Archive for Random Thoughts

Five Flights

The building I work in has 4 floors. Each floor, however, has tall ceilings, drop ceilings, raised floors, and lots of ducts and such. I mention this because the result is that when you decide to take the stairs instead of the elevator, it means that you can literally see in the stairwell that each floor is actually two floors of height, and each flight of stairs is one floor worth of height, so to walk from 1 to 4 is actually six flights of stairs.

I’m out of shape, and every day when I climb the stairs, in an attempt to get exercise, I make it five flights of stairs before I get winded. I stand there, on the landing between the 3rd and 4th floors, staring up at the door to the 4th floor, and I have to wait to catch my breath.

It’s weird. I feel fine as I start climbing. I get in the rhythm and start clomping upward one step at a time. And I get to the top of that fifth flight, and suddenly, I’m beat.

I look forward to the day that I can tackle all six flights without stopping. But this is only a 6 month contract, with only 5 months left. I’ve got a deadline…

Who We Pretend To Be

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” -Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve liked that quote ever since I heard it. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t often say things I don’t actually believe. I limit that to situations and audiences where the intended satire of my statement is plainly evident.

And I think that this quote becomes especially apt today with the online outrage culture. I had a friend who participated in forums at 4chan. And yes, he participated in the forums with the racism and hate. He said he didn’t actually believe it, that he did it for fun, for the lulz. And I told him that it didn’t matter, because whether he is just doing it to be funny or not the outward appearance is that it is racism and hate, so it is racism and hate. He got angry. That’s why this anecdote begins “I had a friend…”

Anyway, the problem with places like that on the Internet is that it becomes impossible for an outsider to determine which people are just joking and which people are serious. And some of them are very serious. And the people who are joking, whether they intend to or not, are encouraging the very serious people.

There is a channel on YouTube, Innuendo Studios, that puts together some great videos that I think most people should watch. And I’m posting today because, spoiler alert, their latest video uses this quote and is about this subject which I think about often.

If you can spare some time, click around their channel and watch some videos. The Alt-Right Playbook series is especially good.

Lies

I once got into an argument with a friend. It pretty much ended our friendship. Well, there was more to it than that, but the argument was indicative of the differences between us that we would never get past. The subject of the fateful disagreement was business.

You see, I maintained that “business” encompassed a level of “lying, cheating, and stealing” that I was uncomfortable with. He was offended by that statement. And as I pulled out example after example of “lying, cheating, and stealing”, he would respond, “That’s just business!” and I would fire back, “That’s my point!” and he’d argue it wasn’t lying or cheating or stealing, and I’d argue it was but he was just comfortable with the accepted level present in most business.

Ultimately, what he didn’t like were the words that I chose to describe the actions. Face it, most of the time marketing IS lying, or at least bending the truth, or hiding it. No company puts out a commercial that says “You don’t need our product, and you probably don’t even want it, but we would appreciate it if you would buy it anyway!” Nope. They are going to show you people having fun using the product and then ask, in some way or another, “Don’t you like fun?”

And as a software developer for a couple decades, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to “steal”. Though, it usually comes out as “Hey, one of our competitors has this thing. Can we do that thing? Can you make it look like their thing? Can it function exactly like their thing?” Not to mention the times someone has asked me to “just pull some images off Google” to put into a product that they are going to charge money for. And all the times dealing with customers when our product was broken, but being told by management to blame other things, like their internet connection, or their web browser, even though I knew full well what the problem was, it was us, and we’d get it fixed as soon as possible, but for liability purposes we had to say “It’s not me, maybe it’s you.”

Anyway, I think back on that argument and it still bothers me. Probably more so now than then. In the intervening years it has gotten worse in a lot of ways. And the current administration’s efforts to repeal protections and roll back regulations doesn’t help. We’ve recently had rashes of incidents where restaurants all over town have posted notices about certain items not being available because of the e.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, which happened because the regulations regarding testing of waste/irrigation water were rolled back. So some cattle got e.coli, which was in their feces, which got into the water, which wasn’t tested and used to irrigate the lettuce, and we get e.coli contaminated lettuce. Meanwhile, there is a vaccine, which can be administered to the cattle to get the e.coli at the source – but it doesn’t improve the health of the cattle or the quality of the meat they produce, so it’s almost impossible to get the ranchers to spend money on it. And I won’t even get into how the current government shutdown and the FDA curtailing food testing is going to affect things.

And I think about how the media has clear simple examples of our president lying, but they don’t call it lies. They instead say something like “the words contains less than truthful statements” because they are afraid to call the lie a lie. Some outlets are getting better about this, but not enough.

I know some people feel that using such bold, plain language is antagonistic, or rude. But we’ve got a president who literally calls people names on twitter. He’s also a man who has been coddled and surround by yes-men all his life. What he needs – really, what we all need – is bold, plain language.

Responsibility

I began my career in tech as software support. This is a job where you help sales people make sales, and then you help the people that bought your software install it and run it. When there are bugs, you get to troubleshoot it, and you have a limited ability to fix things. If the problem exceeds the tools you have, you pass the problem on to the next tier, usually software engineers, who fix the problem or create new tools so that the customers or software support can fix the problem in the future.

From there I moved into systems administration. Setting up servers, managing connectivity, and fixing problems with the software and connectivity. This was, however, entirely internal. In the days before widespread Internet access, and also working for the railroad where they literally had their own network that spanned the entire East coast.

My next move was to shift was to software engineering. Here I was building software and fixing problems.

My last job was a mix of software engineering and systems administration. I got to do both, but unlike my days at the railroad, there I was reliant on a lot of external vendors. Under these conditions, software engineering was much more satisfying. Something was broken, I fixed it. On the systems side, something was broken, I verified that all my stuff was working, then I had to call other people to get them to check their stuff.

This was my process. I took responsibility, and either resolved the problem or verified that I couldn’t resolve the problem because it was someone else’s responsibility.

A lot of people, it turned out, didn’t work that way. So many times I would report a problem to a vendor after having done my due diligence, and they would turn it back on me, asking me to check my stuff again, which the default position being that the problem must be mine, not theirs, even though they’d checked nothing. So many times, someone would come to me with a problem and I’d look at my stuff, find nothing wrong, then figure out where their stuff was broken, take it back to them, and still have them try to push it back on me.

It angers me that people don’t take responsibility, but I know that it often isn’t their fault, it’s company policy. My bosses have almost always tried to get me to spend less time taking responsibility and working problems, and to push it back on other people. It’s usually why I have friction with my bosses, because I won’t. Why should I spend a month going back and forth with a vendor, each of us doing the least amount of work possible and shoving the problem back on the other, when I can just spend a couple days either fixing or identifying the exact problem?

One of the reasons I think that people find their jobs to be unsatisfying is that their jobs are engineered to be unsatisfying. We should stop that. We should do better.

The road to productivity, Step One

One of the things that constantly blocks my productivity is the feeling that I am falling behind. When I see how much I haven’t done, I instantly move to “Then why bother?”

Of course, the worst part of this is that it is manufactured. I bring it on myself. For example, every time I hear about a really cool podcast, I subscribe to it, and then I don’t listen to it. But when I do open my podcast app (BeyondPod) to listen to something, I am faced with a wall of podcasts that have all downloaded 10 episodes and tell me how many new episodes there are, usually dozens, sometimes hundreds, and I feel like a failure. All of these podcasts are things I want to listen to, but I’m not doing it. The episodes are just piling up.

So this morning I sat down with my phone and deleted all the feeds for the podcasts I’m not listening to. I’m keeping all the ones I’m caught up on, because I’m clearly listening to them, and I’m keeping all the ones that have less than 10 new episodes (my app is set to download up to 10 oldest episodes), and I’m keeping, like, 2 podcasts that I’m further behind on, but are the ones I’m most likely to listen to.

I’m also going through all my various To Do lists, and I’m either doing them, because they are stupid tiny things that just need doing, or I’m getting rid of them. Been on my To Do list for 4 months with no progress? Well, clearly I don’t want OR need to do it. Gone!

By the end of today I should be left with only a list of things I’ve already started that I am ready to work on, or things that have to be done, with deadlines to do them.

Fear

I park my car in my driveway. I have a garage, but it’s full of things that should be in the storage unit I rent. So I park in the driveway. I lock my car when I do this. Despite the fact that I live in suburbs that are extremely low crime, one of the crimes that is actually becoming prevalent is people walking neighborhoods and going through cars that are parked outside and unlocked. These people aren’t breaking in. They don’t want to set off alarms, and also, they may have actually convinced themselves that the unlocked doors constitute an invitation or something equally inane. But the truth is that it is happening. Much like people taking packages off doorsteps. They are low risk crimes, theoretically, with potentially high payoff.

Because these crimes are pretty rampant all over, the internet is full of videos of people trying to catch and/or deal with the people who commit them. And also reports of people, despite having video of thieves committing theft, being told by police that there is “nothing they can do”.

All this, and I sleep well at night knowing my car is locked. I have taken all the precaution needed to secure my car and foil the low energy criminals who are barely a step above the kids who empty the candy bowl on Halloween that is clearly labeled “Please take ONE!”

What I didn’t do in response to reports of the thieves is go buy a fence and put it around my front yard and install a lockable gate at the end of my driveway. Nor did I set up cameras, or motion activated lights. Nor did I go buy a gun, or many guns, to safeguard my car. I simply make sure I lock my car, which is the logical and appropriate response.

And this is coming from a guy who has had his car broken into nearly a dozen times. I’ve lost many stereos, stacks of CDs, a fairly expensive audio learn Spanish set, and a roadside assistance kit. Not to mention having had to replace literally the most expensive windows on my car – seriously, they always break the tiny window (probably because it makes the least sound and mess) and that window costs more than replacing a windshield!

Other people, the ones who build fences and set up cameras and buy extra guns, are giving in to fear. They are letting irrational responses to simple problems run away with them, and likely dreaming up illogical scenarios that stem from what are ultimately tiny crimes. “Oh, first it is rifling through the car, then they’ll be sneaking in the back door and raping my family! I have to stop them dead in their tracks! What is this world coming to when a man can’t leave his car unattended and unlocked outside and not have a small chance that someone might take the things they leave in that car instead of bringing them in?”

It’s hard not to give in to fear, especially when you see your neighbors doing it. But it’s important to do so. It is important that a person analyses their own actions periodically to make sure the response and attention they are giving to something is appropriate. Because once you start giving in to fear, you’ll start fearing things even when there is nothing to fear.

If you are walking the streets in a city, one should be wary of strangers on poorly lit streets. But most people you pass, and even those vagrants and homeless, not only aren’t there to harm you, they may not even pay you any mind at all. So reacting to every person who walks your way after dark as if they are coming at you with malice and a knife is going to turn your life into a prison. You will be constantly afraid. You’ll even begin to fear the brightly lit streets, or even walking them in daylight. You’ll begin warning people you don’t even know when you overhear them talking about going out in the street. You’ll start asking why there aren’t more cops patrolling the streets. You’ll start listening to the people who tell you you’re right to be afraid. You’ll start voting for people who promise to keep the streets safe, even if they have no history of doing so, with no regard of what else they have to say.

Then, one day, you’ll find yourself wondering why the city streets are always so empty, why the city feels cold and lifeless. You’ll ask why can’t things be like they used to be, when the streets were safe and people would go out walking at night.

And it probably won’t ever occur to you how things got to here from there.

And Taxes

It is important to remember that one of the greatest periods of American progress occurred under a top income tax bracket of 70% or more.

Many opponents of income tax view any call to return the top bracket to pre-Reagan era levels as theft or “government greed”. But they also ignore one of their own myths: when taxes go down, tax revenue goes up. If that were 100% true, then wouldn’t “government greed” mean lowering taxes to get the revenues up?

But the truth is that that myth was only true for a specific period – the Reagan tax cuts.

See, when the top bracket was being taxed at 70% almost nobody actually PAID 70% in taxes. If they did, it was probably an accounting mistake and they made sure never to do it again. I mean, who in their right mind would want to make so much money just to have 70% of those top gains taken away?

Quick aside: At no time was 70% of a person’s income taken. That isn’t how income tax works in the US. It’s done in brackets, such that the first X1 dollars is taxed at Y1%, and then the money from X1+$1 to X2 dollars is taxes at Y2%, and so on. So the 70% rate only applied to the money above, say, X5+$1. In 1981, the last time we had a 70% bracket, it applied only to income over $108,000 for an individual ($215,000 for married filing together). In today’s money, that’s equivalent to about $299,000 ($594,000 for married), per year.

Here is a document on tax brackets. And here is a calculator to get today’s dollars.

It literally only applied to the highest income earners, and even would today. How many people do you know who make over $299,000 a year? How many families do you know “scraping by” on $594,000 a year?

Now, 70% wasn’t the only high bracket, just the highest. There were other brackets at 50% and other rates, but from here on out we are going to be talking generally about high rates, keeping in mind that today, for 2018, the highest rate is 37% on income over $500,000 for individuals, $600,000 for joint filings (which also means that rich people are more likely to file separately since all the benefits of joint filing – which poorer people and the middle class tend to do – are gone).

So what exactly was the purpose of those higher brackets?

To answer that question, you need to understand what an economy is and what it isn’t. An economy is not money. When the president of the US talks about GDP or GNP or other sums of money as a representation of the health of the economy, he’s wrong. (I mean, Trump is pretty much always wrong, but here he is definitely wrong.) An economy is actually the movement of money. A simple illustration: You having $100 in your hand is not an economy, but you handing $100 of your money over to someone else for a good or service is an economy. It isn’t the money, it’s the exchange of money.

See, you give your $100 to buy… a lawn mower, then you use that mower to mow lawns, for which you are paid money, and then you spend that money to buy gas and food, which keeps you alive and your lawn mower running so you can mow more lawns, and earn more money, and go to the movies, and so on.

An economy is the movement of money… or, more abstractly, value, but we will stick with money.

Back to the brackets. High tax rates create an artificial ceiling to earnings. If you were in 1981 and making $100,000 as a single person, and your boss said “I want to give you a raise to $200,000!” you would be LIVID! And I mean ANGRY! Because your boss was going to give your an extra $100,000 a year, but the government was going to take 70% of it! So instead, your boss, knowing that giving you money wouldn’t work out so well for you, would instead give you access to the company private jet, or the company ski lodge, or the company bungalow in Hawaii, and 2 extra weeks of paid vacation in which to utilize those benefits. Because remember, in 1981 at $100,000 you were probably the CEO or a Vice President of the company. Regular schmoes didn’t make that much in 1981. That’s nearly $300k in 2018 dollars.

Even so, your boss, or the board, or whoever, even after giving you those cool benefits still have all this money they earned because you are an awesome CEO, and they can’t take them as profits either, for the same reason. If they take huge profits, the government is just going to take 70% (or some other rate). And who wants to give government all that “free money”?

So what does the company do with all this cash they don’t want to take as profits? Well, they invest in a pension plan, and healthcare benefits, and a new office building, better wages or bonuses for all the people who aren’t brushing up to that 70% scam tax rate yet. They offer company cars to employees. They start a scholarship program, or donate to build a wing of a local hospital, or back the city orchestra, or a thousand other things. They spend that money back into the economy – and I say spend because even if they choose “donate for a wing at a hospital” that money is going to pay for building supplies and construction workers and keep moving. And the movement of money is the economy.

So what happens without higher tax brackets?

After 1981, the Reagan administration begins scaling back the tax brackets. By 1988 there are just two brackets: 15% and 28% with the dividing line being just under $30,000 (about $69,000 in 2018 dollars). So up to the line you paid 15% and anything over that line you paid 28% on.

The effect that this had on wages is huge. Suddenly, a board wanting to pay their high performing CEO a huge salary isn’t impeded by a high tax rate. You can pay him $500,000 a year. You can pay him $1,000,000 a year. You can pay him $10,000,000 a year. And the government is just going to take their 28%. This brings us back to the myth, that decreasing taxes raises revenue. See, as the tax rates went down, monetary compensation went up, which increase the base from which taxes are drawn. There was no artificial ceiling to wages anymore. So since the wage base grew, tax revenue grew. But here in 2018, when the tax rates are going from 39% to 37%, the US isn’t going to see an increase in tax revenue. It’s probably going to see a 2% drop because compensation isn’t going to increase enough to make back even that lost raw 2%. That ship has sailed. The ceiling is gone.

And with the ceiling gone, it also meant that companies were no longer “encouraged” to spend their potential profits back into the economy. So the pensions went away, and healthcare benefits are slimmer every year, and companies try to cram as many people into as small a space as possible, they pay lower wages, give lower raises, and more, all to maximize profit, which they feel good about taking, because the government isn’t going to get 70% of it. In fact, with a good accountant, most companies will pay the minimum, which is around 20-22%. (Note: lots of rich people are actually “corporations” on paper, so even though the highest tax bracket in 2018 is 39.6%, most wealthy folks pay the 20-22% corporate rates – which is a smaller percentage than most middle class families will pay.)

With more money going to higher compensation for people at the top, it also has a “trickle down” effect of ruining the economy. An economy is the movement of money, and a person who makes 300 times as much as the average worker isn’t also consuming 300 times as much economic value. They don’t eat 300 times as much food (sure, they may eat pricier food, but a $100 steak is not 300 times as much as the $20 steak the average person eats at a restaurant), they don’t buy 300 times as many clothes, or buy 300 times as many cars or own 300 times as many houses. They do consume more individually, but their contribution to the economy as a whole is actually less than if that money were spread out among 300 workers. So a portion of the money they earn is going to leave the economy, to sit in a vault or a bank, or possibly worse, to invest in money markets where money makes money but doesn’t make the same amount of capital investment it could if it were being directly invested into things. I say this is “worse” because it has the effect of allowing the person to feel like they are contributing to the economy without doing so in a real way, so they think they aren’t part of the problem.

Could we return to higher tax brackets?

We probably should. All the math, the research, and the history shows that the economy and the US would likely be better off with higher taxes – not to collect more tax money, but to discourage wealth hoarding. But the political will isn’t there yet.

Yet.

Half a Lunch

A short post about a minor victory in the battle against the Stomach.

Today, I successfully went out to lunch, asked for a carry out container as my lunch was delivered, and put half of it in the carry out container before starting to eat the remainder of my lunch. And then I brought it home and put it in the fridge to eat later.

This was a triumph. I’m making a note here: huge success.

Something More

I don’t often like to talk about religion. Mainly this is because most of the people I tend to run into either don’t feel strongly about it or they feel so strongly that they have trouble talking about it with anyone who brings up questions.

I don’t know what church I was born into. But by the time I was 5 years old, my family was regularly attending a Presbyterian church. And by the time I was 10 years old, we were members of a Reformed church. And by the time I was 13 years old, we weren’t going to church anymore. Not that we actively turned away from it, but just that we moved 850 miles and never found a new church that my mother felt good about regularly attending. She tried, though. Went to a dozen or more churches and none of them felt “right”.

As I grew older, I occasionally went to church with friends, and I had college classes on religion (I wrote papers on Zoroastrianism and Islam, the Book of Job, and more). I even read the Bible … well, most of it, some parts are so dry I had to skim them to stay awake. But nothing ever fully captured how I felt about the world. There were hints, glimpses, but with every hit there was often a few nearby misses that kept me from believing their particular brand or vision.

If I were to try to describe my view, the best I could do is this: I believe in the inherent “moreness” of things.

A person is not just the sum of their parts – there is something more that makes them who they are. I feel, that if you were to clone a person, that new being would neither be an exact copy of the original nor a soulless monster. From the moment it came into the world it would begin to express itself on the world and to be impressed upon by the world, and simply by being a separate thing, the clone and its original would become different people, similar yet distinct.

And it doesn’t just apply to people. When you build a house, at first it will be little more than cement and lumber and plaster and wiring and plumbing and shingles and so on. But given time the house will become “more”. Even to people who experience the house for the first time will feel the lived in (or abandoned) nature of the structure that exists outside of the materials that make it up. And groups of people take on traits of their own. As do cities. As do states. As do nations. Two corporations that might produce the same goods will feel different when you encounter them. Some of that is marketing, some of that is the people who run it, some of that is history, but all of that sums up to be greater than the physical things that make up and populate and are produced by those companies.

One day, I suspect, people will be able to sense that “moreness” of other worlds, other galaxies.

And in my view, if there is a god, she is just that which is “more” than the sum of everything.

Eleven Containers

When my father passed, my brothers and I, among a great many other things, set upon the task of clearing out the house. None of us were in a position to keep it, and maintaining the estate and running a rental was far too complicated, so it had to be sold. We cleaned it up and cleared it out, each of us taking the odd piece of furniture here and there, selling quite a bit in a garage sale and on craigslist, and then came the attic.

Stored up there were the things that had been put away as the boys grew up. All the toys. And we took them out and stored them at my brother’s house. Later, we gathered there and went through every plastic tub, throwing out the things that were irrevocably broken, and keeping the things that meant a great deal. At the end we had eleven containers, plastic tubs, full of toys not broken enough to throw away, not special or important enough to keep. And my brother couldn’t keep them at his house, he had for a while already and really wanted to be able to use his garage again. So I volunteered to take them and perhaps try to sell them. And in my garage these eleven containers sat, for months, for years.

Eventually my wife and I wanted to use our own garage and we rented a storage unit. Not just for the toys, that would be silly. We have a lot of things in the storage unit, but there the toys also went.

I think about them fairly regularly, sitting there, in the dark, doing nobody any good. Every now and then I think I’ll go get one or two bins and put the items up for sale on eBay or something. But then I don’t. It’s easier not to deal with them, not to decide to let them go.

Perhaps this spring we’ll have a yard sale. Maybe I’ll be ready then.