Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

American Shame (?)

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

I came across this graphic at Flowing Data in America is not the best at everything.
stat chart

I realize that America is not the best at everything, but I might argue about which direction we need to go to improve <grin>.

I’ve learned to look at this kind of graphic with a critical eye, starting with motivation –

  • Why is the author presenting this information?  Why did he choose this title?
  • I see that the United States is dead last.  The nations are not alphabetized, so they must be ordered, but how?  We’re not the worst at everything, so there must be some unexplained weighting to the measures.
  • There are exactly 33 countries listed.  I expect that if the United States ranked 25th, then the chart would have stopped at 25.
  • Income Inequality.  I really hate this one because it is so misguided.  If you doubled the income of every American tomorrow, that would widen the “income gap,” but everyone would be better off.  So that would be a bad thing?
  • I think I’m just plain cynical on the “Food Insecurity” data.  I suspect the definition of “need” may be an issue.

What do you think?
If you click through  the graphic to Flowing Data, then to the source article, you’ll see that determine for yourself whether the author has a bias.

On Nuclear Reactors and Banks

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Putting Nuclear Reactors and Banks into the same sentence seems odd to most people, but Tim Hartford points out in What we can learn from a nuclear reactor that there are some important similarities.  Both are complex and tightly coupled systems.  There are similarities in their failure modes and safeguard systems — and there are similarities in the way the safeguards can fail us and cause further harm.

It might seem obvious that the way to make a complex system safer is to install some safety measures. Engineers have long known that life is not so simple. In 1638, Galileo described an early example of unintended consequences in engineering. Masons would store stone columns horizontally, lifted off the soil by two piles of stone. The columns often cracked in the middle under their own weight. The “solution” – a third pile of stone in the centre – didn’t help. The two end supports would often settle a little, and the column, balanced like a see-saw on the central pile, would then snap as the ends sagged.

Galileo had found a simple example of a profound point: a new safety measure or reinforcement often introduces unexpected ways for things to go wrong. This was true at Three Mile Island. It was also true during the horrific accident on the Piper Alpha oil and gas platform in 1988, which was aggravated by a safety device designed to prevent vast seawater pumps from starting automatically and killing the rig’s divers. The death toll was 167.

In 1966, at the Fermi nuclear reactor near Detroit, a partial meltdown put the lives of 65,000 people at risk. Several weeks after the plant was shut down, the reactor vessel had cooled enough to identify the culprit: a zirconium filter the size of a crushed beer can, which had been dislodged by a surge of coolant in the reactor core and then blocked the circulation of the coolant. The filter had been installed at the last moment for safety reasons, at the express request of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The problem in all of these cases is that the safety system introduced what an engineer would call a new “failure mode” – in other words, a new way for things to go wrong. And that was precisely the problem in the financial crisis.

“… a new safety measure or reinforcement often introduces unexpected ways for things to go wrong”

We the people do not understand this principle.  We the people demand that something be done.  But often that something just makes the system more complex while introducing new modes of failure.


Nuts and Flakes: The Economic Argument

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

This is a silly presentation (often the best kind), but he’s absolutely right – for any “it”, if it worked, somebody would be making money with it (and not just by selling plans on the internet.)

The Economic Argument

Close the Washington Monument

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Bruce Schneier is an “internationally renowned security technologist and author.”  I started reading him because of his work in cryptography and computer security, but he also has a lot to say about security in general, and about airport security and the TSA in specific.  He may have coined the term “security theater.”

This recent piece is really thought provoking.  I agree 100% about the toll terrorism is causing us to inflict on ourselves and the complicity of our leaders.

Schneier on Security: Close the Washington Monument
Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there’s no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They’re afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism — or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity — they will be branded as “soft on terror.” And they’re afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they’re right, but what has happened to leaders who aren’t afraid? What has happened to “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”?

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers’ inability to take that kind of stand — and their inability to truly lead.

<there’s more>

Go read the whole article.  Then fish around for some other interesting articles in his archives.


Information Overload

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Another good post from Seth Godin: The inevitable decline due to clutter.

Seth’s posts are often so short that it’s difficult to extract a snippet or teaser without grabbing the whole thing, but here goes:

Once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention. More clutter isn’t free. In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit.

I think he makes a great point.  The more junk information we are forced to endure, the better we have to be a fending it off.  It’s not worth wading through the um, trough, to find the occasional gem any more.

Here’s my amusing and illustrative anecdote:

Last summer, my church was going to have a picnic.  I knew the details were supposed to be in the  bulletin one Sunday, but I couldn’t find it.  I looked through the whole thing multiple times.

After the service, I took it up to the pastor and asked why there was no announcement.  He gently pointed out that 1/3 of the second page was a full color announcement with all the details. You see, I don’t see advertising any more.  I subconsciously filter it out.  I have learned that Full Color bits in a black and white medium == advertisement, and advertisements are to be filtered out.

tregonsee.jpgThere is an old (1950’s) sci-fi series I’ve always enjoyed for the illustrations it gives me – The Lensmen, by E.E. Doc Smith.  One of the human characters (Kimball Kinnison?) has a device that allows him to communicate with his partner (Tregonsee?), who is of a race of blind but telepathic and clairvoyant aliens (Rigellians?).  As they are driving thorough an alien city, in a car with no windows, he is able to see his surroundings because of his telepathic link — except for some mysterious dark ovoids.  It turns out that these are the clairvoyant alien equivalent of our highway billboards — and they are simply filtered out by the experienced clairvoyant.

How do you see advertising?


What’s the hard part?

Friday, November 19th, 2010

I read a couple of posts today that dovetailed together for me.  (My italics below)

Seth’s Blog: Sure, but what’s the hard part?
Every project (product, play, event, company, venture, non profit) has a million tasks that need to be done, thousands of decisions, predictions, bits of effort, conversations and plans.

Got that.

But what’s the hard part?


Identifying which part of your project is hard is, paradoxically, not so easy, because we work to hide the hard parts. They frighten us.

Psychologically, we avoid seeing the scary bits, and we don’t realize we’re doing it.

Seth’s Blog: Watcha gonna do with that duck?
Watcha gonna do with that duck?

We’re surrounded by people who are busy getting their ducks in a row, waiting for just the right moment…

Getting your ducks in a row is a fine thing to do. But deciding what you are you going to do with that duck is a far more important issue.

When you know something is important, and you know you need to be working on it, but there’s a step you’re afraid of or that you just dislike (*), what do you do?  You line your ducks up.

I’m going to spend some time over the holiday eliminating some duck lining – especially Quicken duck lining.


When Features Backfire

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Sometimes a feature that looks helpful turns out … not.

My favorite wife gave me a new alarm clock for Christmas last year.  It touts an “auto set” feature: “Time sets automatically with selected zone setting.”

Sadly, all that means is that the clock has a backup battery and they set the time at the factory.  It doesn’t do any magic.  You have to set the time zone yourself.  (I guess that means that “auto set” only means that the minutes are set at the factory – big deal.)

So, the daylight savings time transition comes around, and I don’t bother to change any clocks ahead of time, though my favorite wife changes a few.  I wake up the next morning, check the clock, and subtract an hour — and I’m an hour early for church (well, it could have happened that way anyhow.)

Actually, the clock adjusted itself.

How am I supposed to know whether the stupid thing (or any stupid thing with a clock) is going to adjust itself? If I had changed the hour, it would have changed again overnight.  The only simple option is to wait until tomorrow to change all the clocks, and only change the ones that are still wrong.

The end result is that this effort saving feature costs more actual effort than it could possibly save. The feature is sound only in isolation.  If this was my only clock, or if they ALL worked this way, it would be great.

It gets worse.  A couple of years back I was camping in the back woods on a hunting trip with my dad and brother during the time change.  We wanted to set an alarm for the next day – but how?  I was using a cell phone.  I know the phone will adjust its time if it can get service, but what will it do to my alarm setting?  What will it do if it has no service?  Brother was using a fancy GPS/radio with weather service and other capabilities, and a smart phone.  All these devices might or might not self adjust.  All of them might or might not change the scheduled alarm time with the manual or automatic time change.  Worse, the date range for daylight savings time changed a few years back, and any devices that rely only on the date to self adjust might or might not change at the correct time.  We were trying to wake up an hour before sunrise, and asking the GPS what time that would be, and we had to figure out the GPS meant by tomorrow at 6:34.

I have the same problem with cars.

Until about a month ago, I’ve always driven very plain (and old) vehicles. The light switch is simple.  On == lights on.  Off == lights off.  Very simple, and when your battery is dead, you know exactly why.

When I’ve  driven someone else’s fancier car, I have a problem with the lights.  I turn the engine off and get out and the lights stay on.  What should I do?  Will they turn off by themselves?

I don’t know.

This “convenient feature” (I think it’s supposed to give me light to walk to the front door) forces me to stand in the driveway for a minute or so to make sure the lights will go out.  Thanks.


People Who Switched …

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

They claim:

People who switched to Allstate saved an average of $348

I guess most folks don’t realize how meaningless that is.  All the people who check and won’t save any money with <brand> DON’T SWITCH.  I suspect that many of the switchers made a stupid selection for their first choice, or they’re getting a different product after the switch.

I also just love the coupons I keep getting from Qwest for a “Free Account Review” – as if they wouldn’t do it for free without the coupon, and as if a sales pitch is for my benefit.

Manifest Nonsense

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

“There is a popular misconception that science is an impersonal, dispassionate, and thoroughly objective enterprise. Whereas most other human activities are dominated by fashions, fads, and personalities, science is supposed to be constrained by agreed rules of procedure and rigorous tests. It is the results that count, not the people who produce them. This is, of course, manifest nonsense. Science is a people-driven activity like all human endeavor, and just as subject to fashion and whim. In this case fashion is set not so much by choice of subject matter, but by the way scientists think about the world.”

Paul Davies, in introduction for Richard P. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics

Revisiting the Declaration of Independence

Friday, September 24th, 2010

 I have the bulk of my retirement egg invested following Sound Mind Investing’s monthly newsletter.  I heartily recommend their book, their mutual fund, and their advice.

The editorial in this month’s newsletter regarding the state of our nation’s government and the upcoming election really resonated with me.  Please vote.

Revisiting the Declaration of Independence

 “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” James 3:16


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…

I have always been awed by the courage required of the Founding Fathers. Signing the Declaration of Independence was an act of treason against the king’s government. They risked everything in their desire for freedom.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

When I was growing up, these men, as well as their successors down through our history, appeared to be heroic, larger-than-life figures. They secured our freedoms, and then protected them from tyranny.

All experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer,
while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the
forms to which they are accustomed…

As I moved into adulthood, my youthful awe of our political leaders changed as I saw how decisions are made in “real world” politics. I was disappointed to see that our leaders weren’t always capable or principled or courageous. But because I still felt that our system of government, based on a three-fold separation of powers, worked more often than it failed, I was complacent.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably
the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,
it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government…

The last 30 years have gradually changed all of that. No matter how many Congressional candidates promised “change,” or which party controlled the White House, or who the new Supreme Court justices were, our national life has accelerated its decline. Our leaders became part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The history of the present King is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States…

What are we to do when our federal “servants” arrogantly rule with almost absolute powers? Although the Bill of Rights says the federal government has only those powers specifically granted to it in the Constitution (all others being held by the states or the people), the federal government behaves as if it were just the opposite.

He has imposed taxes on us without our Consent…

It’s immoral to seize our earnings with burdensome taxes. Studies indicate that federal, state, and local governments combined demand anywhere from 36¢ to 40¢ out of every $1 we earn[1], yet they still refuse to live within their means, piling an ever-growing mountain of debt on our children. Some might argue that we give our consent to these taxes through our elected representatives, but the evidence is that candidates are routinely elected who say they favor lower taxes (or at a minimum, promise not to raise them). Once they become part of the ruling elite, however, they betray us.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance…

The federal government depletes our productive energies through administrative strangulation and intimidation. Congress passes laws that impose tens of thousands of pages of regulations on us, and then turns their interpretation and enforcement over to millions of faceless bureaucrats who exercise almost dictatorial powers. They decide the rules by which we are permitted to live, work, play, and manage our own property and businesses.

[He has suspended] our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever…

State and local laws are routinely set aside by Congressional mandate or the federal courts. When we try to reclaim control of our local laws through the ballot box, they abolish referenda that have been approved by a majority of an entire voting population.

A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people…

Like the writers of the Declaration of Independence, we too are faced with the need to free ourselves from such a Tyrant. Next month’s elections give us an opportunity to elevate those with integrity and courage to fight a revolution. Let us look diligently for those among us who, like the Founding Fathers, are willing to say: That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”


Excerpted from Sound Mind Investing, America’s best selling financial newsletter written from a biblical perspective. Copyright 2010.
Reprinted by permission. For subscription information, call toll-free 1-877-736-3764 or visit their website at