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November 22nd, 2011

08:02 am: Occupy America, but What Part?
Whatever you think of the “Occupy” protests, please consider: If they cannot be in the parks, and they cannot be in the schools, and they cannot be in the town squares – then where should they go?

If the public squares of our cities and towns are not the appropriate venue to assemble peacefully, to speak publicly, and to petition for redress of perceived wrongs, then where would you have them go? Where, today, is it appropriate to stand up and speak a controversial opinion? It is clearly not the universities, you get pepper sprayed there. Nor is it the doorstep of the financial companies in wall street, that space apparently needs to be cleaned out with shocking regularity. Public parks are not the answer, questions of sanitiation come to the fore. Anywhere able to accomodate a few thousand citizens gathered to speak their minds seems shockingly unavailable.

Seriously: Where would you put these people?

To paraphrase Agent Smith from The Matrix: What good is a right to a phone call, if you cannot speak?

I don’t read anonymous comments online anymore, but when I slip and have to wipe some commentary off my shoes, I can’t help catching a whiff of “they had it coming,” about the protesters getting pushed around. I see pictures of storm-trooper clad police, toe to toe with people who look a lot like me. I had always assumed that, should I want to protest, I would be able to make up a sign, go downtown, and not risk getting billy-clubbed or shot with rubber bullets.

There are thousands of people at these protests, nationwide. The protests are happening in every major city in America, and a bunch of the smaller ones too. This is not a small thing, and it is not going away. The people in the protests seem to be mainly American citizens, mainly peaceful, and mainly organized around a few primary points. Their desires are ever-so-slowly crystallizing into a clearer agenda – but for the moment they appear to merely want to speak and be heard.

Where would you have them go?

November 8th, 2011

08:01 am: Griftopia
I recently read Griftopia by Matt Taibbi. He’s the Rolling Stone blogger who came to national attention with his 2010 Vampire Squid characterization of Goldman Sachs. To wit:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

He’s abrasive, brash, and more than a little rude. On the other hand, he’s got the nerve to call fraud “fraud,” theft “theft,” and so on. He insists on referring to multi-billion dollar crimes and criminals by the same names that we might call them if our ordinary neighbors committed the same crimes for thousands of dollars instead of “thousands of thousands of thousands.” While I could do with a teensy decrease in the number of times he calls people “douchebags,” I have to admit that he has a point and is successfully communicating something that continues to elude the broader public consciousness.

The Buddhist in me smiles at the fact that crime is crime – just like chewing, eating, and excreting is the same whether you dine for $2 or $200 per person. The citizen in me wants these criminals put in the same prisons, perhaps even for the same terms, as the small time petty fraudster.

Taibbi has each of several major aspects of the current financial disaster condensed to a tight little chapter. He covers the mortgage bubble, the commodities bubble, the great health insurance giveaway, and other topics with a brisk efficiency. He also lays a finger on one of the key mistakes made by the Tea Party. They imagine that the experience of interacting with government is the same, no matter your scale. For ordinary people and small businesses, government is an invasive and sometimes oppressive force. The machinations of the tax man and the regulator do seem needlessly complex and burdensome. However, all that changes when you have a few hundred million to spend on lobbying. When you can pay to have government rewrite the laws in your favor, and can also pay for marketing campaigns to support those changes, things are very different.

More to the point: This is serious and complicated stuff. I make a living working with very complex systems, and I found myself keeping a cheat sheet even on Taibbi’s highly simplified popular press version of events. Most of the public dialogue about these matters is bought and paid for by special interests. I find it hard to imagine that well have a sensible and well informed electorate next November.

I think that all smart people have an obligation to dig in and try to understand at least the basics, and then to try to help your neighbors understand as best they can. Taibbi’s book is a great place to start.

October 24th, 2011

08:00 am: Occupy Everywhere
I’ve spent a few hours over the last couple of weeks wandering near various of the “occupy” protests in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. On Friday, I grabbed a chunk of curbside next to the Boston encampment. I sat, listening to the babble, and tried to open myself to a thought longer than 140 characters.

Here’s what I got:

I support the protests. I think that they are vital and necessary. I hope that these protests will morph into something sustainable over the next 25 years. That’s how long I think it will take to get a decent start on adjusting the framework of our society to adapt to modern realities. This is nowhere near as simple as giving women the vote or outlawing human slavery. The necessary changes will not fit in one or even a small number of constitutional amendments. We will get it wrong on the first and second tries. We need something like the “occupy” movement all the time to keep an honest and uncompromising spotlight on how we’re doing.

I think that the first order of business is for society, large and small, to figure out how to support the protests without any appearance of trying to co-opt them.

I have no idea how to thread that particular needle, but it cannot be a messy camp-out in the town square forever.

The “occupy” protests are unfocused and leaderless because they combine the reactions to a large number of societal symptoms. They are, as someone commented recently, a “primal scream” of a society with a deep sickness. The individual protesters are still (mostly) reacting to symptoms – though some people are starting to stitch together a larger narrative.

My friend Mark articulated it well: For the past 30 years, the vast majority of Americans have been paid off with cheap debt and outsize lifestyles. We were complacent that our big houses and unreasonably cheap luxuries meant that society was going the right direction. I fell for it too: I thought that when the CEOs of my bank got big bonuses, that meant that the bank was well run. It actually meant that I was at the wrong bank.

We bought into the idea of an endlessly expanding bubble economy. We were complacent enough to not complain at the insane excesses as, along the way, a very small number of individuals amassed truly outsized wealth and power. Certainly, there have always been rich and poor – but the sheer scale of the difference is something new. The old, pre-existing imbalances of power and wealth expanded dizzyingly in the last 30 years.

As a society, we have ceded too much of our power to collective entities that do not have our better interests at heart. Corporations are inhuman and amoral by design. They are the proverbial demon, powerful entities that must be carefully bound with law lest they cause massive damage. Our political parties are sparring for control rather than acting in the interest of the people, – leaving the country spinning out of control.

It is a pathetic testament that none of the major political parties have any idea how to meaningfully engage with a protest that, at root, is about “the people.”

The “occupy” protests are shining a spotlight on these imbalances and the danger posed by unregulated corporate greed. They started with the symptoms: The financial collapse, the housing bubble collapse, mass unemployment, violent hatred and reactions against outsiders and foreigners of all stripes, the wars and rumors of wars.

I dearly hope that a new generation of political thought and leadership is being forged in those campfire debates.

I hope that we’re watching the re-birth of democracy, right here in America.

I hope we’ve got the maturity, as a society, to help it happen.

October 8th, 2011

06:27 am: Watching the world go by

I write this from the Northbound Acela, returning home to Boston at the end of – I think – my third trip in as many weeks. Perhaps it’s the fourth. I’ve learned that it’s better to not spend too much time counting the little wounds, tracking the indignities. As long as I get home safe, manage a bit of rest, and proceed forward with life not too much the worse for wear … why keep track? Why waste perfectly good time second guessing time already committed?

Fortunately I’ve got computer programs. I’ve tracked 22 unique trips on TripIt this year, which squares with what I feel in my gut – an average of about two per month. Most of those have been two or three day gigs. Of course, one of those was a trip around the world to spend three weeks in Tibet – so the averages are a bit skewed. TripIt says that I’ve logged about 40,000 miles this year. Marriott says that I’ve paid for about 25 nights this year. This makes 2011 a VASTLY better business travel year than 2010, in which I made the 75 nights in a calendar year cutoff for “platinum” status.

No matter your attitude on the romance of travel, hotels are hotels. Trust me, you don’t want to spend 20% of your nights in them – even if the managers give you free drinks and greet you by name when you check in. I usually feel a vague sense of dispair when the night desk staff get to know me by name.

Triple that if you find yourself doing back to back full weeks in *cough* socially difficult work environments in a town where the best sort of entertainment is to find the most badass martial arts school around, work in, and stick around for the advanced class even though you don’t qualify – because you just don’t want to go back to the hotel, sleep, and deal with the next day. That not only wears on your soul, but also leaves lasting callouses over the cracked ribs.

But enough about me, let’s talk about me for a minute: I’ve been singularly uninterested in blogging for the past few months. I notice a lot of stuff in the world – but I just never get around to writing about it.

One example: I wandered through the “Occupy Boston” protest on Tuesday afternoon. There’s a peaceful little tent cluster outside of South Station. Maybe a hundred people chilling, supervised by four or five police. Sometimes someone speaks. Usually there’s an idiot singing. It seems to be mostly college kids and serious burnouts with a smattering of the professionally pissed off. They were peaceful and positive and disorganized and totally helpless to actually change anything. I got a little misty eyed looking at this sad little gathering literally scrunched up against the bottom of the steel and stone castles of finance. I was sort of looking for the boiling oil from the State Street building.

Here’s the thing: I support and agree with what they’re doing. I wish I had time to help. However, I’m the establishment now. I *have* a job, and I needed to catch a train. I’m some kind of successful business guy.

And that’s it. Already I’m fighting to find another couple of words to say about that.

Oh well. I’m still here. Hope you are too.

Originally posted at http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2831. Please comment there http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2831#comments. Unless you're a Russian spammer, in which case, please crap your Cyrillic alphabet soup in my spam bucket.

August 21st, 2011

07:40 pm: Do something

I see a lot of things in the world that could be better than they are. I’m not talking about the part where we will all get sick and weak and die eventually. That’s unavoidable. I’m talking about the crappy systems that we build for ourselves and then live with rather than changing them. A stew of stupidity and wasted time surrounds most people for most of their lives.

It sucks. Do something about it. Fix some small part of your environment today. It is within your power to make the world better. Please do so.

The example that brought it to mind today was this guy talking about one of my favorite bugaboos: Server side blocks based on an assumption of “browser incompatibility.” The whole point of the web is that publishers expose their documents in a standard format. It is the reader‘s job to find a browser able to display documents that comply with that standard. It is not the web publisher’s job to verify that the reader is using the right tool. The correct behavior is “I don’t recognize your browser, but it’s saying that it speaks the standards that I used. Here’s the document and the version of the standard I need, hope that works out for you.”

It is absolutely not “I don’t recognize your browser, so I’m not going to show you anything.” You may go as far as “I’ve tested how this looks on browsers X and Y, and Z. I happen to know that this page looks like poo on browser Z. Or at least it did for me. Anyway, here is the document, you have been warned. Don’t make me grovel around installing outdated versions of browsers or lying to you to get the document.

This particular one is great because this particular website is frequented by physicians and researchers. It is used to submit recommendations for medical school. It matters to the people involved. A national community of smart, effective, savvy people with access to resources use this website every day. It sucks in a very fundamental, easy to address sort of way. It still lists “Netscape,” for god’s sake. None of the people involved have taken it on themselves to fix the problem.

Would somebody please just throw a grad student at this for a month? Promise them a really nice recommendation for med school.

As individuals, as a culture, and as a metasociety we suffer from Learned Helplessness. We get used to where we are, and we endure. Things are allowed to remain broken because, well, they’ve been broken for a while and hey – not really my job.

I’ve come to understand that this is a mental brokenness that I have: My disfunction (okay, one of my disfunctions) is that I see it as my job to fix what I can. I missed the day in school where I was supposed to learn that I’m helpless, that I’m not smart enough, and that I can’t do anything.

I travel a lot for work – and I meet a lot of people in a lot of different organizations. Most people are unhappy, at some level, with the way their business, lab, or agency works. Trust me, you are not alone in having a boss who doesn’t know how to separate personal issues from business stuff – in having a byzantine purchasing process – or in jury rigging elaborate technical contraptions to get around simple social disfunction. It’s thrilling to see stuff done right, because it’s so rare. One of my professional frustrations is that because I flit from place to place I rarely have time to effect real change. I can spot weld patches in place to get a team through the next year or two – but I can rarely apply the steady pressure that is required to make a real difference over the long haul.

I implore you – please do what you can, where you are, to fix the little stuff that bugs you. Pick something within your power, and do it today. If it doesn’t change, push tomorrow as well. We are the majority. We have the power. Nobody really wants to suffer – but we all need to work together to do better today than we did yesterday.

Geeks: Please start with the browser incompatibility messages. Those really bug the hell out of me.

Originally posted at http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2825. Please comment there http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2825#comments. Unless you're a Russian spammer, in which case, please crap your Cyrillic alphabet soup in my spam bucket.

August 17th, 2011

09:19 pm: The four noble truths

The four noble truths of buddhism, restated:

1) The vast majority of us are suffering.
2) More than likely, you are suffering because you are an idiot.
3) If you were less of an idiot, you would probably suffer less.
4) Just keep going along those lines. It’s a good idea.

A corollary to 1 and 2 is that most people are idiots.

A further observation is that if you want to help reduce suffering, reducing idiocy is a good start.

Originally posted at http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2822. Please comment there http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2822#comments. Unless you're a Russian spammer, in which case, please crap your Cyrillic alphabet soup in my spam bucket.

July 19th, 2011

12:24 pm: Comments
The level of spam comments on my LJ account has gotten ridiculous. I've "screened," anonymous comments for a while. That meant you folks didn't see them. I still get a notification every time someone poops out a mash of cyrillic porn links all over one of my sensitive and erudite essays. It turns out that this offends my liberal sensibilities.

Therefore, I've disabled comments from the anonymous. I intend to wield the ban-hammer liberally on registered-user spam.

If you want to comment, but don't have an LJ account, I encourage you to do so at the main blog site anyway. LJ is just a mirror of that - mostly.

Also, does anyone even read this thing anymore?

July 13th, 2011

01:24 am: My political platform

Just like every year, I’m running for president, god-emperor, and tzar of the world. My assumption is that I would have such an incredible popular mandate that I wouldn’t have to negotiate with either political party, nor would I have to respect existing law or precedent. In my mind, I can impose a clean slate on the whole world all at once.

Don’t bother me with the small stuff. Work it out. I’m a big-picture kinda guy.

Here’s the first pieces of my platform:

Low cost, means tested medical care at government clinics.

We can expand the VA for hospital services and add urgent care centers adjacent to most post-offices. Payment would scale from a nominal co-pay (sponsored by tax dollars) up to “full price.” What you pay would be based on your prior year’s reported income. Note that “full price” for services would not be set by the current insurance based model. Those prices are based on a seven layer burrito of profit seeking, obfuscation, and shareholder dividends. I’m not trying to generate profits for anyone here, I’m trying to provide baseline medical care. Prices would be set based on what it costs to deliver particular services.

If you choose not to identify yourself or share your tax data, that means “full fare.” Yes, foreign nationals can be seen at our public clinics. They just have to pay for it. Duh.

Costs at private and for-profit medical centers can be expected to plummet when the current model of medical care is forced into competition with a direct-to-consumer model with publicly posted prices and no insurance or HMOs. I expect private insurance prices to follow suit.

Generic medications will be available in the pharmacy at a nationally negotiated rate. Again, government sponsored “co-payments” would be subject to a means test. Think “food stamps.” This isn’t really all that complex.

Physicians, nurses, and support staff at these clinics would be civil servants under a similar model to the public defender’s office. I’ve always found it pretty weird that you can get a lawyer for free when you need one, but not a doctor. I expect that private practice will continue to be more personally lucrative for physicians. I also know for a fact that many people will choose to serve the less fortunate. We can give extra incentive by expanding existing programs for forgiveness of federal student loans.

Note that this would not replace our existing system of commercial hospitals and private insurance. You don’t need to go to the commie social hospital if you don’t want to. The goal is to provide a safety net. If you have the option, you will probably choose to pay more for private care. I expect these public clinics and hospitals to have to make some very hard decisions about how to provide the best medical care for the largest number of people on a finite budget. My guess is that they will not be providing million dollar care for the last months of a terminally ill person’s life. That they will have to triage and live within a budget. Right now, there is no budgetary pressure on access to medical care. Insurance goes on “forever.” That’s why it costs so much.

Anyway, when I want an MRI of my aching knees, I expect to pay for the privilege of being seen today in a nice upscale office park rather than waiting most of the afternoon in the “non-emergency” line next to the post office.

How will I pay for all this? I’m pretty sure I can get just about anything I want, plus a pony, out of the current Medicare and Medicaid budgets. Give me the social security prescription drug benefit (and the ability to negotiate national discounted rates with the pharmaceutical companies) and I can put some art on the walls.

Invest in infrastructure, public works, science, and alternative energy via grants and open-bid projects favoring small and mid-sized business.

You want “job creation?” I’ll show you “job creation:” Commit to put money on the table, every single year, to fix our crumbling highways, sewers, bridges, and so on. Put more money on the table for technologies and business areas of competitive interest to the US. Slant it all towards small business. Once small business owners know that they can rely on this sort of work being available, they will staff up to meet the need.

Publicly traded companies will be specifically blocked from applying for these grants and programs. How stupid would you have to be to just hand out profits to shareholders from your tax revenue stream? You’re big and successful enough to be on the NASDAQ? Have fun out there with the big boys. If you want to make money off of these programs, get some sweat equity in a small company. You want to make profits? Own a piece of said small company.

You may notice a theme here: If I want doctors, I hire doctors. If I want roads, I pay for roads. No hokey-pokey dance around influencing the market or trickling down or whatever.

Castrate big corporations, biggest ones first

Corporations are not people. They do not have “human” rights. Humans have human rights. Corporations are amoral, near immortal entities that consolidate incredible amounts of power and abdicate personal responsibility. I think that we should invoke the corporate death penalty far more frequently than we currently do. BP and Halliburton, for example, should have lost their right to do business in the US over their reckless endangerment of the whole gulf coast.

Oh stop whining. The business won’t leave the country. The investors may take a bath – but the work will still be there. It’ll just get picked up by other companies who will be more careful with our shared resources. This also provides direct downward pressure on the growth of massive companies, since it’s much harder to be responsible for 100,000 employees than for 1,000. We’re half-assing our way towards this with class action lawsuits – we should finish the job.

As to the money losses, those investors should have been more careful anyway. The component parts of a businesses that was appropriately valued will fetch something close to their market price at a fire sale. I’m not talking about throwing away any piece of valuable equipment or any particular business unit. On the other hand, if you speculated and tried to get rich betting on a company that killed hundreds? Screw you.

We should do the same thing that happens when a company is forced into bankruptcy. Use bankruptcy courts to unwind the various pieces of an executed corporation and sell off whatever was left after reparations had been made to the victims.

I’m also a fan of personal responsibility. Most of the time, corporations do not commit crimes – humans do. Corporations provide a shield that allows people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. In my world, the corporate officers take final responsibility for corporate crimes. If you’re the CEO of a company, and that company manages to kill dozens – you’ll have a day in criminal court. In addition to the corporate death penalty, I want some human on trial for (at least) negligent homicide.

A tax policy tuned to directly benefit the vast majority of the earners in the country

I’ve already turned job creation up to “puree.” Small businesses are rocking out and medical care is on the way to being sensibly priced. We’ve got infrastructure projects going up all over the place, and we’re steadily moving towards a non-petroleum based economy. We may be going back into space sometime soon.

Let’s take a look at the individual tax code:

My grants amount to massive incentives for small business owners and entrepreneurs by creating more work for them to do. There is absolutely no need to also cater to these people with lower individual tax rates. Why ‘trickle down’ when you can just take less taxes in the first place? That’s nearly as dumb as wanting medical care but hiring an actuary.

The current federal poverty line is $908 per month, or $10,890 per year for an individual. Let’s say that you pay zero federal taxes up to about double that: The first $20,000. If you apply the rule of thumb I learned in high school home economics – you should start your budget with no more than 1/3 of your gross pay going to housing. That puts an apartment for one person who is just scraping by at around $550. We’re not too distant from reality here. The poverty line sucks, and life is expensive.

My social engineering goal is to get most wage earners within one order of magnitude of each other. I have a hard time imagining someone being worth 10 times more than anyone else on a salary basis. I can easily imagine a business, run by an individual, making more money than that in a year – but we’ll should deal with that under the “corporate” part of the tax code. I’m talking about take home pay, not retained earnings in a business. I’m setting $20k to $200k in the “reasonable taxes” range. Above $200k, we tax much higher, and above $2M of income (per year, individual, earned income) we make it pretty brutal.

I have no idea what tax numbers I would need to set for “reasonable,” “high,” and “brutal.” Once we’re agreed on the broad strokes – we can make the numbers work. I’m guessing that we’ll see “reasonable” at around 15%, “high” at around 35% (the current top marginal rate) and “brutal” at or near 60%.

Note the lack of “family” benefits. I don’t see much reason to give a tax benefit to couples. I can see helping out with kids or the elderly via dependent deductions. However, I think we should all file on our own income from now on. Hey look, I just solved a big piece of the same sex marriage argument.

Foreign policy: A strategic shift from military intervention to schools and hospitals

My foreign policy is based on the fact that it’s a lot harder to convince a well educated, well fed person to go to war than the opposite. If you want to reduce wars in the world, focus on education, health, and a decent standard of living for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, this takes about 20 years to really start to work – and we haven’t started yet. Along the way, we’ll need to strike a balance in order to protect ourselves. Also, not everyone will accept american schools or infrastructure investment. If they screw up and generate poverty and misery – we’ll need to protect ourselves. The military is not out of business in my world, but they can get back to doing what they’re good at.

We’ll create a new branch of the armed services dedicated to policing and infrastructure efforts. Note the classic difference between “police” and “military” actions. The police are on your team, and their job is to protect you. Think “national guard,” but deployed for the terminal 8 years of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. I would like young people to see the same social benefits (honor, lifelong participation in parades, snappy uniforms, etc) from peaceful service as the traditional military services.

Originally posted at http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2814. Please comment there http://chris.dwan.org/?p=2814#comments. Unless you're a Russian spammer, in which case, please crap your Cyrillic alphabet soup in my spam bucket.

July 5th, 2011

03:33 am: Test

This is a test.

There should be all kinds of cross-post magic going on at this point.

Check it.

Originally posted at chris.dwan.org

June 20th, 2011

02:57 pm: Shigatze

Greetings from the business center of the Shigatze hotel.

Shigatze is a complete dust bowl right now. Every sidewalk is ripped up in preparations for the celebrations in early July. Based on my casual assessment, I don’t think they’re going to make it. They still seem to be in the “destroy everything,” phase of street repair. At some point, somebody needs to start putting concrete in place.

That same July celebration, somewhat ironically, is the reason that all western “Tibet Permits” conclude by June 30 this year. It should be quite a party.

The “Tibet Permit” is an interesting piece of paper. It’s more of a starting point than a permit, per se. We also needed a licensed guide, who checks us into hotels and registers with the local police and army in each prefecture. The guide carries the permit, and apparently has to have enough copies of it to give to any checkpoint officer who feels the need to take a copy. The permit does not actually have our names on it. The register of the trip is stapled to the back.

Interestingly, when we wander the city without our guide – nobody bugs us. When we’re with him we’re constantly getting the “papers please.” Maybe it’s just that we go more interesting places with him – but it does give a pretty clear impression that the permit is more to control the guide than us.

The hotels are drained of people. We had a fair crew of english speakers at breakfast this morning in Gyantze, but they only offered the buffet at 8am. Lunch this afternoon was four of us (me, Jen, guide, driver) in a hall that seats 160. Rules are rules though, and they fired up the massive dining room for the four of us. Changing the procedure would probably be quite difficult.

At an individual level, people are terrific. We interacted with an old monk today at the Kumbum shrine in Gyantze. He shook my hand and Jen’s, and then insisted that Jen take his picture in front of the shrine. He had walked from Samye monestary – perhaps 150km – on his pilgrimage. We’re hoping to be able to send a print of the picture to his monestary.

On the topic of food, we’ve been eating really well. We say “vegetarian,” and that weeds out the more unusual options. Sheeps head and yak penis were both on the last menu we saw. Identification can be tricky – we had one dish that we got down to “not cabbage.” I accept that “not cabbage” doesn’t rule out a lot – but this was definitely not cabbage.

Originally published at chris.dwan.org. You can comment here or there.

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