Don't Vote?

Found this video on youtube. My advice is to vote early, so you don't end up in the booth after Borat.

Electronic Voting Machines Are Stupid

The use of electronic voting machines is a crime against reason.  There is absolutely no good excuse for adding this level of complexity to voting. 

Check out this video where a West Virginia County Clerk explains how people should make sure they machines are working properly each time they vote.

He's trying to make the point that there is no specific fraud switching votes for Obama to votes for McCain.  I'll give him that. It's not a McCain conspiracy to steal votes...

But think about but what else he's saying...  "After you vote you need to make sure the machine didn't fuck up your choice!"

What?!?  Are you kidding me?  Are they really suggesting that the people who were incapable of punching out chads or filling in a bubble on a piece of paper are going to be able to figure out that a touch screen is not calibrated correctly?  Yes, that is what they are suggesting...

And if you believe them, I have a bridge to sell you...  On second thought, forget it, you're too stupid to own a bridge. You might hurt yourself with it.

I'm a fan of tech but this is perverse.  Turn off the machines, and draw up a simple paper ballet with big font.  If you don't have enough, go to Kinkos and have them make you 100,000 copies of a blank one.  At least we'll have an auditable paper trail.

Healthy Food for Dad

Conner Hands There's this great Cheerios commercial where a father is talking to his 5 year old daughter as he is packing for a business trip. She ends up asking him why heats Cheerios and he explains that they are good for his heart. The next scene he's arrived at a hotel, and reaches into his pocket to discover his daughter has left him a pocket full of Cheerios. It's very touching...

Well the other day, while I was getting ready for work, Conner asked why I eat bananas.  I said they are healthy and I like them and didn't think much of it.  Sure enough Conner decided to sneak a banana into my computer bag which was unusually full that morning.

When I arrived at work and reached into my bag my hands met with a strange sensation and that Cheerios commercial came rushing into my mind.  I could see Conner climbing up on the counter and finding a banana.  I could see him struggling to fit it into my unusually full back pack. And then when he found the banana did not fit in its original shape, I could see him folding the banana it in half and cramming it in next to my laptop.

A Little Deforestation

Our house was being literally overrun by trees so we had some professionals come in to cut down some of the more aggressive ones.  Matt (the lumberjack) was a total pro and fearless.  He could drop a tree on a dime no matter which way it was leaning and he didn't seem to mind climbing up some very skinny trees. That is him...


Here's some before and after...

House Trees Before and After

Now that all the bushes are gone I guess the house needs a bath and some paint.

Cindy Lou Who?


Last Night's Travel

I work for Cisco Systems. I don't normally write anything related to my employer, but in this post I'm going to talk about one of Cisco's products so I'm including this company disclaimer.
Some of the individuals posting to this site, including the moderators, work for Cisco Systems, Inc. Opinions expressed here and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors, not those of Cisco.
OK, legal stuff out of the way. Here's what I wanted to say...

Last night I traveled 5700 miles, participated in a 6 hour face to face meeting, and then returned 5700 miles home. It was a TelePresence meeting and I was in Boxborough MA, San Jose CA,  Galway Ireland, and New York NY all at once!

There were 11 people on TelePresence and two on the phone. Clearly we saved a bunch of money on travel, and eliminated a big carbon footprint, but the part of the experience that surprised me most was how productive we were.
  • No one was jet-lagged from flying,
  • No one was coming down with a cold they caught from the nice person at the airport coffee stand, and
  • No one had to explain to their wife (I'm talking about me here) why they were away for three days for a 6 hour meeting.
There is no way we could have held that meeting in one location and had everyone as relaxed and comfortable as we did last night.  We were stunningly productive! Best of all, when our 6 hour meeting finished I drove home (5700 miles or 10 minutes by TelePresence/Car) and arrived just in time to tuck my kids into bed.

kids at the table

Some technologies are just cool. Others are cool and vastly improve your quality of life.

Blog Action Day - Lezra Teaches Me About Poverty

Today is Blog Action Day when thousands of bloggers unite to discuss a single issue - poverty.  For me, last year's topic (the environment) was easy to write about because I'd been thinking about it for a while and had some actionable ideas.

When it comes to this year's topic, I have as much real understanding of poverty as my cat has of the inner workings of computers. That is to say, Tom is only aware of the computer as something that is sometimes warm, he generally sees it as a bad thing (because it takes up valuable lap space), and the irony of his lack of interest in the mouse is totally lost on him.

Not having experienced poverty or really thought about it much I my take on poverty consisted of two poorly vague ideas. Poverty is:
  1. Not having money to buy things you want or need.
  2. Something that mainly occurs in 3rd world countries.
That was my take until recently...

Lazarus and the Hurricane is a book that profoundly changed my understanding of poverty. It's the true story of the arrest, incarceration, and eventual exoneration of Hurricane Carter for a murder he didn't commit. But the book actually starts following a 15 year old kid from Brooklyn, NY named Lezra (a.k.a Lazarus). 

Through a rather lengthy series of events, and the unbelievable generosity of a Canadian family Lezra moves from a stressful life in Brooklyn NY to a comfortable caring environment in a suburb in Canada.  In doing so Lezra goes from complete illiteracy to a voracious reader. He goes from being unable keep up with kids his age running down the street, to a strong healthy young soccer player. Most importantly he goes from being a shy kid frequently taken advantage of to a strong willed smart young man able and willing to take care of himself and those around him.

I learned from Lezra's story that illiteracy, and extremely poor health in poor inner cities are masked by schools giving passing grades, pervasive malnourishment of all children, and constant physical and emotional stress that put everyone on the same crappy health level.  Once Lezra moved to Canada and he was given the care and attention that I took for granted as a kid, the impact of poverty became painfully obvious.

The one story that stuck with me the most ended with an explanation of why Lezra, like many inner city kids, sleep in class. It's not because they are bored or uninterested, but rather because their homes and streets are so stressful, the classroom is one of the few places they feel safe enough to rest.

Poverty is a problem that impacts every aspect of a person's life, and more surprisingly it is also a problem that exists and is often masked in US cities today.  This was something that hadn't really occurred to me before I read the book.

Lazarus and the Hurricane is a true and amazingly powerful story that provides a unique perspective on the reality of poverty on kids in inner cities. I highly recommend this book.  And when you read it you'll even find out how Lezra is largely responsible for the exoneration and eventual release of Hurricane Carter.

October Sky

October SkySeven years ago Christine bought me a Star Wars model rocket set for $2 at a yard sale.  Alex found it covered in dust in our basement when we moved a few months ago.  He and Conner have been hounding me to try it ever since.

Today was our big first flight at the School Street soccer field in Acton, MA.

The boys counted down 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 - BLAST OFF! Alex hit the launch button and our X-Wing fighter took off like a bat out of hell!

That first launch was going perfectly until the parachute deployed and completely separated from the rocket. Fortunately we use a B-6 rocket which only goes up about 130ft. It took some TLC but once we found all the pieces we managed to put our rocket back together.

Thrilled with our success at achieving flight, if not a landing, we upgraded to a C-6 rocket engine which goes about 500ft.  Conner handled the second launch and this time the parachute worked.

I don't understand why, but almost as much fun as launching, is chasing after the rocket as it descends back to earth. It's like golf, but with explosives which makes it way more fun.

The boys let me push the button for the final launch.  What an amazing thrill!  I honestly don't know who enjoyed it more... The boys, or me?   Either way, we'll be doing that again very soon.

Thanks to @ken for the post title idea

Happy Boy

Conner watching the joust at King Richard's Faire.

King Richard's Faire

Last weekend we went to King Richard's Faire. The boys went on all sorts of rides form a giant swinging boat, to a horse on a zip-line where the they could attempt to catch a ring on a sword as they zoomed past. Alex had a lot of fun on a Jacob's latter.

My favorite part of the day was archery. They had real bows and arrows and a range of hay bails about 15 feet away with small heart shaped targets. Most people didn't hit the targets. Conner put an arrow right through the heart! I put him up on my shoulders and the head Archer proclaimed him a Knight to everyone within shouting distance.  That boy has mad skills!

This was also the boys first time at a live joust.  We rooted for the knight in black and green and the boys took it extremely seriously.  In the end our knight came in 2nd, which is to say he got knocked off his horse into a big pile of mud.  Alex and Conner were totally engrossed in the competition.


Train Graffiti

I saw this on the T's Red line a few weeks ago. Usually graffiti I see is vulgar or simply misplaced vanity "Paul wuz here". In this case there was a clear bit of protest and counter point. I don't know why, but I found this really compelling. It seemed so perversely civilized.

Train Graffiti

The text appeared to be written by two separate authors.

Author 1: "Pharma [SIC] only cares about profits everything else is secondary"

Author 2: "Fortunately, profits are good at motivating them to cure diseases like this kids."

The Bail Out, Bad Management & Helmet Cams

This post comes a day late and $700 billion dollars short. I wrote most of it two weeks ago when the bailout was proposed in a 3 page document. Things have changed a bit since then but my opinion on this matter remains firm.  Helmet Cams appear to be the only  answer.

The way the government threw together their request demand for $700B, along with the insistence that we give it to them free of oversight and right away set off all sorts of warning bells for me.  For those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And I've heard their rant before.

First some background

I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of how our economy functions, but from what I've been able to glean in the past few days this "economic crisis" seems to have stemmed from:
  1. Our government's push to deregulate investment banking back in 2000. In other words, the government relaxed or eliminated rules about what investment banks could do.
  2. The invention of a "Mortgage Backed Security". Basically it's stock that is based on a group of mortgages likelihood of paying.
  3. Banks encouraging people to take out mortgages they could not afford. This was done because the value of the mortgage was in using it to back the MBS. No one was paying attention to the fact that the mortgages were unlikely to be paid back.
  4. Banks sold the MBSs to each other and insurance companies insured them. 
  5. When people stopped paying the mortgages they couldn't afford, banks realized the MBSs were not worth much. No one could sell MBSs (that's what "no longer liquid" means) and it became very difficult for companies to find actual money for short or long term loans.
  6.  In theory this leads to a ripple effect that makes people lose their jobs.
It's a pyramid scheme based on a lack of traceability between the mortgage value and the MBS that represents them.  When the people who could never afford mortgages in the first place stopped paying them, the pyramid collapsed.  For a really clear explanation check out this NPR Fresh Air podcast with Law Professor Michael Greenberger.

Here's the part that scares the crap out of me:

Our government,
 are now running around saying:

Seven Things I've Heard Before
  1. We are in grave danger!
  2. We must act quickly and decisively to avert this catastrophe!
  3. Our previous behavior was the right thing to do...
  4. You, the tax payers need to foot the bill for fixing this.
  5. The cost is high but the right amount for the problem
  6. You'll get a great return on this investment.
  7. There is no time to waste. We must have unlimited, unchecked power to make this work!
And I've heard this all before from the same people when they wanted to go to war with Iraq.

I remember it seemed pretty dire then too.  Saddam Husein was apparently going to start hurling yellow-cake-uranium-tipped-mustard-gas-infused-anthrax out of our TVs if we didn't sign give the government all the resources and latitude they wanted.

So we rushed to let them have unlimited unchecked power with which they went on to:
  • give Haliburton no-bid contracts worth billions,
  • rack up an $800B war bill that is still growing,
  • destabilize an already precarious region of the world,
  • sacrifice the lives of 4176 US soldiers, 
  • sacrifice the lives of ~87,985 Iraqi Civilians,
  • systematically torture prisoners,
  • create a center of excellence for terrorist recruitment, and finally
  • prove that Saddam had no actual weapons and was not actually a threat after all.
Good thing we rushed into that one...

And now we have a new crisis. The economy. The government wants $700 billion, no oversight, and no regulation to fix the economic meltdown they birthed. They want to use this money to bail out the  people/companies that raped and pillaged our economy while screwing their stockholders and simultaneously giving themselves massive bonuses.

Bad Management Techniques
A lot of very smart people are saying that as ridiculous as these government people are, they are correct that something must be done to stabilize the economy.  I honestly don't know, but I seriously doubt that a problem got this bad this quickly that we have to act within "days" to save the world.

This sort of request for instant mindless action is a pretty typical things to hear from bad management in any company.  They say things like:

  • We've got a huge challenge and only a short time to fix it!
  • We need to fix this by Friday, or We need to fix in in the next 14 days or else!
  • It's a proverbial life or death situation and we need you the workers to save us.
  • This is an All-Hands-On-Deck situation.
  • You help by doing exactly what we say and not asking any questions.  
  • This is not our fault. Our markets situation changed and we need to react. 
I've seen this literally dozens of times and it's always a load of crap.  As bad as things are, most of the time the organization doesn't mobilize fast enough to meet the managers deadline. And somehow life goes on. Very often the situation never gets fixed, and people just stop caring. Turns out, it wasn't such a big deal after all.

Back to the Bail Out

The way they are asking for this bail out wreaks of bad management that doesn't have a clue what they really need.  Moreover, it is clear that they caused the problem, or at least let it happen in the first place.  Maybe some action is needed. But rushed action, with unlimited power and no oversight? I call bullshit!

Assuming that we need to take some form of action, which I'm increasingly willing to believe as I learn more about MBSs, liquidity and the credit markets, I still find it irresponsible, dangerous and unconscionable that would rush to a $700B decision in days based on the word of clearly incompetent people.

My Proposal

I suggest an alternative plan:

  1. Take every mid to high level investment bank executive (identified by the ridiculousness size of their bonus) and throw them in jail. We'll sort out sentencing limits later. This is an emergency, remember?
  2. Take every dollar, investment, and asset belonging to those people and liquidate it. It now belongs to the "bail out fund".
  3. Set up term limits in congress and the senate equal to 2 terms, and a total of 6 years, per lifetime of a person. (It's harder to buy people that can't be re-elected for life.)
  4. Publicly finance all elections and put anyone even hinting at giving money to a government official in jail for 10 years. (It's harder to buy people that don't have a legal reason to take your money.)
  5. Put any politician taking money from anyone in prison for 10 years.
  6. Let a couple of really big investment firms fail.
  7. Keep that $700 billion of our tax money on hand. 
  8. Get the smartest people we can find people with a proven track record of success and evidence of a conscience (like Warren Buffet) and have them figure out what to do.
  9. Require complete transparency on the solution and it's implementation. (Everyone involved has to wear a helmet cam 24x7x365 until this is over.)
  10. When real people, the ones that pay bills and work for a living, lose jobs as a result, use the bailout money to retrain them for jobs in the renewable energy sector.
  11. Make a substantial investment in renewable energy. 
  12. Use some of the remaining money to make the USA education system the best in the world. 
You might say that this wont work because there isn't enough room in the prisons for all the investment bank executives, corrupt politicians and lobbyists trying to bribe said politicians. I have a solution for that as well:
  1. Cancel the war on drugs  (at least for marijuana) Saving $42B from the federal budget.
  2. Let all the marijuana offenders out of jail (~80k people in prison + 600k arrested and released each year)
  3. In year 1, take that $42B we saved and use it to fund education and training to reintegrate those released prisoners people into society.
  4. In year 2 keep the $42B.
  5. Use all the jail space for investment bank executives, corrupt politicians and lobbyists trying to bribe said politicians.

This 3 page bailout plan is an act of insanity brought to us by a group of hack-managers with a proven track record for sucking at exactly the thing they want $700B of our money to do. A bail out may be necessary, but there is no one I trust to have unconditional and unlimited power with $700B.  If we must do this, make them all wear helmet cams so we can see what they are doing with our money every step of the way.
In the two weeks since I wrote this post the bailout bill went from 3 pages to 450+ pages. It was just passed into law yesterday with less than 24 hours between when congressmen got the document and when they voted. The Sunlight Foundation asked for 72 hours and digital version tracking which seems like a really good idea. Here's a look at what's involved in following the updates with the governments current process.  It appears physically impossible for them to have read the bill they passed.  Good thing we didn't rush into this one.

Guest Post: I can't take any more of this

This is a guest post by my father talking about his decision process for the upcoming presidential election.  He sent this out as an email to a group of family and friends earlier today.  It's posted here with his permission.

I can't take any more of this
by James Russell

I know that many of you think that I am a Democrat. I am not. I am nauseated by both parties.  For the past eight years I have been more nauseated by the Republican Party.  Because of that, many have concluded that, since I am very angry with what Republicans have done to my country, I must therefore be a Democrat. I find it hard to understand how anyone who has any allegiance to America can have anything but contempt for both these mobs. That being said......

I wanted two things out of the upcoming election (1) George Bush needs to go away and (2) whichever party won a majority in Congress I wanted the other party to have the presidency.  The last eight years is testimony to what happens when one single party has both the Congress and the Executive Branch and that party is owned and operated by lobbyists.  I don't think it would have mattered much whether the Democrats or the Republicans had both branches since both Republicans and Democrats are owned and operated by lobbyists. Just different lobbyists. The Supreme Court has declared lobbying "free-speech".  Lobbying can be described a lot of ways but it can’t possibly be described as “free”.

I am writing this note to tell everyone that I am abandoning item (2) above.  It is highly likely that Democrats will end up with a significant majority in both houses of Congress.  Even with that, I have come to the conclusion that electing John McCain represents a potentially greater tragedy than George Bush.  Here is my thinking.

Eight years ago I sat and watched a television interview where George Bush, candidate for President of the United States, was asked simple and primitive questions about foreign policy and relationships with leaders in well-known European and Eastern European countries.  I was flabbergasted at the depth of Bush's ignorance.  I remember thinking that surely this would be the end of George Bush's candidacy since no sane person would vote for someone who was so willfully ignorant regarding one of the key areas of the job to which he was seeking.  Certainly, no business interviewer would hire him for the job.

Unfortunately, in the US, reasoned thinking takes a second seat to guns, God, gays and taxes.  Promise to cut taxes, spew enough Christian right pablum, promise to cut taxes,  promise to give every household at least one gun, promise to cut taxes,  be sure to tell everybody how gays are bringing about the end of civilization (and how God really hates them anyway), promise to cut taxes and tell them that you are Gods candidate -- and you are in. Oh, I forgot. You must wrap yourselves in flags at every opportunity because everybody knows that if you don't wrap yourself in the flag you must hate America. One more thing…. Did I mention to promise to cut taxes?

Well the voting public got what it deserved and the last eight years speak for themselves. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain or the fact that this administration has added more debt to the US than the sum of all the previous presidents combined (pre-bailout), the dollar is worth much less, manufacturing has disappeared from the US and 600,000 jobs have been lost since the beginning of the year or that we financed two wars with money borrowed from China (every dime of it).

I was looking forward to the end of Bush’s tragic presidency.  Between the vacuous leadership of the executive branch and the stupefyingly partisan gridlock in Congress, I was concerned that even the strength of the United States could not stand up to another four years of this.  It really didn't matter whether Obama or McCain got elected as long as the current crew went away.

Well I now care greatly that John McCain NOT be elected president. John McCain, a 72-year-old three-time cancer survivor, has summoned all of his seasoned experience and judgment and selected a vice presidential candidate, Sara Palin, who ( I cannot believe I am saying this) makes George Bush look like a genius.  Think about this.  Saturday Night Live put on a skit making fun of Sara Palin and the script for the skit was an exact quotation of what Sara Palin said during an interview. The skit got a lot of laughs.  A tear came to my eye.  The next day I saw a poll that indicated that 58% of the people polled in the United States have a positive view of Sara Palin. I went and read transcripts of all of her interviews. I was totally shocked. For years the Republicans have been spewing "fear" as a political motivator. Until now, it really didn't work with me. In fact, I resented it. Well, they finally got me afraid.  

There is no bottom to this pit. Has partisanship completely trumped reason? I look at my grandchildren and think, "We can not let this happen!"