Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Obergefell Decision As A Teaching Moment

Some think that this week's Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) Supreme Court decision is a "teaching moment" arising from a great victory. Such a decision by the Supreme Court when considered in a school environment needs significant context and discussion.

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to put it in context by comparing it to Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

In 1954 reporters who observed the Supreme Court in the Brown case were surprised by the 9-0 unanimous decision. Prior to the ruling, there were reports that the court members were sharply divided and might not be able to agree. The attendance of Justice Robert H. Jackson who had suffered a mild heart attack and was not expected to return to the bench until early June 1954 was also a surprise. Perhaps to emphasize the unanimity of the court, Justice Jackson was in his assigned seat when the court convened.

In the 2015 Obergefell case this week the Supreme Court ruled 5-4.

The signficant difference between the Brown and Obergefell decisions with regard to the Supreme Court is clear and can be taught:
  • In Brown even those justices who had reservations about the legal basis for the decision recognized that it was the morally right thing to do.
  • In the Obergefell decision there was barely a majority of the justices who thought it was the right thing to do and the expressions of some of the dissenting justices reflect deeply felt moral outrage at the majority's ruling.
Enforcement of the Brown decision in some places took federal military intervention - it was an extension of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Brown was about American children having a right to the equal protection of the law in order to access the benefits of a somewhat equal education in a public school system regardless of race.  Yet that goal has never been achieved in the nation, not even in California.

Brown required continued legal intervention in all parts of this country to achieve compliance and was replaced with defacto school segregation based upon the "localness" of school districts continuing to this day. Racial discrimination, indeed even hatred, continues also.

Obergefell is about two adults having a right to the equal protection of the law in order to access the benefits arising from a state-issued marriage license. The decision is the right thing to do. But it is not going to make the homophobia go away. The issue couldn't even draw the vote of a sixth justice as the Obamacare ruling did earlier in the week.

Plans are already being made in some parts of the nation to resist same sex marriage because of homophobia, in many cases rising to the level of hatred. Even Obamacare creates anger, as the "conservatives" are already planning their continued efforts to undo the law.

The real teaching opportunity here can be found in the opinions of the four justices dissenting from the Obergefell ruling, both their written legal ones plus their prior and subsequent verbal ones. In the end, could it all be about people wanting to look down upon and wanting to feel superior to others, even to the point of systemically denying access to health care to other "lessor" human beings?

Regarding the Obergefell ruling, don't we need to consider how the institutionalized basis of homophobia evolved, which revered writings advocate that prejudice? And how do you explain that in a public elementary school environment?

Monday, February 3, 2014

I'd Like to Teach the World America to Sing in Perfect Harmony....

Coke is not my favorite soft drink, but they have a commendable television commercial history. Take a look at their 1971 commercial which still puts a lump in my throat...

During the Super Bowl, Coke ran an ad entitiled "It's Beautiful." I liked the ad.

Ask yourself what's the one significant thematic difference between these ads (other than the song)?

After contemplating the matter a bit, the new ad brought out the pessimist in me. And apparently it sure enough evoked reactions from reactionaries that justifies my pessimism, according to news reports.

It seems that the folks at Coke, or at least some of them, believe they now have to try to inspire American's to sing in harmony.

That is a sad statement about America.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Drought: Why Californians north of the Tehachapi Mountains want to divide California

Different headlines and stories covering the one subject are Amid drought, California agency won't allot water and California officials forecast ‘zero’ water deliveries and California drought could force key water system to cut deliveries with the latter being from the LA Times.

The very lengthy first story from the AP in its lead paragraph tells us (emphasis added):

Amid severe drought conditions, California officials announced Friday they won't send any water from the state's vast reservoir system to local agencies beginning this spring, an unprecedented move that affects drinking water supplies for 25 million people and irrigation for 1 million acres of farmland.

The second story from the Sacramento Bee in its lead paragraph tells us:

State officials announced Friday that 29 water agencies serving 25 million people across California can expect “zero” water deliveries from the State Water Project this summer because of the worsening drought.

The third story from the LA Times in its lead paragraph tells us:

Officials Friday said that for the first time ever, the State Water Project that helps supply a majority of Californians may be unable to make any deliveries except to maintain public health and safety.

Of course, the LA Times story lead is accurate because if it rains 40" in Northern and Central California over the next few months things will be swell. Golly gee, don't alarm all those with those Southern California lawns.

However, the real impact is only now being alluded to. While all the articles offer some agriculture facts, this statement in the AP article tells what it means beyond the rest of us facing water shortages simply being inconvenienced:

The timing for of Friday's historic announcement was important: State water officials typically announce they are raising the water allotment on Feb. 1, but this year's winter has been so dry they wanted to ensure they could keep the remaining water behind the dams. The announcement also will give farmers more time to determine what crops they will plant this year and in what quantities.

Farmers and ranchers throughout the state already have felt the drought's impact, tearing out orchards, fallowing fields and trucking in alfalfa to feed cattle on withered range land.

Down further in the Bee's article:

State and federal officials announced that starting today, water diversions from the Delta, a crucial wildlife habitat and California’s largest freshwater source, will be minimized to serve only urban areas and health and safety purposes. No water will be diverted for farms.

In addition, some 5,800 junior water rights holders across the state – mainly farms – will receive notices next week that they must reduce their water diversions from streams. And water quality rules in the Delta will be adjusted, which will increase salinity for some water users in the region and may affect wildlife.

The prices of California agricultural products could skyrocket. And that isn't just avocados for your Superbowl party guacamole or lemon juice for lemonade.

The California rice industry annually produces more than 2 million tons of rice.  An average of 60 percent of the annual rice crop goes on America's dinner table, into sushi restaurants, made into beer, rice mixes and even pet food. Exports markets are also a key destination for California rice. Countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Turkey account for 40 percent of annual production.

But the Times tells this to the millions of readers living in LA LA Land:

But the practical effect is less stark because most water districts have other sources, such as local storage and groundwater, to turn to. Officials stressed that the cut did not mean faucets would run dry.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the state project's largest customer, has said it has enough supplies in reserve to get the Southland through this year without mandatory rationing.

Now on to today's above-the-fold front page stories:


Of course a story on the problems of the NFL is what's important to most California Southlanders. California farmers are tearing out crops as Southlanders ask "Dear, what's the lawn watering index on the MWD web site" to figure out their frequency of lawn watering (click the index below if you don't believe it):


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

To A God Unknown: Steinbeck, Stine, and Medieval California

    After a time of wandering, Joseph came to the long valley called Nuestra Señora, and there he recorded his homestead.  Nuestra Señora, the long valley of Our Lady in central California, was green and gold and yellow and blue when Joseph came into it. The level floor was deep in wild oats and canary mustard flowers. - from To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck
In his 1933 novel To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck tells an allegorical tale of the California experience. The protagonist, Joseph, comes to California to create his future. He discovers a place of apparent wealth and promise. And indeed he appears to be achieving all that he dreams. But over time, tragedies strike and a drought undoes his life work.

The story is about the arrogance of Californians who hold the belief that their efforts as humans, individually and collectively, create orderly wealth in a place where natural wealth has always existed in its own order of things.

In the "California Gold Rush" from 1848 to 1853 some 12 million ounces of gold was removed from the streams of "Gold Country" before hydraulic mining was used on ancient gold-bearing gravel beds that were on hillsides and bluffs in the gold fields sending large amounts of gravel and silt, in addition to heavy metals and other pollutants, into streams and rivers. Once the gold was depleted, gravel and silt remained in the areas affected.

Farmers followed the miners to extract another kind of wealth. In the Sacramento Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta reclamation districts were formed to prevent the flooding of farm lands by building an extensive levee system. In the same period, dams with water diversion and canal projects were proposed and subsequently built to move water into the desert areas of the Southern San Joaquin Valley and all of the State south of the Tehachapi Mountains in the California Aqueduct. Water became "Liquid Gold" for Californians as it seemed quite plentiful in the 1950's.

New Californians hadn't read To A God Unknown. Instead they believed that water was an endless resource of wealth for future Californians. Lands that once were orchards in Southern California. the San Francisco Peninsula, and Santa Clara County, and farms in the Central Valley became subdivisions of housing for large populations, urban/suburban populations that were now dependent upon that water for human consumption competing with the remaining agricultural interests. In 2009 the Southern San Joaquin Valley has become the first area in the State to suffer significantly from the continuing drought as reported in a previous post.

    People in cities may forget the soil for as long as a hundred years, but Mother Nature's memory is long and she will not let them forget indefinitely. - Henry Cantwell Wallace.
    We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings. - Franklin D. Roosevelt
    People need to be cautious because anything built by man can be destroyed by Mother Nature. - Russel L. Honoré
At the time of that 2009 post, "The Great California Slump" had resulted in a considerable disruption to the California economy, disruption that continues today, disruption caused by simple greed.

At that point, the idea of a drought that could destroy an economy was only understood by California's long declining population of non-corporate farmers, some "pointy headed" academics, and a very few true environmentalists (not the kind that see important solutions in electric cars), all of whom had been speaking out for years to a deaf population.

The remainder of Californians continued to believe in the Golden Cities myth that drove the Spanish to explore and conquer in the 15th-18th centuries. Continuing that heritage, Californian's prefer to hear Governor Jerry "Moonbeam-the-Spinmaster" Brown tell us we can move out of this time of continuing economic crisis into another period of wealth-building by embracing fun-but-already-stale technology. That Southern San Joaquin Valley drought was just an anomaly, not warning that California is subject to Mother Nature's memory and she is prodding our memory.

We 21st Century Californian's need to become familiar with history of the soil that we have chosen to squat on to create an economy, perhaps by first looking up from our portable devices long enough see the nature of what we occupy.

After we have gained some familiarity with the soil under our feet and cities, Californian's should use their portable devices to access a convergence of studies done in the mid-1990's (and later ones based upon that '90's groundwork) to learn three facts: (1) the 20th Century Californian experienced far fewer extreme dry years and more wet years than the Californian's who lived here the preceding three centuries who offered anecdotal reports of extreme droughts, reports generally ignored by most except than those few who listened like Steinbeck; (2) starting around 900 AD California suffered two droughts, one lasting 220 years (from A.D. 892 to A.D. 1112) and the other 140 years (from A.D. 1209 to A.D. 1350); and (3) during the past 3,500 years, most of the time the "California experience" was much drier than the "normal"165 year American California experience.

John Steinbeck's second novel To A God Unknown published in 1933 was later acknowledged as the hardest for him to write, taking him more years than his better known works. Part of the problem is that he initially tried to adapt a play written by a friend but kept adding context based upon facts as he understood them. And what he understood from the generations of Californians who preceded him was the truth about the land and the water, a truth we need to face.
    About every thirty years there have come periods of rainlessness to Central and Southern California. These desolating years seem to come creeping up out of lhe white desert to warn the west that it will one day die as the desert has died. They are like the Reminders of Death at an Egyptian feast ....
    And now the periodic drought had settled on the land. Little by little, year on year the water was sucked from the ground. The hills looked gaunt and hungry and pale. The bones of many thousands of starved cattle were whitening on the ground. Two families of Waynes packed up their possessions and drove away. Joe watched his dying land with terror and with loathing. - From an early draft of To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck
Joe's "terror" came from a normal California weather cycle. Twenty years ago in 1993, Scott Stine, Ph.D, of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at California State University, Hayward, completed a research study entitled "Extreme and Persistent Drought in California and Patagonia During Mediaeval Time" which was subsequently published in June 1994 in the academic journal Nature. In it he offers the evidence, now supported by others, that indeed before and after the year 1000 AD California had two droughts that lasted well over 100 years.

In May 2001 the website Sierra Nature Notes: The Online Journal of Natural History News in the Sierra Nevada published a followup article by Stine "The Great Droughts of Y1K" in which he explained what he believed to be the weather pattern associated with the 100+ years droughts:
    One may reasonably ask why these droughts occurred. The simple answer lies in the wintertime configuration of the "storm track" (a.k.a. the "jet stream" and the "polar front") over the northeastern Pacific. When the storm track persists over California for much of the winter (as it did, say, in 1982, ‘83, 86, and ‘96), many Pacific cyclones are steered over the state, and we accumulate much precipitation. When the track lies to the north of California, the fronts are steered away, and the region remains dry. This latter case prevailed during the 1976-77—the one period of our instrumental record dry enough to provide an analog to the Medieval droughts. Nineteen seventy-seven, it turns out, was not only the driest winter on record over much of California, it was also the wettest winter on record over much of Alaska. Simply put, rather than the storm track bowing south over California, in 1976-77 it bowed north over Alaska, and held there.
    Evidence is now emerging that the "dry-winter-in-California, wet-winter-in-Alaska" model holds true not only for 1976-77, but for much of upper Medieval time as well....
This year we saw that very same weather pattern as illustrated by this one recent satellite image:

That persistent weather pattern indeed created the current drought situation in California. The real question for Californian's is whether the pattern will be seen regularly over the next decades? And if so, will Californian's come to understand that we are living off the artificial and transient wealth structure created over the last 165 years? And if we come to understand it, will that understanding come too late? And if it doesn't come too late, will we respond with sufficient energy and speed to successfully prevent a major disruption in our economy?

After all, we Californian's are the people who in the San Joaquin Valley allowed ground subsidence to happen from pumping too much groundwater as explained below (from a USGS website):

     This photo shows the approximate location of maximum subsidence in the United States, identified by research efforts of Dr. Joseph F. Poland (pictured). The site is in the San Joaquin Valley southwest of Mendota, California. Signs on pole show approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977.
    In this case, excessive groundwater pumping allowed the upper soil layers to dry out and compress and compact, which is by far the single largest cause of subsidence. Soil compaction results in a reduction of the pore sizes between soil particles, resulting in essentially a permanent condition—rewetting of the underground soil and rock does not cause the land to go back up in altitude. This results in a lessening of the total storage capacity of the aquifer system. Here, the term "groundwater mining" is really true.
What is critically needed now at the beginning of the 21st Century would be very expensive and complex. And it is needed immediately. It can be summarized in two statements:
  1. Virtually all of the urban areas of Southern and Coastal California need to quit transporting water from distant rivers and switch to desalinization for municipal water. To do so we need to get rid of silly ideas like the Governor's expensive bullet train, the funding for which would fund some of the preliminary engineering needed to solve the urban water crisis.
  2. Farming and ranching within California requiring large water transfers from distant sources and/or over-pumping of groundwater should cease. These activities need to become sustainable using local water resources wisely.
What is needed may be impossible because we forget history as described by Steinbeck.
    Joseph leaned back against his saddle again, and suddenly he chuckled. "I will go," he said. "I will take every means. Look, Juanita. You know this place, and your ancestors knew this place. Why did none of your people come here when the drought started. This was the place to come."
    "The old ones are dead," Juanita said soberly. "The young ones may have forgotten." - from To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck
Four currently living generations of Californian's have been trying to achieve the California Dream, each one thinking his or her Dream is unique. It is the same Dream described by Steinbeck and like all dreams, in reality it can become an ordeal.

Dr. Stine's 1993 study was reviewed in a less academic article in the July 19, 1994, New York Times article "Severe Ancient Droughts: A Warning to California"which at the end offered the following observation:
    But in the end, he said, a reprise of the medieval droughts would simply overwhelm California's efforts to cope. And he said: "We don't need 200 years of drought to bring us down. At some point, in the 9th year, or the 15th year or the 19th year, the damage is done and it doesn't matter any more."
In the 20th Century the rain came breaking up each comparatively short dry cycle with wet years. Whether that will continue in the 21st Century without a decade or more of drought is unlikely. Dr. Stine explains it well in the Sierra Nature Notes article:
    ...Persistent droughts, moderate by Medieval standards but strident relative to our "normal" conditions of the past 150 years, drew lakes and rivers well below their modern levels on numerous occasions during the past two millennia, most recently during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, increasing evidence indicates that there is little that is climatically "normal" about the past century - and- a-half; it appears, in fact, to be California’s third- or fourth-wettest century-scale period of the past four or more millennia.
    Since statehood, Californians have been living in the best of climatic times. And we’ve taken advantage of these best of times by building the most colossal urban and agricultural infrastructure in the entire world, all dependent on huge amounts of water, and all based on the assumption that runoff from the Sierra Nevada will continue as it has during the past 150 years. Yet even in these best of times we have run out of surplus water, and we fight over allocation.
The challenge is to not have our grandchildren explaining to their children that the worst case scenario happened because our generations thought bullet trains or smart phones deserved our attention and financial resources. We do not want to regret our failure to see the soil as did Steinbeck's Joseph Wayne:
And time passed and Joseph grew grey too.... "I should have known," he whispered.... "I am the land," he said, "and I am the rain." - from To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Microsoft Surface Pro 2 - Your business future needs the most convenient power PC ever created!

It's clear to me the Surface Pro 2 will set the standard for business and other serious computing in the future. Microsoft is a company that has been successful dominating the business market thereby being a part of the world's economic productivity increase filling an essential role in the offices of most businesses and governments. They are so dominant that most of the news stories and blogs aren't extolling their dominance but rather about how some have struggled successfully to get rid of Windows and how well competitors are doing.

Now for some reason Microsoft seems think it needs to compete with Apple in the leisure content device business and Sony in the game box business. Perhaps it's the pundits and experts who equate short-term consumer sales volume with success - the "what did you earn this morning, who cares about next year or five years from now" mentality. But just maybe Microsoft has found the course to follow for the long-term future.

This week we read about the Black Friday sales of the new Microsoft XBox One which supposedly outsold the new Sony Playstation 4. That's apparently important news for Microsoft because the news also keeps reporting that the Surface (non-Pro version) is still not competing well against the iPad.

The fact is the Surface (non-Pro) 2 with Windows RT and either 32 or 64 GB of storage can compete in the tablet market. And because it has a version of Microsoft Office (yes, including Outlook) on it, it will interface effectively in most business environments. However, it's designed to compete in the consumer marketplace, not really in the business-to-business sales rat race.

But the Surface Pro 2 is something different. And here's where the pundits and maybe even Microsoft marketers are missing the point.

"Ready to own the most productive tablet on the planet?" That is the marketing tag line used by Microsoft. It doesn't really get to the point. "Your business future needs the most convenient power PC ever created!" would be a better, or at least a companion, tag line.

Let me make my point clear - the Surface Pro 2 is a Windows 8.1 PC. It has the power of any Intel-processor-based Windows OS desktop or laptop computer seen in the most up-to-date business or home office. The fact that it is in tablet form with a built-in touch-screen monitor is merely a handy plus. It replaces this...


...with this...


...but it is also a PC...


The "PC" Hardware.

Like all "desktop" computers, the Surface Pro 2 needs to be connected to all the peripherals when it's used at your desk. Here's what we did.

The Pro 2 has one USB 3.0 port and an HDMI port. We chose to connect it to a Plugable UD-3900 USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station. This provides a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 (5 Gbps) link from the Pro 2 to our network via wire, two additional USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ports, as well as offering an additional monitor and audio connection.

But we needed more USB 2.0 ports. My wife's existing desktop computer peripheral setup included 6 USB 2.0 devices (keyboard, mouse, scanner, laser printer, label printer, and backup hard drive). So we connected to one of the Docking Station's USB 2.0 ports a Plugable 7 Port High Speed USB 2.0 Hub.  We replaced her old monitor with a HP Pavilion 23TM 23-inch Touchscreen LED Monitor which requires a USB 2.0 connection (for the touchscreen function which is functionally an additional "mouse" connection). Additionally, we've added a Samsung DVD+/-RW Slim USB 3.0/2.0 external drive.

Since her readily accessible data storage needs require substantial disk space (among other factors, she manages our 50,000+ music tracks), two USB 3.0 WD My Passport Ultra 1TB Portable External Hard Drives were attached to the Docking Station.

Voilà, we have a desktop computer with a 4th Gen Intel® Core™ i5-4200U Processor (1.6 GHz with Intel Turbo Boost up to 2.6 GHz), with Intel HD Graphics 4400, with 8 GB RAM (Dual-channel LPDDR3), and an internal 256 GB solid state drive plus two 1 TB hard disk drives.

Everything in this hardware configuration works well so far. Because it works so well we proceeded to create the same basic setup for me. One of the most impressive things about the Surface Pro 2 is that they don't get hot - in fact, running for 18 hours they don't seem to get very warm. The HP Touchscreen monitor doesn't get very warm. And the Plugable Docking Station and the WD My Passport external hard drives don't get very warm. Heat is the enemy of computer equipment. That I'm not hearing fans and still there's no heat is impressive and bodes well for the equipment life. But I know I'm tempting fate.

Application Software.

You have to understand that my wife and I ran a computer services business through the 1980's, beginning with a Tandy Model II in 1980. For us there is system software and application software. We understand that ultimate limit on application software is determined by the system software.

Like it or not, by the mid 1980's we found ourselves stuck with the Microsoft operating system. One can argue for other systems today. But Windows 8.1 on a Surface Pro 2 offers access to the broadest choices of productive application software because Microsoft operating systems have never locked out software vendors like Apple has. And while I was working with Unix and Xenix machines in the 1990's, open-source Linux doesn't offer software vendors the market or profit potential leaving IT "departments" in the majority of organizations feeling insecure.

Don't get me wrong. We hate Word. We like to have full, complete control of the format of our documents. If you have used WordPerfect, you cannot understand why people use Word. On the other hand, we use Excel and Access. Why not? And yet, I absolutely refuse to allow Outlook on my desktop. Mozilla Thunderbird works more like I would design an email program. And Anytime Organizer is about as close to perfect calendar software as we can find.

While we must have Adobe's Acrobat Pro  (whatever the lastest version number) to communicate and to save documents, I love Corel's PaintShop Pro for photo editing. There's really nothing you can do with Adobe photo software you can't do with PaintShop Pro X6 which costs $75.00 to purchase. And Corel's VideoStudio Pro has incredible features for video editing - $55.50 at Amazon.

We both use what one would call "hobby" software. But we use software that the advanced "hobbiest" needs, versions of which are still not available on any other operating system.

None of this Windows OS software, and the myriad of other application software choices we use, can be run on any tablet but one that has a full version of Windows. We can have this anytime, anywhere we have our Surface Pro 2 tablet. But before moving on to the tablet concept, Windows 8.1 deserves discussion.

Windows 8.1.

The obvious thing about the introduction of Windows 8 was the onslaught of attacks it received when it was introduced. It reminded me of the Vista release, which in retrospect was a bit of a disaster for Microsoft. But after Vista, Windows 7 was acknowledged as a solid OS. And Windows 8.1 is similarly a solid OS.

First let's get rid of the arguments about how good the other tablet operating systems are. Everything you can do on a Windows computer, everything you have done for years, browse networks and the internet, copy and manipulate files, run any of the thousands of Windows supported peripheral or accessory devices, you can do on a Surface Pro 2 with Windows 8.1. (And many of us tech types are discovering we can run a few pieces really old Windows software on Windows 8.1, but that's another story.) It isn't a criticism of Apple's IOS or Android to say they can't compete. They were operating systems designed to run leisure content devices and smart phones.

You can set up Windows 8.1 to boot into the traditional desktop you've used for years. You can set it up with your application software icons on your taskbar or desktop as you have always done.  (I'm not conceding to those who use that word "app" as a synonym for application software ... thanks for nothing Steve Jobs wherever you are.)

Mine with my custom desktop background picture and with Firefox open to Wikipedia looks like this:


What is absent in Windows 8.1 is that traditional "Start Menu" in the lower left corner.  But it's really just relocated.

I'm frankly puzzled by all the grumbling about the missing "Start Menu". First off, I didn't like the "new" Start Menu that we inherited from Vista in Windows 7. In fact, I used a piece of 3rd party software to create an XP-type (really Windows 95) Start Menu. At least the Windows 8.1 Start Menu offers the convenience of the touch app system popularized by the iPhone and iPad (and Android devices).

If you do as we do, you set 8.1 to boot to the traditional desktop. Instead of having to click on a small taskbar icon, you get the Start Menu by pushing the "Windows" key or clicking on the icon at the left end of the taskbar. On my computer this is how the new start menu appears:


If you need to get to a full listing of your application software ...oops, here I have to concede to the term apps... you click a down arrow (or touch screen sweep down) and have a much easier to read and digest app form display of all your programs/apps. And that disiplay includes many OS administrative functions. Also, that  icon on the left end of desktop taskbar when right clicked gives you access to many OS administrative functions. And then there is that pull-out menu system on the right side of your desktop for a different access point. For the first time since XP, I'm not missing that old start menu.


There are changes from Windows 7 just like there were changes from the Window 95/98/Me format to XP format. If you use Windows 7, you'll find Windows 8.1 quite comfortable after you set things up, like you had to do with every Windows upgrade. In fact I have installed it with the dual boot option with Windows 7 on our remaining "big box" computer.

The Tablet.

One cannot ignore the fact that this computer is in tablet form. We bought iPad "1's" early on, fully recognizing that the iPad was, and was intended to be, a leisure content consumption platform. To date, there has been no chance that either an iPad or an Android tablet could function as our "business computers."

During Apple's Q2 2012 earnings call in April 2012, CEO Tim Cook said that "anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs, and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left doesn't please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not gonna be pleasing to the user."

Like many things people say without having a competitor's product to even stare at, Cook was wrong. Unplugged from the docking station, our desktop computers fully function as tablets. Further, with the HDMI output plugged into our TV, it is a fully functional IPTV device using the normal apps plus offering through a selection of normal browsers (IE, Firefox, Chrome) full access to any IPTV source.

As a leisure content consumption platform, while the Windows App Store had 130,892 total apps as of December 1, it does not yet have as many of the "fun" apps available to users of the iPad or an Android tablet. I suspect in time most will get there. As of December the top five free apps in the U.S. are Facebook, Netflix, Skype, Google Search, and Hill Climb Racing. The top five paid apps are Asphalt 8 Airborne, Asphalt 7 Heat, Fruit Ninja, Rayman Jungle Run, and Angry Birds Star Wars.

The only comment I can make is that if I'm going to walk off a subway platform because my eyes are fixed on my tablet, I would hope that I would not be consuming leisure content, but rather completely engrossed in preparing a thorough analysis on my latest space-time hypothesis using a combination of complex application software.

Nonetheless, if there turns out to be some app we can't live without or wait for, we can run an Android emulator on our Surface Pro 2's or use our iPad "1's".

In summary, contained in this hardware is a desktop computer that also is an IPTV device and a tablet, albeit one with its type cover that weighs 33% more than the latest iPad with a cover though about the same as my iPad "1" with its cover. That weight is the only Tim Cook type of tradeoff I could find in the hardware.

The Future.

Because Microsoft's core business is the Windows OS business, the Microsoft Store and Microsoft ads seem to be supporting third party Windows computer manufacturers/retailers like Dell and HP as well as their own Surface line. In a way, that takes away from the Surface Pro 2. But it also tells me that Microsoft built the Surface Pro 2 to make a point to the other Windows OS hardware manufacturers. Hopefully they'll get the point and focus on replacing the average Windows desktop computer with hardware even better, or maybe cheaper, than the Surface Pro 2.

In the meantime, one needs to be aware of the gaming side of the equation. Right now Windows 8.1 offers an Xbox app that, from a serious gamers standpoint, is very limited. Nonetheless, we are now seeing the initial rollout of what Microsoft has termed a unified development path for its Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1 and Xbox environments. In a meeting with financial analysts, the new Windows Chief Terry Myerson recently noted:
...We really should have one silicon interface for all our devices. We should have one set of developer APIs on all our devices. And all of the apps we bring to end users should be available on our devices.
 It has already been confirmed that Windows 8.1 Apps will run on the Xbox One. And Microsoft introduced on December 3 a beta version of Project Spark. It is game-maker software for Windows 8.1, Xbox 360, and the new Xbox One console. It will allow developers, enthusiasts, and gamers to build a game within a game. Players can build custom worlds, characters, and animations from an Xbox One or a Windows 8.1 PC to play across both platforms.

And so, within Windows 8.1 the serious developer can now create apps not only for Android, but for Microsoft  device. Further she can run her small business from the same hardware platform while maintaining a complex Access data base, keeping accounting records that will keep her CPA and IRS happy, using complex Excel spreadsheets, preparing presentations, writing documentation and correspondence, paying her bills onlline using a browser (or an app), keeping complex genealogical records, playing solitaire and Angry Birds, listening to music and watching movies, managing her email and calendar.  And if she wants, she can unplug her Surface Pro 2 from her office desktop peripherals and continuing doing all of that on her tablet-form PC at the coffee shop or while lounging on her bed at home.

That's the Microsoft view of the future, Mr. Cook. Even though you don't yet have an OS X Mavericks Intel i5 tablet you still have one advantage - no wise parent will allow their six-year-old to play with their Surface Pro 2 because it is far more than a leisure content consumption platform. So while the Surface Pro 2 is all the parent needs to own, they may need buy an iPod Nano for the kid though a Windows 8.1 Phone may also be in the kid's future.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

When a "balanced budget" will seriously hurt California's school children: The Bare Bones Era - 2013

Last year Governor Jerry Brown, the California Teachers Association (CTA), and the California School Boards Association (CSBA) chose to oppose the tax measure drafted by Molly Munger and supported by the California PTA in favor of their own compromise measure that had virtually no chance of helping teachers and children in the classrooms.

Anyone who could read would recognize Brown's Proposition 30 was a selfish measure designed to promote the Brown brand, the bigotry of taxing the rich but not the middle class where the real money (and the teachers) can be found, and keeping the Legislature in charge of how the money will be spent.

The Sacramento Bee described the Munger/PTA measure as follows: "Munger makes a compelling case that this is a once-in-lifetime chance to invest directly in the improved education of California's children." It then endorsed the Brown/CTA measure as did all the influential newspapers in the State.

The voters approved Brown's measure. Why not, as they thought it would get them better schools for their children at minimal cost to themselves, particularly compared to the Munger/PTA measure. And, after all, how could the California Federation of Teachers be wrong? Well here's how.

In Sunday, the same stupid Sacramento Bee reporter who carefully gave Brown all the space he needed for spin wrote a story headlined: California retreats on class-size reduction.In it he explains that a local district now has 31 kids in a kindergarten class, up from 20. The Bee offers pictures about which one reader notes:
Count the kids in each photo - even the camera can not capture all 30 children. If the camera can not see what is happening in a classroom with that many children, how can one teacher possibly account for what is going on with each child, let alone each and every table of workers? How can one teacher give individual attention to each precious child when she is constantly on guard and looking out with her other eye trying to supervise 29 others?
California missed its chance to help the kids and teachers in the classroom. And with any luck (all bad for California), Brown will get reelected because nobody will know what happened, particularly the CTA and most of its membership, the CSBA and most of its membership, and the Legislature and most of its membership.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Northern California is on fire

While we have our normal late Summer fog, much of Northern California is more than a bit smokey. The red arrows in the satellite picture from this morning point to smoke plumes from three major fires (plus others are visible) (click on picture for larger version):

The fire at the upper center east of Redding, California: UPDATED: Sheriff declares state of emergency as Ponderosa Fire threatens 3,000 homes, forces more evacuations.

The fire at the right east of Chico, California: Chips Fire inches closer to Seneca.

The new fire at the left in our own Mendocino County: Wildfire burning near Covelo grows overnight.

Last week's big fire in Lake County, California is just producing hazy, but significant, smoke: Full containment of Wye Fire expected Saturday. Containment, of course, just means the fire is surrounded, but still burning.

CALFIRE maintains a web site summarizing incidents in California with links to a few more details.

The InciWeb web site which lists (with links) fires on federal lands shows 36 active fires in California, mostly Northern California. These active fires - only the ones on federal lands - involve 451,330 acres. When you add in the fires being handled by CALFIRE you get over 500,000 acres actively burning in Northern California.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Drought 2012: How The Great Recession is becoming more and more like The Great Depression

Images of The Great Depression most frequently include two focal points: (1) the unemployed, either selling apples or standing in line for food and (2) the Dust Bowl.

Because we now have the so-called "safety net", we haven't seen pictures of  anyone selling apples, though pictures of people standing in line for unemployment or food stamps were in newspapers in 2008 and 2009.

Now the other shoe has dropped.

If you didn't read the stories or hear the subject discussed on TV news, half of the United States, including areas in the 1930's Dust Bowl, officially has been or likely will be declared a drought disaster area. You can read the Department of Agriculture news release or do a Google News Search on "drought disaster" to bring yourself up-to-date. But here's the map:

When people start running for the Presidency, the candidates and the public think they know what issues are important. Of course, that is not true. George Bush and Al Gore did not run on how to fight terrorism in 2000. When Barack Obama decided to throw his hat into the primary ring against Hillary Clinton, the idea of an economic crash was not on the voters minds.

The current hot button issue is not this year's drought conditions even though one agricultural economist called it a "$50 billion event for the economy as it blends into everything over the next four quarters", with the important element of the "event" being the amount of extra money it will take for Americans to buy food combined with government insurance program payouts to farmers which will come from the borrowing.

But what could potentially be a major problem for either President Obama or Mitt Romney would be the continuation of this drought, which in many areas is already a multi-year drought. If the hot dry weather continues into next year, the potential economic impacts will be significant. Feed corn and hay will become scarce and prices will skyrocket forcing up the price of meat. Dairy farms and poultry producers will be confronted with a scarcity of feed.

Of course, in theory we could "outsource" by importing, but Argentina, among other alternative sources, is being slammed by drought also.

Climate change anyone? Does anyone running for President relate this to a potentially immediate worsening of the economic crisis?

And has anyone great and wise in California's Capitol wondered how this might affect The Great California Slump other than having a shortage of snow up at Tahoe next Winter?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Aaron Sorkin's Great Expectations: A news media that could never live up to our highest standards

I love Aaron Sorkin's new drama on HBO "The Newsroom."

But I am warning my conservative friends to not get so upset by Aaron Sorkin's opinions that they end up not watching the show. Truthfully, like so many "progressives" Sorkin is a conservative in the sense that he defends a fictional past as the time when American's were better, in this case because the press was so much better.

Sorkin's views were clearly stated at the beginning of the pilot which you can read here where Sorkin explains how to write effectively. While I got all teary-eyed because it was effective writing, this is Sorkin's fantasy. As with all fantasies it's a view based on fiction and even while I was taken in by the emotion I knew rationally that the monologue was like all propaganda, using some elements of fact mixed with fiction to persuade the listener to believe the fantasy.

History is a continuous line of cause and effect. So it's pretty easy to pick the monologue apart. First Sorkin sprinkles in some facts:
We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
Then he adds the argumentative fiction:
We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy.
Finally, he concludes with a statement about some newsmen who flourished in the period from 1948-72:
And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.
The problem is statistically and anecdotally the facts don't support this view of history.

Sure, we built a huge economy doing the many things he lists. But we beat our collective chests continuously from 1945 on. And we created many of our current problems with the best of selfish intentions even though the problems were foreseeable and, therefore, avoidable if only we had been informed by the great men of Sorkin's mythical newsrooms, newsmen who were revered.

While inventing many great things after the WWII, we built ourselves hundreds of thousands of suburban homes in thousands of Levittown's across the nation by leveraging government credit through the FHA and VA programs. And by using government debt we built streets and highways to commute to work in obviously fuel wasting, polluting automobiles we purchased using private debt. And we beat our chests about these accomplishments and learned to feel good about being in debt.

Beginning in the 1960's, we stopped putting our money where our mouths were when the Kennedy Administration began reducing the marginal tax rate. And the Johnson Administration invented the let's-don't-sacrifice-anything-collectively "Guns and Butter" economy, not George W. Bush. And so we felt even better about being more in debt.

What Sorkin doesn't say is that me and my generation and he and his generation created a mess for our grandchildren by "living off the fat of the land" partly because we, in fact, weren't informed.

In his second episode, Sorkin uses the Arizona immigration law to emphasize how a really good news show might deal with the subject. While the folks in the newsroom screwed up, if they had succeeded the implication was we would have been a much better informed America. But would we have?

Let's look at a longer view of American history and Mexico, which is ignored in the whole somewhat-silly-picture of the Arizona immigration law Sorkin presented.

Mexicans aren't a people in some country across an ocean like Italians or Koreans. While we want to define this as a legal issue about immigration, in fact it is a traditional human population "migration" pattern across some invisible lines on the ground, creating a controversy that based in part on the difference between these two historical maps:

It is a controversy that stems from the Mexican-American War about which Wikipedia notes in phrasing reminiscent of discussions over many of our much more recent wars:
American territorial expansion to the Pacific coast had been the goal of President James K. Polk, the leader of the Democratic Party. However, the war was highly controversial in the U.S., with the Whig Party and anti-slavery elements strongly opposed. Heavy American casualties and high monetary cost were also criticized. The political aftermath of the war raised the slavery issue in the U.S., leading to intense debates that pointed to civil war; the Compromise of 1850 provided a brief respite.
When you take a long view of history, it's not surprising that Arizonan's 160 years after the Mexican-American War find themselves in the middle of a controversy. It's one a historian could easily provide comparable scenarios in Europe and Asia dating back thousands of years.

While "progressives" and "conservatives" argue about a law in Arizona, over periods of decades and centuries people will migrate to wherever they can find a better life, whether its towards access to more food and other "stuff" or away from civil wars (such as the one going on in Mexico today). And most assuredly they will do so when it can be done "on foot."

I'm emotionally susceptible to Sorkin's monologues. Sorkin's fantasy - about an America being informed by a wise and knowledgeable free press so we can somehow make better decisions - is my fantasy.

But unlike Sorkin, I would assert we've not had that in my lifetime. In my opinion, one of the worst failures of the American press occurred between 1945-55.

Walter Cronkite, one of those "great men who were revered" was a journalist I greatly respected. But, I know that the time for Cronkite to take a hard look at American policy on Vietnam was in 1945, not in 1968, - when Cronkite belatedly went out to take a look, changed his view on the Vietnam War, and then told us about it .

It's always the history that we don't know that causes us problems.

Consider the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Most Americans still don't know that from 1911-13, he lived in the United States.

Most Americans still don't know that following World War I, under the name Nguyễn Ái Quốc he petitioned for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people in French Indochina to the Western powers at the Versailles peace talks, but was ignored. Citing the language and the spirit of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Quốc petitioned U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to help remove the French from Vietnam and replace them with a new, nationalist government. It is said that his failure further radicalized Nguyễn, while also making him a national hero of the anti-colonial movement at home in Vietnam.

Following the fall of the Japanese-controlled Empire of Vietnam in August 1945, the Viet Minh occupied Hanoi and proclaimed a provisional government, which asserted national independence on September 2, 1945. This could happen because America's "Greatest Generation" fought a war in France so people of all nations could determine their own future ... at least that's what we were told.

But the Provisional French Republic sent the French Far East Expeditionary Corps – originally created to fight the Japanese occupation forces – to restore French colonial rule.

This could have been prevented by the United States at the time. But there was no Murrow or Cronkite telling us about it. They were focused on Europe. And they simply did not know that their ignorance could end up in the death of thousands of young Americans.

After all the lofty language about self-determination that came out of our collective mouths after WWII, did our failure to stop the French in the aftermath of WWII make this Vietnamese national hero more than jaded and angry? Could an informed press told us about it? Might he not have turned to the Soviet Union for support if we actually did support the idea that people of all nations could determine their own future?

We'll never really know because Aaron Sorkin's heroic news team failed to inform us at a critical moment.

Perhaps this is true because while at times individual reporters and photographers can be heroic, but otherwise we expect too much of the press and too little of ourselves when it comes to being informed.

And that's the way it is in my humble opinion, July 3, 2012.

The Newsroom: Episode 2 "News Night 2.0"

Let's begin with a look at real life. Back in August 2010 CNN’s DC bureau chief David Bohrman and CNN political director Sam Feist produced the following memo:
From David Bohrman and Sam Feist:

We are thrilled to announce that today, Patricia DiCarlo becomes the Executive Producer of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. In her three years at CNN, Patricia has demonstrated that not only is she an outstanding journalist, she has also emerged as an important leader at CNN.

Patricia’s 15 years in broadcast journalism have spanned important producing positions from WFLA and WTVT in Tampa all the way to the Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago. Under the leadership of CNN’s own Katherine Green, Patricia ran one of the largest newsrooms in Washington, DC as Executive Producer at WTTG-TV. Everyone who has worked with Patricia DiCarlo will agree that she is tenacious, full of ideas, full of energy, and a virtual force of nature. The energy and enthusiasm Patricia brings to everything she does will be a perfect fit as she takes the helm of the Sitroom. And we couldn’t be more pleased to have found our new executive producer within our own ranks.

Please join us in congratulating Patricia, Wolf, and the whole Situation Room team.

David and Sam
What bugs me about this memo is that sentence "Patricia’s 15 years in broadcast journalism have spanned important producing positions from WFLA and WTVT in Tampa all the way to the Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago." So the "Oprah Winfrey Show" is considered "journalism"???

Watching episode 2 Sunday evening I realized that "The Newsroom" accurately reflects the reality of 21st Century American television news which is worse than the worst possible nightmare scenarios imagined by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The meaning of "journalism" as they knew it is dead.

As I watched the first 33 seconds of the opening credits/intro sequence of "The Newsroom" last night...

...I realized that the show reflects a nostalgic Aaron Sorkin writing a fantasy where the male characters are simultaneously bigger than life and run things, like in the 1950's.

Other than the men being "bigger than life", is it a fantasy? The cable news channel news-prime-time (6-7 pm) anchors are CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Fox's Shepard Smith, MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

Last night's episode is taking hits among reviewers because of its portrayal of women. Hey, folks, let's back up a notch. This is Sorkin's fantasy, we've only seen two episodes, and over at CNN the male honchos see "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as journalism in the context of a woman producer's experience, even though she stayed there only 1 year and 1 month before returning to real news.

I'm not so sure Sorkin is that far off.

As seen by Sorkin, there are three critical sources of philosophical conflict in early 21st Century television news. Two were presented in this episode by the character Mackenzie MacHale (well-portrayed by Emily Mortimer) as keys to the main story arc of the series:

In an argument with News Night's anchor Will McAvoy she states the first element of Sorkin's belief's about what the television news should be:
MacHale: "We don't do good television we do the news."
The second is an exchange between MacHale and the other members of the newsroom, mostly younger people who grew up with the current news style. In the exchange we hear the second element of Sorkin's belief's about television news, this time about bias:
MacHale: "The media's biased towards success and the media's biased towards fairness.

Maggie Jordan: "How can you be biased towards fairness?"

MacHale: "There aren't two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one."

In response to the obvious skepticism of the younger staff, McAvoy elaborates: "Bias towards fairness means that if the entire Republican Congressional Caucus were to walk into the House and propose a resolution stating that the Earth was flat, the Times would lead with Democracts and Republicans can't agree on shape of Earth."
The third critical philosophical conflict is the issue of ratings and popularity versus integrity of content and informing the viewer.

Sorkin seems to be framing this last conflict as an economic issue, which it is. But he isn't clearly presenting the reality of cable news networks. If no one watches, you aren't informing anyone. And, if your "integrity" is so great you don't tend to reflect a political ideology, no one will watch because cable news is mostly background noise, except for the believers who "pay the bills" in the cable news competition.

McAvoy's speech in the first episode is about what's wrong with Americans - not what's wrong with America. In it he said about the past: "And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed."

In this episode Sorkin is saying in his fantasy is that we cannot become an informed people if all we're looking for is entertainment. But what several characters in the story are saying is what the larger audience is looking for in television news is entertainment.

Which brings us to this show which is supposed to be entertainment.

Other than the ideologues who hate Sorkin for his political views, the show is getting the most criticism for what the first two episodes have not been. They have not been the representation of the well-written soap opera. Sorkin has not focused on creating believable characters.

What's most worrisome about this is the fact that Sorkin is writing this series without a "writers room" where others can expand his horizon regarding people, particularly women at the beginning of the 21st Century. This means that while the show is powerful with solid "production values" it is similar to "Mad Men" in that it is primarily the sole creation of one fifty-ish man. The female characters are not accurately represented according to their female contemporaries.

In "The Newsroom" the focus on the two women important to the story so far has been painted with a fog about relationships with the men they work with and even men they dated in college. That probably was a bad idea, at least for the first few episodes.

But, it's classic Sorkin. There were people who did not watch "West Wing" because of the sometimes frenetic verbal pace.

With that said, in terms of story arc, this episode combined with the first episode demonstrated that the new "retro" approach to the news sometimes will work and sometimes will fail. And it can be because of the unexpected. Last episode, one staffer had a solid connection to the story. This week the other staffer had a connection that should have been avoided.

These two episodes were "the pilot." The problem is if you missed some of the chatter you may have missed something you need to know. Or not.

I'm hoping we're going to get more quiet character interaction. It happened a lot in "West Wing." In an interview with Jane Fonda we learn that:

...[Jane] Fonda plays the recurring role of Leona Lansing, the CEO of the fictional network parent company Atlantic World Media that is, as Fonda explains, somewhere in between Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.

In the interview Fonda explains:

...Aaron says that it's mostly about the relationships -- and they are fascinating relationships -- about the characters that are in the newsroom. With Emily Mortimer and... well, you know who's in it. It's very interesting. The newsroom, to me -- and I play the head of the whole parent company -- the newsroom is less than three percent of my bottom line. But, because it's the newsroom, it can create a lot of trouble for me. So, I can rattle a lot of cages. But, my dilemma in this first season is what's happening because of what happens to Jeff Daniels in the course of the series. I don't feel like I'm in a position to say, you know, what the core of the story is....

So I have great hopes that the story will develop well.

Monday, June 25, 2012

HBO's "The Newsroom" - about regaining the ability to function

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. - F. Scott Fitzgerald
It says more about me than it does about the new HBO series "The Newsroom" that I can say the premise and style expressed in its premier nearly moved me to tears.

I'm old and I started my working life as a newspaper reporter.

I believed and still believe that the United States isn't the greatest country in the world because of what and how it is at any given moment, but rather because most Americans believe it could be and want it to be the greatest country in the world. We want a country that continuously attempts to achieve the impossible ideals:
  • of balancing populist governance against protecting basic rights for all individuals through formal institutions run by relatively small groups of professional and amateur politicians.
  • of a society that offers each of us equally an opportunity to be all that we can be, while protecting each of us not only against physical force from others, but against the abusive accumulation and use of government and economic power by any one or any few of us.
I shared, and still share, Edmond Burke's belief expressed in his 1787 observation to Parliament that "in the Reporters' Gallery" is "a Fourth Estate more important" to our government and society than the relatively small groups of professional and amateur politicians.

And so when a key character in Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" states that the goal is "reclaim journalism as an honorable profession” I was moved.

Never mind the need for me to suspend disbelief at a level generally reserved for science fiction or wild car chase action hero shows.

After all, this show's first episode begins far back in time for Americans to two weeks before a historical event essentially forgotten in the day-to-day discourse of most Americans - the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It then presents how the story should have been covered by the news media from the beginning instantly creating a newsroom full of "cape crusaders."

Aaron Sorkin was the creator and/or writer of the TV series "Sports Night","The West Wing", and  "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and movies "A Few Good Men",  "The American President", "Charlie Wilson's War", "The Social Network", and "Moneyball". The imprint of show creator Aaron Sorkin is deep in "The Newsroom" with rapid dialog and a fast pace.

The script is tight, the direction is flawless. The principle characters, however, include two flawed heroes, one a reluctant hero played effectively by Jeff Daniels, and the other a scarred action heroine, played also effectively by Emily Mortimer. It is also populated with a number of younger actors, the most obviously winning characters in the pilot played by Alison Pill, Dev Patel, and John Gallagher Jr.

And then there is  the venerable Sam Waterston bringing wit and wisdom to the always slightly inebriated character cable channel president Charlie Skinner who, like me, thinks it's time to try to have somebody on television bringing news that's full of facts (because there is a difference between the facts and spin) and who as a fictional person, unlike me, is in a fictional position to do so.

Sorkin is an anathema to the American ideological far right and he didn't ingratiate himself with the American ideological far left by having his lead character calling them "losers." Which brings me back to the Fitzgerald quote.

It is obvious that today America does not have a collective "first-rate intelligence" the test for the existence of which is "the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

The premise underlying the show is that at one time we did have such a collective "first-rate intelligence," stimulated and maintained by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley, which if we only could bring back that commitment to "truth, justice, and the American Way" could be recovered. And the character in the show that expresses that goal is ...drum roll... the Brit with a dual citizenship Mackenzie MacHale played by Emily Mortimer.

In Action Comics #900 ...yeah #900 at 100 pages...  Superman renounces his American citizenship saying "truth, justice and the American way- it's not enough anymore."

Aaron Sorkin's two flawed heroes would disagree. Truth, justice and the American way are all that matters and there's nothing "fair and balanced" about that.

Of course, unlike "The West Wing" which informed the broad sweep of Americans from a broadcast network, because American culture today lacks the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time while still retaining the ability to function, "The Newsroom" could only be presented through HBO which has the slogan "It's not TV, It's HBO" and only reaches 29 million homes out of the 100+ million homes with TV.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Bare Bones Era - 2012: When a "balanced budget" isn't balanced

For those of us who remember the era of Governor Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown 1.0 when we thought the quality of governmental leadership in our State was at an all time low, yesterday set a new standard for low here in the Magic Kingdom.

The etymology of the word leadership tells us that it involves the "characteristics necessary to be a leader."

At one time a "leader" was differentiated from a "follower." Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case in California politics (and maybe politics across the U.S.).

It appears that somewhere between the middle of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st Century, we have developed a new approach to selecting those who hold elected office in our governmental systems. The term "leadership" is passé, or as the younger generation says, so yesterday.

Today we are offered "celebrityship," from celebrity + -ship which would involves the "characteristics necessary to be a celebrity." Wikipedia tells us that a celebrity "is a person who has a prominent profile and commands a great degree of public fascination and influence in day-to-day media." We also are told:
While people may gain celebrity status as a result of a successful career in a particular field (primarily in the areas pertaining towards sports and entertainment), in other cases, people become celebrities due to media attention for their extravagant lifestyle or wealth (as in the case of a socialite such as Kim Kardashian); for their connection to a famous person (as in the case of a relative of a famous person, such as Chaz Bono); or even for their misdeeds (as in the case of a well-known criminal such as Ronnie Biggs).
California has established that the best qualification for Governor is celebrity status. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a successful actor who had almost no experience in government at any level. When he first ran for Governor, Jerry Brown had little experience in government but was the son of a Governor.

Let me digress a minute to discuss "celebrityship" in 21st Century politics.

It is fairly clear that if you are competent as an elected officeholder, but lack the style and background to bring you to celebrity status, you won't get much press coverage.

When you're a celebrity the press will cover you because you're a celebrity. Thus, Donald Trump who has become a well-known celebrity because of his family wealth and television success has considered running for President and offers significant political celebrityship despite a background clearly described in Wikipedia (with footnotes) that might otherwise preclude him from being considered for elected public office:
Donald Trump is the son of Fred Trump, a wealthy New York City real-estate developer. He worked for his father's firm, Elizabeth Trump & Son, while attending the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1968 officially joined the company. He was given control of the company in 1971 and renamed it The Trump Organization....

By 1989, the effects of the recession left Trump unable to meet loan payments. Trump financed the construction of his third casino, the $1 billion Taj Mahal, primarily with high-interest junk bonds. Although he shored up his businesses with additional loans and postponed interest payments, by 1991 increasing debt brought Trump to business bankruptcy and the brink of personal bankruptcy. Banks and bond holders had lost hundreds of millions of dollars, but opted to restructure his debt to avoid the risk of losing more money in court....

On November 2, 1992, the Trump Plaza Hotel was forced to file a prepackaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection plan after being unable to make its debt payments....

In January 2002, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought a financial-reporting case against Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc., alleging that it had committed several "misleading statements in the company's third-quarter 1999 earnings release." The matter was settled with the defendant neither admitting nor denying the charge.

...On October 21, 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts announced a restructuring of its debt. The plan called for Trump's individual ownership to be reduced from 56 percent to 27 percent, with bondholders receiving stock in exchange for surrendering part of the debt. Since then, Trump Hotels has been forced to seek voluntary bankruptcy protection to stay afloat.

...On February 17, 2009 Trump Entertainment Resorts filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; Trump stating on February 13 that he would resign from the board. Trump Entertainment Resorts has three properties in Atlantic City. Trump's unsuccessful libel lawsuit against author Timothy L. O'Brien, for O'Brien's estimating his net worth at less than $250 million, was dismissed in 2009. In the lawsuit it was revealed that in 2005, Deutsche Bank valued Trump's net worth at $788 million, to which Trump objected.
People like Trump, a lot of people. They like to follow his activities. He offers celebrityship.

So does Governor Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown 2.0 who, as noted in these posts, gets "good press" and his "spin" on any subject receives coverage no matter how big an untruth it is.

And so yesterday, the Democratic majority in the California Legislature essentially adopted a budget for the fiscal year 2012-13, more or less the same Moonbeam 2.0 balanced budget proposal offered in May. The Democratic Legislative leaders called the adopted version a balanced budget.

Here's how you "balance" a State General Fund budget in California.

In the late fall of 2011, Moonbeam decided he was going to get the voters to approve a tax increase by putting an initiative on the ballot in November 2012. So he estimated how much of a shortfall the budget would have and came up with a plan which, at the time, he determined would "balance" the budget. Later, because he's a celebrity who needs his fans, he compromised with the California Teachers Association, and together they put forward a plan which will be on the ballot in November.

The Legislative Analyst and the Director of Finance are tasked with determining the financial impact of ballot measures in California. Here is what they say about the Moonbeam 2.0 - CTA measure:
Estimates of the revenue increases vary--for 2012-13, from $4.8 billion to $6.9 billion; for 2013-14 through 2015-16, from $5.5 billion to $6.9 billion on average each year; and for 2016-17, from $3.1 billion to $3.4 billion.
The budget as proposed and adopted includes $8 billion in revenue for the General Fund from the proposed tax measure, a law that may or may not be approved by the voters in November (at this point before the anti-tax forces start any attacks, the polls indicate that support for the measure has already dropped to nearly 50%).

The irony here isn't that this $8 billion in "wished for" revenue is included in the balanced General Fund budget. The irony is that it was obvious by late March that the General Fund deficit for 2012-13 was going to be $16± billion.

So that "wished for" $8 billion wasn't enough to balance the budget.

Regardless of the ballot measure, the budget assumptions include about $2 billion in capital gains taxes from Facebook's  IPO without reevaluation after it became obvious in the third week of May that it wasn't the huge success anticipated.

The budget contains $1.4 billion in property tax revenue from local redevelopment agencies that the Legislature abolished last year. No one knows how much money will actually be available. The Legislative Analyst says that number is too high.

The State Air Resources Board this fall plans to auction off cap-and-trade credits for carbon emissions. No one know how much money will be generated. The funds were to help with the State's renewable energy programs. But the balanced budget estimates that the auction will generate $1 billion and transfers half into the General Fund. No one knows if that is legal.

The General Fund budget includes $400 million from the national mortgage banking lawsuit settlement, monies that were to help troubled homeowners.

There are many other "revenue" gimmicks. The General Fund plan includes raiding transportation money and other special funds (i.e., child abuse prevention money from special license plates).

Then there's the expenditure side of the budget. It of course includes delaying payments on loans. It includes delaying funding for schools and other local agencies. It assumes wage cuts in the form of "furlough days" but the Legislature refused to adopt Legislation establishing those furlough days. It assumes significant reductions in persons needing public assistance and medical care even though California's employment situation since the beginning of The Great California Slump clearly shows little or no recovery (click on the graph to see a larger version):

Another irony is that most of the seats in the Legislature also are up for election in November.

Because the winners of our elections will be determined on their celebrityship skills, there will be no significant changes in the membership of the Legislature.

The final irony is that last year the Governor and Legislature simply threw $4 billion extra into "Revenue Not Otherwise Classified" hoping it would materialize, which it didn't. It was promised that if it didn't materialize, someone would spend $4 billion less, but they didn't.

Of course, we don't really want leadership anyway. Leadership this year came from Molly Munger and the California PTA in the form of a ballot measure providing money for education. They know that to keep the employment picture from permanently looking like the graph above, we need to educate and train our children for a 21st Century economy. But for their ballot measure to pass California's upper middle class (those families with incomes between $80,000 and $500,000) would need to overcome its self-involvement addiction and its fascination with celebrityship, with the Donald Trumps whose success comes at the expense of others.

That won't happen because plans providing for the future come from leadership not celebrityship. The last thing California's upper middle class wants is someone telling them to skip upgrading to the soon-to-be-released Chinese-made iPhone 5 and pay some extra taxes.

Moonbeam knows this which is why his inadequate tax measure might pass. Whatever good it might do it will do using the money of "the others," the so-called 1% and the working poor.

Californian's prefer the substance one can find in a moonbeam.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Bare Bones Era - 2012: Once upon a time...

This coming Friday is the Constitutional deadline for the California Legislature to adopt a balanced budget. Democratic legislative leaders, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, and their minions are making the final edits on the new fairy tale they'll call a balanced budget.

 Their creation would rival  Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" which is simply the story of a vain Emperor who hires two tailors who promise him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone unworthy of his position or otherwise hopelessly stupid. When the Emperor "dresses" in the new suit and parades before his subject, a child too young to understand the need to keep up pretenses blurts out the Emperor has no clothes.

Outside the State Capitol Building some people have been blurting out the fact that California's budgets have been unbalanced for years. But the rest of the folks, including those inside the Capitol Building as well as most California voters, keep up the pretense.

The latest to point out the naked obviousness of the California State Budget is the folks at the venerable Standard & Poor's (S&P) rating service. In a 12-page report released today Californian's can learn, but don't want to know, that:
...In our view, whether the state has had a genuinely balanced budget at any point in the past decade or more is debatable. But despite California's recurring budget problems being the subject of considerable news and analytic coverage, we believe their origins are not well understood.

A complex maze of constitutional and statutory provisions governing California's budget process seems to contribute to misconceptions about the state's finances, in our view. Some observers blame the state's fiscal morass on over-spending, large pension and retirement liabilities, or an excessive tax burden, which theoretically could weaken its economic climate. Whether the state's handling of these areas is appropriate public policy is different from the question of whether the state's approach in these areas contributed to its current fiscal position. ...In our view, retirement liabilities have contributed little if anything to California's current budget problems. Spending and taxes relative to the state's economy also do not appear to be causing the recent fiscal imbalance when viewed over the past several decades. Instead, we find that revenue generated by the state's tax system has been growing at a slower rate in recent decades while becoming more volatile. During the same years, the general fund has become the source of payment for an increasing share of the state's educational system as a result of a variety of direct and indirect changes in state law. In our view, it is mostly through these expansions of the general fund's scope of funding responsibility, which we consider particularly inflexible, that spending has contributed to fiscal imbalance....
Those words come from an organization that has no ideological agenda. To summarize, they say that the problem we have with our budget has nothing to do with spending or taxing too much, or from public employee pensions. They explain:
...Total tax revenues generated by the state's tax regime are volatile and insufficient for its current level of spending. But we don't see the state's existing spending level as the key source of its budget distress. In fact, the state is currently spending less as a share of its economy than it has at any point in the past 39 years.
Instead, they tell us that the problem is our tax structure:
...We can infer from these data that in 2010, when the PIT accounted for 51.5% of total general fund revenue, the state relied on the top 1% of taxpayers for 11% of general fund revenues. In 1979, the top 1.05% of taxpayers funded just 2.7% of general fund revenue.

The governor's revised budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 would rely on PIT for 63% of total general fund revenue. Applying the recent income distribution rates would imply that the portion of total general fund revenue from the top 1% of income earners would increase in fiscal 2013 to 13% or more. Sales and use tax, as a source of revenue, has moved in the other direction: it would equal 22% of general fund revenues in fiscal year 2013 (assuming the one-fourth cent SUT increase sought by the governor), down from 38% in 1979.
In great detail they provide a historical analysis offering without judgement data that reflects the fact that it was in 1978 California's voters took charge of the State's finances by approving Proposition 13. Their comment quoted earlier that "the general fund has become the source of payment for an increasing share of the state's educational system" which has "has contributed to fiscal imbalance" reflects, of course, the fact that the voters decided to commit general fund revenues to education through several propositions.

In other words, the people who have incurred incredible amounts of credit card debt buying consumer goods, who bought houses that were overpriced and which they couldn't afford, and who elect legislators and governors who cater to their prejudices really have no idea how to manage the finances of the State of California, home to one of the world's largest economies.

Being aware of the fact that the fairytale budget now being written will depend upon the voters approving a tax initiative measure proposed by the Governor and a teachers union, the S&P writers note:
The governor's tax initiative would temporarily increase income tax rates on the state's high-income earners and would raise the statewide SUT by one-fourth of a cent. Most of the projected revenue increase (93%) would come from the higher income taxes. By boosting total tax revenues, the governor's initiative would alleviate to some degree the budget pressure from the slowing revenue growth. On the other hand, by relying on high-income earners that generate a greater share of their overall income from capital gains, the tax initiative would likely exaggerate the volatility of the state's revenue base. To the extent policymakers used any breathing space afforded by the additional temporary revenue to pursue structural tax reforms, we think the tax initiative could ultimately be beneficial to the state's credit quality. If no reforms were undertaken during this period, the underlying deficit would presumably reemerge once the temporary tax rates expire. Under this scenario, we believe any general fund relief derived from the temporary tax increase could wind up being a missed opportunity.
This is, of course, a polite way of saying that the voters and their legislators are about to make things worse because they won't overhaul the tax system to impose a greater share of the burden on the middle class, particularly the upper middle class, using a stable source of tax revenue, say, oh, I don't know,... property taxes maybe?

Instead, the vast majority of California's voters generally want to tax someone other than themselves, such as the now almost mythical wealthy 1% which in California means all those high tech billionaires.
Economic benefits from the high-technology sector also appear to us to come at the cost of strikingly higher revenue volatility, which coincided with the dot-com boom in the late 1990s. That period, followed by bubble conditions in the housing market, led to a surge of capital gains as a share of income in the state. Windfall revenues from surging capital gains income are unpredictable, but as the state has lurched from one budget crisis to the next, lawmakers have typically spent these gains on recurring expenses. Income tax revenue from capital gains as a share of general fund revenues ranged from 3.0% to 14.8% between 2000 and 2010. In his revised budget proposal, the governor reduced the forecast for capital gains income and assumes essentially no growth in the equity markets for the duration of the calendar year. Although the tempered outlook could make the new revenue forecast more accurate, compared with earlier forecasts, it now includes additional revenue assumed from the recent Facebook initial public offering (IPO). The Facebook-related revenue in the forecast boosts state revenues by $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion, contingent on the outcome of the November 2012 tax initiative. But this revenue is also subject to capital market uncertainties. While setting aside any such revenue in a reserve may comport with a theoretical best practice, we believe that the politics of doing so might be impractical if it required spending cuts beyond those already deemed severe by policymakers. On balance, California's software and biotechnology fields attract significant investment, including, for the fourth year in a row, more venture capital investment than all other states combined. Therefore, we believe the high-technology sector benefits the state's long-term credit quality, but the greater reliance on high-income earners that it brings exposes the general fund to the vagaries of the capital markets.
In other words, funding government using taxes depending upon year-to-year swings in profits made in capital markets is foolish. And what they observe is:
Apart from a resurgent economic-driven change, we believe that the only realistic near-term potential for increased tax revenues under consideration is the governor's tax initiative, which would exaggerate the state's revenue reliance on a portion of the taxpayer base we already consider concentrated.
This is, after all, California where we have Governor Moonbeam and the Democratic Legislature about to publish a fairytale and have the voters help them keep up the pretense of a balanced budget.

In the meantime, the ideological opposition is telling voters solve the budget problems by reducing pensions. The S&P writers note:
The state's pension liabilities, while large, contribute little if anything to its current budget predicament.
We are, after all, the home of the Magic Kingdom and vote as if we live in Fantasyland. And so our story for 2012 begins: "Once upon a time...."