News items, current events, of general interest

Thoughts on the Economic Meltdown...

I'm gonna put in my 2 cents about this economic meltdown... I've been following it since 2004, mainly on The Big Picture and The Agonist. There are good reasons why I started saving a majority of my income as cash way back in 2006, and avoided the stock market... one of them is that I came to realize that the game was rigged, and I didn't want to get caught in the inevitable crash.

I've read a lot on the subject... I'm not an economist, but I'm going to try to put this into my own words.

Why the hell did this happen?!?!

Essentially, both Washington and Wall Street starting acting like a rabid pack of free-market fundamentalists instead of pragmatic capitalists. The deregulation and tax cuts that spurred the economy back in the Regan era were a pragmatic reaction to the sluggish, over-regulated economy. But, tax breaks and deregulation are neither necessary nor sufficient for economic growth. Don't believe me? Then please explain this evidence: in 1990, we had more regulation and higher taxes, and the economy BOOMED... but in the 2000s we had less regulation and lower taxes, and the economy CRASHED.

No matter how you look at it, tax breaks and deregulation are merely tactics to be used when appropriate. Saying that they are always good is woefully ignorant... Only a fool keeps using the same tactics over and over, especially when it comes to something as complex as the economy. If you still don't believe me, ask arch conservative Francis Fukuyama for more reasons on why Republicans who merely coasted on Regan's achievements have only succeeded in destroying them. Our banks are becoming nationalized, and we're effectively socialists, all thanks to those dense dittoheads.

Some industries -- like technology -- don't need much regulation... whereas others -- like banking -- need LOTS of regulation.

Blame The Poor!

Its popular amongst free market fundamentalists to blame this problem on the poor... especially for the Fannie May / Freddie Mac meltdown. They blame Clinton for lowering lending standards, so lower income people could be home owners. Now... I have minor technical objections to Clinton's plan, but according to the mortgage brokers I know, this was never the problem. Low income lenders paid back their loans faster than anybody else. Besides, even if Clinton's plan had bad side effects, Washington had plenty of time to fix it if they were actually paying attention... Blaming Clinton for the current mess based on something he did 10 years ago is as pathetic as blaming your parents because you hate your job. It might make you feel better, but its a whiny cop-out, and doesn't solve the problem.

No... the true problem was the middle class overextending their credit with complex, hybrid mortgages. Suddenly, individual lenders were incented for making bad loans!

For a long time, the banking industry wanted mortgage brokers to be more regulated... because these brokers kept hiding the real risks of the loans. Mortgage brokers eventually started doing NINJA Loans. This means No Income, No Job or Assets Loans... and making tons of money on fees and closing costs. People didn't have to prove they owned anything in order to get a loan. Eventually, after Washington refused to regulate, many normally sane banks decided to get in on the action. The ones that didn't are the ones that are currently still solvent...

As one former mortgage broker told me, "it was like a competition between the brokers and the bankers about who could make the stupidest loan!"

The poor could not have caused all of this problem on their own: there simply aren't enough of them. Yet.

Eventually, people weren't able to repay their loans... and the money that the banks expected to get in monthly payments simply didn't arrive... which means less capital to work with. Banks get skittish, and the ones that don't fail want to hang on to their cash for longer and make fewer loans.

When foreclosures increased, then the bloggers started screaming about what was going to happen next: the derivatives market was going to crash and burn...

Blame Derivatives!

Now we get into crazy land... What is a derivative? The Week has a good was to describe it: legalized gambling.

Now, this isn't a bad thing... probably the most common derivatives are stock options and commodities futures. The former is pretty common for tech people: they bet that their company stock will rise, so they hang around at a job they hate, for the "option" of selling their stock at a higher value. Commodities futures allow farmers to sell crops now when they don't have them, so they can get quick cash to improve the productivity of their farm. These are both fine...

The bad boys of the derivatives market are credit derivatives. In essence, this is simply "insurance" that you will get money back if a stock goes down, a bond goes down, or somebody doesn't pay back their mortgage.

Offhand, these sound like a great idea... and they are! But only if you do the math correctly... which they didn't!

Part of the problem was that a lot of these credit derivatives promised to pay insurance money if somebody didn't pay back their home loan. But, instead of individual loans, they made promises on mortgage-backed securities... which are thousands of loans bunched together as one. Again, these aren't a bad thing... as long as you do the math right. Which again, they didn't!

The idea behind these securities is that if any one person defaults on the loan, the security is still mostly OK... Even if everybody in the security defaulted on the loan, the security would still be valuable, because you bought "insurance" to guarantee its value! But there were problems... Since a mortgage-backed security is a mystery bundle of mystery loans, its nearly impossible to measure the actual risk! In most cases, the people measuring risk did a decent job of accounting for market risk, but they completely neglected capital risk. Basically, this is the fact that capital can sometimes get more expensive when the economy is bad, and banks are hesitant to lend.

In effect, they didn't charge enough money for the insurance they sold, because they measured the risk incorrectly.

Well... so what? As we all know, there is only a finite amount of capital in the world... and if you are a bank that lost money on a bunch of bad loans, and you also have to pay insurance money for people who bought your mortgage backed securities, where will that money come from? And because you sliced up all those loans into a million pieces, not you have a million creditors for each bad loan... so negotiating with your creditors in a bankruptcy court is an impossibility.

In short, these big, bad, financial geniuses never anticipated how the entire economy -- mortgage banks, investment banks, hedge funds, and insurance companies -- would completely collapse if a very small minority of people couldn't pay their mortgages on time... and then they proceeded to make loans that they knew people would not be able to pay back.

Whoops!

There's a reason why Warren Buffet called these credit derivatives financial weapons of mass destruction back in frigging 2003. They are a decent idea, but very poorly implemented, and completely unregulated... one bank failure will almost always cause another. Back in 2000, the market for credit derivatives was under $100 billion dollars... which is essentially $100 billion in promises to pay back money, if something bad happens to the economy. By 2007, this unregulated market has ballooned to $44 TRILLION dollars... which is approximately the amount of money on the entire frigging planet. Nobody knows how big it is today.

This market produces nothing, feeds nobody, and doesn't foster industry one bit... Its just insurance payable when something bad happens. The only way you can make money in this market is by making huge bets... so again, these geniuses decided that nothing bad would ever happen, so they collectively bet all the money in the world!

And they lost...

How Should We Fix This?!?

First we must recognize the truth: there is no room for fundamentalism in good fiscal policy. We'll need a blend of free market ideas, some tax hikes, some tax breaks, some government control, and basically a return to pragmatic capitalism.

The best options I heard thus far came from The Agonist. The fundamental problem is a lack of transparency. In the past, banks would loan each other billions and billions every hour, but these days they don't know who they can trust... so the Fed is forced to step in and make loans. This can't go on forever, so the banks need to step up, ask for the regulations they need to safely lend to each other, then get to it. Its what some people call a shot of adrenaline, and it goes like this:

  1. Give the FDIC an injection of cash to buy out banks that are too insolvent to lend. "Too sick to lend is too sick to live." You would be amazed at how many will start lending in preference to working for their Uncle Sam.
  2. Sell short term bonds and give these to the Fed to extend lines of credit. About 150 billion in addition to the Fed's already eased credit will do.
  3. Back the bonds long term with "fat cat taxes," which include taxing wall street for every trade they make, and additional taxes to the top 2% of American earners.
  4. Signal that the policy of allowing banks to be bought up cheaply is over

If Wall Street wants a bailout, they are going to pay dearly for it. They are going to have to take some risk, a lot of regulation, and accept the long-term consequences for their actions.

And the fundamentalists should be chased back to their caves...

China Cracks Down On Terrorists... With Tiny Tiny Guns

I got these via a Boston.com article on the Olympics. Apparently, the Chinese military is doing all kinds of anti-terror drills prior to the Olympics. Not a bad idea, but a lot of critics claim its an unnecessary show-of-force just to intimidate those non-violent Tibetans, and make them stop walking around and asking for their country back. Some really good photos there, but this one is my favorite:

Clamped knees, elbow pads, and tiny, tiny guns.

dude... what's the goal here? Make the battle-hardened monks laugh hysterically until you run them over on your Segway? You had better hope that they don't thwart your plans by stepping up on a curb or something... The only thing more absurd would be backing up your police force with scary, autonomous, Anime robots.

whoops... spoke too soon...

Big Oil Going The Way Of Big Tobacco?

I love of energy... I always thought environmentalists got it wrong about energy. The problem isn't overconsumption, its unsustainability. So, go ahead and drive your Hummer, as long as it runs biodiesel from sources like algae or bacteria. If Big Oil was sharp, they would stop denying global warming, and embrace new carbon-negative oil technologies before the high tech venture capitalists steal all their business...

To add insult to injury, it seems that some prominent scientists want to put Big Oil on trial for global warming. At first, I believed that these kinds of trials would go exactly nowhere. Until I found out about one case backed by a dream team of trial lawyers: Steve Berman and Steve Susman.

The former was the lead lawyer representing 13 states against Big Tobacco in their historic defeat in the 1990s. The latter was the man who defended Big Tobacco. Now, they have teamed up and are taking on Big Oil, with pretty much the same strategy...

The Atlantic outlines the logic of the case quite well. There have been dozens of lawsuits against Big Tobacco, dating as far back as the 1950s. The plaintiffs were all the same -- people who got addicted to cigarettes, and got health problems, and were now suing the tobacco industry for selling an unsafe product. Early anti-tobacco lawsuits all ended the same way: the judge would declare that every consumer product has some danger, but its not the judge's responsibility to decided an acceptable level of safety.

Defining what is an "acceptable level of safety" is up to Congress... who are always on top of things...

This of course led Big Tobacco in the past -- just like Big Oil right now -- to funnel millions of dollars to "skeptical" scientists, and use them to pass off PR as genuine research... and use that to influence congress and the media into inaction. Not to mention the millions in campaign contributions, free trips, lobbyist jobs, etc. etc. etc.

Unfortunately, Big Tobacco finally realized the flaw in that plan:

  • When you pass of PR as genuine scientific research, it is a lie.
  • When you lie about consumer products you sell, it is fraud.
  • When you defraud consumers, class action lawsuits are not far behind.
  • When you get sued, you have to produce old memos, emails, and data relevant to the case... which are usually very incriminating

The Steves' plan is not to claim that oil is causing "too much harm." The plan is to prove that Big Oil used both licit and illicit means to downplay the actual harm of their product, whatever that harm may be. Essentially, when companies engage in fraud, they make it impossible for a consumer to make a reasonable choice about whether or not to use their product... and congress has a long list of laws against that...

Essentially, even if oil is 90% safe, if the Steves can prove that Big Oil claimed it was 95% safe, and that Big Oil downplayed evidence to the contrary, then Big Oil is guilty of both fraud, and conspiracy to commit fraud. That exact tactic brought down Big Tobacco, and it seems like it would be pretty easy to do the same to Big Oil...

I, for one, am curious to see how all this pans out...

From Demo To Demo To Demo To Blog...

I had an odd day today... It started with me taking a small sledgehammer to my kitchen walls...

I'm doing some demolition this week to prepare for a kitchen remodel, and I absolutely love my new hammer. Boy oh boy... its called a FUBAR, and its a wonderful combination of crowbar, sledgehammer, and all-purpose destroyer. I can grab 2x4 wood planks in its toothy maw, and rip 'em straight out of the wall with my bare hands!

I was a little sad when I ran out of wood planks...

Then -- at the crack of noon -- I shook the dust out of my hair, and started a teleconference. I gave a demonstration of how Oracle ECM works to a division of a multi-billion dollar Japanese conglomerate. UCM, IRM, URM, WCM, you name it. They seemed to like it, and hopefully the sales folks can continue the process from here.

Then I went back to demolition... and now I'm blogging about it all.

It suddenly dawned on me that I'm one of those cliches from an MCI commercial about how the internet will change how we work in the future... I'm going to have to send them an irate letter for spying on me.

Right after I check my Technorati rank.

Eight Stupid Things About Me

God I hate email chain letters... but I got blog tagged by Billy, so I'm going to be a good sport... so I'll share eight things about me that most people don't know:

  1. In my career as a computer geek, I have implemented projects in 15 different languages: FORTRAN, Pascal, BASIC, Visual Basic, JavaScript, IdocScript, Perl, Python, Ruby, PHP, Java, JEE, C, C++, C#
  2. I have a Bachelor's degree in Physics, a Master degree in Civil Engineering, with minors in Math, Philosophy, and Computer Science.
  3. Thanks to my mad Google skilz, I've uncovered the meaning of life. Twice. I'm working on a third... stay tuned.
  4. I'm fascinated with neurobiology, and love taking personality tests.
  5. I've taken the Myers-Briggs personality test several times, and it always says I'm an ENFP: Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeler, Perceiver. That's unusual for a software geek, who are normally introverted, thinkers, and judgers... PersonalityPage.com describes my personality type rather accurately...
  6. I took a left-brain/right-brain dominance test, and I failed! It claimed I have perfect hemispherical balance, meaning I solve problems with both hemispheres simultaneously. Its kind of cool: I can jump from big-picture to nitty-gritty details in a flash, but there are negatives...
  7. I really dislike fiction... I usually don't read anything unless its well regarded after 50 years. I tend to read non-fiction: science, technology, economics, and history -- especially the American Revolution
  8. I really hate String Theory, Social Anthropology, and Alexander Hamilton. I'm willing to rethink my dislike of the last two, but I'm pretty unshakable on that first one...

Still reading? Too bad! Just for that, I'm going to keep this thing going by tagging 100% Minneapolis-based bloggers: Dan Grigsby, Garrick Van Buren, Luke Francl, Ed Kohler, Graeme Thickins, John McDarris, Cordell Melgaard, and Rick Wren the Ninja. If you don't like it, blame Jake. He started it.

Feel free to join the narcissist meme, boys!

This Year In Blog

This is an interesting meme... make "this year in review" of your blog, by taking just the first complete sentence each month. I had about 260 posts in 2007, below are a select dozen:

January: Continuing on the green theme, I came across a top-10 list from Newsweek about how easy it is to be green.

February: Wired news is reporting on another interesting innovation in wind energy...

March: Michelle had a great idea the other day...

April: Google Maps has just unveiled a new feature called My Maps, which is a new tab in the left sidebar of the standard maps interface.

May: Slate Magazine has a pretty good list of the top 5 brain-related news stories of 2007.

June: Derrick sent me a link to a great site, Lumosity.com, which helps improve your brain by playing specially designed games.

July: Since I posted the Nerd Test a while back, I guess the time is right to post The Idiot Test now.

August: Just a (mildly) shameless plug...

September: I was always fascinated by economics... but every time I tried to study it I was put off by the sheer idiocy of it all.

October: I was never much a fan of hybrids... having two engines instead of one just seemed to make things expensive and complicated...

November: I made mention a while back that identity management will destroy Facebook... well, this is the next best thing.

December: When I hear people talking about Web 2.0, I'm constantly surprised how few people really "get it."

Interesting... some observations: first, I talk about the environment a lot. Second, I seem to like my brain. Third, I use elipses a lot... and finally, I should probably spend a bit more time talking about "technology and lifehacks", as opposed to just "all that good stuff".

Happy 2008!

(Hat tip: Barry Hess)

Minneapolis Ranked First as Most Literate City, 2007

According to a recent study by Connecticut State University, Minneapolis Minnesota is the #1 Most Literate City for 2007. It was second place for the last two years, just barely getting beaten by Seattle both times... but this year, the bit finally flipped. And we're number one!

City Overall Rank 2007 06 Rank 05 Rank
Minneapolis, MN 1 2 2
Seattle, WA 2 1 1
St. Paul, MN 3 5 9.5
Denver, CO 4 8 6
Washington, DC 5 3.5 3
St. Louis, MO 6 12 15
San Francisco, CA 7 9 5
Atlanta, GA 8 3.5 4
Pittsburgh, PA 9 6 8
Boston, MA 10 11 7

I'm more than a little shocked to see St. Louis beating out San Francisco Their methodology is covered in greater detail on their web site, but here's a snippet:

A total score was tallied for each city across six different literacy categories: Booksellers; Educational attainment; Internet Resources; Library Resources; Newspaper Circulation; and Periodical publications.

In other words, you population needs to read magazines, newspapers, and internet sites to get a high rank... you also need lots of highly used public libraries, and a large number of college grads. Seattle still ranks first in number of college grads... but Minneapolis has the advantage of multiple large schools, plus the odd tendency of Midwesterners to stay close to their birthplace.

I'm also proud and surprised to see my original home town -- and fellow Twin City -- St. Paul Minnesota as #3 in this ranking... however, I'm neither proud nor surprised that two thirds of California's cities ranked below 50th place:

FRY:    So you're saying these aren't the decaying ruins of New York in the year 4000?
FARNSWORTH: You wish! You're in Los Angeles!
FRY:    But there was this gang of 10-year olds with guns!
LEELA:  Exactly: You're in L.A.
FRY:    But everyone is driving around in cars shooting at each other!
BENDER: That's L.A. for you.
FRY:    But the air's green and there's no sign of civilization whatsoever!
BENDER: (to LEELA) He just won't stop with the social commentary.
FRY:    And the people are all phoneys! No one reads! And they put cilantro in everything!

... but I digress. Enjoy it while it lasts, Minneapolis! Because Paul Allen will probably build ten new libraries for his minions to reclaim the title in 2008...

How Social Software Can Win The War

Wired has an amazing new story about how social networks were vital in Iraq. The story starts with the US Military making the same assumption every large organization does:

We can use process and technology in place of humans, to become more efficient!

That's true... until the situation changes... then you're usually stuck with a process that doesn't work so well... and the only way to keep the organization on track is to side-step the process. And the only way to do that is with people who know how to function with or without a process.

The article focuses on a system called Network-Centric Warfare. It was a huge push even before the Bush administration... but Rumsfeld was a big fan. It wired soldiers together with GPS systems, advanced communication devices, and the ability to know exactly where friends and foes were on the battlefield. It allowed a battlefield commander to do more with less, and thus many in the military were excited about fighting big wars with a small number of soldiers.

The swift collapses of Afghanistan and Baghdad made it clear that Network-Centric Warfare was highly effective at killing people and breaking stuff... However, the following years demonstrated that this system wasn't so hot at warfare.

Practically speaking, if your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If your system is highly effective at killing people, you're going to try to solve every problem by killing people. Nevermind the rhetoric about hearts and minds... if your soldiers don't have the tools, they can't follow your orders.

Academically speaking, they neglected a fundamental tenet of network theory: the power of a network grows exponentially with each new node... however, only if each node gives as well as it gets. This is the theory that drives the internet. However, the nature of warfare changes quickly. After the collapse of the respective regimes, the most important nodes shifted from soldiers, to civilians. The goal was to win hearts and minds, but those very hearts and minds were nowhere on the network... they couldn't request security, look for jobs, or offer tips on the location of IEDs. Even if they had internet access, they certainly wouldn't be allowed on a classified system...

The thing that they needed most was interaction with the community. Counter-insurgency manuals talk endlessly about networks of people, not military targets. The more violence you use, the less effective it becomes. The system needed drastic change.

Two successful unconventional groups had tremendous success: the psychological operations team, and the Human Terrain Team... the latter being a mix of social scientists, cultural experts, and computer geeks who specialized in building social networks. The tales about the PSYOP teams were amazing, but the HTT team had some major success with extremely simple tactics:

In western Afghanistan, for instance, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was being targeted by rockets, over and over, from the vicinity of a nearby village. But no one from the unit had bothered to ask the townspeople why. When the Human Terrain Team finally paid a visit, villagers complained that the Taliban was around only because the Americans didn't provide security. And oh, by the way, they really wanted a volleyball net, too. So a net was acquired. Patrols were started. There hasn't been an attack in two months.

wow... I don't think it takes a computer geek to come up with that kind of a plan... one commander credits the HTT with a 60%-70% reduction in the number of strikes the military has taken in western Afghanistan... they have also more than doubled the number of districts supporting the local government, from 19 to 53. And all in a handful of months!

Geeks and social networks rule...

92% Geek

Now this is just downright unsettling...

92% Geek

(Hat Tip: Billy)

Jet Lagged And Feelin' Groovy...

OK folks... I'm back in town and should resume blogging... right after I sleep for 14 hours or so.

At least nothing important happened in my absence that I need to discuss. I can just pick up the blogs on Monday and infect the planet with my random opinions on the first item I see.

ta ta!

Out Of Africa

Sorry for the general lack of blogging, folks... I'm presently in South Africa. I just got back from a safari, where internet connectivity was pretty much zero. I'm now in a town north of Durban called Balito, where internet connectivity isn't much better. Its painfully slow, and that's if it's working at all.

I had hoped I'd be able to blog twice per week while out here, but its significantly more difficult than I anticipated...

I have tons of great photos: lions, elephants, zebras, gnus, giraffes, rhinos, buffalo, antelope, hippos... even a leopard faking a charge at me! I know it was a fake charge because I'm not dead.

In any event, I expect to be back on my regular blogging schedule in about a week or so.

Freakonomics Blog On The I-35W Bridge Collapse

The boys over on the Freakonomics blog have been chatting about the bridge collapse as well. The commenters brought up some very salient points why governments are less enthused about spending money on infrastructure these days:

  • The economic benefit from highway investments is plummeting: from 17.6% annual return in the 70s, to 4.9% in the 80s, and to 1% in the 90s.
  • This decline could be due to Congressional earmarks, or and failing to charge people appropriately for the costs they impose in using roads.
  • Other research indicates that costs of infrastructure are very frequently underestimated and benefits overstated -- this pattern is so common that researchers say it can only be explained by "strategic misrepresentation" by politicians... also known as lying

I'm not surrpised that we're getting less bang for our buck when it comes to infrastructure... because nobody is in charge of planning the infrastructure. We sprawl out to the suburbs, then suburban folks demand more roads and bridges so they can cut their commute from 45 minutes to 37 minutes.

Yeesh...

As our city population gets less centralized, we do less long-term planning, and politicians vote for what sounds the best, its natural that the return-on-investment for infrastructure is going to plummet.

Hopefully, after this tragedy, people will demand more than just money or accountability... perhaps transparency would be a better goal. We need to track how much money are we spending on infrastructure, where, and why. Did somebody spend millions on a suburban pipe dream, while interstate highways eroded? Any politician who falls for a developer's lies will be held to task...

Perhaps transparency will ensure we use public funds to repair main arteries, instead of suburban strip malls... or new sports stadiums for millionaires...

Further Reading:

Wow... Downtime Sucks...

I went down the street to the 24-hour grocery. When I got there, the guy was locking the front door.
I said, "Hey, the sign says you're open 24 hours."
He said, "Yes, but not in a row." -- Steven Wright

My hosting company's ISP was down today... and some big bad juju happened at the data center. Nearly a dozen servers went down. My server was stuck doing fsck over the past 6 hours.

It took some time to get the database up and running, but I think we're back to normal.

That's the down side of 99.9% uptime... it means that you'll be down about eight hours per year. Unfortunately, sometimes it happens all at once...

The Bridge Didn't Get Me...

I live in Minneapolis, and thus have been getting lots of calls, email, and IM about whether I was hurt -- or knew anybody who was hurt -- by the 35W bridge collapse yesterday.

Thankfully, I and everyone I know is OK... but I'd like to give my opinion: the US needs to spend more on maintaining its infrastructure.

For those who don't know, in addition to being a raging computer geek, I have a Master's Degree in Civil Engineering. These kinds of infrastructure failures are nothing new, and the general opinion is that this is only the beginning. There are bridges in far worse shape than the 35W bridge over the Mississippi... and yet they miraculously remain standing.

Why? Its hard to say... a lot of engineering is dependent on the quality of materials you get. Hopefully those steel girders weren't made at 3pm on a Friday... Just in case they add pretty significant margins of error to all calculations to account for minor variations in raw material quality. Some get lucky, others don't. When an engineer builds something, it's usually very solid... however, nothing lasts forever. Everything needs to be torn down and rebuilt eventually, and that costs money.

Money, of course, is the operative word. We can build bridges that last 100 years, and storm sewers that will never overflow, but it doesn't make economic sense to do so. It makes more sense to build them to last 40-50 years, then repair/replace them as needed. In 50 years the materials will be better, we'll have better building technologies, and creating a 50-year infrastructure will be even cheaper. Even considering the costs and inconvenience of reconstruction, it works out to be much cheaper.

That theory works fine... except 50 years ago people actually cared about infrastructure. Nowadays, we want trillion dollar tax cuts. According to voodoo economics, tax cuts boost the economy. Barring capital flight, this theory sometimes works... but without a solid infrastructure on which to build the economy, most gains are immediately lost. This is a classic situation where taxes on infrastructure are an investment. Its not pork barrel politics, or tax-and-spend politicians... solid infrastructure is essential in sustaining a competitive advantage in the world economy.

The American Society for Civil Engineering puts out a report card every few years on the state of America's bridges, roads, and dams. Overall, America's GPA is a D. That may be a bit harsh -- after all, these folks make money from big fat construction projects -- but its not far off the mark. I'd be generous and give us a C-.

It breaks my heart that people had to die to bring this issue into the public view... but now that everybody is aware of the problem, we have a duty to those who died to fix this. Otherwise, the next bridge to fall might be in your home town...

FBI Raid on Senator Ted "Tubes" Stevenson's Home

I try to keep this blog apolitical... but I couldn't help myself this time. The crazy old coot Ted Stevens is finally getting investigated for bribery and corruption by the FBI.

I, like most bloggers, really dislike Alaska Senator Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens. Back when he was in charge of regulating the internet, he was told -- or perhaps bribed -- by industry lobbyists to speak out against an amendment that would guarantee Net Neutrality. Such a guarantee is critical to preserve the internet as we know it.

In other words, the ISPs -- like AT&T or MCI -- saw a lot of money being made on the internet, and wanted a piece of the action. No problem there... but their methods were terrible. They wanted the right to charge more for access to "high quality" sites, like YouTube, ESPN, or even Google. These web sites would have to shell out higher rates to these ISPs for the same bandwidth, or be blocked from the internet. And god help you if you're the Better Business Bureau or The Consumerist, and post comments critical to AT&T.

In his impassioned speech, the octogenarian demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he knew absolutely nothing about how the internet worked:

"They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

Yikes... either that or its a distributed packet switched network. Perhaps I should be thankful that at least he understands that the internet is not a truck...

Seeing this on the news, I'm reminded of a quote from Freakonomics... the authors were analyzing data from a bagel salesman, who noticed that executives tend to steal more than other workers:

"Feldman (the bagel seller) has also reached some of his own conclusions about honesty, based more on his experience than the data. He has come to believe that morale is a big factor -- that an office is more honest when the employees like their boss and their work. He also believes that employees further up the corporate ladder cheat more than those down below. He got this idea after delivering for years to one company spread out over three floors -- an executive floor on top and two lower floors with sales, service, and administrative employees. Feldman wondered if perhaps the executives cheated out of an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. What he didn't consider is that perhaps cheating is how they got to BE executives."

owch... Not sure I believe that, but perhaps there's something to the premise that corruption is how people get to be politicians in the first place.

Anyway, its nice to see Mr. Tubes get his comeuppance... even if it is 40 years late.

Glitch In The Matrix...

Drupal hit a minor snag... the permissions data got a bit wacked on my blog yesterday, and anonymous users were getting an access denied message. So I re-set them, and things should be back to normal now. That must have happened during the last automated database backup...

Thanks to Jason Stortz, Derrick Shields, and Billy Cripe for alerting me.

Bible Salesman Struck By Lightning

From the don't-tick-off-Zeus department...

A door-to-door religious book seller was struck down by lightning in South Florida yesterday. This is despite the fact that it was a clear day, and hadn't even rained. He's recovering in a local hospital, but hasn't yet regained consciousness. Hopefully he'll be OK in a few days.

The phenomenon is called dry lightning... which means that the air is so dry that rain from higher elevations evaporates before hitting the ground. Thus, people don't know its raining, and don't take the normal precautions they would during a storm. Unfortunately, lightning doesn't evaporate...

Reminder...

Not The Best Week Ever...


Yeah, my week's been a little off...

To start with, it's that time of year when the evil lilac blooms and tries to kill me with pollen. I have to stay indoors to thwart it's plan, which means missing out on some of the best weather of the year.

Stupid purple devil flower.

Anyway, so my laptop's hard drive crashes hard. That was last week to be precise... I'm a little sad because I barely got 18 months out of that thing. Naturally, I have backups, but I was in Seattle and my backups were in Minneapolis! Joy. So I slapped in a new hard drive and installed Ubuntu Linux so I could at least keep up with email.

So I get back, and I'm having one hell of a time restoring my data. It just didn't make any sense. The only uncorrupted backup was a month old! So I had to figure out a way to get the latest data off the fried drive. That's another $100 to download decent recovery software...

Next thing I know, the internet goes out! My cable modem was a bit finicky every since Comcast bought out Road Runner... I was usually able to breath new life into it by power-cycling it, but this time it breathed its last breath.

They sent out a tech to replace it... and he was shocked at the strength of the signal coming in off the cable. That poor modem was suffering quite a lot to get me online... no wonder it died early. He gave me a new modem, but said it probably wouldn't last long either. They needed to figure out what crazy crossed wire was causing such a dirty signal. None of the techs could figure it out...

Well, at least I was back online. So, I'm tap-tap-tapping away again, and then the power goes out! Darkness... for blocks and blocks...

Grrr...

That's it! This is no longer a coincidence! I'm popping some Benadryl and taking to the streets. I'm going to pick every lilac I see, and stomp 'em into the ground! That'll teach them to mess with me...

Stupid purple devil flower.

Bezzotech Web Site Launched!

Well, I finally had some extra time to put together the official website for Bezzotech, my new company. Go visit it! Tell me what you think! As you may have guessed, I'm a big fan of astrolabes.

I felt really guilty about having that silly icon page up there for so long... but it took me a while to settle on a brand, a logo, a message, and make the time to write all the CSS and HTML.

In the library page, you'll find Oracle/Stellent based resources that you can download. These include presentations I gave, and some sample code I put together. Hopefully, Oracle/Stellent customers will find them useful. I'll be adding more as time goes on.

I some day also put up a section for industry news... or maybe I'll just keep everything over here on my blog. I guess you'll need to check both sites regularly to know for sure...

Oh yeah, I also got a chance to rebrand this blog as well... Its back to the green that we all know and love. Well... at least I love it.

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