalism tacks on a giant list of poorly designed incentives which work to damage democracy, decimate the ecology, limit personal liberty for all for a tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful bad actors, and promote illiteracy and ignorance in the general population. The mythical “free market” libertarians and traditional feudalists argue so irrationally for is just not a sustainable or just economic system.

What doesn’t work for business works just as badly for government. In our current irrational and poorly functioning “representative” system, unjustifiably powerful groups like the police, prison system employees, military, and government employees are isolated from their customers—the rest of us—by layers of union protection, political clout, and outright terrorism. When cops murder unarmed citizens, the only defense we have is the civil lawsuit. Convicting a cop of any crime, regardless of the evidence, is nearly impossible but getting a violent crime conviction requires all out magic. With that kind of insulation from responsibility and the soaring cost of police departments and their pension funds, cities are going broke trying to pay off the multitude of police misconduct lawsuits. “Dallas civil-rights lawyer Don Tittle says the increased availability of camera footage and shifting attitudes toward police are affecting cases. ’Up until recently, when it came to civil lawsuits, there were two groups that had a distinct advantage, where you had to knock them out to win. And that was doctors and cops. But with the advent of video, and the changing perception of society, I don’t think police are held in the same regard.’”1  Suddenly the cost of maintaining abusive police officers is turning into a major city budgeting problem.

P1-BU305A_LIABL_16U_20150715161211With the city government budgeting systems as they exist, that problem is unsolvable. For example, the Alberquerque, NM police department is the most expensive, lawsuit-wise, department in the country and has been under federal investigation and oversight often in the last few decades, but appears to be completely impossible to rein-in. New York City, between 2010 and 2014, spent $601M dollars settling police misconduct lawsuits. In 2015, New York City paid out $228M for police misconduct lawsuits. In 2017, New York paid $302M for the same kind of crap. That city’s 2018 police department budget is $5.6B or a little more than $101k per employee (~55,000 employees). Small towns aren’t immune to this kind of idiocy, either. "In Sorrento, La., for example, a newly hired cop in 2013 slammed into another car on a highway after going on a high-speed chase to catch a separate driver who was speeding. The driver who was hit sued. It was later revealed that the officer was already one of the town's most zealous issuers of speeding tickets, hundreds of which were later thrown out in court. That incident, combined with other lawsuits against the police department serving the small town of 1,500 people, prompted the city's insurer to drop its coverage. The town disbanded its police department shortly thereafter."2

The fix for this is to change the incentives, not to shield bad cops with even more anti-democratic police state Republican stupidity like the unconstitutional and anti-democratic House bill grossly misnamed the “Protect and Serve Act.” New York City covers the cost of those lawsuits out of the general budget, shifting all of the responsibility from the cops to the taxpayer. That is an example of a mindless system with no feedback loops to reinforce decent behavior or to inhibit misconduct.  The solution is to move the cost of settling these cases to the departments that caused them. If, for example, the NYPD had to pay $302M out of its budget to settle misconduct cases, that would result in roughly 3,000 fewer employees (at that $101k/employee cost). If it is true that the cops involved in misconduct cases are “a few bad apples,” the many good apples (if that turns out to be the case) would start cleaning up the department before their own jobs are on the line.

Like I said, incentives are everything. You just have to design them to serve a better purpose.

1 https://www.wsj.com/articles/cost-of-police-misconduct-cases-soars-in-big-u-s-cities-1437013834

2 http://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-police-misconduct-growing-financial-issue.html

6/24/2018

How You Look at Problems Determines How You Solve (or don’t) Them

inside_the_earth_coreMy wife and I have had diametrically opposed views of how the world works for most of our 50+ years together. She is a fairly spiritual person. I’m not only not spiritual, but I dislike all forms of magical belief. For a lot of years, she was a traditional Christian followed by the Pagan/Gaia thing followed by something all her own now. I’ve been atheist my whole life, at least since I was a kid. For her, it is a motivational issue, I think. For me, it is a practical thing.

For example, we were talking about the global warming issue this morning. We somehow got into the whole “we’re killing the planet” conversation, which I do not believe is likely. Sure, if we managed to fiddle around with black holes and create one that gets out of hand (Can a black hole be “in hand?”) we might figure out how to destroy the planet. But if all we manage to do is raise the planet’s average temperature a few degrees the planet will survive just fine. Or we fire off all all 89,012 trillion tons from our 14,175 nuclear weapons, 92% of which belong to the USA and Russia, we might vaporize the atmosphere. The planet will still have a molten core and the ability to attract ice asteroids and other resources to rebuild its atmosphere. The planet will survive until something damages the core or, in about 5 billion years, the sun burns through its current supply of fuel and that calls it quits for our solar system. I think the key point in the global warming discussion should be not that we’re trying to “save the planet,” but that we’re trying to save our species. Now, I’m not a big fan of humans and absolutely believe that at least 90% of everything humans do is shit, but if humans want a target to shoot for it’s our own survival not the planet’s survival.

Ideepcarbonquf you look at this cutaway of the planet’s construction, it’s pretty obvious how little effect our fucking around will have on the life of the planet itself. We can certainly screw up that thin layer we live in, but the planet is totally unaware of our existence; let alone the universe.

My wife believes the planet is a living thing with some, or a lot, of sentience and intent. I don’t. I think the planet is just what we see it being: a rock filled with molten rock and minerals that lucked into a few ice asteroid hits providing the planet with water and an atmosphere; which has been burned off a few times by other asteroid hits and volcanic activity in the last few billion years. Likewise, my wife still clings to the idea that humans have something like an everlasting soul. I don’t. I think we’re just one of millions of life forms on this planet and in the universe that live and die and are as inconsequential as every other life form here or there. We’re as self-destructive as army ants and about as mindful of our environment and our place in it as that most destructive insect. No soul, barely sentient.

We’re both aware that our opinions on life and the universe are just that; opinions. Neither one of us is committed to the “rightness” of those opinions. So, the argument comes in whether one opinion is more useful than the other.

My kick against spiritualism comes from practical application. I think we’d be better served if we treat the planet like our life support system; like a spaceship that needs maintenance and careful resource management. If we get careless with either maintenance or resource management, we all die. If we let things go long enough, we won’t have the resources to recover and we’ll all die as a result.

The problem with spiritualism is that humans naturally take the easy, magical way out. While English political theorist Algernon Sidney wrote the words, "God helps those who help themselves", there is nothing like that in the dogma of any religion I know of. In fact, the reverse psychology appears to be more common and that allows people to pray to their deity to "fix" their messes instead of doing the work themselves. That is true to the point that when firefighters put out a forest fire, house fire, or whatever else is burning, religious people will regularly "thank God" for doing the work that they saw done right in front of their faces by other human beings. I don't know how stupid people can get, but that is damn close to impossibly stupid.

So, our argument is about which philosophy is most likely to cause humans to behave in a way that might extend our species’ lifespan and, ideally, the other species that share this planet with us. I don’t think any form of spiritualism will ever be helpful. My wife and, most likely, you will disagree, but I don’t think it will matter because we’re not a smart enough species to care either way.

6/05/2018

Who Democrats Need to Be

"I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat." Will Rogers

I’ve used that quote to define my own politics for most of 50 years. While it’s true that most of the history of the Democratic Party is full of disorder and general stupidity, it wasn’t all like that. The Democratic Party that gave the country FDR and Henry Wallace was a lot more unified and a lot less concerned with bullshit. In 1933, Roosevelt desperately needed his Iowan farmer-intellectual Secretary of Agriculture New Deal star to bring order and discipline to the country’s collapsed and desperate agricultural economy. In 1940, Roosevelt dumped John Garner after the conservative VP opposed the attempt to stack the Supreme Court and ran against Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination. Roosevelt picked Wallace for the job and the Roosevelt/Wallace ticked won 449 Electoral College votes and won the election by 4,000,000 votes. Wallace was a practical Progressive who ran as a real Democrat along with Roosevelt’s more traditional ruling elite Democrat. The party hasn’t seen that many actual Democrats since.

That, however, is the solution to the party’s current schizophrenic lack of personality. The problem with what’s left of the Democrats is “the left.” If you read the stupid crap the DNC lists on its “mission statement,” you’d think the party’s purpose is to get anyone willing wear a DNC badge elected to any office they can afford to run for: “The DLCC's mission is to build and maintain winning, state-of-the-art campaign committees through a continuing partnership with legislative leaders, professional staff, and supporters.”

What the hell is that bullshit? The purpose of a political party is NOT to get elected, but to accomplish something useful for the country. Doing stupid, selfish, greedy, useless crap is why people elect Republicans. Democrats need to quit trying to appeal to every CEO, bankster, moderately liberal Hollywood actor or rock star, or, most importantly, any aspect of the usual crazy-assed left wing of the party. Let the progressives, LBGT’s, anarchists, BLM’s, socialists, communists, and whatever else has been swept up by the disorganized party of mostly losing candidates. If any of those groups can find a home or make one for themselves, they’ll be lucky to attract the usual 1% of the alternative vote; just like the Libertarians, Socialist, Communist, Progressive, Green, Independence, and the other responsibility-avoidance distractions.

Democrats, on the other hand, need to appeal to one group and only one group, the 91-99% of the American voter pool; working class Americans. Fuck their special interests, but everything that should matter to the 127 million working adults in this country should matter to the Democratic Party. Subtracting the 1-9% of that group who represent the faux-working bunch of executives, that leaves 126 million voters whose votes should be the exclusive property of a functioning Democratic Party.

The problem the voters have is figuring out who the actual Democrats are. Nobody, right or left, wants to vote for a Republican wearing a DNC badge. Harry Truman said, "Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time." I suspect that is true for real Democrats, too.

6/03/2018

How Do You Resolve This?

Almost all of my life, Republican presidents have made incredible messes that they left for Democrats to clean up. The worst were Nixon, Reagan, Bush I & II, and, now, Trump. Nixon took a failing war and doubled-down on it along with making the USA a debtor nation for the first time in the country’s history. Nixon left the country divided, distrustful, more racist and more unjust than it was before he took office, and broke. Reagan was a knee-jerk reaction to a dose of reality President Carter administered to the nation and he set the country back at least two generations on so many levels it would take a book (The book I recommend is The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America by William Kleinknecht.) to detail all of his betrayals, corruption, and incompetence. Reagan tossed so many trillions into the military-industrial toilet that he made the national debt an international affair in 1983. Bush I just continued the stupid policies of his predecessor, including the amazing cast of nitwits who surrounded Reagan. There was a reason Clinton’s “it’s about the economy, stupid” resonated so soundly. Unfortunately, stupid has been breeding like rats since 1992 and they can’t even spell “economy” let alone comprehend any aspect of economics.

The only saving grace regarding that trio of idiots and traitors was that my generation was not responsible for their existence and power. Bush II changed all of that. He was the worst of my generation. Every step of his life was a train wreak: personally, ethically, and intellectually. He brought Reagan’s pack of vicious idiots back to Washington, bumbled the Katrina response, fumbled the country into two endless, multi-trillion dollar wars, and deregulated the banksters until they crashed the world’s economy. Now Trump, another of the worst from my generation, is dragging the country closer to fascism every day. He has made the country a laughing stock, which could be a good thing, and alerted our allies to how divided, incompetent, and alienated the American public has become. Trump is a waving flag telling the world, “Americans are fools, we are arrogant and incompetent, we are self-absorbed, and we are unstable and dangerous.”

In 2016, I ran for local political office; for city council. There were several excellent people running for those offices (and a couple of not-so-excellent faux-conservative wannabes), including two young Red Wing citizens with big ideas about how to move Red Wing into the 21st Century. At the national level, the election seemed surreal, with neither candidate attracting much positive attention. Our US Representative race was between a nitwit hate radio Republican, Jason Lewis, and a Democrat, a woman, who had a long history of public service and competence. While Minnesota voted for Clinton, the outstate idiots in the state went Republican for practically every office. My country and hometown voted for Trump and Jason Lewis. To that point, I had no idea where I had moved, or who my neighbors were.

I lost my election, but because I spent the last two months of the campaign being far more involved in my wife’s cancer treatment than the election results I had almost no emotional connection to that “loss.” As the years have moved us further into Trump’s world of fools and traitors, I am even less attached to or interested in what happens in Red Wing and Goodhue County or even Minnesota. That is not natural for me. I have been politically active and interested since the 1960’s. Some part of me still wants to care, if just out of habit, but I mostly don’t. For the 18 years we lived in Little Canada, Ramsey County, Minnesota were considered our house and home to be the same entity. In fact, my wife and I are very fond of our house, but we’re ambiguous about our Red Wing, Goodhue County, Minnesota home. We are constantly considering flipping the place and heading west toward civilization; if we could identify an actual civilization in this declining empire.

One of my fellow failed 2016 candidates packed up his family, his businesses, and himself and left town a year after the election. He might not publically admit that the reason he left was that he felt his Red Wing neighbors were dangerously ignorant and vicious people, but that is essentially what he admitted to me. If I were in his position, I would do the same thing. If I had young children, I would not want them anywhere near neo-Nazi Trump voters. Our old home country and city overwhelmingly voted for Democrat candidates, including Clinton. We felt like we had jumped away from the table and into the stove. The majority of our old neighbors saw through Trump and Lewis as easily as though those two con artists were fine crystal. Our new neighbors fell for the con and carefully took aim and shot off their own feet and the feet of their children.

A candidate is supposed to represent all of the people in his district and the country. Republicans don’t believe this and, like Jason Lewis, they only speak to and for “their kind,” but Democrats and any elected official of good conscience have always given voice to the concept of trying to work for everyone; even if they failed or were disingenuous. To this point in my life, that would have been my intention also, but no more. Now, after Trump and Lewis, I am clinging to the barest capacity to care what happens to Trump voters. Because of that, I don’t have the slightest inclination to submit myself to either a political campaign or the misery of weekly city council meetings if I were to “win” an election in this community. This is the time in my life where I could apply what’s left of my energy and talents to working for my country and community. I just wish I had one of those that I believed in enough to make that effort seem worthwhile.

5/31/2018

What’s Real and What Wishes It Were Real

When my kids were approaching college age, we had a talk that neither appreciated.  By then, I’d spent almost 20 years on the path to my BA; 18 of those years attempting to get a EE BS and the last two settling for a Technical Writing BA with as many as possible EE classes crammed in as cross-discipline courses. I was 43 when I finally earned my BA and had been in southern California “long enough” (almost 10 years). I had to satisfy myself with a EETAS, but after a 20 year career as an “engineer” I hoped that would be good enough and it turned out to be so. My talk with the kids was about what I would be willing to help fund and what I would not. I mostly took the Jewish parent approach, “I’ll pay for any college classes you take as long as they are directed toward an engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degree. Anything thing else is a hobby and you’re on your own.” If I were a real Jewish parent I would have substituted a law degree for science, but I’m not.

Today, there is a lot of pissing and moaning from the Xgen and Millennial crowd about their oppressive student debt and I only have moderate sympathy for that, since far too many of those “degrees” were of the “studying my own navel” variety. Shriek away if it makes you feel better, but I do not believe there is a valid argument for liberal arts, arts, business, and most of what passes for vocational training costing anything near engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degrees. In fact, I think paying instructors equivalent salaries outside of those three very general fields anything near the same money just encourages foolishness. To anyone who has studied many of the “soft” fields, it’s pretty obvious that many of the most expert of “experts” in economics, literature, history, education, art, journalism, cultural anthropology, paleontology, etc are either college dropouts who are driven to learn faster than colleges are prepared to teach or hobbyists with engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degrees dabbling in the softer and easier fields. So, the downside to obtaining an engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degree is only the difficulty and effort required, which is what “higher education” is supposed to be all about.

With that in mind, a rational society trying to encourage the creation (in our case) of an educated citizenry or (in the case of actual 1st world nations) trying to maintain that educated citizenry that democracy is so dependent upon would concentrate on ensuring that anyone making the effort to obtain an education in engineering, medical, mathematics, or science would leave school with minimal debt; once that standard is obtained, we could have a conversation about the value of less necessary skills and specialties.

Academia, being the mindlessly corrupt and lazy territory of human inactivity that it is, would relentlessly try to dumb down the curriculum of engineering, medical, mathematics, and science programs to allow lazier and less competent “students” to filter into those fields and, therefore, water-down the value to the level of the fluffier academic fields. Which will be just one more thing that will have to be carefully monitored, administered, regulated, and critically considered; as it always should be. Everything heads toward entropy, including all human activities, and the harder, more complicated, more critical the human activity the more quickly it degenerates into uselessness.

5/15/2018

Letter to Jason Lewis

Representative Jason Lewis

418 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: 202-225-2271

As a lifelong student, even past retirement, I am skeptical about the claims you are making for vocational school training. In 1970, I attended about a semester-and-a-half of vocational school electronics training. You could claim that kick-started my career as an electrical engineer, but you’d be missing most of the big picture if you did. The “education” I was receiving in tech school was primarily focused on teaching me how to repair tube-type television sets. The part-time job I had at the same time was repairing solid state industrial agriculture electronics. The vocation “education” was about five years behind the state of the industry and if I had stayed in that program for the full two years I would have graduated into an industry and economy that would have considered me obsolete before I started my career.

One of the many problems with vocational schools is attracting instructors with current industry skills. The best most seem to be able to do is to attract mediocre instructors with even more mediocre skills. The more rural the school, the less talent it is likely to be able to attract and retain. That is only partially an issue of money, since anyone cutting short a successful career to become an “industrial arts” teacher is not only taking himself out of the state-of-the-art but if you compound that sacrifice with teaching in a rural area the instructor is, literally, giving up on being in any way current. The only people willing to make those kinds of sacrifices are those who are not able to compete in the first place, so teaching a vocational education program is the best they can hope for. It doesn’t matter how much short-term money you can wave in their faces, any sentient American knows this country does not value education in the long run. The talent needed to make a real training program work won’t be fooled by a few moments of attention paid to vocational education.

More importantly, vocation education programs are mostly incapable of providing enough of an education to start a lifetime technical career. The only key to staying employed for an extended period in technology is a commitment to lifetime learning. Vocation training is notorious for being gap-filling training, not actual education. Personally, I think the real problem is that in order to fill far too many seats in traditional colleges with far too untalented students, universities have lowered their standards to attract the largest population of customers; not “students,” because that standard would be too high. The fact that every college student, regardless of major, is not required to take and pass college-level science and mathematics classes as part of a “liberal education” is the real problem. MA’s and PhD’s are passed out like prizes in Cracker Jacks boxes to people who do not meet the most basic modern requirements for “educated.” If you want to fix higher education, bring back the 1960’s requirements for a college degree.

Thomas Day

5/05/2018

What Part of Death is Complicated?

When I was teaching, every semester a few hours to a week or more after the course’s final exam, a few "students" would call or email me messages with a variety of excuses asking when they could "make up " their missed or failed exam. Since the final often accounted for 30-45% of the total grade, sleeping in that day was expensive. For more than half of my life, I’ve been convinced that “a lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” From the beginning of my teaching career, my syllabus clearly stated that final exams would only be administered on the day the exam was scheduled; a date and time clearly identified the day class began. With that as a background, my only response to those messages was, "What part of 'final' do you not understand?"

A concept that we regularly tried to reinforce in our classes was that there are “get fired moments” that can be career-stoppers. In a highly competitive business, like recording music, there is always someone right outside the door waiting to take your job. It really is a business where “there is no try, only do.”

Lately, some of my religious friends and relatives have been prying at my atheism asking, "What do you think happens after death?"

There could be a lot to unpack in that question, but for someone who does not believe in magic of any form the question has a pretty straight-forward answer. Remembering the final exam moments, this question does feel like déjà vu. It is all I can do not to rudely respond with, "What part of death do you not understand?" Because that is the rational answer, obviously. Death is the ultimate final exam.

One response to my hopefully scientific take on life and death was “it’s easier for me to believe in a divine creator than the idea that everything came from a Big Bang that was created from nothing.” Most Americans have a terrible grasp on mathematics and science, so it is pretty easy to understand how the most sophisticated and complicated field in science, astrophysics, is incomprehensible. However, many of the people who cling to religion for their information about how the world works, have almost no clue about even the most basic and well-accepted proven science. While they claim they don’t believe in the science behind astrophysics, they offer no excuses for not understanding most of the technology that is all around them: computers, television and radio, internal combustion, the internet, medicine and biology, and practically any complicated thing that has been invented or discovered in the last 100 years. If it were up to them or their religion, none of those things would exist today or tomorrow. It’s a wonder, to me, why anyone cares about the philosophy, religions, or the opinions of people who have provided so little contribution to progress of any sort.

The disinterest they express in understanding how even life works should be a disqualifying admission in any serious conversation about the complexities of the universe. Why, if you know so little about how life works, would you assume expertise on something as poorly-understood as death? For the most part, science knows a lot about life on earth and even a good bit about how life might exist on other planets with totally different atmospheres. Science knows more than most of us would like to know about the moments after a heart stops beating, too. However, science doesn’t make any claims about life-after-death; that remains in the territory of the con artists often known as “ministers,” “priests,” and the rest of the hucksters selling real estate in another dimension.

In a talk broadcast on MPR, Thomas Friedman recently said, “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology, and physics. She will do whatever chemistry, biology, and physics tells her to do. She always bats last and she always bats 1.000. You do not mess with Mother Nature. (I really recommend that you listen to Friedman’s talk on this link) and nothing more or less. Nothing about spirituality has anything to do with “chemistry, biology, and physics.” Religion and the afterlife are just weird ideas made up by sheepherders and primitive people who didn’t have “chemistry, biology, and physics” to use as tools to understand the world we live in. Of course, many American citizens are also without those tools; along with mathematics, economics, philosophy, psychology, computer science, engineering, and every other aspect of advanced, modern human knowledge. Because they are clinging to ancient religions, most of which they have barely studied, and their parents and offspring are handicapped by their devotion to dead religions and imaginary gods.

An optimistic person would imagine that the stresses from global warming, a radically changing world economics, economic and social inequality, and international competition would force a “first world country” like the USA to pull itself together and get into the game before it is too late. I have spent too much time in rural America. The thing to learn from being around marginally educated, timid conservative small town citizens and politicians, and racially isolated and deluded white nationalists is that change terrifies them and they imagine they have some control over a naturally occurring, rapidly accelerating, and unstoppable change in every aspect of human life. They hope to pray away the change. If that doesn’t work, they plan on living forever in a magical afterlife where all of the problems are solved by a god.

I’m 70. I don’t expect to see any sort of useful solutions in my lifetime. On some levels, I don’t care. I wish for solutions that will allow my kids and grandkids to live long and good lives, but I won’t be here to know how that works out. Since, as far as I’m concerned, life everywhere will end when I die it’s hard to me to get really concerned about what happens after I’m dead. Believe it or not, I’m not afraid of death at all. I expect it’s possible that the few seconds after my heart stops my brain will go into overdrive and it might even be painful, terrifying, and sad. But 2-20 seconds late, it will all be over and I’ll be dead. That will be the first final exam in my life that I will have failed.

4/30/2018

Life in These United States, Then and Now

Educational Danger Signs

I just discovered that a friend who I’d worked with for ten years back in the eighties has a BS in Physics. From what I knew of his life and professional story, I’d always assumed he was a college dropout. There were lots of reasonable reasons that I’d made that assumption, but it was still surprising to find that not only did my friend attend and complete his undergraduate work, but he did it in the most difficult field in higher education.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. During my career, I worked with more than a few terrific engineers and researchers who said absolutely nothing about their academic life at the beginning of their careers. That might not seem unusual, unless you consider the fact that I was a part-time college student going nights and weekends for two decades and a full-time electrical engineer until I finally completed my own undergrad work when I was 43 years old. Many of my co-workers knew I was struggling my way through school and I had lots of conversations with quite a variety of people about why I was doing that and got even more advice on how to make college less painful. I had a fair list of professors and college instructors who were also personal friends and who also helped me figure out the devious path to a degree in a system that brags a lot about being “non-traditional student friendly,” but puts as little effort into that as possible.

The other end of that academic non-disclosure phenomena is the inspiration for this rant, though. During my brief stint as a college educator, I was suddenly surrounded by a wide variety of “academics”: from professionals who were winding up their careers as instructors to academics who had spent their whole lives pursuing academic credentials or leveraging those credentials into an academic career to recent college graduates with no life or professional experience. It didn’t take long to discover that the more useless and pointless an academic career had been, the more proud of that wasted time an instructor would be. I sat in course development meetings, listening to pitches for totally useless and frivolous courses from clearly awful instructors desperately trying to justify their existence in the institution, amazed at how corrupt academia could be.

An acquaintance in his mid-70s regularly feels the need to remind me that he has a PhD in one of the many trivial liberal arts self-study fields. He uses that “credential” to justify a host of marginally informed positions on everything from economics (he can’t balance his own checkbook) to science, mathematics, and engineer (with no background in any of those fields) to arguing the validity of his own field of study since the foundations of that field have been wreaked and reconstructed since he received his education fifty years ago. Literally, nothing he was told was true and incontrovertible has turned out to be fact and the thrust and direction from his former field of self-declared expertise has taken a 180o turn from when he was an active academic. None of that has any effect on his grip on his academic credentials as a weapon against all debate on every subject.

I wish this were the only time I’d run into this strange academic dychotemy. At a once-vocational school turned-academic failure where I once worked, the really obscure and mostly-unemployable academics (art history, cultural and linguistic anthropology, musicology and ethnomusicology, English and speech, and so on) became the political powerhouse in the organization and, in record time, drove the school to bankruptcy. I was blessed to get to watch the last five years of this American farce and tragedy from the distance of retirement, which took a lot of the sting out of seeing something good and productive turn to crap. However, I did get stuck attending a couple years of meetings with that crowd in the driver’s seat and it was both painful and enlightening. Their entire professional and personal lives revolved around their academic “accomplishments,” since no one had ever once paid them money for actual work or measurable productivity. Young and old alike, since their outside-of-academia “experience” was the same, these characters were convinced that their academic career was equivalent to actual work and should be regarded with the same respect as the music instructors who had actually produced products and services someone willingly bought.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to observe this weirdness up close and I’m gladder that my actual career preceeding that experience provided me with enough resources to be able to say “that’s enough of that” before it seriously pissed me off.

4/27/2018

Human Evolution?

When I was a kid, I read a LOT of science fiction. Since most decent literature was banned from my hometown library and the schools, the only thoughtful input I had was “Analog Science Fact and Fiction,” “Worlds of Tomorrow,” “Super Science Fiction,” “New Worlds,” and a few other magazines that led me to science fiction authors like Azimov, Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Lem, and a collection of people who expanded my mind and universe. One story, among hundreds I barely remember today, that stuck with me like a bible or a philosophical text is Cyril Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”: probably the most accurately predictive piece of speculative fiction along with 1984. I’ve written about this brilliant novella and the derivative-but-stupid movie before, “Who Cares about Idiocracy,” and I’ve referred to The Marching Morons more often than I’ve probably written about Barak Obama or even the living evidence that we are in the twilight of humanity’s idiotic existence, Donald Jerkoff Drumpf.

The difference between Marching Morons and Idiocracy is as dramatic as the genetic space between Obama and Trump. The Marching Morons is funny, accurate, and brilliantly predictive. Idiocracy is . . . idiotic. The problem isn’t that intelligent human beings are not breeding and are vanishing; the problem is that idiots are breeding like well-fed rats and rapidly outnumbering the brilliant but slower-growing and much smaller species. Because of that, the species is rapidly splitting into mental haves and have-nots. For the moment, the rarer, smarter, more productive minority are supporting the growning horde of nitwits, but that never lasts.

The information humans have accumulated is now doubling every 12 months and that pace is constantly accelorating, but the majority of homosapients are not participating in that information revolution in any way. In fact, it’s likely that they might be getting dumber at an amazing rate. Not only is the dumbing-down happening in primative cultures like the Mideast, Russia and eastern Europe, the jungles of South America and Africa, the slums of Indonesia and India/Pakistan, and the undeveloped portions of the world, but in first world industrialized countries like Germany, France, Scandinavia, and Asia and declining empires like the USA and Great Britian. It’s not just that these humans are not keeping up with change, they are slowly regressing as stupid people breed and interbreed with stupid people. There is evolution on one hand and de-evolution in mass on the other.

knowledge-doubling-curveAt some point in homosapien’s past, the species must have peaked. There was likely a point where the majority of humanity was pretty much at the same mental level and where change and technology began to seperate the average from the superior. At that point, what author Yuval Noah Harari calls “homo deus” began to seperate from the herd. Sometime around the beginning of the industrial revolution, the acceloration of knowledge kicked into gear and WWII really amped it up several notches. The Cold War and space race kept the pressure on and pressure and diminishing resources are what force evolution.

knowledge-doubling-curve2The graph in the previous paragraph illustrates the shape of knowledge growth over the last 120 years, but what might really point out to you why this is generating so much stress is a graph of just the last 20 years (at left). An interesting feature of exponential curves is that when you drill down into any point of the curve, the rise is still startlingly exponential but you can see either the important moments where dramatic change occurred and/or the technology leaps that allowed/forced those changes. This list of milestones tacked on to the technical capabilities of our combined world cultures ought to be intimidating. If it isn’t, you don’t understand what happened.

overpopulationWhile the cream of our species is analyzing the make-up and state of the universe, the folks swirling the evolutionary toilet bowl are still clinging to the delusion that the earth is flat and god-given resources are infinite. If you keep in mind the incredible accomplishments of a grossly under-funded NASA in the last 20 years and paste that next to the fact that “homo uno” (or is that “homo oh no!”) is still debating among itself whether NASA managed to get a man on the moon almost 50 years ago, it should be obvious that cream is being seperated from the genetic milk by something resembling a nuclear materials centrifuge.

EarthOvershoot_mobileThe evolutionary drivers are progress, resources, curiosity, survival, money, and power; the usual suspects. I have always believed that as resources diminish, evolution speeds up. We are at a point on this planet where our resources are being chewed up infinitely faster than they are being created and renewed. Americans deluded themselves into believing that Peak Oil was a farce during the Bush years and accelorated that resource’s depletion to the point where nutty extraction activities like hydraulic fracking seemed like a good idea. That temporarily drove US oil prices down at the expense of billions of gallons of unpolluted underground and above ground water resources. Humans survived for thousands of years without oil, but without water we’re finished in a few weeks.

As best I can tell, no generation has seriously worried about the survival or welfare of the following generations. As much as humans jabber about homosapien’s capacity for planning for the future, that anticipated “future” appears to be about a year away, at the most, for most of our species. For most of our existence, that was probably enough planning since practically any sort of disaster was likely to wipe out everyone we know. Noah’s flood is a terrific example of a local event blown up into an imaginary extinction of everyone on the planet and a reboot of all other animal species. Anyone with the slightest grip on reality would interpret that biblical story as the kind of thing primative people would imagine if they had never travelled further than the next hill past their valley. A small percentage of humans know, today, how far away the next mountain range is and, more importantly, how far away the next livable planet is likely to be. They aren’t going to wait for the rest of us to struggle our way into getting a grip on the last century’s technology. Sooner or later, they will move on leaving “homo uno” behind to pick over the scraps and fight among ourselves until the dreary end.

4/17/2018

The Rat’s Book Club

Preface

I started this list in MID-April, 2018, the best and worst of times in my life and in my country. I decided to publish it before it was finished because . . . it’s my damn blog and I can do whatever the hell I want here. But, mostly, because I promised a friend that I would recommend some books for him and I wanted to get it out quickly for his purposes. However, if this list intrigues you I would recommend bookmarking this page and returning to it occasionally. I am absolutely going to be continually updating it until my laptop drops out of my cold, dead hands.

The List

In my life, there have been books that were integral to my career, books that informed me, books that inspired me, books that I wish I’d have read 40 years ago, books that entertained me, and books that saved/changed me. In a given week, I typically read 3-8 books; mostly for entertainment. But the book recommendations I’m leaving here are the ones that informed me, inspired me, those that I wish had existed when I really needed them, and those that saved/changed:

Books that informed me:

  • Everything technical by Don Lancaster, most of which are obsolete today. However, the book that probably kept me afloat and motivated the longest was The Incredible Secret Money Machine II, which is in its second edition (1978, re-issued for the 5th time in 2010) and is now available for free as an eBook here. At the core, ISMM It is a “business book” for artists, inventors, and the best of what are called “entrepreneurs.” The technology is mostly obsolete, but the business and personal advice is timeless. It’s hard to believe this book was first issued in 1978. I feel like I’ve had a copy for my entire life. The first Lancaster ISMM idea to take-away, don’t buy these books, get them from your local library and save the cash for necessities.
  • Several books by David Halberstam, who started me on my path to whatever political and social philosophy I have, but The Reckoning was a manufacturing history education: the parallel histories of Ford and Nissan from the turn of the last century to the mid-1980’s as told by one of America’s greatest non-fiction authors. I was lucky enough to stumble on this book when I was training engineers in Phil Crosby’s “Quality Is Free” program. The combination was instrumental to my life outlook and my love of manufacturing.
  • John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot belongs in both the “informed” and the “inspired” category. In its 19th edition, this 1969 book first saved me from my first serious car purchase (a 1967 VW convertible) turning into an economic catastrophe for my family. Then, it turned me on to a lifetime of mechanical repairs, inquiry, and lots of fun.
  • Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder. This 1981 book was written when a “small computer” was about the size of a large executive desk, so the technology described is pretty ancient. However, the book is about management, leadership, and teamwork; all timeless subjects. Anything I ever attempted as a manager, teacher, parent, and co-worker was tempered by the things I learned from Soul. I have tried to read everything Tracy Kidder has written since and there are no lemons in his publication history.
  • Intuitive Operational Amplifiers: From Basics to Useful-Applications and Intuitive Analog Electronics by Thomas Fredrickson. This book drug me, kicking and whining like a little bitch, into the thought process that allowed me to become a circuit designer. I still own these two books, but Fredrickson’s other books about CMOS electronics and digital computers were also instrumental in keeping me employed for an excessive interval. Many of the viewpoints Fredrickson described are still part of how I think, teach, and work.
  • The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy by Alan Cooper. Have you ever wondered why software is so user-hostile and counter-intuitive? Have you ever experienced the sort of arrogance that only nerds and geeks display, where they imagine themselves to be superior because they’ve figured out one tiny strand of the computer world and feel compelled to flaunt that as if they were a high school bully? I stumbled on to this book about a decade ago and it explains everything I’ve ever hated about software. Re-reading it today explains everything about how the nerds and the internet provided Trump and the Russians a platform with which to wreak the 2016 election. On average, computer geeks are not complete people. They do not know how to work in teams, they put themselves and their power over the needs and good of everyone else, and they are close enough to being psychopathic as possible without getting locked up. Inmates explains why and how to fix it, but we probably won’t because part of the problem is that humans are emotional suckers.

Books that inspired me:

  • Further Up the Organization by Robert Townsend, 1984. I was incredibly lucky to have stumbled on Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits, the first version (1970) of Townsend’s management philosophy, just before I was put into my first management position. The updated version, Further Up, came along just when I began to be involved in managing a large manufacturing department and I kept my copy nearby for almost daily reference.
  • Another David Halberstam book, The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal. This book was part of four chapters in my life. When I first read it, in 1985, I was working for a hyper-competitive audio company, living in southern California, and beginning my drive for a college degree as a night student. The drive the California skullers used to win their place on the team and, then, an Olympic medal was inspirational and motivating. Almost a decade later, my youngest daughter was in a life-changing car crash. She had read this book when she was younger, but she read it again during her recovery and it helped to drive her to an incredible total recovery from her terrible injuries. “Nobody beats us,” was her therapy mantra. A few years after that, my father suffered a collection of illnesses and lost most of his sight. He listened to the Amateurs book-on-tape (read by Christopher Reeves) and it helped him carry on with his new limitations. Finally, in 1999 I went to a David Halberstam book signing and lecture. Afterwards, I brought him my hardback copy of The Amateurs to sign and told him what it had meant to my family. He told me it was also his wife’s favorite book and we had a wonderful conversation about writing, history, and our families.

Books I wish existed when I was young enough to do something with the information:

  • So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport. This is the book that started this list. Brad, this one is for you. If nothing else connects with you, the “Career Capital” concept ought to, "The traits that define great work are rare and valuable. Supply and demand says that if you want [this work] you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital. The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming ‘so good they can’t ignore you,’ is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital." This concept, alone, would have changed so much of my life that I try not to think about it too much.
  • Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality by Paul Tieger, 1992.  Don’t get me wrong, Do What You Are helped immensely in helping me decide what to do after I’d left California, my family, and my career in 1992. But if I’d have had that information in 1965, I would have taken a totally different life path and had a more productive career.
  • Dr. Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science. I also wish I’d have had this book when my two daughters were in high school and, later, for their college careers. It would have changed all our lives, dramatically for the better.
  • Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity by Charles Duhigg. For me, the exploration of teams and teamwork was the core to the book, although I’m sure I took other things away from it. There are many counterintuitive things to learn about teams.
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Focus is the key to any sort of significant achievement. The key to focus is paring away useless or unproductive activities, leaving the essential task clearly in sight. I just discovered this book a few months ago and am still wrestling with the early stages. At 70, there may no longer be an essential task I care enough to take on, but getting rid of the inessential stuff is more than satisfying.

Books that saved/changed me:

  • The top of this list will always be Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Many claim to have read it, few have accomplished that feat. Everything from my “with a will to work hard and a library card” mindset to my willingness to study and understand new technology, to my belief in “quality as a lifestyle” was implanted by Robert Pirsig, who died last year leaving the world a better place than he found it. I have given/loaned at least a dozen copies of ZATAOMM and not a one has ever come back to me. Now, I have an eBook edition and it goes almost everywhere I travel. There are sections of this book that I have flagged for those moments when I need a reminder of the fact that “good is a noun,” not an adverb. Or, as Zen Buddhist practitioners would say, Quality is not something you believe in, Quality is something you experience. To me, all of that insight came from reading Zen and the Art.
  • David Halberstam’s Vietnam reporting in the New York Times was syndicated in the Hutchinson News, a paper my father delivered for a while. Those articles formed my opinion of the Vietnam War and of the US war machine and kept me level-headed during my 1966 draft process. You can get a feel for that reporting with The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era. Halberstam's relentless pursuit of truth turned into his The Best and the Brightest masterpiece about the people who drug the country into the Vietnam War and their gross overestimation of themselves and their brilliance. I could go on with David Halberstam book recommendations for a long time; everything he wrote was amazing.
  • At one time, when I was about 20, I went into a frenzy of reading “everything Bertrand Russell.” I still refer to the things I learned in his books and from his life and hold him as the highest ideal of a human being. Russell’s 1957 “Why I Am Not A Christian” was probably a turning point for me, as an individual. I read this essay in a collection of Russell’s essays, all of which were enlightening in the forceful way that word was originally intended. This essay is full of statements that highlight the religious fallacies, “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.” Or “Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out—at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation—it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.” Russell rendered the idea of religion and gods to be so pointless that serious consideration of those ideas just withered into childishness. And religion still is, in my mind, nothing more than childish timid foolishness thanks to Mr. Russell.
  • The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck. I’m understating the fact when I say I am incredibly uncomfortable talking/writing about my life’s battle with depression. While nothing has alieved the feeling that I don’t deserve any part of the life I’ve had, The Road Less Traveled helped make it survivable at a time when I had less interest in my next breath than you can imagine; unless you’ve been on the same trip. I have given away several copies of TRLT and no longer own a hard copy. Life is survivable when the broken into categories of disipline, love, religion/philosophy, and grace and accepting the fact that life is difficult; if you can accept that as fact, it’s easier to tolerate the hard bits. Not a lot easier, but anything is better than the nothing gained otherwise. The worst thing about depression and any mental illness is that you, the patient, are completely responsible for your treatment. The possibility of outside help is inversely proportional to the intensity of the illness. The Road Less Traveled is a fairly useful guidebook to self-help and that is about as good as mental healthcare gets.