Thursday, 27 February 2014

Brewer stuns

The first bill passed this year by the Arizona legislature was a sweeping permission allowing anyone claiming a deeply-felt religious reason to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in their normal businesses. A growing tattoo of opposition to this nonsense came from a host of relatively-conservative voices, even Mitt Romney joined the chorus, as well as the business community. Arizona governor Jan Brewer, not consistently known as the voice of reason, stood up and vetoed the bill yesterday. Smart, this didn’t eliminate the scar but should definitely limit the damage to Arizona’s reputation and certainly will reduce the economic impact.

If I Were King, the rules on such discrimination would be simple: If you want to express your religious opinions by discriminating in your treatment of employees and clients it would be absolutely allowed. You’d just immediately lose the right to have employees and clients of any sort. Don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings? Fine, immediatley lose your license to make cakes for the public. Don’t want to cover your employees’ reproductive health care? Fine, lose your right to deduct the cost of health care for any employees. There would also be no stays during appeals, your doors would just have to be closed until you grew up or won a legal appeal.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Circle

A few days ago I finished my struggle with Dave Eggers’ The Circle. I have mixed feelings about it.

The reason that I struggled was that Eggers apparently has been paying attention to part of the advice given to novelists, specifically to pile the risks and troubles on your protagonist so the reader will be eager to see how the hero can possibly get to the end of the book alive. Eggers does this in excruciating detail, creating what seems like Chinese water torture — for the reader. Mae Holland is sucked into the surveilled and broadcast realm of The Circle (the name of a company as well as the title of the book) in detail that goes on for page after page. If fifty of his 491 pages had been edited away the book would be better for it. Elmore Leonard is a good model, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

The deadly pace doesn’t change the fearful core of the novel.

The book opens with Mae starting her career at The Circle, a technology and communication maelstrom that wraps up all of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and just about anything else digital you might think of. In fact, The Circle had bought Google, Facebook, and Twitter, plus a list of fictional names. By the middle of the volume they’ve started handling myriad payments, replacing not only PayPal but Visa and MasterCard, your friendly neighborhood bank, and currency itself. By the end of the book they taking over police manhunts and are offering to take over voting. And Mae facilitates all of this, becoming one of The Circle’s most compelling public faces.

How would you feel about a biometric monitor worn on your risk, displaying your vital signs? How about if that were available on-line in real time? The Circle developed such a system, and Mae was happy to wear it.

On the face of it, this world is not as scary as Margaret Atwoods The Handmaid’s Tale or Orwell’s 1984. There are no forced medical procedures or torture. But the surveillance of society is at least as complete as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison concept and getting worse by the page. At the end of the book an existential threat to The Circle is sidestepped, the rapid (dare I say “cancerous”?) growth presumably continues.

I’m not convinced that present trends have any potential for translating into something like the world Eggers creates. But If I Were King, I’d be one of the people that The Circle would be most interested in getting their clutches on and one wonders how successfully one might resist. You should probably read this book, even if it is the rare book that would actually benefit from a Readers Digest “condensed edition” treatment. On the other hand, it’s probably best to read the original: A well-edited manuscript would give you nightmares.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

healthcare.gov

After the 2012 presidential election, I recall reading in some detail about the differences between the Obama and Romney campaigns’ digital efforts. The stories focused on the tablet applications to be used for supervising voter turnout and other details of election day, but also referred to the IT operations throughout the campaign cycle. The Obama campaign had developed all of their efforts in-house, tested with scores of volunteers, hosted with Amazon Web Services for flexibility, and had a great success. The Romney campaign had farmed out their efforts to consultants, done almost no testing at all, and found early on that Tuesday morning that they had laid a big goose egg. I will admit to an unseemly Schadenfreude at that point, but like most, came away with a great confidence that the Obama team “got it” in the digital realm. Apparently not.

In fact, one could almost think that the Romney campaign had designed the Obamacare website, healthcare.gov. The work was farmed out to multiple consultants and supervised by those who had no experience and simply didn’t comprehend the task at hand. Horror stories related by a friend who temped with the developer early this year bore this out.

Could I have done better? Well, the job was too large in scale for me to consider bidding on, but damned straight I could! Not that that’s saying too much, a properly staffed approach would have been far better.

Within hours of approval of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama should have chosen a champion to create the website for those states choosing not to create their own. That champion should have been someone with significant experience in databases, electronic marketplaces, or other-large scale networking projects. (Wikipedia and Google, among others, would know how to build a site that could be scaled from hundreds of simultaneous users to hundreds of thousands.) Most important, that champion should have been an employee of the government, reporting to an appropriate level, not an outside contractor.

A small team should have been assembled to design the flowchart for the site. Within a month the first version of the website should have been online. Not open to the public, and limited in function, but up and running.

A plan should have been established to connect to the IRS or the Social Security Administration to establish eligibility for discounts. At that point this could have covered a very limited population, say single persons in a few states, but something to test against. As the months went by, the interface could gradually include a wider range of users.

At least two insurance companies should have been recruited. One of these should have been chosen because their database was typical of other companies while the other was chosen because it wasn’t. There are several ways the databases could have been deployed. One possibility was to allow the insurance companies to access the database created in the exchange. Another would have been to establish a joint database for each insurance company and use native synchronization. Least useful would be to have a daily batch export from the exchange to the insurance companies, leading to the possibility that when a user made a change to his application the insurance company would end up with a duplicate record. Needless to say, this last approach was chosen. I doubt that this would have been the case if testing had been done at every stage of development.

Commerce sites are built using relational databases, mostly using the Structured Query Language or SQL. The nature of these systems is that the data itself is strongly structured. There are purposes for which nonstructured data is the rule, search engines frequently use tools that do not require an enforced structure. Transactions, inventory, mailing lists, and a host of other common data perfectly fit the traditional relational database. Insurance companies love them. Nonstructured databases are a relatively new development and apparently have some sex appeal or something. Those in charge of healthcare.gov chose a nonstructured database, making it much less likely that experienced developers would be available and that existing database code could be used to rapidly get the site working.

The site wouldn’t have needed to be pretty, just functional so the flow of user interaction with the site could be tested. A properly coded site can be given an entirely new appearance with a new style sheet the night before going public if need be. Because the Affordable Care Act was already law, there should have been no need to keep the site secret. The testing should have expanded as development progressed, first to key members of Congress and the administration, and their aides, then to a wide range of folks from the general public. At some point, truly expert useability experts should have been contracted, someone like Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. Not to mention people knowledgable about access by the disabled, and not just to tick off the boxes required by law but to actually make it work.

There were things that shouldn’t have needed testing. Most notably, the question of whether or not a user needed to establish an account and verify his identity before shopping for plans. Rudimentary usability testing would have shown that this was a poor approach. On the other hand, having team members familiar with purchasing would have led to the same decision without testing. I’m not talking about complex Defense Department procurement here, merely sufficient experience and wit to go to a deli for a ham sandwich and come out with something involving bread and protein. Despite this low bar, they got this one wrong too.

The site is finally getting fixed, ever since Obama appointed a single person to take control. The vultures are circling, demanding that at least some heads roll from a great height. Before the Senate changed the filibuster rules this wasn’t likely because there was little or no chance of ever getting confirmation for a replacement if Kathleen Sibelius had gotten the axe, now this is possible. But I would say that while there are lessons to be learned and applied, no career-ending blame needs to be laid on anyone.

If I Were King, I would realize that the fault should be charged against “the system”. The structure of government made it unlikely, perhaps impossible, to assemble a staff to build this site on the understanding that most of the team would depart within weeks of the site going live. “The system” says this sort of work needs to be defined in advance so competitive bidding can be used to dole the tasks out to contractors. “The system” is wrong. If nothing else, nobody has ever defined a great website in advance, the best sites evolve over time based on lessons learned building out the initial plan. Obama and his advisors know how to do this kind of work, what they didn’t know was the importance of insisting that this site would be built the same way they built their campaign sites.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Volcker Rule

It looks like the long-awaited Volcker Rule to eliminate proprietary trading by banks will finally be agreed by the five regulatory agencies charged under the Dodd-Frank reforms with writing it. It’s a disaster. The rule itself is seventy-one pages long, the explanatory preface is over nine hundred pages. This is simply nonsense. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it is expected to go into effect in July of 2015, a year and a half from now. I can readily understand that there needs to be some time for the banks to change their software to handle new rules. I do write software, after all. But not eighteen months, and not five full years after passage of the legislation that requires it.

Other than the delay, there are two areas in which the rules will continue to allow banks to trade securities: allowable inventory or “market making” to support client purchases and sales and trades made to hedge normal operations of the bank.

If I Were King, these would be the rules:

  1. While most people think of stock brokers as the place to buy and sell securities, banks have always been able to provide this function. All of the banks with significant trading operations are able to buy or sell securities in far less than a second, even in the middle of the night. If it is more efficient to actually hold a small quantity of commonly traded stocks, the banks should be allowed to hold inventory. How much? I’d say up to thirty days’ activity in specific stocks and one weeks’ activity overall. (One hour’s worth should be enough.)
  2. All trades that are intended to serve as hedges against other ongoing activities of the bank should be flagged in such a way that the specific risk to be hedged is identified. When requested by a regulator to explain how the hedge would protect the bank and its stockholders, the bank would be required to supply satisfactory explanations within ten days, which simply means that the bank has to develop this information before they create the hedge. Sensible risk management by the banks requires nothing less, this should not represent any burden or inconvenience.
  3. IT process changes needed to put these practices in place should be installed and operating no later than 31 January 2014 with a grace period until 31 March 2014 during which violations would result in no fines or penalties. That gives the banks about fifteen weeks to get the process debugged. If the IT staffs have any sense, they should already have developed the first version anyway.

As of July 2010 the law of the land has been that banks covered by deposit insurance and borrowing relationships with the Federal Reserve were not to engage in investment for their own accounts. There is little reason why this has taken so long to write rules, no excuse for making them so complex, and no valid cause to accept further delays.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Chritianity in the White House

During the last two presidential elections one key element, sometimes blatant but frequently unstated, was whether the candidates were Christians. By my thinking, Mitt Romney isn’t a Christian based on my understanding of Mormon theology related to the Trinity while there is no doubt that Barack Obama is. But is it important to have a Christian president? As the importance of organized religion of all flavors continues to decline, I surmise that fewer Americans would consider this a priority. Those that are most likely to consider it important tend to rely on a myth, that the Republic was formed by Christians with an expectation that the population would also consist of Christians.

While I’m a great believer in myth and the cultural importance of wide acquaintance with the tales of Homer, the creation accounts in Genesis, and the wild carryings-on at Valhalla, it’s frustrating when errors of detail in any myth are elevated to significance. Witness the witless appropriation of the metaphorical six days of creation into a denial of evolution, never mind the idea that the current range of plants and animals on earth could be the result of Noah’s keeping them all alive in the ark! So let’s look at the truth behind the myth of America as a Christian nation.

Of the first ten presidents, only three were clearly Christians: Andrew Jackson (Presbyterian), Martin Van Buren (Dutch Reformed), and William Henry Harrison (Episcopalian). Three more can be identified as both Episcopalian and Deist in various proportions, generally moving to Deism over time: George Washington, James Monroe, and John Tyler. Washington was born into the Church of England, becoming an Episcopalian with the revolution, but seldom attended church as an adult and left before the Eucharist.

Two were flatly Deists: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Two more were Unitarians: John Adams (originally a Congregationalist) and his son, John Quincy Adams. Christians are, by creed, trinitarians, a concept rejected by all the small-U unitarians, which means Unitarians, Jews, Moslems, and probably Mormons. To varying degrees these faiths recognize Jesus as a historical figure of merit, possibly a prophet, but deny his deity.

Among the other Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was definitely a Deist, Thomas Paine seemed to move between atheism and Deism, and Alexander Hamilton strayed toward theism (Deists who allow the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs) by the revolutionary period.

There were Christians among the Founding Fathers, probably most of them. But among the most prominent were quite a few who chose reason over revelation. If I Were King, my religion wouldn’t be a factor in any election, but I would admit that I was raised a Lutheran, joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) for some years, returned to the Lutheran Church, and gradually have become much closer to a Deist with near-infinite tolerance of other faiths. But I would not be tolerant of the idea that my realm was Christian. A realm is political, not religious, even if it depends on behavior norms that stem in part from myths heard in a million Sunday Schools.

Boycott Russian Olympics

With news of the thuggish Vladimir Putin’s assault on gays in Russia, I was among the many who immediately thought in terms of a boycott of the Sochi games. Like most, I immediately reconsidered. For good or ill, the lifetime earnings of an athlete can turn on appearing in a single Olympic. Even a losing performance can attract attention that will increase the athlete’s potential when he wins four years later. Broadcasters who have bid for the rights to cover the games, at least those in countries whose athletes choose to boycott the event, would lose a fortune. A boycott by teams would hurt the wrong people.

But Putin’s Kremlin should not benefit from their retrograde stance and the Russian people, apparently a generation behind the rest of the developed world which they aspire to being part of, should not see these actions reinforced. But how to effectively deal with this moment?

My first thought was symbolic: Let’s make a rainbow a part of every uniform! Headbands, armbands, stripes down arms or legs, there are manifold opportunities to include this symbol of equality. If the US announced the change, the Brits and French might follow. Not every nation would join in, but if even a dozen did, the images from Sochi would brand this as the “Gay Rights Games” as surely as the 1980 summer games are remembered for the boycott following Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, 1972 is remembered for the attack on athletes at Munich, and 1936 as the Nazi Olympics. Even in Russia this would be seen as a clear repudiation of Putin’s policies, and the Russian people are quite capable of moving forward with the times, even if they’ve chosen a government that won’t.

My second thought was more difficult, and also much more able to punish Putin for his stance. I think the IOC should boycott Sochi. With jet travel and wireless broadcast, we now control the world in a way that would have been unthinkable when the modern Olympic games were started at Athens in 1896. There may be a purpose served by gathering the world’s premiere athletes in one place every four years, but even then we gather them in two groups. So why not split the games into a half dozen venues? Surely the facilities in Vancouver, Torino, Salt Lake City, Nagano, or Lillehammer have not all been razed or irrevocably converted to other uses.

There are certainly graphic disadvantages to suddenly adding some element to a carefully-designed uniform, and no doubt there is something special about all the athletes and supporters coming together in one place, never mind the themed signage that has been so well done in the recent past, but fighting bigotry is more important. If I Were King, my teams would include the rainbow in their uniforms and every sports facility in my realm would be available to the IOC.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

WWJD

I’ve recently read Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. I definitely recommend it if you have the wrist strength or the sense to buy it for your reader. But it’s causing me to ask, What Would Jefferson Do?, in light of current political discourse. It’s not a trivial question: Despite the ringing moral clarity of Enlightenment principles in the Declaration, Jefferson was very much a pragmatic politician. But why not give it a think?

Immigration: No problem. TJ was adamantly opposed to the Jay Treaty but didn’t have an issue with the immigration component, which allowed, in perpetuity, for the native Americans in the US and Canada to move back and forth across the border at will for any reason from visiting family to permanent residence. He bought Louisiana which was crawling with natives and had a lot of Europeans living there as well, they all presumably immigrated automatically when their land became part of the US. Most of the illegal immigrants the Republicans are so worried about are native Americans that happen to have formerly lived in countries that were colonized by the Spanish. If TJ didn’t have an issue with natives from British or French colonies, I don’t imagine he would suddenly have issues with those from Spanish colonies.

The Budget: Raise taxes. If “we the people” decided to spend the money, then “we the people” will need to cough up the coin to cover the bills. Our trading partners (France, the Netherlands, and GB in those days) need to be confident that we will honor our debts. Our allies and potential antagonists need to know that, if push comes to shove, we can afford the hard tack and powder for our troops. TJ was never hesitant to spend money, his estate had to be liquidated to pay his bills, largely because he seemed to have a fondness for buying land. And as president, of course, he bought Louisiana. He also had a terrorist threat to deal with from the Barbary pirates and definitely was in favor of raising funds to pay for a navy.

Abortion: Irritation. Although a steadfast advocate of the rights of Catholics and followers of other religions to be full participants in American life, he was equally steadfast that their religions didn’t control the government and its laws. On a personal basis, I’m sure that if someone among his friends and family had gotten into a problem of this nature that he would have helped in any way he could but would have insisted that it all be handled privately and quietly. Besides, TJ wasn’t a Christian and the absolute protection for a foetus that some Christians currently hold dear wasn’t something that anyone held in Jefferson’s day.

Gay Marriage: Surprise. The very idea of same-sex marriage would have been foreign to anyone at the close of the eighteenth century, and there is probably no reason to think that the polity would have readily accepted it. Jefferson, on the other hand, probably could have easily come to terms with this.

Jefferson fought long and hard against those Federalists who wanted to return to a monarchy, so he wouldn’t approve of my ambition, but If I Were King I’d make a point of frequently asking myself the question: What Would Jefferson Do? There are worse guides.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Shop local – at Costco?

This afternoon the Empress Larkin and I went to the mainland to shop at Costco, setting a new personal record for both expense ($463.71) and weight (didn’t weigh it but the four cases of pop were not even half the total). Back on Whidbey we passed a sign that says “Shop the Rock”, exhorting all good islanders to spend their money with local merchants. I didn’t feel guilty, but it caused me to reflect on what “shop locally” might mean to different people.

Although I have absolutely no sense of patriotism, even consider it an evil influence and a mental health problem, I do believe in supporting my community. Part of this is for purely selfish reasons. It makes for a more pleasant community if the local businesses are making enough money to live reasonably. While I buy most electronic components on-line, I intentionally overpay at the local Radio Shack in hopes that they will always be there. (Of course I only buy one over-priced video cable there, I normally buy four or five on-line for about the same total price. But sometimes I need one – now.)

Sunday afternoon is not the best time to go to Costco, it’s a zoo. It’s an experience that would, to most people, shriek “evil national big-box store”, the very antithesis of shopping local. Except I got a Costco membership within two months of their opening the very first store (sorry, “member warehouse”) on 4th Avenue South. That was five miles away by the shortest route, six by the fastest. To me, shopping at Costco will always be shopping locally.

Millions of avid readers (readers in general, not my readers) deplore the changes in the book industry. To most of them, the absolute epitome of evil is Amazon. Yes, it’s true that local booksellers worldwide are having a hard time. Even Borders Group, with 175 Waldenbooks stores and 511 Borders superstores, went bankrupt in the face of the changes Amazon has led. But back in 1994, there weren’t a lot of us on the internet so a cheeky little outfit setting out to take on Barnes & Noble, Borders, Crown Books (also gone), B. Dalton (ditto), and the rest of the meatspace book retailers was something of a hometown boy setting out to fight the world and we cheered. Doubly so for me as it was a hometown boy twice, once for being on the internet and once for being based at Seattle.

When it comes to local businesses being swamped by huge international chains of stores the very first thought probably turns to McDonalds with over 34,000 stores worldwide, starting from just one in 1940 and really getting started in 1955. But the Starbucks juggernaut may be even more reviled for their 12,000+ US outlets and almost 21,000 worldwide. Right, big time trouble from out of town. But from 1971 to 1976, Starbucks didn’t brew coffee to serve, they just always had samples available. They were at 2000 Western Avenue at the time, I was at 2414 Western Avenue and frequently stopped in on my stroll to the Pike Place Market. I knew those guys. So even though I don’t often drink coffee (heresy, I know, for a Seattleite), Starbucks is local as far as I’m concerned.

On the other hand, Bill Boeing started his company south of town in 1916 and many of us have been cheering the brand ever since. “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going!” has been seen on bumpers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs for decades. I’ll probably go to my grave with a certain feeling of loyalty to the company (I did work there briefly, oddly enough in the finance department, and I did some emergency short-run label work for them in the ’70s) but they are going out of their way to take themselves outside my sense of local. They moved their corporate headquarters to Chicago, arguably so management would lose it’s problematic sense of responsibility to the community that nurtured them. They bemoan the actions of the unions that represent their employees, even though those unions are exactly the organizations created by Boeing management’s tactics over the years. They setup a competing non-union operation at Charleston, South Carolina. Now they’ve announced that they’re whacking 1500 IT jobs in the next year, moving the work to less-expensive locations around the country.

So what is local? What is your community? What obligations do we have to our community? Significant questions that I’ve only recently focused on. But it will probably help me to realize that I will be shopping locally in ways that most people will consider anything but. If I Were King, anything in my realm would, by definition, be local. Until then, it’s a bit more complex.

Friday, 17 May 2013

IRS: grant and audit – alphabetically

While I strongly suspect that the Cincinnati office of the IRS involved in vetting applications for 501(c)(4) status focused first on Tea Party elements for convenience because they had a large number of similar applications, it’s clear that this approach has not been appropriate and following up based on those initial inquiries is upsetting the delicate sensibilities of not only the Republicans (who are upset at everything anyway) but also many who are concerned about good governance (a group that does not appear to include many Republicans).

If I Were King I would instruct that office to immediately approve every single application that was properly filed. I would further instruct the IRS to create an alphabetical list of all 501(c)(4) associations, old and new, and starting with the first entry in the As and the last entry in the Zs to audit every single one of them in turn for calendar 2012. I’d like to lower the limit on campaign expenses to 40% of their total budget, but the IRS has apparently been allowing up to 49% so we probably shouldn’t try to change that. But any of these organizations that are not “primarily” enganged in the social welfare activities in their charters should immediately have their status and any tax exemption revoked.

Yes, I think it would be a good thing if Karl Rove spent the next couple of years raising money to pay back taxes on the campaign expenses he routed through his Crossroads GPS “social welfare” organization.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Broadcasters refusing to broadcast?

Broadcast television is pretty simple. A station secures a license from the FCC granting it the privilege of broadcasting television signals from a specific location on a specific frequency with a specific level of power, in the “public interest”. It then creates or acquires programming to serve the public, some of which is gained by affiliating with a national network, embeds advertising in that programming, and pipes it to their licensed transmitter. Finally, they send big bills to the advertisers which lets them pay for the programming and make great piles of money.

Somewhere along the line, in the late 1960s in my home town, cable systems were created that put up large dish antennas to pull in those broadcast signals, amplify them, and send them through coaxial cables to homes that didn’t want to erect their own antennas. In the case of my home town, the only stations that readily came in were from Canada, or one Bellingham station that primarily served Canadian markets, and you had to sign up for cable to get the Seattle stations. This had the effect of extending the reach of the Seattle broadcasters, three network affiliates and two independents, making their advertising more valuable.

But it seems that once someone starts making serious money in business they get greedy. Specifically, instead of thanking the cable companies serving outlying communities for helping to make the broadcasters’ channels more remunerative, they demanded, and got, a cut of the action, which they called retransmission fees.

A New York startup called Aereo is going back to the beginning. They’re putting up arrays of antennas to pick up all the signals in the New York City area and streaming them over the internet. The broadcasters are unhappy, Aereo isn’t cutting them in on the play. Broadcasters — including News Corp, Disney, Comcast, CBS, and Univision — have already sued to stop Aereo twice, and lost both times. Claiming that they can’t go back to the business model that made them all spectacularly wealthy, CBS, Fox, and Univision are publicly musing about simply taking their signals off the air, according to “Broadcasters Circle Wagons Against a TV Streaming Upstart” by Brian Stelter in today’s New York Times.

Poor little rich boys got their feelings hurt, now they want to take their ball and go home. If I Were King I’d say that was just fine and dandy. And I’d order the FCC to auction off the newly-unused spectrum after 24 hours. Better yet, declare this precious public resource to be available to the public for low-power systems such as wireless microphones and ad hoc community internet cooperatives.