Thursday, November 22, 2001


Thanksgiving dinner was wonderful. Thanks for asking.

One of the people there was out of the country on 9/11. Sofia, Bulgaria, to be exact. It was interesting to hear about the real reaction of people outside the US. The reaction, along with shock and horror: "This never would have happened if Clinton were still President."

That's an opinion you'll never see from the American press. Why would somebody say that?

A Brief Digression on Witchcraft

I saw one of those eternal low budget "look at the funny people" cable TV specials that was talking about Witchcraft. Not the "kinder, gentler" Wiccan variety -- the wild variety. Somebody had found a tribe in Africa where there was no such thing as a "natural" death. Every death is caused by a Witch, who has to be caught and punished. Usually, the punishment was paying a small to medium sized fine to the estate of the deceased. Nobody was burned at the stake, despite what that would have done to the ratings.

In a conversation with the village "witch hunter", the reporter mentioned a person who had recently died of appendicitis. The "witch hunter" agreed that the person had, in fact, died of appendicitis. "But why did he die now?" In his worldview, a death couldn't just happen, it had to be caused.

Back to the Topic

I bring this up as a warning. We don't know why 9/11 happened as it did. We'll probably never know why it happened during the Bush administration instead of the Clinton administration. I don't expect to see Usama bin Laden on Geraldo, or even in an orange jumpsuit and leg irons, explaining why he did what he did.

But we can guess.

If you read the foreign press at all, you surely noticed that Europeans were appalled by Georgie Bush. From his booze, drug, and sex filled early years to his shady financial dealings to his enthusiastic use of the death penalty, he symbolized all that was wrong with America.

When he got into office, things only got worse. He tossed a couple of treaties that the Clinton administration had worked very hard on and made things clear in general that the US was in it for our own interests, and we didn't really care what anybody else thought.

Clinton, whatever his other failings, talked to people. Bush, whatever his other virtues, didn't.

We're trying to fix that now. Colin Powell is doing a quite reasonable job of coalition building, even to the point of getting some minimal support from Iran. (The Taliban massacred a bunch of Shi'ite Muslims, including the entire Iranian trade delegation. Iran was not pleased.)

It's a definite possibility that it was the Bush administration's arrogance that pushed bin Laden's attention from one of his main goals (getting US military forces off of the Arabian peninsula) to symbols of American power.

Did We Learn Anything?

Some things that we should learn:

  • It's a big world out there. The US is a major player, but we can't control the whole thing.
  • We're grownups now. We have to behave responsibly. We can't ignore other's concerns, even if we don't understand them.
  • We have a lot of friends that we didn't know we had. We should spend more time and effort on them.
  • We have been spending $30 billion per year (estimated, of course) on an "intelligence" system that is pretty thoroughly useless. Would it be possible to fire the whole CIA? (No, Georgie's daddy used to run the CIA. Can't do anything to imply that it's not perfect.)
  • A modern society is, physically, very delicate. We simply cannot tolerate those would destroy it if we want to survive. "National sovereignty" will have to bow to survival.
  • Our energy supplies are in the hands of a bunch of slimeballs whose politics, ethics,and religion are stuck in the fourteenth century. Fixing this going to take far more than just digging up a wildlife refuge. We'd only get about 3 months extra supply that way.

We'll see.

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

A Bottle of Tylenol

The estate of one of the postal workers who died from inhalation anthrax is suing Kaiser-Permanente, his HMO. Seems that he went in with “flu-like symptoms”. Told them that he might have been exposed to anthrax. At that time, everybody knew about the letter that had been sent to Tom Daschle. Congress had been closed down to check for anthrax and to clean up if necessary.

Kaiser’s response? They told him he had the flu, and sent him home with a bottle of Tylenol.

He died three days later.

He died three blocks from my home. Kaiser is my HMO. I’m worried.

Not about anthrax (that threat seems to have been contained for now), but about health care in the US in general.

The main problem is that health care is expensive, and health expenses come in large chunks. Most people can go for years with no medical expenses beyond aspirin, cough syrup, and regular dental checkups. Life lesson: Take care of your teeth. Few things are more miserable and more preventable than dental problems. Then, WHAM, a car accident. Or an inflamed appendix. Or a sick baby. Suddenly, thousands of dollars of expenses, all due at once.

The obvious solution is insurance. Pay in a little each month, and the insurance company pays for the expenses. Ideally, you will pay in less than you get out, as the insurance company invests the money and adds the interest to the pool of cash that can be paid out on claims.

There are two problems with this. The one that gets talked about the most is the people who can’t afford insurance at all. I have health insurance. I’m worried about the other one.

Problem is, medical expenses are uneven. When you first start working, you’re young and enthusiastic and healthy. Health expenses will be regular checkups and the occasional athletic injury. You get older, you have kids. Much more expensive. As you continue to get older, your health deteriorates, and your expenses go up. Eventually, you are getting more out of the insurance system than you’re paying in.

The traditional way for insurance companies to deal with this is to put the insured into “groups”. Usually, people are put into groups by age. As the group gets older, the insurance company raises the premium. This means that by retirement, you’re paying a huge chunk of money to the insurance company.

Health maintenance organizations (HMOs) have a different philosophy. There, everybody goes into the same “group” and pays the same rates. The kids pay for the old folks.

Think about it for a minute. From the point of view of profit and loss, what is the best case? Why, as soon as somebody is taking more money out of the system than they’re putting in, they should die.

Now, mention this to a doctor, and I guarantee that you’ll get your head bitten off. Doctors don’t think that way.


HMOs and insurance companies are not run by doctors. Doctors have better things to do with their time. They’re run by accountants, who do think that way. And in HMOs, they hire the doctors.

Not the First Time

This isn’t the first time this argument has come up. First time I saw it, it was talking about tobacco subsidies. Why does the US Government subsidize the production of a substance that causes 100,000 deaths per year?

Well, the obvious answer is Sen. Jessie Helms. Our current system of government consists of legalized bribery (“campaign contributions”) in one direction and Government handouts (“pork”) in the other direction. As the Senator from North Carolina, Helms is expected to produce pork for his constituents, regardless of any other merits. North Carolina is a big tobacco producing state. As the US Congress runs on seniority, a Senator or Representative’s power is determined by longevity rather than anything resembling merit. Seniority matters; senility doesn’t (aside – in Helms’ case, how can you tell?)

That’s no fun. Easier to play Paranoid Conspiracy.

When the Social Security system was first put into place, the average life expectancy at age 65 was something like three years. Now it’s something like 15 years. (Anybody out there have the real numbers? Send them to me, with references, and I’ll put them here.) It’s been an open secret for a long time that Social Security is going to be in Real Trouble in the not-so-distant future. One of the obvious ways to save money is to convince people to die sooner. Smokers tend to live about eight years less than non-smokers. This means eight years less, on average, of Social Security payments. Yeah, lung cancer is a nasty and expensive way to die, but so are most others. Basically, the Social Security system saves eight years’ payments for each smoker.

I posted this idea a while back on; it generated a number of replies, mostly in the category of “How dare you say something like this!!”. The numbers that people posted varied by a factor of about 100. As with anything else like this, it depends radically on how you do the numbers. Personally, I doubt that our esteemed Government is smart enough to do something like this on purpose.

Life lesson: Never assume Evil when stupidity or greed will do.

Time moves on, things change, and most people won't look at anything further away then their own toes. We'll see what happens.

Excuse me. I have to go take some Tylenol.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Quote of the Day

"I used to cover fashion for The New York Times, Vogue, and Harper's Bazaar. Now I devote my energies to convincing you young people to dress oddly... It gives us old people a real hoot."

-- Carrie Donovan, explaining why she did commercials for Old Navy.



For those not familiar with phonetic spelling, this represents the word (in non-phonetic spelling) "fish".


"gh" as in "enough", "o" as in "women", "ti" as in "nation".

No crazier than any other English spelling.

So what brought that up? I just got back from the grocery store. Sausage, some veggies, chicken. No fish. I wanted fish.

The Fish Guys weren't there today. The guys who normally handle the fish counter are a couple of Real Characters. When some people need to make their lives bit more surreal, they watch reruns of Saturday Night Live. I buy fish. It's worth it for the show.

Helps that when the Fish Guys are running the fish counter, the fish are absolutely fresh. The area doesn't smell like fish. When you have one of them filet a fish, you get no scales, no bones, and all of the meat. Delivered with some of the best standup comedy around. Sometimes, the woman at the deli counter gets involved too. I think they appreciate an audience -- the little old Jewish ladies who hang out at the deli counter just don't Get It. The little old ladies bark orders. I feed them straight lines.

Once I bought fish at this chain's flagship store. It's a huge barn of a place, the size of an airplane hanger. A big one. The fish guy there did a ventriloquist routine with my fish.

Another store of the same chain has some very sober, hardworking fish people. No clowning here. It smells bad. The fish don't look happy. I never buy fish there.

So what is it with fish?

Monday, November 19, 2001

We Choose Our Rulers

Once upon a time, in Cathay …

In ancient China, in 221 BCE, the Ch’in Emperor came up with a nifty new form of government. It is now called “bureaucracy”. Basically, you have a bunch of what we now call civil servants, answerable only to their own superiors, enforcing a bunch of rules established by the Powers that Be, for the good of everybody. Everybody up to the highest levels of government below the Emperor and his immediate staff was part of the bureaucracy.

Now, it’s obvious that you have to be very careful in selecting the bureaucrats. You have to have some criterion for selecting people. Traditionally, the people running things were friends of Number One, or people that somebody owed a favor to, or even a warlord that Number One didn’t want to mess with right now. This essentially guarantees a mess. You can’t really govern a real Empire like this. You have to have Objective Criteria.

So what was Ch’in’s solution? In a stroke of brilliance, he came up with the criterion that lasted until 1911, when Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the last emperor. (Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, instead of a modern liberal democracy, what they got was Fascism, followed by Communism. Not an improvement.)

Culture. Ch’in established a series of Official Examinations that covered classical literature, literary criticism, poetry composition, calligraphy, and all the other things that a cultured gentleman would be expected to know. The true brilliance of this was that it ensured that the aristocracy would get most of the jobs in the bureaucracy (after all, they were the ones setting up the exams), while allowing for exceptional men from the lower classes to make good. This was the first time that a man who was “poor but honest, hardworking and intelligent” to go as far as his talents would take him, without support from a sponsor inside the government. This is an incredibly useful safety valve – when the poor have no hope at all of improving their condition, they’re ripe for rebellion.

(In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the guy that China was named for. He’s also the Bad Guy in the truly superb fantasy novel Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. He was a really serious nutcase in other respects.)

Fast Forward …

Now, in the US, we live in a democracy. We choose our rulers by election, with the process set up so that we always get the best candidates to select from …


So how do we select our rulers in a democracy? Well, it varies. The President of the Czech Republic is a playwright – close to the Chinese model. The British like orators – the British Parliament has been the scene of some of the greatest speeches of the last several hundred years. In the US, the most important thing we have culturally is money. Our leaders are the best political fund raisers. (The second most important thing in our current culture is sex. Hence Bill Clinton.)

In US elections, the candidate with the most money almost invariably wins. Not always – gotta keep that safety valve. Some people are jerks enough that all the money in the world won’t get them into office.

The result of this is that our elected officials are indifferent in most respects, but they are absolute wizards in extracting money from interest groups. Basically, we have an institutionalized system of bribery. After all, nobody is interested in Good Government in the abstract – Good Government is government that looks out for my interests. Want to have some input? Cough up some dough. Want more input? More dough. Life Lesson: Watch the money.

So What Should We Be Looking At?

In current political theory, there are two ways of looking at this. The theoreticians call them the “liberal” view and the “populist” view. Unfortunately, they’re using these terms in a way that is violently opposed to their normal usage. In this context, a “liberal” is someone who votes for a candidate based on his or her character and personality, while a “populist” votes based on “the issues”.

It’s pretty obvious that current popular theory favors the “populist” side. We have endless debates on “the issues”. Pundits spend endless hours debating how well each candidate’s position on The Issues match up with the Public’s views on The Issues, as determined by examining the entrails of a computer (err, sorry, by polls).

Of course, it all comes down to money. The candidate who can convince the Public that his or her views most closely match their own wins. To do that takes a lot of money for polls and especially for advertising to convince people that The Candidate really agrees with what you think, despite those unfortunate statements reported by an unfair and biased press. For most people, what matters is the volume of advertising, not its content. If they remember the name, they’ll vote for it. Noting else matters.

Note that here, for general elections, we’re only talking about the so-called “independent” voters. About 2/3 of the voters in most areas are “yellow dogs”, who are committed to one party and will vote for that party’s candidate even if it is a “yellow dog”. (Near as I can tell, this comment refers to a canine. It doesn’t seem to have racist connotations of any kind.) In areas where the two parties are of roughly equal strength, the general election really does come down to the independents. In more lopsided areas, the real battle is in the primary election.

Now, the Right Wing has been talking about “character” for a long time. Unfortunately, the “character” that they’re interested is exclusively “party loyalty” for Republicans and “sex and drugs” for Democrats. Neither gives any indication of philosophical depth, analytical talent, coolness under pressure, diplomacy, organizational ability, or any other personality trait that we might want in a leader.

My own view on the subject (you knew I’d get around to this sooner or later, didn’t you?) is to vote based on character. Problem with issues is, first, that circumstances change. Last thing you want is somebody with an ossified worldview when the world shifts. Second, there are just too many issues. Some people have “litmus issues”, where nothing else matters. Most don’t. By looking at issues, we have to deal with candidates who agree with our views on some issues and disagree on others. Figuring out who agrees with us the most comes down to as much of a judgment call as anything else.

The thing is, when you talk about “character”, you have to look at the aspects of “character” that mean that the person will be good for the country, not whether he or she would win a Sunday-school popularity contest. Unfortunately, when you look at our current crop of politicians, we have a vast surplus of utter slimeballs.

Reform? Not gonna happen. Prediction — we’ll continue to stumble along with our current system of legalized bribery until we get a President who is utterly unqualified for much of anything, but has all the money in the world. He’ll let the economy go straight down the tubes, push through a bunch of laws that quite obviously benefit only his cronies, start a war or two, put out a bunch of orders to let the FBI go after people he doesn’t like, and … what’s that you say?

Never mind.

"Security" in the Age of Marketing

After the events of 9/11, we want to be very sure that nothing like this happens ever again. We need to Take Steps. Ideally, we would do something effective. What would this be?

I sent the following suggestions to my Congresscritters:

  • The policy of "cooperate with the hijackers" is out. Totally. The hijackers will not let you go if you don't resist -- they'll turn you into a cruise missile.
  • Armed guards on all flights. On jumbo jets, two or three. I'm not sure if they should be uniformed or plainclothes -- the terrorists have very good intelligence and will probably know the identity of the guards as soon as they are assigned.
  • Give the flight attendants Taser- style stun guns (and, of course, training in their use). These shoot electrified darts, allowing the user to knock down a knife-wielding passenger from a safe distance. It's also important that the attendants carry them at all times -- they're useless if they're in a locker somewhere.
  • Put the "black boxes" on the ground. Use a satellite data link (on all large planes now) to continuously transmit flight data and voice to a ground station. I submitted this one "through channels" after the ValueJet crash; it has gotten an enthusiastic response at the lower levels of the bureaucracy and has been ignored everywhere else.
  • Allow cellphones on aircraft, on the principal that it's impossible to sneak up on a treefull of crows. Anything out of the ordinary happens, and it will be reported by somebody. This would require a cellphone "cell" on the aircraft, to connect to the regular phone system on the ground. The airlines are investigating this now as something nice for their passengers. Yes, there are phones available on the aircraft; I've never seen anybody use one. In an emergency, I don't think anybody could do the credit card jive that those phones require.
  • Make the transponder turn on automatically on takeoff. I'm surprised it doesn't already. Alternatively, add another transponder controllable only from the ground.

As you might expect, I got a form letter back saying "thank you for your input". Other groups have made other good suggestions. In particular, the Airline Pilots Association suggested reinforcing the cockpit doors and setting them up so they could only be opened from the inside.

Anyway, these are effective suggestions, based on stopping 9/11 type takeovers. So what are we actually doing?

  • Reinforcing cockpit doors. Good.
  • Making much fuss about carryon baggage inspection. I am unaware of any recent incident where a Bad Guy smuggled something nasty onto a plane through the security checkpoint. Note that the 9/11 hijackers were not carrying anything not allowed.
  • Getting ridiculous about banning pocket knives, knitting needles, sewing scissors, and similar lethal weapons from carry-on luggage.
  • Making much fuss over presenting photo ID many times. The hijackers all had valid ID.
  • Arming the cockpit crews. Well, if it makes them feel better .... If the cockpit door is locked, the only way into the cockpit is to get the pilots to open it from the inside. Easiest way for a hijacker to get the pilot to come out is to threaten to kill a hostage. A stun gun in the cockpit is useless. Give it to the flight attendants, who can use it effectively. It'll give the "air rage" folks something to think about, too.

What's going on here? This is the Age of Marketing. The Powers that Be aren't interested in what is most effective -- they're interested in the "perception of security". Basically, this seems to involve making things as rude and inconvenient as possible. What about actually improving security? Nobody cares. The perception is the only thing that counts.

This is not a new phenomenon. The first wave of hijackings involved guns. The metal detectors and X ray machines screened out the guns. This worked. Note that something like this does not have to be 100% effective -- it's an effective deterrent if it convinces the Bad Guys that they have a real chance of getting caught.

After the Lockerbie bombing, where the bomb was carried on board by a passenger, the airlines started asking the "has your luggage been out of your control" questions. Note, however, that the Lockerbie bomb was carried by the inconveniently pregnant Irish girlfriend of the bomber, disguised as a tape recorder. The woman who carried the bomb could have answered honestly that she had not been given anything to carry by an "unknown person" and that her luggage had never been out of her control. The little questions might have more effect on drug smuggling. Remember the Dutch guy who got caught in Singapore with a couple of kilos of heroin in his luggage. He claimed that he was carrying it for an acquaintance and he didn't know what it was. The Singapore court said basically, "nobody's that stupid" and hanged him, to much international outcry.

As time has gone by, we have added other doodles and twiddles to our "air security", with no indication that any of it works.

  • Warnings about unattended luggage. I thought the airport thieves would take care of unattended luggage before the security people did.
  • Towing unattended cars. A good idea, simply from a traffic point of view. I am not aware, however, of any car bombs near airports.
  • ID on checkin. A stunt that illegal aliens have been using for years is to have a person with good ID check in and then pass the boarding pass to another person who doesn't have ID. In any case, forged ID is very easy to get, and this fact is not going to change at all soon.
  • Making passengers turn on their laptop computers to make sure they're really computers and not bombs. This is simply ridiculous. They don't do this with electric razors, Game Boys, CD players, or anything else that could hide a bomb just as easily.

All of this is stuff that some bureaucrat thought would "increase security". In reality (except for possibly towing unattended cars), it just adds inconvenience. Perhaps it's another bureaucratic power trip -- "You'll stand in line for two hours because I bloody well say so".

Prediction -- the next time a bunch of terrorists want to mess up the air transport system, our current precautions will not slow them down any more than the pre- 9/11 precautions slowed down the 9/11 hijackers. Seems to me that the 9/11 hijackers said, "OK, we'll play by your rules and we'll still win." They did. We have to make sure that our precautions are effective, and not just marketing. Life Lesson: Stage magicians and marketers work on exactly the same principals. Distract the attention from what's really going on. Rely on people seeing what they want to see.


Sorry, we don't have sneakers any more. We have Athletic Shoes. We have running shoes, outdoor walking shoes, indoor walking shoes, exercise class shoes, basketball shoes, tennis shoes .... No sneakers.

Anyway, I just figured out why most Web pages are so bad. Graphic designers can't read. If you look at what designers work with, they don't have any real text. Either they "greek" the text (replace the line of text with gray rectangles) or use something unreadable (traditionally, Latin text). Idea is, it lets the eye focus on the design without being distracted by content.

So what does this have to do with sneakers? Sneakers (sorry, Athletic Shoes) are made in Third World countries (Malaysia, mostly) by workers who make less than a dollar a day. They don't wear Athletic Shoes. They've probably never seen anybody wearing Athletic Shoes. The guys who run the factories probably don't wear Athletic Shoes. They make shoes to specifications from shoe companies using machinery designed and built by shoe companies. Similarly, Web page designers have nothing (verbally) to say. They don't write text; they do designs. When the time comes to put in the text, it's Somebody Else's Problem.

This violates the main lesson that Henry Ford gave to the world -- the people who make stuff should use the stuff. Holds true in general -- you don't have to worry that the guy whose job it is to close the hatch on a submarine will forget about it. He's inside the sub. He's not going to be distracted by something that's "more important". Life lesson: Pack your own parachute.

Problem is, the folks who want to read the text don't care that much about the design. They want the information that is in the text. Unfortunately, the designers have done things to the text that makes it "pretty", without concern over whether it's readable or not. For example, due to the way the Web is set up, design things have to be done in terms of pixels -- the little dots on the screen. So, to match the layout, the letters have to be a fixed number of characters high. If (like me), you have a high-resolution screen, the text in the snazzy layouts comes out the size of the Want Ads in the Sunday paper. The cheap want ads. Or smaller. Want to read it? Get a magnifying glass.

The other problem is that every Website insists that you read everything in a sans-serif font. Every study I've seen on readability says that serif text (Times Roman, whatever) is easier to read than sans-serif text (Helvetica, Arial, etc). Every newspaper I've seen is printed in a serif font. This should tell you something.

The Answer

Life Lesson: Nobody is interested in your problems. Come up with a problem, you should also have a possible solution. My solution is to pay a few bucks for a new Web browser. Yeah, you heard me right -- pay money for a Web browser. The Opera Web browser has this neat little button that makes all the fancy backgrounds and fonts go away. Note -- You can get a version of Opera for free that flashes ads at you while you're using it. I happen to hate flashing ads enough to pay for the version of the program that doesn't have them.

The main problem with Opera is that the graphic designers assume that everybody is using the latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer. Many pages won't display properly in anything else. Opera follows the standards for Web stuff -- see the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for what the standards really are. Note that Microsoft is a member of the W3C -- they help make the standards, they just don't use them. Life Lesson: Learn what Primary Sources are. Use them.

For Web Designers

Learn to read. Read your freakin' pages, fa' cryin' out loud! Read them in every browser you can get ahold of. Don't forget Lynx. Be sure to use old versions -- not everybody can be at the bleeding edge all the time.

A lot of work? Yes. However, it's the difference between a professional job and hackwork. With the tools available for Webpage design, anybody can come up with a fancy page. It takes a pro to make an effective page.

When you are trying to communicate, "success" means getting your message across. If nobody can read your message, you've failed. Go back to flipping burgers -- you're not a real designer.


See Sneakers, Update.

Sunday, November 18, 2001

So why am I here?

Why not?

With the events of 9/11, the Toob is full of talking heads. Some of them have something to say; most don't. Over many years, I have had it driven into my head that nobody cares squat what I say. Write to Congresscritters, get back a nice generic form letter. Talk to pollsters, they walk away when I don't fit into one of their nice neat categories. So here I can say it anyway.

I don't intend to dwell particularly on the 9/11 events. I'm thinking about them, of course, but there's lots of other stuff going on. What I want to say is mostly in the category of "HEY YOU!! WAKE UP!!".

Hopefully, I can set off a small lightbulb or two over somebody's head. Most people, after all, are pretty smart. They just have to be convinced to actually think, instead of just parroting back whatever their particular Authority Figures tell them to think.

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