Category Archives: Rant

Remembering Paris

A week ago Friday, Islamic terrorists associated with ISIS executed a series of attacks in Paris, at a sports arena, a music hall, a restaurant, and several other sites.  They killed 129 people and left over 300 wounded.

I was horrified, but not particularly surprised.  Two weeks before, ISIS planted a bomb on a Russian airliner full of tourists returning home from Egypt.  The plane dropped out of the sky, and all 224 on board was killed.  The Russians, more than us, have stirred up the ISIS hornet’s nest, and now we’re facing the consequences.  (Then again, we built ISIS, but that’s another story.)

The next day (a week ago Saturday), my wife and I went to see the new James Bond movie, Spectre.  One of the trailers was for London has Fallen, an upcoming action movie in which terrorists blow up, well, London.  It seemed in poor taste after the events of the previous day.  But I suppose that the show must go on.

Spectre was a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment, without so much emphasis on Bond’s personal problems.  But it’s consistent with the new generation of Bond films in that Bond’s adversary resolves into a non-rogue agent of the same government that Bond himself serves.  The plot revolves around a ‘Nine Eyes’ surveillance initiative by which nine countries would pool their resources and share surveillance data on all their citizens.  But, in real life, there is a ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance agreement between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  It seems pointless for Bond to appear in a movie trying to thwart a plot that is already in operation in real life.

Saturday night, the Democratic Presidential candidates had a debate.  I watched some of it after the fact, and lost interest: the candidates are too much in agreement with each other.  But Hillary Clinton was called out for not wanting to say that we were at war with ‘radical Islam.’

On one level, I agree with her: it’s ludicrous to say that one is ‘at war with Islam.’  A religion is a set of ideas: software for the brain.  It’s almost like saying one is at war with Microsoft Word.   But the principles of Islam are a driving force for the terrorists.  That’s why I prefer to refer to our adversary as ‘Islamic terrorists,’ and what makes Hillary’s use of ‘jihadist’ evasive.

As I watched the evening news this week, and they regurgitated the Paris attacks, I realized that I was supposed to be frightened.  I don’t see the point: quivering in fear accomplishes nothing.  Even the Parisians understand that: they have been coming together at the Place de la Republique to talk, and heal, and move forward.

But our leadership is latching on to the event to tell us that we need yet more surveillance, and that those evil companies, Apple and Google, have released software that enables individuals to send encrypted messages that the government can’t read!  They have to be stopped!  And, by the way, you can blame this all on Edward Snowden, for spilling the beans about the NSA.

Well, maybe.  If the volume of data to be transferred is small enough, it’s easy to make an unbreakable code, with or without a smartphone app, because the party who would break the code does not have enough input to begin to try.  And no, the government does not have the right to read our communications in transit, any more than it has the right to read our paper mail.

Meanwhile, President Obama wants to bring at least 10,000 Syrian refugees into the US per year over the next two years, and perhaps many more.  He says that it’s in the American tradition of looking after the downtrodden.

Again, well, maybe.  Our Dear Leader sent out a graphic noting that in the past five years, we’ve accepted 2,000 refugees, none of whom have been arrested for terrorism… yet.  But now he’s proposing bringing in an order of magnitude more in a shorter time, and somehow things will just work out?

Moreover, we’re broke.  You might say that it’s only a few billion, and barely moves the needle in terms of the national debt.  But it still pains me to see our President playing Lady Bountiful, spending money he doesn’t have.

All of which has taken me a bit afield from what I started with, the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.  To be sure, it’s sad and horrifying, but life goes on.  I speak from experience: we had terrorist death and destruction in New York City not that long ago.

But more horrifying than the destruction wrought by the terrorists is the realization that, in both instances, our leadership brought the terrorists into existence to play some other geopolitical games, and they turned on us when circumstances changed.

We have to start doing something different.  And we need to start, as individuals, by not letting our leadership and the media fearmongers frighten us.

Disgustipated

My mother used to say ‘disgustipating’ to refer to things that she thought were really rotten.  I hadn’t thought of it for a while, until this week.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that gay marriage is a Constitutional right, and that the remaining states where gay marriage is forbidden will have to allow it.

Hooray for Marriage Equality
Hooray for Marriage Equality

While I was out this morning, I saw the sign above at a parking lot.

I really have no problem with gay civil marriage: gay people should be able to express their commitment to each other, and secure their legal rights with respect to each other, the same as heterosexual couples.

But is it ‘marriage equality’?  Hardly.

All but a tiny handful of the seven billion of us walking the planet today are here because, at some point in the past, a man and a woman came together and caused us to be.  Not all of them were married, but it is that essential fact of our existence that is the origin of marriage.

And until and unless there is a race of literal Amazons who reproduce through parthenogenesis, so it will continue to be.

What bothers me about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is that, first, there is nothing in my reading of the Constitution that infers a right to gay marriage, either directly or indirectly.  Many, many decisions are made (in business, politics, and life in general) by coming up with the answer first, and assembling whatever arguments are needed to support it.  But I expected the Supreme Court to be above that sort of crap.

What’s far worse, though, is that the government is now empowered to clonk those of us who believe that ‘equal under the law’ is not ‘the same thing’ upside the head and tell us to get with the program.  We already have laws preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation: those, together with yesterday’s decision, mean that gay civil marriage will not be containable as ‘civil’ for very long.

*          *          *

The other disgustipating Supreme Court decision concerned Obamacare.  The law, as written, indicated that subsidies would be available for individuals who had purchased insurance through ‘an exchange established by the State.’  We normally don’t say that in American law.  You might say ‘a State’ or ‘the States,’ referring to one or more of the 50 state governments, or ‘the States or the Federal government’ if that’s what you meant.

We had understood that the intent was that a state would have to set up an insurance exchange for its residents to get the subsidies, as a means of encouraging states to set up exchanges.  But most states didn’t do that, leaving it to the Federal exchange.

But if people couldn’t get subsidies, the insurance wouldn’t be affordable, so an executive decision was made to allow subsidies to residents of all of the states.  You could reasonably read ‘an exchange established by the State’ to refer to, not a particular one of the 50 states, but the government in general.

Ultimately, this one doesn’t really matter for me.  New York did set up an Obamacare exchange. (Alas, I earn too much to be eligible for a subsidy, and even if I got one, it wouldn’t make a dent in the actual premium.)  Nevertheless, with or without the subsidy, Obamacare remains the most breathtakingly bad public policy decision that I can remember in my life.

But I’m sure something will come to top it later this year.

Despairing for a President

Let’s start with the Democrats, because I’ve been a registered Democrat all my life, even though I’ve been disgusted with them for at least the last six years.

There’s Hillary Clinton.  I am well and truly Ready for Hillary… to just go away.  Between Benghazi, and running her own personal private e-mail server while Secretary of State, she is now officially a sneak.  I’ve gotten to the point where I simply can’t believe anything she says.

But let’s make the plausible assumption that, if elected, she would follow the same policy directions as the current President.  Would I want four more years of a listless economy, an airheaded foreign policy, and open borders?  No, thank you.

The other official candidate at this point is Bernie Sanders, who is somewhere to the left of Hillary: a fan of more government ‘investment…’ to do what?

Then there are the Republicans.  I’ve been disgusted with the Democrats for the past six years, and while I could change my party registration, what I’ve seen on that side of the fence hasn’t been compelling.

First, there’s Jeb Bush, who has the obvious name factor: is there no other family across our broad land capable of fielding plausible Republican candidates?

But beyond that, he and the newcomers Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all subscribe to the same basic platform: a more assertive America, meaning going to war against whomever makes us mad,  (And if there’s no obvious enemy, they’ll make one,  Where would W have been without 11 September as a pretext to go to war in Iraq?)  They also stand for ‘immigration reform,’ meaning, at best, another 1980s-style reset, in which the illegal immigrants already here are given a path to legal status, while the icky part of the job–securing the borders and enforcing the law against hiring illegal immigrants–goes quietly by the boards.

In fact, all of the candidates seem to stand for open borders, although some are more vocal about it than others.  Evidently, the Power Beyond wants open borders.  Perhaps they’re worried that we’re in demographic decline because of our low birth rate.  But what’s galling is that we, as real American citizens, don’t seem to matter.

And all of the candidates claim to be ready to fix the economy, when in fact, they can’t.  The economy will improve if and when the private sector returns to real productive activity instead of pluffage.  But while government can encourage productive activity, it can’t force businesses to expand and hire.

Finally, none of the candidates seem to want to do anything about the emerging police state.  One of the things that I realized from the muted overall response to Edward Snowden is that much of our leadership is OK with our government snorfing  up every phone call, e-mail, and blog post.

We became a superpower decades ago because we had the productive economic base to support it.  We didn’t become a superpower because we were ordained by God, or because there was something magical about our land: we earned it.  And if we want to remain a superpower, we have to maintain and expand that base, which we haven’t been doing.  So we need to take a few steps back and either rebuild our economic base (which is more in the hands of private enterprise than something the government can do), or face the reality that without that base, we can no longer be a superpower.

And none of the candidates running for President, nor even any of the not-quite-candidates who are still considering whether to run, seems to get this.

Mario Cuomo

Yesterday, Mario Cuomo, former governor of the State of New York, passed away at the age of 82.

Even though I remember when Mario Cuomo was governor, and I even voted for him, I can’t remember anything that he did that was noteworthy.  He was a liberal with an expansive view of government, but he couldn’t follow through on it while he was governor because there was never quite enough money.  He delivered a rousing speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, in a year when the Democrats had consigned themselves to losing anyway.

I’m sure that they will rename the Queens Midtown Tunnel for him, or maybe the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  In recent years, the state has been renaming bridges and tunnels after dead politicians.  The Triborough Bridge (actually a complex of three bridges, as you might suspect, to connect three boroughs) was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge; the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel became the Hugh Carey tunnel.

Mario Cuomo’s  son, Andrew, is governor now, having been re-elected last November.  He made a big splash when he first arrived in office, delivering an on-time state budget for the first time in eons.  But then, he turned into another New York State politician.  His chest-thumping achievement was a state income tax cut not large enough to pay for a daily newspaper.  (OK, maybe it would pay for El Diario, which is still fifty cents.)  Last year, with great fanfare, he named an ethics commission to investigate the state government, then shut it down before it could actually find anything.

But it’s not just the Cuomos: looking back through my lifetime, I can’t think of a single New York State governor who actually accomplished anything worthwhile.  Even if I cheat, and Google past governors to see what they did, I still come up mostly empty.  OK: Hugh Carey, back in the 1970s, helped save New York City from bankruptcy.  And Andrew Cuomo did sign gay marriage into law, although that seemed more a case of jumping in front of the parade and strutting, than actual leadership.

Worse, it seems true at every level of politics.  In 2013, we had Joe Lhota as the Republican candidate for mayor.  He seemed to go out of his way to be colorless, and he lost.  The 2016 Presidential election seems to be shaping up as a contest between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.  And which ever one is elected will probably do the same things.

What’s the Point?

It’s been a rotten week.

At work, I got into a pointless argument: pointless because I should have known that I couldn’t win, regardless of the merits of my position.  But I persevered anyway, and lost. And I wasted another week on a project that’s already horrendously late.

A few weeks ago, my office sent out a pile of drawings.  I spent a day and a half checking the technical details of the drawings, making sure everything was correct. This week, the client noted that half the drawings identified the wrong location in the drawing title.  It’s not a real problem: the drawings are a work in progress anyway, and everyone understood what the correct location was, but it’s still just stupid.

I’ve been so busy with real engineering issues that I haven’t had time for the more routine items, like… sending out invoices. But if I don’t do that, I won’t get paid.

The other night, I was watching the evening news when a commercial for Chase Private Client came on.  The happy couple invited their banker to their retirement party, and the banker said he’d be ‘honored’ to join them. I fought the urge to throw my remote control through the TV screen: I bank at Chase; they’re falling-all-over-themselves polite when I go there, but are practically useless; I fully expect to retire in a coffin.

And last night, I found myself watching the recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  One of the things that makes James Bond stories work is that Bond’s bosses are always on the side of rightness and justice.  But in Quantum, we learn that the corruption goes all the way to the top.  What is the point of serving Queen and country, when Queen and country are in bed with the villains?

It seems the entire country is becoming unglued.  We’re trying to make Ukraine and Syria safe for democracy while neglecting our own borders.  After fussing for years about the deficit, Congress has abdicated its Constitutional responsibility to manage the nation’s debt, by abandoning the debt ceiling and authorizing the Treasury to borrow whatever it needs for a set time period.

And someday soon, perhaps within the next two years, the hammer will drop, and my family and I will be trundled off to a FEMA camp, or be killed by marauding street gangs, or starve to death in our apartment.  Or maybe New York will be obliterated by an errant atomic bomb.  (Growing up in the 1960s, with the notion that the Russians could toast us with scarcely a moment’s warning, was nowhere near as bad: I had the sense that both the US and the USSR were run by responsible adults.  Today, I’m not so sure.)

Meanwhile, I’m running myself ragged, scrambling to meet deadlines, and having less and less to show for it.  Maybe I could prepare for the oncoming disaster, but I don’t have the time or the money or the energy.

A Dreary Start

One of my bad habits is grabbing my tablet first thing in the morning to check my e-mail, before I’ve quite gotten out of bed.  It’s usually advertising of various stripes: books or records or electronics.  Today Amazon was trying to tempt me with music.

They were selling  Lourde’s Pure Heroine at the low, low price of $3.99 (cheaper than vinyl records back in the day!).  I had heard reports that it was wonderful, and read about it in the newspaper, but never actually listened to Lourde herself.

Or maybe I did, but I just don’t remember it.

It’s that bad.  No, it’s worse.

Music is supposed to work by evoking an emotion in the listener.  But the songs of Pure Heroine evoke nothing, except a desire to change the channel.  I do not feel the earth move under my feet: I feel my neurons dying.

And Lourde is not a heroine, whatever she imagines herself to be.  She sings like a mouse.  The songs have too many words, and no space for a melody to take flight, or even work up a good waddle.

I don’t mean to be hard on Lourde.  She’s singing in the contemporary manner, and maybe it’s my fault that I don’t get it.  But it’s a disappointment.

Further wandering on Amazon brought me to the new Weird Al Yankovic album, Mandatory Fun, also well-reviewed in the newspaper.  I’ve always enjoyed Weird Al, but the input to the Weird Al process is the music of its time.  Would this be a case of ‘garbage in, garbage out’?

Sadly, it seems to be that way.  Some of the material seems worth another listen, but in general, it’s true to its title, ‘mandatory fun,’ which is to say that it’s no fun at all.

I got out of bed, went to the living room, and put on the Duran Duran song ‘Rio’ louder than I had a right to at 6:30 in the morning.

I had to clear the crap out of my head.

A Foul Mood

I was in a foul mood last week.  I think I was on the edge of coming down with a cold, and I was teaching a class, so I had to be bright and chipper through the workday, only to come home and want to just drop into bed.

But beyond that:

  • It seems inevitable that Bill deBlasio will be our next Mayor: so inevitable, in fact, that I didn’t bother to cast an absentee ballot (more on that later).  He promises ‘a break from the Bloomberg years.’  I take that to mean a break from low crime and competent city administration (except for the snowstorm a couple of years ago).  Meanwhile, he promises to fight the good fight to reinstate the ban on large sodas.  I remember the ‘bad old days’ of the 1980s.  It didn’t bother me so much back then, as I was in my 20s and felt pretty much indestructible, but now I’m worried.  Moreover, deBlasio is a community activist, with no experience running either public or private enterprises, other than his own office as Public Advocate.  And we all know what happened the last time we elected a community activist to executive power….
  • Across the nation, the reality of Obamacare is seeping in: that if you’re not covered by your employer, you’re required to pay out of your own pocket for health insurance.  In NY, many of the requirements of Obamacare were already state law, so premiums in fact may be going down a few ticks.  But elsewhere, premiums are skyrocketing.  And then there’s the thought that, if you live in one of the states without a state insurance exchange, you’ll have to go to healthcare.gov, and tell it all your personal secrets.
  • One of the items on the ballot this year is a state Constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling.  I used to think that casinos were cool, until my wife and I went to Las Vegas and got bored with it after about an hour.  (I also can’t bring myself to wager more than about $10 at a clip on a game I know is rigged in favor of the house.)  The modern casino is a factory performing the industrial process of separating patrons from their money.  The particularly galling thing, though, is that the state wrote up the description to play up the benefits of casino gaming (more money for schools! whoopee!), rather than a more neutral description, as that way people would be more likely to vote ‘yes.’

I attend a professional conference the first week of November.  For the last couple of years, I made it a point to cast an absentee ballot, but was just too busy over the past few weeks.  But the election seems a lost cause anyway.  Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the first day of the conference.  I was going to be a tourist today with my wife, but we’re both feeling rotten.  At least I can catch up on some paperwork.

Positive Train Control

I normally don’t write about topics in my profession: I think of blogging as a relief from work.  But I can’t resist commenting on a news item this week.

First, a little background.  For years, legislating requiring railroads in the US to install a positive train control system had been kicking around Congress.  Public interest groups supported it; the railroads hated it.  The stalemate persisted until 2008, when a head-on collision between a freight train and a commuter train occurred in California, killing about 20.  At that point, Congress was galvanized into action: the Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed, and signed by President Bush, less than two weeks afterward.  It requires certain mainline railroads in the US to implement positive train control systems over some 60,000 miles of track by the end of 2015.  (The territory where the California accident took place had a signal system, but no method of enforcement if a train should overrun a stop signal.)

Like any other human endeavor, railroads are imperfect: accidents happen, sometimes spectacular ones.  But on balance, railroads are safer than most other forms of transport.  The Positive Train Control system will incrementally improve safety, but at a cost of some $13 billion dollars to build, plus ongoing maintenance.  Meanwhile, from fewer accidents and improved operating efficiencies, the railroads will gain about 5% of that for their efforts.  And the system will not prevent all accidents: Positive Train Control would not have prevented the accident in Quebec last July, when a runaway train of crude oil derailed at the bottom of a hill, destroying 30 buildings and killing 42.

In any case, as of 2008, the railroads had a little over seven years to implement this system.  The first year could only be spent on general planning, because the regulations still had to be written.  But the railroads set to work on it, making progress, although the 2015 deadline was still a difficult target.

Earlier this year, there was talk about extending the 2015 deadline, which on balance seems reasonable.  But this week, a news item crossed my desk:  the sites for 22,000 radio towers, required to make the system work, would have to be approved by Native American tribes across the country, to ensure that the sites did not cover sacred burial grounds.

Where did such madness come from?  I thought of the times I have driven cross-country and the innumerable radio towers to support cell phone service.  But it turns out that those towers were subject to the same approvals.  The phone companies presumably set up a process for getting the sites approved with minimal delay, and built out their networks like they planned.

So now, I’m disappointed: either the consultants and engineers involved in Positive Train Control implementation don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re overstating the dimensions of the problem to cadge for more time.

The weasels….

Shutdown

I burst out laughing when I saw today’s Daily News headline:

House of Turds

But I’m not sure that House Speaker Boehner deserves the honor he is accorded here.  As far as I can tell, he’s an establishment politician who is somewhat embarrassed by his colleagues who are standing up for their principles and exercising their authority to actually change something.  (After all, it wouldn’t be good for angry Democrats to stand up for their constituencies and work to undo bad Republican policy.)

In any case, the House, driven by Republicans, and the Senate failed to come to agreement last night, and as a result, the Federal government is now ‘shut down.’  Well, not really: the mail will still be delivered, the politicians will still get paid, and essential services are still running.  But the national parks are closed across the country, and some 800,000 Federal employees are temporarily unemployed.

Whom do you blame for the government shutdown?

The direct answer is obvious: the House Republicans, of course.  They could have gotten with the program and kicked the can down the road, as has been done a hundred times before.  But the pollster’s question is loaded: it implies that the Federal government shutdown is a something to be blamed for.

To be sure, it’s not ideal, and not a desirable outcome.  But it’s the first break in our time from the pattern of yowling and wailing about some problem or another and then resolving to change nothing.  At least they’re trying.

Meanwhile, my mailbox is stuffed with missives from the Obamoids about the rotten Republicans who ‘want to prevent 40 million people from gaining affordable, accessible health care.’

No, that isn’t it at all.  It’s that Obamacare insurance is not ‘affordable;’ it’s unclear, given shortages of doctors and the rotten medical care in this country (unless you’re in the 1%, going to a hospital is only marginally nicer than going to jail), how ‘accessible’ care will be; and maybe a third of ’40 million’ will benefit, while the rest of us are bankrupted in the process.  Meanwhile, as a weekend bonus, employers all over the country are cutting their staffs and their hours so as not to have to pay for it.

And for those who say that Obamacare is ‘the law of the land,’ settled and beyond debate, I have three words:

So was Prohibition.

Fourth of July… meh

It’s 0815 on the Fourth of July, and I’m riding the subway, headed in to the office.

July 4 was always my least favorite holiday.  As a kid, its specialness was lost on me, because I was already on summer vacation.  When I moved into my own place, I was bothered by the firecrackers adding pointless noise to a stuffy, sultry night.  When I got divorced, I surprised both my own and my wife’s lawyer by proposing that we would share Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Labor Day (which is very close to our son’s birthday), but that I wanted the other winter holidays (Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day), while she could have the summer holidays (Memorial Day and July 4).  (She agreed, and everything worked out reasonably well thereafter.)

Today, I’m heading into the office because I’m overstuffed with things to do.  I was teaching a class last week, which left very little time to keep up with the other deliverables.  Once upon a time, things actually slowed down during the summer; not anymore.

But the other reason that I’m down on July 4 this year is what has happened to our country.  We’re broke; we’ve turned into a police state; we’re involved in pointless wars and pointless policies at home.  I was never much for thumping my chest and being proud of being an American.  I was proud, once, of what we did and what we stood for.  But much of that is gone now.

And the next stop on the train is my office, so that will be it for now.

Stupid Mistake Week

This past Sunday, I found myself revisiting an old habit from high school days, in that I was watching TV while doing homework.  I was watching Ax Men on the History Channel, seeking relief from the inanities of my life in a world where people know what they’re doing.  Alas, not this week: it seemed that all of the drama turned on someone’s stupid mistake, or an old hand’s inability to adapt to changed circumstances.

Monday was not a good day at the office.  A few weeks ago, I sent reviewed and sent out a passel of about 150 drawings.  Monday one of them came back because it was missing a date.  An instruction manual also came back, disapproved by the client.  I had drawn an illustration with colored arrows to illustrate signal flows, then used other arrows in the same colors to point out devices in the illustration.  It also gave the client the opportunity to do a hunting and fishing expedition through the rest of the document, which they were previously happy with.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

This morning, the two New York tabloids, which normally try to outdo each other with witty headlines, ran the exact same headline for the same story:

Meat the Wife

This morning I got a message from a client on another project that a large group of drawings were rejected, and many of them will have to be updated.  I didn’t prepare these drawings, so it’s not an immediate crisis for me, but it’s the latest in a long line of oopsies on that project.

This afternoon, my telephone rang with a call from the trenches: more glitches to be fixed.  And while I can say ‘I didn’t do it’ in this case, I’ve still gotta fix it.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the horror show continues.  A year and a half ago, to resolve the budget crisis of the week, the parties agreed that if they were not able to reach agreement on how to at least move things a little closer to balance, there would be automatic spending cuts (the ‘sequester’) eighteen months hence, i.e. this Friday.

And now both sides are moaning and wailing about how the sequester is a bad idea.  It’ll cut teachers!  It’ll weaken our defense!  It’ll be the end of the world as we know it!

In reality, if you consider that entitlements and debt service are sacrosanct, you end up with about a 10% cut of everything else.  Yes, it’s painful, but hardly the end of the world.  But it is another example of how we have been overrun with stupid mistakes.

And it’s only Tuesday….

The Lost Art of Documentation

When I first worked with computers in the 1970s, they were not meant to be user-friendly. You had to go to class, or read a long and detailed manual, before you could expect to be able to step up to one and do something useful. And you had to interact with the machine through a keyboard and text display. I accepted it as a fact of life; I got good at it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, graphical user interfaces came into use. For some things, it’s useful. It would be really, really difficult to draw on CADD without a graphical interface. (And when I first used CADD, in the 1980s, it was still an old-school system in that one had to go to class and read the manual before using it.)

But graphical interfaces made it possible for other programs to have a more user-friendly, point-and-click interface. You didn’t need to read the manual anymore.

Just mouse around: you’ll figure it out.

Well, maybe.

I remember one frustrating evenìng in the 1990s with a graphical spreadsheet program. I wanted to change a column width and couldn’t find the command for it. It took ten minutes of cursing and swearing before I realized that I had to grab the end of the column header with the mouse and pull it to the desired width.

So instead of interacting with the machine like an adult, I have to point at what I want, like a three-year-old.

I learned that trick, and many others, and I’ve made my peace with graphical interfaces.

Meanwhile, the manual that used to be required reading before doing something useful has atrophied and disappeared. The last software that I bought that had a proper manual was QuickBooks, back in 2005. It included not only a description of how to use the program, but a discussion of some of the basic and necessary principles of bookkeeping. It was the last and finest of the dinosaurs.

I had made my peace with this method of working, until this week.

I rent a computer server in a data center somewhere for my business. Last Sunday, it failed. Not a major problem: I had some measure of warning, and I keep backups, so no data lost. The good people at the data center changed out the server and set up a new one.

Most of the reconfiguration went smoothly, until it came time to install the SSL certificate for encrypted Web transactions. One of my clients insists that their data be secured in transit, even though it’s not financial and nor particularly confidential. On the first server, I had used the data center to acquire the certificate, and it went smoothly. I had the files from the original installation, which I needed to reinstall.

OK: mouse around, without a manual, find where the SSL certificate goes, paste it in, then go to ‘Domains and Websites’ to turn it on.

OK, now I’m in Domains and Websites: how do I turn it on?

The data center has tutorials for doing things, and I found the little tick box and selector to turn on the certificate. OK, now we’re good.

Well, almost. I tested the connection with several browsers. It worked with all of them except for Internet Explorer, which somehow got the wrong certificate and said that the site was possibly fraudulent.

I then spent a day and a half trying to fix this: looking around through the user interface, examining files on the server directly, testing. I thought of swapping the certificates inside the server, but couldn’t determine if there were other consequences (like not being able to access the server again). Still not working.

Could I have asked the people at the data center for help? That didn’t work when I tried it before: I couldn’t get e-mail working when I first got the server, wrote in for help, and they couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. I found that to start e-mail, I had to issue the command to turn it on, and then restart the server.

Finally, last night, I Googled the problem with a different turn of phrase, and found the answer. I should properly have installed the certificate in a different spot, and enabled it through the IP address, rather than the domain name. With that information, I fixed the problem in three minutes.

Just mouse around. You’ll figure it out….

But when?

Windows 8

My wife has a MacBook Air.  From a hardware perspective, it’s a gorgeous machine in its slim aluminum case.  But as the family IT guy, I hate it: I save files on it and can never find them again.  I have a special distrust of the Mac e-mail client: when it fails to send or receive, it just sits there looking innocent, and I don’t have a way of poking it in the ribs to see if it’s actually working.  To that end, when she got the machine last year, I installed Thunderbird on it and insisted that she use it.  So far, it’s worked.

But for myself, I refuse to use a Mac.

My current business laptop went in service in early 2009.  It’s still functional, but getting long in the tooth: time for a new one.  The new machine is a Lenovo Twist with Windows 8.  I had read bits and pieces about how Windows 8 was hard to deal with, but I thought it couldn’t be worse than the Mac.

I was mistaken.

Like my wife’s machine, the hardware is gorgeous.  It’s a pleasure to hold in one’s hand, set it on the table, turn it on.  It’a a joy that it boots up in under 30 seconds.

And then the bottom drops out.

While it’s waiting for me to log in, it displays the next appointment from my calendar.  Now that’s what I call operational security!

I can log in ‘locally,’ or with a Microsoft account.  Why I’d want to do the latter is unclear: who appointed Microsoft to be the gatekeeper for my computer?

After I log in, I’m dropped into the user interface formerly known as Metro.  It’s now called ‘Modern:’ apparently Microsoft hadn’t done their due diligence, and discovered, too late, that ‘Metro’ was trademarked by some other firm.

It’s a grid of squares and rectangles that blink, show pictures, and present weather reports, e-mail counts, and other varied data.  I get dizzy looking at it for more than a few seconds.  It’s a plausible interface for a mobile phone for a hyperactive teenager.  But I’m not a hyperactive teenager, and my computer is a working tool, not a toy or a status symbol.

I installed Microsoft Office, which resulted in a pile of little squares being added off the right edge of the screen.  I scroll over to the squares, click on one of them, and am dropped into a desktop where I can actually run Word, or Excel, or whichever.  In theory, if I wanted to run another tool, I would have to go back out to Modern-Metro-land, click on another square, and be dropped back into the desktop.  There is no Start menu as in previous versions of Windows, or in the various incarnations of Linux that I used to run.

And as much as I hated the e-mail client on my wife’s computer, the current version of Windows Mail deserves its own special place in hell.  One morning, I answered three e-mails on my new computer.  The machine made reassuring noises, and the icon appeared on each of the original messages, indicating I had answered them.  When I went to other machines, and other e-mail clients, they all showed the little arrow that indicated an answered e-mail.

The only problem is that the answers never actually got sent out!   I found them three days later, still in the outbox.  And so ended my use of Windows Mail.

As much as I like the idea of Linux, Microsoft Office is a mainstay of my business for which there is no practical substitute.  (No, OpenOffice doesn’t quite cut it.  Yes, it can handle 95% of what Microsoft Office does.  But that last 5% is the difference between looking professional and looking like a turd.)  So it’s either Windows or a Mac.  I can’t stand Macs, and now the latest version of Windows is just as bad.

Yes, life will go on.  I’ll find an aftermarket Start button to install on the Windows 8 desktop, and ultimately move my other files and programs.  It’ll be almost as good as Windows XP.

But it’s another way that I can’t go home again.

Unless I can turn myself into a hyperactive teenager….

All the Hidden Taxes

As we head into the last laps of the Presidential election,  it seem appropriate to consider how our tax system is structured.  The people who argue that the tax system is too complex are correct, but not for the reason that they think.  The marginal tax on income is higher than we think because of the large number of other taxes that we pay.  Pigouvian taxes, like the taxes on cigarettes and liquor, raise a surprisingly small amount of revenue, yet they are the ones that people feel most strongly (and feel most strongly about ) because they are rapidly passed through to the customer.  I like to joke that the truest market basket that we can use for the cost of living is ten gallons of gas, a carton of Marlboros, and a case of Bud or bottle of Jack Daniels. 

One tax that I dislike is tax on unemployment compensation. I’ve never qualified for unemployment compensation, but taxing it seems to be mean-spirited at best, and it doesn’t raise that much money. If I buy insurance against nearly any loss, I am not taxed when the insurance company pays me for my car being totalled or my house being damaged.  At the same time, I also believe that the amount that is charged for unemployment insurance should be much higher, and that people should be able to opt out.  It should be self-funding, not something that is largely dependent on federal funding.  Unfortunately, this means that unemployment insurance rates would either have to go up or people would need to work longer to qualify for it, and the amount of time that they would receive benefits would be reduced.

Another hidden tax is the increasing reliance that towns have on various fees, like the $150 ticket for that red-light camera.  What most people don’t know is that the revenue is split between the camera operator and the town, and that’s a lot of the reason that the ticket is so expensive.  If you have a good volume of traffic, as Washington DC does, the ticket is fairly cheap because most people won’t fight it and a lot of people will run the light or speed.

Another interesting tax is the ability to buy a deferred verdict for your first misdemeanor or traffic violation conviction in some jurisdictions.  One pleads guilty, pays the fees and fine, and if you keep a clean record for six months, the guilty verdict is not entered and it is effectively suspended until then, unless you get picked up on another charge.  The people who would benefit most from this are the least able to pay the fines, and if you need a payment plan, it costs you $35 extra.  There are opportunities to work off one’s fines at $10 an hour, but that doesn’t do you any good unless you have a day or days off during the week.  Work crews do not go out on weekends.  If you are booked into the county jail, it costs you $30 to be booked, though that fee is refunded if you are found not guilty on the charge.  A lot of arrests in my town are actually just the issuance of a summons. The county jail has about three times the number of inmates that it was built to accommodate. 

I don’t expect the reduction in FICA taxes from 6.2% of income up to $106,500 to 4.2% will survive into 2013, and we’ve already seen a reduction in the maximum contribution to health savings accounts from $5000 to $2500 to health savings accounts effective in 2013.  I believe that 2010 saw the removal of over-the-counter drugs from the list of items that you could use the account to reimburse your costs.

I liked the “Making Work Pay” tax credit that was available in 2009 and 2010 more than the FICA tax holiday because it was a lot cheaper and the greatest amount of the tax cut went to people who made $60K or less if you were single.  It phased out above that level. You needed to make something like half-time minimum wage to get the maximum amount, which I think was $800, and everyone would get $800 ($1600 for married filing jointly) until they hit the phase-out amount for their filing status.  I had the pleasant surprise of the IRS telling me that I qualified for a couple of hundred dollars for the “Making Work Pay” tax credit with my 2009 return.  I had figured that I wouldn’t be eligible for it, so I didn’t bother to research it.

One thing that people often don’t understand is that tax deductions aren’t worth what they think that they are.  Suppose that I have $10K in itemized deductions. I’d get $5950 for the standard deduction in any case, so I save only about a thousand dollars on my federal taxes compared to not having the deductions.

The coming thing will be to broaden the tax base.  Rates won’t change, but taxes will increase.  

From the Mailbox

Disney Insider

‘Like a pro:’  you mean that I have to get a job there?

When I go on vacation, I want to rest.  And one of the things that I most need to rest from is the necessity of planning my activities. Making ‘a game plan to cover more ground’ sounds suspiciously like work.

Is part of our problem that we’ve turned work into play and play into work?

The item on the right is also interesting.  I had to clip it to fit on this page, but the text of the message is as follows:

My four children and I are huge Disney fans and travel to Orlando at least twice a year to get our Disney “fix.” For each of my children’s sixteenth birthdays, I take them to a destination of their choice for some special one-on-one time with Mom. They can choose anywhere in the world….

I have to wonder:

  • Where is Dad in this?  I suppose he has to stay at home and work to pay for the twice-a-year trips: Disney World is not cheap. 
  • Is he OK that his wife and children are addicts who need a ‘fix’?
  • If my mother had suggested, when I was turning 16, that I go on a vacation with her ‘for some special one-on-one time with Mom,’  I would have been seriously creeped out.  What sort of family is this?  (Or are all her children girls?)

Also from the mailbox:

Campaign in Pennsylvania

So they want people from New York to campaign, not in New York, but in Pennsylvania.  Apparently it’s a foregone conclusion that New York will vote for Obama.

I already know that I’ll be out of town on Election Day, and will have to request an absentee ballot in order to vote.  I don’t like either of the candidates, but I find Romney slightly less horrid.  I’d make the effort to vote for him if I were in town.  But given the circumstances, is it worth the bother?

Stupid Me

Usually, when it’s time to return from a vacation, I’m overtaken by the feeling that, while I’ve been having fun, it’s time to go home.  So we come home, and I go back to work at least somewhat refreshed.

But not this time.

And it’s my own fault.

When I was booking out airplane tickets, I wasn’t sure how our plans were going to develop.  I knew we’d be starting in Barcelona, but I wasn’t sure what would happen afterwards.  When I booked the tickets to Barcelona, I noted that the return flight would start in Barcelona, change planes in Madrid, and come back to New York.

“Aha,” I thought.  “That gives me some flexibility.  If I want to, I can return from Madrid.”

WRONG!!!!

I ended up paying an outlandish amount at the Madrid airport to be able to return today.  If I had known, I would have done something that seems to me even more outlandish: gotten up early this morning in Madrid, taken the train to Barcelona, and gotten on the plane to fly back to Madrid.

Moral of the story: when they say, ‘no changes without a penalty,’ they really mean it!

The episode reminded me of the unhappier aspects of my childhood: as I was one of the smartest kids in class, the other kids were always ready to make fun of me for any little mistake I’d make.  Haw-HAW!!

So now I’m back in the Big Wormy, having busted my vacation budget by my own stupidity, with piles of work to do, and it all needs to get done by the end of the month.  Not that I’ll have peace and quiet to get it done: there’s a whole Marx Brothers movie of stupid interruptions waiting in the wings.  And to top it off, the air conditioning in my office was not working when I left, and I sincerely doubt it will be working tomorrow.

Finally, the following item showed up in my e-mail:

LegalZoom Vacation Suggestion

What planet are these people on?