Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Circus Of the Pols

I've often thought the presidential campaigns were more theater than politics, and more politics than policy, but this election cycle has me scratching my head more than any other I've experienced in forty years as an eligible voter.

And it's not just Donald Trump. Although I guess it's mostly Donald Trump. Anyone who can poll so high while just letting his mouth spout whatever pops into his mind has got to be there just for entertainment value.

It's so bad that I find myself waiting to see what the next plot twist is going to be, when the host of this cheap reality show is going to sit across from Donald Trump (and Ben Carson and Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz—not sure about Marco Rubio yet) and says "You're fired!"

I can't help but feeling that, sometime after the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire "first in the nation" primary, that some new Republican candidate is going to be introduced, the one that the party really wants nominated, and that the other candidates are just window dressing to make this guy or gal look good.

It's simpler on the Democratic side, of course, because the two main candidates are not even running against each other. They haven't even decided which of them is going to challenge the Republicans, and they are both already running against the Republicans. That and trying to get everyone to ignore Martin O'Malley and make sure Larry Lessig is never heard from again.

I wonder what they are going to do for an encore when the general election campaign rolls around.

I know one thing: by the time the general election does come around, there is only a small chance that there will be any candidate on the ballot that I can really get behind and vote for.

So I'd better brush up my handwriting, because I think I'm going to be doing a write-in vote, even if I have no idea whose name I'll be writing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Judging By the Cover

"You can't judge a book by its cover," the old saying goes, though I'm pretty sure the saying dates back to before four-color printed dust jackets and back-cover reviews and sales pitches, which at least give you some indication of what's inside.

But it's not only books that have covers. All kinds of products have covers in the form of their packaging, and there are times when the packaging might actually be more important than the product inside.

Take the case of table salt. Now, I'm not going to get into a discussion of the merits of different kinds of salt, such as kosher salt and various sea salts, not because I don't think there is a difference, but because the subject of this post is simple table salt.

Or specifically, the packaging for table salt. For years and years, I fought with the familiar Morton salt canister, paperboard top to bottom with the little pull-out metal spout. Handy? Sure, until the paper separates from the spout and blocks the opening, or the spout falls off, or the kids leave a pool of water on the counter from careless dish-washing and then set the paper container right in the pool of water.

About a year or so ago, one of my local grocery chains came to my rescue, and started selling table salt in a paperboard container with a metal bottom and a plastic top. The top had a recloseable opening that formed a perfectly serviceable spout. It was beautiful, and it became the only brand of table salt that I bought.

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, they changed their branding, and they changed their packaging back to my old nemesis, the all-paperboard container with the dreaded metal spout.

I have complained, but I don't think anything will come of it. So now I am left to go searching for that wonderful packaging again, if it can even be found. I have no brand loyalty to that salt, but I am loyal to that package, even if it starts me shopping at another store.

Little things matter.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

If This...

For some time now, I've been using a service called IFTTT (, which stand for: "If This, Then That." The idea is amazingly simple. You set up a trigger, the "If This" part. And if the thing happens that pulls the trigger, then that causes something else to happen, the "Then This" part. But as with so many things that seem simple, there is a lot of power lurking in this idea.

I've only scratched the surface. Up until recently, I only used it to simplify the announcements of my work. When there is a new song on SoundCloud, IFTTT generates a tweet, with the name of the track and a link. Automatically. Same for a new YouTube video, same with, for example, this blog entry.

I've also used IFTTT to tweet weekly reminders about my stories and songs. Basic stuff.

I've also installed two of their three smart phone apps, in the series they call "DO." The apps have you do something, like press a button, write a note, or snap a photo (I don't use that one—yet), and that serves as the trigger and input for some other action. A quick tweet or Facebook post, for example, or a note in Evernote. It can even send the location whence you pulled the trigger, which means you can get a map of where you were later. This has been really useful for my wife and me, as we're looking for property for the home we will, eventually, retire to.

But lately I've been thinking that my use of the service is too one-sided. I've been exploring ways that IFTTT can help send information to me. Say, when a certain search term comes up on Twitter. Then IFTTT can send me an email with a link to the tweet, and I can take a look and see if it's something that I want to retweet, or write about. It can do the same on a (so far) limited number of news sources, including NPR and the New York Times.

I might also consider using IFTTT to monitor activity on my Fiverr account, although the emails they send me might be as good or better. And that's the thing about using tools like this. It's easy to get caught up in finding ways to use such a neat tool, but you have to consider, in every case, if it's the best way to get the job done and, more important, if the job needs to be done at all.

Because as convenient as it is to have some of these things automatically happening for you, it's also too easy to get overwhelmed with information. That's why I don't "like" too many pages on Facebook, or follow too many people on Twitter, or subscribe to too many channels on YouTube. It's not that I'm not interested; it's just that it's important to focus on the things that are going to make my life and my family's life better.

So while I'm thinking of ways to use these powerful Internet tools, I also have to remind myself when it's appropriate not to use them.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Blood Moon Lunacy

Tonight, I'm going to rouse my boys from bed to go outside and attempt to watch a relatively rare event: a blood moon eclipse that is also a super moon. Now, I may not see much, because I have a lot of trees to contend with, and although I could drive a ways to get a clear view, that wouldn't be fair to my two teens who have to get up at 5:30 in the morning for school (which could be the subject of an entire blog post by itself).

This phenomenon, of course, is just the juxtaposition of several motion events in the solar system; although it is relatively rare, it is not extremely rare. But some people look at any rare event and see portents of disaster.

And I could kind of understand that if we lived in a time when these events could not be predicted. Which, truth be told, was a very long time ago for most of the world. Even when we didn't know all the mechanics, some very astute observers figured out models that allowed some pretty accurate predictions. So it's not as if these things come out of nowhere.

But even now, when we've actually sent men to the moon, there are those who look on these celestial light shows as indicators of doom. Of course, predicting the end of the world is something of an industry by now. People write books about it, and even make money at it. I would try that, but I have this awful conscience thing that gets in the way.

I've honestly lost count of how many times the world was supposed to end in my less-than-six-decade lifetime. Some are calendrical, like 2012 with the Mayan calendar and all. Some have been about comets, and some seem to have pulled out of someone's hat. Most, actually.

Of course, the world will end someday. In a few billion years, certainly. Or maybe tomorrow, as far as human-kind is concerned. But if anyone can see it coming, I don't think it will actually be the people who write books about end times.

My money is on some guy with a computer and a telescope.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Flat Out Crazy

It has recently come to my attention, though seemingly unrelated YouTube searches, that there is a rather large group of people trying to prove to the world, that the world is, in fact, flat.


I think.

That's the problem: I don't know how many of these people truly believe the nonsense they are spouting, how many are just trolls trying to stir things up, and how many are just trying to turn a quick buck (through ad revenues and, yes, sales of books on the subject).

The narrative is, essentially, that we only believe that we live on a globe because we've been told we live on a globe by the powers-that-be, and all the powers-that-be are lying to us. There was no moon landing, we've never taken pictures of the earth from space, there are no satellites, there is no gravity (no, I mean it, that's what they say), and no one ever flies over the South Pole.

In order to support this crazy notion, the flat-earthers resort first to conspiracy theory. Not only is NASA lying about space missions, but airlines are lying about their flight schedules, and military forces prevent anyone from setting foot on Antartica without government approval (there is a grain of truth in this; exploration is only allowed under supervision to protect its environment for research). There is a no-fly zone over Antarctica according to the Antarctic Treaty (except that there isn't any such provision in the treaty, and planes fly over the area regularly).

This conspiracy is sometimes supposed to include the Masons, the Illuminati, and satanic worshippers, depending on who you listen to. The motives for this particular conspiracy are unclear; no one seems to know what the powers-that-be have to gain by expounding a spherical model over a flat one.

Now, without this massive conspiracy, involving all the world's major governments and thousands upon thousands of private individuals, there is absolutely no way to support the notion of a flat earth. Any physical evidence a flat-earther cares to give you (which, amazingly, almost always involves amateur footage shot hand-held, or refers to century-old and long-discredited, non-repeatable experiments), can easily be refuted with basic science, or even simple geometry.

And any reference to a "flat-earth theory" is giving the idea too much credit, for there is nothing in any of these ideas that amounts to anything like scientific theory. It explains no direct observations, except in isolation and in ignorance of tested scientific theory, and it makes no predictions about how a flat earth would work that can be verified by observation and experiment.

And the flat-earth proponents fail to answer even the most basic questions about their model (except to reject "mainstream" science and point to badly-understood "laws of perspective"), which is usually, and hilariously, based on a standard azimuthal equidistant projection of the spherical earth.

Why does this worry me? I'm a little vague on that point. I mean, maybe it is just a relatively small group of nuts tossing garbage back and forth on YouTube. But I'm not so vague in my worries about the scientific literacy of the coming generation (and make no mistake: most of the flat-earthers I see on the 'Net are under 40, in other words, much too young to have witnessed Apollo 11 live on television, as I did).

If those coming up through our education system, and into our workforce, have a tenuous grasp of basic scientific principles, I think we're in big trouble. Even if these YouTubers are trolls or shills, how many people are out there, without the requisite knowledge to understand that what they're seeing is nonsense, getting the idea that anything told to them by a scientist is suspect on its face?

That's not a comforting thought.

Monday, May 18, 2015

This Thing Called Economic Growth

My wife and I, approaching the age of retirement, are thinking about the process of downsizing. When the children move out of the house, perhaps even before all of them do, we want to reduce our overhead, both in terms of money and in terms of time spent taking care of a house.

Our house isn't big. The average new house in the US is nearly 2,600 square feet. Ours is legally about 1275 square feet, though if you count the walk-out basement there's almost 2000 feet that can be considered livable space.

That's too much for us. We don't want to take care of that much, we don't need that much, and we can't afford to heat and pay taxes on that much. But we don't look at this as a step down. In fact, we consider it a step forward, from a life where too much time is spent caring and paying for a house, to, we hope, a life where much more time is spent creating, traveling, and just being together.

What if everyone did this? What if everyone scaled back, just had less, and spent less. Would the whole economy just collapse? Well, if you believe the economists, yes. The economy, they say, must grow to be healthy. But what, exactly, is economic growth and why is it so important?

The more I think about this question, the more I get the feeling that economic growth is an illusion, and that it is not, in fact, so important. At least, not in terms of what a real economy is: the trading of goods and services among people. The problem comes when you bring money into the equation.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not part of the Zeitgeist Movement or the Venus Project, proposing that we do away with money altogether. Money is a great means for facilitating all that trade, and it makes it far easier to create and distribute things like the Chromebox computer I'm writing this on now, which hooks up to my flatscreen TV. Both of them together costs less than $400, which is amazing, and a testament to our technological society.

The problem isn't the existence of money. The problem is the way we create money, pretty much everywhere in the world. We create it as debt.

Now, the mechanism of how we create money as debt is too big a discussion for this one little blog entry, and others have explained it far better than I can. But let's think about the consequences of creating money as debt.

Let's say that the total amount of money in a fictional economy is $1,000,000.00. The Central Bank doesn't just print this money and spend it, it uses it to buy government bonds, and those bonds pay interest.

Now we have a National Debt of $1,000,000. The money circulates through the economy so that we can trade goods and services with each other efficiently. So far, so good.

But the money has to be paid back. With interest. That creates two problems. First, paying back the debt takes money out of the economy and makes less money available for trade. And second, there is not enough money in the system to pay the interest. In fact, the only way to pay the interest is for the Central Bank to create more money. But the only way for the Central Bank to create more money is to create more debt.

You can see where I'm going with this. If more debt is needed to pay down debt, the amount of money in the system needs to increase just to pay the interest, not because of an increase in actual economic activity. And that's why there has to be all this growth. It's to sustain the debt money system.

Now, a growing economy is not, in itself, a bad thing. But neither is a shrinking economy. The question is: why is the economy growing or shrinking? If the economy is growing because there are more people needing, doing, and wanting more things, that's fine. If the economy is shrinking because people need, do, and want less, that's okay too. Except for that whole debt thing. That's the wrench in the machinery.

Is there an answer? I think so, and I don't have to be an economist to see the sense in it. The answer is to stop creating money as debt. Not eliminating debt altogether, but making it work the way we all think it works, where the money that banks loan comes out of the pool of existing money, and the interest is also paid out of that pool.

How do we do that? Sovereign money. We often accuse the US Treasury of printing money, but that's only true in the most literal sense of the word. In the US, the only money that's issued debt-free is physical coinage. Even our paper money is issued as debt. Look at a dollar bill. It's a Federal Reserve Note. "Note" means that it is a debt. And it's not a debt owed to the US Government; the Federal Reserve System is privately held.

The folks over at Positive Money UK have some great videos on their YouTube channel. Even though some of the specific refer to the UK, the fact is that it's pretty close to the same situation here in the US, in some ways worse. Have a look. And if it makes as much sense to you as it does to me, drop a letter to your legislators, and perhaps your favorite presidential candidate, to ask them why, after 100 years of the Federal Reserve System, we still borrow nearly all the nation's money into existence.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Saving the Daylights Out Of Me

Every year it's the same thing. March and November, we manipulate the clocks in the vain quest of extra time, extra hours of sunlight that we can use productively. In the early days of Daylight Saving Time, it was supposed to be for the farmers. After the 1970s energy crisis, it was supposed to save energy.

But here's news: the farmers hate Daylight Saving Time, and always have. And it doesn't save any energy. It makes everyone (including the farmers' animals) out of sorts for up to a week after each shift. And, of course, it doesn't actually save anything at all; it's just an illusion.

A harmless illusion? No, not really. During the transition period, traffic accident rates are higher, along with industrial accidents. Even suicide and heart attack rates seem to be higher.

There are a lot of benefits touted for Daylight Saving Time, but upon further study, all of them prove to be spurious.

I think it's time we were saved from Daylight Saving Time.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Defining Storytelling

Recently I've been taking an online course in geospatial intelligence, the gathering of geographic and related data for use in decision-making. It sounds a bit out of my field, and to be sure, I'm not planning that kind of career change this late in life.

But aside from just being a fascinating subject, I've found that knowing how to use location-based information enhances my storytelling. I've used it to research locations where my story might be set. It's no substitute for actually visiting a place, but it serves well for minor settings, and to remind me of features I might have forgotten from places I haven't seen in awhile (as well as keeping me up on changes).

But it's also broadened my idea of what storytelling is. I'd always thought of storytelling in the narrative sense, something told from beginning to end, with words (mostly), pictures, and sounds. And now that I think of it, that’s a funny way for one of the pioneers of interactive media to think. So it’s good that I’ve started thinking more about non-linear storytelling.

One of the courses I took some time ago produced this map, an exploration of one of the walks near my home using tools provided in the ArcGIS system. Although it has a natural order, from the start to the finish of the walk, it also invites the user to explore whatever catches his or her fancy from the thumbnails or the satellite imagery. During this latest course, I’ve begun to think about how I could incorporate sound and motion into this idea.

But this is just one small example of non-linear storytelling. Following leads where they take you is at the heart of how we explore the World Wide Web, and it seems that there might be other ways to let people defined their own story experience as they go.

If they want to. There’s still plenty of room for the guided tour, in real life or metaphorically in the form of a standard narrative book, movie, song, or play. Even interactive fiction usually has either a single ending or a limited number of possible endings.

But the popularity of games like Minecraft shows that there is a place in audiences’ lives for a self-defined experience. I think there’s a place in my life for trying to provide at least a small amount of it. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Home-Based Writer?

I usually tell people I work from home, and sure, I still spend the majority of my working hours at home, in front of my keyboard or sitting at the kitchen table with the thesaurus and the rhyming dictionary, or (not often enough these days) in front of my green screen.

But I have a family with an unpredictable schedule, which gets me out of the house even when I don't want to be. There are fun things like basketball games, but there are less fun things like dentist appointments that sometimes have me sitting somewhere with time on my hands.

That's when I appreciate technology. I'm writing this post, for example, from the waiting room of a dentist's office on my Kindle Fire 6.

Of course, writers never really stop writing; even if they are not taking pen to paper or fingers to keyboard (or index finger to virtual keyboard), everything reminds us of our current book or song, or suggests a new story altogether.

In this age of tech, though, it's easier than ever to capture and organize those ideas wherever I happen to be.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Old Police Show, and Some Recent Events

I work at home, and while I'm eating lunch or doing household chores, I often have the TV on. We don't have cable, and broadcast doesn't reach us here, so I watch Netflix. And because I don't really have the time to sit and watch closely, I usually watch an old show that I've seen before, so I can just sort of listen while I go on about my other tasks.

Lately I've been watching the long-running R.A. Cinander/Jack Webb creation Adam-12. And an episode I watched today kind of hit home, even though it was made about 40 years ago, when I was still a teen. In the episode, Officer Pete Malloy (played by Martin Milner) catches up with a suspect who was caught molesting and badly injuring a young girl. After Malloy gets him cuffed, the guy starts mouthing off about how the girls was asking for it, that he’d just given her what she wanted. And Malloy gets angry. We get angry. We know exactly how Malloy feels.

And Malloy, one of the show’s two main characters, a heroic figure, loses his cool and roughs the guy up before his partner Jim Reed (played by Kent McCord), stops him. We understand why Pete did it; we would have done it in his place. The perp is scum.

But the show doesn’t let Malloy off the hook. Malloy freely admits that what he did was wrong, and he pulls a suspension for four days without pay. Considering that the suspect has no serious injuries, it’s a pretty tough punishment. But police have to be held to a higher standard.

It’s a continuing theme in shows produced by Jack Webb. I think we who lived at the time those shows aired, who remember how they seemed to put police on a pedestal, forget how Webb portrayed that higher standard in several episodes of both Adam-12 and Dragnet. Webb made it clear that, while police are only human, they are given tremendous power in society, and that power can only be tamed if we make sure that the police adhere to a strict code of conduct.

Are we holding police to the same code of conduct today? I wonder. The Grand Jury in Ferguson, especially, mystified me. I’ve sat on a Grand Jury before; handing down an indictment is not handing down a conviction. I understand not returning a true bill on a suspected criminal if you don’t find the prosecution’s evidence convincing.

But when a police officer is involved, it seems to me, both the officer and the case have to be held to a higher standard. If there are any unanswered questions or contradictions, then the case needs to be sent to trial, a public proceeding, where we can all see how vigorously the prosecution is pursuing the case. That makes it more likely that all, or at least more, of the facts will come to light.

We need to see that prosecutors are protecting the rights of all to be free from abuse under color of authority. The police themselves should demand no less, for it is their reputation, and their authority, that rests on our perception that they really deserve to be given the power we’ve granted them in order to keep the peace.