The End of an Era

AsleepI’m sure you’ve all been keeping track, but the last day when I didn’t publish at least one thing on this blog was November 18th, 2008.  This is fair warning that more such days are coming.

From the blog’s inception in March ’03 up to November ’08, blog posts were very sporadic, with some weeks having lots and others almost none.  This push for a daily blurb was initially a personal challenge to see if I could simply write more often and more consistently than I had been.   I wanted to see if I could write because I had to and not just because I felt like it.  It turns out I can, but I’ve also learned that I can rationalize that writing a one line quip and posting an embedded YouTube video can be rationalized as “writing” if you squint real hard.

Anyway, blogging will be very light until after the holiday (unless it rains a lot).  I just need some time to recharge my batteries.  After that, I’m still going to try and write something substantive several days a week on average, but it will be a much more casual schedule than it has been.  Primarily because I’m intending that future one liners or things that are basically reposts will be done primarily via Twitter or Facebook.  So if you want the full experience, you’ll need to follow me on one of those as well.  They are basically the same content, so one is plenty.  Note that the Twitter feed is viewable/accessible at the top of the column to the right as well.  And it’s public, so you can pick that up as an RSS feed (if you’re into that sort of thing) and get my blogs and Tweets in one place.

Additionally, I want to take this opportunity to thank my regular readers.  Many of you have been with me for years, and I hope you’ll stick around for many more.  I do try to keep the content interesting, entertaining, or at least a worthwhile diversion in your otherwise busy day.  I hope you continue to find it so.  Your feedback or comments are always welcome and appreciated.

See you on the other side…

The Cootie Factor

Boy-GirlNewsweek reports on the reopening of the debate surrounding gender segregated education. But maybe the larger question is, what’s magic about gender?

The article gives a fairly balanced coverage of a lot of the arguments that have been going on for decades.  Most boil down to the question, are learning styles truly different, or are they merely reinforcing gender stereotypes?  One interesting point is that while mixed gender classrooms have historically been seen as a possible disadvantage to girls, there’s increasing thought they might really be detrimental to boys.

The article reaches no particular conclusion, and I also can’t say I have a strong personal opinion one way or the other.  But what troubles me is more that if we start thinking girls learn differently from boys, why would that be the only line to be drawn?  Sure, it brings up the obvious notion of going back to racially segregated schools.  But what about other delineations that are likely more pedagogically defensible?

How about if we use the elementary level IQ tests they give all the kids anyway to assign kids to middle and high schools based on IQ?  Could anyone reasonably argue that schools full of nothing but the best and brightest would have outstanding academic achievements?  Still, the public backlash against any such proposal would be swift and loud.

What if you could show that kids with musical ability learned differently than others?  Kids from troubled homes?  Fat kids?  The key point seems to be that as a society, we likely wouldn’t entertain dividing our public school students based on most all criteria.  Why would we reasonably entertain doing it for gender?

I think until we can answer the question of why gender should be so much more important than any other dividing line, this notion of gender segregation in schools is a non-starter.

Type This

I learned to type on a typewriter sometime after they became electric but before they had spell checkers.  I was never very good at it, but it got me through a metric boat load of term papers. Particularly important since my handwriting has been pretty illegible since I learned to hold a pencil.

In college, I learned to program in a variety of arcane languages all of which depended on entering large quantities of numbers and special symbols into a keyboard.  Touch typing was pretty useless, at least the version I was capable of because I never really got much past the letters and an occasional period or comma.  Out of a sense of self preservation I developed my own technique that involves 4 fingers and one thumb across two hands and requires me to stare at the keyboard while I type.  I can still manage 30 wpm which gets me by for what I do and provides an unnatural source of amusement for Kim who can type 1,530 wpm while looking at me, carrying on a conversation, and knitting an afghan.

Anyway, along came 2-way pagers, smartphones and other things that forced me to learn to type with just two thumbs.  The technique is different enough to require a learning curve, but I managed.  Still, I’d barely hack out a sentence while Kim explained the finer points of why the Celtics have been the dominant force in basketball for the last 3 decades with just two digits.

Well, now we’re up for stage 3.  The Swype technique.  The new Droid X phone is sporting a new keyboarding method where you don’t touch each letter of the word, but rather trace a path through all the letters of the word.  Samsung and HTC are also planning offerings.  This is the method that recently shattered a text messaging speed record. And yes, here’s yet another learning curve, but I’m hopeful as this seems somehow different enough to maybe give me an edge.  Oh who am I kidding?  She’s gonna smoke me again.


What Could Go Wrong?

CA Lic. PlateCalifornia is entertaining what may be the most gratuitous use of technology, ever.  Their legislature is considering a bill to move the state toward electronic license plates.  The plates would essentially be digital displays that would look like normal license plates at speed.  But once the car was stopped for more than 4 seconds, the plates would become small billboards displaying advertising.  The thinking is that the state would make a bundle off of selling the ad space, and that would help close their mondo budget hole.

Okay, kudos to the state for thinking outside the box a bit, but… seriously?  I’m willing to buy the financials.  I’m sure they’d sell out the ads, and the revenue from the ads would likely pay for the expensive plates with money left over to pad the state coffers.  And given the ads are only displayed when stopped, they shouldn’t be much of a driver distraction.  But there are still a few issues to be addressed.

The tech of the plates themselves would have to be pretty rugged.  You’re basically talking about a very low-end iPad-like device in a weatherproof and bulletproof package.  The system requires a screen, processor, memory, and some sort of wireless communication.  After all, it would be silly to have the plates locked in to a single ad for a whole year or whatever the duration of the registration is.  Also, these plates require power, and this would be a mod to all cars to wire that.  You can’t just tie into the license plate lights as they aren’t on all the time, and don’t even exist on the front of the car.

Not to mention that now you have $100+ of tech loosely bolted to either end of your car.  I can’t imagine anyone stealing that, right?  What about the personalization of the ads?  Given the DMV knows who you are, where you live, and what you are driving, will the ads be tailored for your vehicle or neighborhood?  Will Honda object to Toyota buying ad-time exclusively on their bumpers?  Will you be offended when ads for Jenny Craig or Tampax appear on your car?

But the big issue will be hacking. These things have to be connected to be useful.  And that means they will be hackable, and you know someone’s going to do that.  Can you just imagine the possibilities when you can alter the plates on the cars all around you?  And what about the criminal element?  Now bank thieves won’t need to do all that messy plate swapping on the getaway car.  They can just electronically alter the plate number as they drive away.

Yup… this is well thought out.  Although being from New York, it does make me feel better that maybe there’s a state with a legislature more useless than ours.

The Wrong Analogy

I’m not an expert in economics, but I am trying to make heads or tails of the growing debate over what to do about our economy.  We’ve pulled back from the brink we were on early last year.  But now we’re stalled. There’s a non-trivial chance we’ll fall back for a double dip recession similar to what happened in 1937.  There’s also some chance the world confidence in the dollar will fall and we’ll go into full-blown collapse ala Greece.  Then there’s a large chance we’ll just languish with 10% unemployment and be dead in the water like the Japanese were through most of the 90’s.  Oh yeah, and there’s some small possibility we’ll actually get things humming along again so we can all see our 401k’s at 2007 levels and have lots of job prospects for us and our children.

Many are calling for fiscal austerity, arguing that large deficits are the road to ruin.  Many of those same folks are calling for the Fed to raise interest rates as a hedge against inflation.  On the flip side, others argue that more government stimulus is needed and that we need to spend our way back to prosperity.  Frankly it all makes my head hurt.

Let’s start with the common ground.  No one thinks deficits are a good idea.  Most can agree that there are times where you borrow money to make appropriate investments, but that running deficits year on year without ever seeing the plus side of the balance sheet is not a healthy thing.  As a minimum, I would very much like to see everyone remember this the next time we do have a thriving economy so that we actually raise taxes or cut spending such that we get to a debt neutral position.  But that’s water over the dam now.  The issue is figuring out how to get out of where we are.

The austerity folks are fond of making the analogy of the U.S. economy to your household.  That is, if you lose your job or otherwise are taking in less money, then you need to cut back your expenses such that you are also paying out less money.  Responding to a layoff notice with a spending spree at Best Buy would be pathologically stupid.  There’s additional rationale that if there isn’t a show of some fiscal discipline, creditors will lose faith in the ability to pay the debts and call the notes due.  This would effectively result in bankruptcy.

There’s an elegant simplicity to that analogy, but after careful consideration, I think it’s the wrong one.  The major missing element is that in the home analogy, your spending doesn’t have a relationship to your income.  But in the U.S. economy case, it does.  That is, if people are broke, if goods are not sold, then there are no tax revenues to collect.  But I think there’s a simple analogy that does reflect this relationship.

Consider a small family business, let’s say a local Bar & Grill.  The tavern falls on hard times because the factory up the road shut down and a lot of their regular customers no longer have lunch there or hang out there after work.  As the owner, you’re faced with a significant drop in revenue.  You have two basic choices.  You can try and restructure your business to fit within the revenue you’re making, or you can borrow and invest in things to attract new customers.  While there may be some things you can do to cut costs, many of the obvious things you might try will ultimately hurt your business.  Reduce the variety and quality of the food menu.  Reduce staff.  Reduce hours of operation.  Water down the drinks.  Sure, these things save you money, but they likely will also cost you revenue as additional customers will become disappointed and leave.  In general, this strategy is a death spiral.  Alternatively, you could gather a few local investors to finance adding a stage on the back and offering live music.  Do additional advertising.  Hire a top chef to create an exceptional menu.  These things have the opportunity to expand your business, and thus your revenue, which hopefully you’ll use to pay down your debt.

Yet even in this analogy, it’s important to recognize that there are no guarantees.  Yes, maybe in the austerity case you’ll get lucky and some new company will re-open the factory and your business will take off again.  Yes, in the investment scenario you might make lots of improvements, and still nobody comes to your establishment and you go under with additional debt.  The key difference for me is that the austerity case is entirely hanging your future on luck and prayer.  It’s outside of your control.  While the investment scenario gives you a path to drive your own success, or at least die trying.

Bringing this back to the U.S. economy, it means to me that the federal government needs to keep investing.  Not spending wildly, but investing smartly in things that have future upsides.  Green energy technology comes to mind as a great industry investment.  In general, loans to small businesses and start-ups.  Unemployment payments to keep people off the state welfare rolls such that they prop up consumer spending so that larger companies stop hoarding cash and go back to investing in their own businesses.  Not every program will work, but we need to keep trying.

There is a time to be frugal, but this isn’t it.  There is no indication this is a passing storm such that if we just hunker down we’ll be fine in a few months.  The storm has already ravaged the town.  We need to decide whether to rebuild or to decide to get used to living in the rubble.