Sunday, August 26, 2007

Need to rejuvenate the middle class and paths up into it

Maybe the biggest silver lining of the subprime mortgage mess and the end of the housing boom will be that people will wake up and realize that the "middle class" that we knew and loved in the 1950's and 1960's and 1970's is now virtually non-existent. Sure, there are plenty of househoulds with incomes in the $50,000 to $200,000 range, but try finding one that isn't struggling in some significant financial way and actually feels financially "secure." And try to find one that doesn't know of someone who hasn't "fallen" precipitously from their former financial security into deep financial insecurity. It is one thing to chatter about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, but the really important issue is whether there is a broad and deep enough middle class to keep our political, social, and economic system afloat, on an even keel, and thriving. It won't do much good to help the poor if they don't have a secure middle class future to strive for. The middle class is now truly an endangered species in need of saving.

Try finding someone who doesn't know somebody who had a "secure", high-paying job and has fallen financially and now considers themselves lucky to have something even at half or less of their former pay.

Try finding someone who doesn't know of someone who has completely lost their sense of financial security due to corporate "downsizing."

Try finding someone who doesn't know of a household that is only able to stay financially afloat because both spouses had decent incomes and could cover (barely) when they lost one of those incomes.

Try finding someone who doesn't know of multiple households that are only able to support a middle class lifestyle if two members of the houshold work full time.

Try finding someone who isn't worried about rising health care costs and the pace at which employers are shifting health care costs onto the shoulders of employees.

Try finding someone who doesn't know of somebody who has had to stifle higher education plans due to outrageously high college and graduate school costs.

There is something wrong with this picture. Seriously wrong.

It is one thing to encourage people to strive to better themselves and to work harder to move up in the world, but it is an entirely different matter when people have worked really hard in school and their jobs but are finding it increasingly difficult to simply tread water, let alone get ahead.

The status of middle class has classically been driven less by level of raw income, but by a sense of security and a sense that pathways upwards were readily available. Today, even households with income levels of $200,000 or higher will tend to find themselves obsessing over the lack of security of their jobs and the difficulty of both making ends meet and moving up in the world.

Personally, I am doing "okay" right now, but I have had significant financial and employment difficulties in recent years, so I can relate to some of these problems, and if even I feel susceptible to some of these issues, I can only imagine how difficult things must be for so many others who are less fortunate than me.

I like to think of myself as being at the 50% level in all things, meaning that 50% are doing better than me and 50% are doing worse. And if even I am unable to feel that I have a "secure" position in the middle class of America, that says that a lot of people are much worse off. Actually, I'm in the top 25% and maybe even the top 20% based on househould income, so if even I feel significantly less than "secure", the thought that 75% or even 80% of households are struggling and suffering from higher levels of financial anxiety than me is quite breathtaking. Oh, and housholds with $200,000 in income who are still strugling and suffering from financial anxiety are in the top 5%, so we are talking about 95% of American households feeling that they have been deprived of the bright middle class future that they had been promised when they were young.

And, things only seem to be trending to get worse.

There is no quick and easy magic solution that I know about, but we do need to get started thinking about how to rejuvenate the middle class, coupled with robust pathways from poverty and near-poverty into a newly-healthy middle class.

On the bright side, I actually do believe that there are a number of relatively quick fixes that could relieve a lost of middle class anxiety and pain and enhance the stability of our political, social, and economic system at the same time. Summoning the political will to make such changes is another matter. In any case, there is a lot to think about here.

-- Jack Krupansky

$500 budget for a new Notebook computer

It will probably be another six to eighteen months before I feel compelled to buy a new notebook computer, but I am trying to decide whether $500 is actually a credible budget. I have seen plenty of machines advertised at $599 teaser rates, but now I am starting to see a few machines at $499 and even $449.

Sure, these are really basic, bare bones machines, running only Vista Home Basic, but they are probably plenty powerful enough for what I do these days. My current machine, a very decent mid-range Toshiba Satelite, is over two years old, so it won't be too much longer before even low-end machines can outperform it. I suspect that by Spring or next June the crossover point will have been reached.

Sure, I could afford to splurge and buy a machine for $699 or even $999, but there is something incredibly appealing about getting a semi-decent machine for under $500. I don't need anything fancy these days for home use since I am no longer self-employed and all of my work computing is done at work.

I should probably go ahead and pencil in a $500 budget for a new notebook PC next June.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Reliability of

I first heard of five year ago around the time of the run-up of tension leading to the invasion of Iraq. I looked at it, saw a lot of eye-opening claims and queried someone who is a legitimate expert on security in the Middle East and they said that Debka had real reliability problems and were basically not credible at all. A lot of intelligence data is very sketchy, very vague, very ambiguous, and frequently very wrong. Debka appears to ignore all of these limitations and compound the problem by filling in the "gaps" and "connecting the dots" with the intelligence equivalent of its own "special sauce." The resulting intelligence "reports" are in fact very interesting, but not really useful at all. Still, people who should know better feel obligated to pay attention to Debka on the off chance that maybe on accasion they might in fact have stumbled on some legitimate, hard-core, actionable intelligence.

Debka just got a lot of attention because of an article in The New York Times by Cara Buckley entitled "Claim of Plot to Strike City Unfounded, Officials Say" which discusses the latest alert in New York City concerning an alleged threat of a radiological terrorist attack.

If they had simply said "Debka" upfront, people would know not to give the "report" any credence.

But, if you are really into conspiracy theories, Debka is a must-visit web site.

-- Jack Krupansky

Freeman Dyson on climate change

Princeton Physicist Freeman Dyson has some very interesting commentary on climate change in an essay on John Brockman's Edge entitled "Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society." He has some really choice things to say about predictions:

In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, "Sorry, but we don't know". The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed.

As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. Science is organized unpredictability. The best scientists like to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible, and then they do the experiment to see what will happen. You might say that if something is predictable then it is not science. When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. I will be telling stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies. Since I am heretic, I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.

We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. Old heretics do not cut much ice. When you hear an old heretic talking, you can always say, "Too bad he has lost his marbles", and pass on. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of the people who read this piece may fill that role.

I'm tempted to quote his entire fascinating essay, but I'll just quote a chunk related to his overall view on climate change and a brief bit on his unique perspective on carbon dioxide:

The main subject of this piece is the problem of climate change. This is a contentious subject, involving politics and economics as well as science. The science is inextricably mixed up with politics. Everyone agrees that the climate is changing, but there are violently diverging opinions about the causes of change, about the consequences of change, and about possible remedies. I am promoting a heretical opinion, the first of three heresies that I will discuss in this piece.

My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans.

I will discuss the global warming problem in detail because it is interesting, even though its importance is exaggerated. One of the main causes of warming is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from our burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal and natural gas. To understand the movement of carbon through the atmosphere and biosphere, we need to measure a lot of numbers. I do not want to confuse you with a lot of numbers, so I will ask you to remember just one number. The number that I ask you to remember is one hundredth of an inch per year. Now I will explain what this number means. Consider the half of the land area of the earth that is not desert or ice-cap or city or road or parking-lot. This is the half of the land that is covered with soil and supports vegetation of one kind or another. Every year, it absorbs and converts into biomass a certain fraction of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere. Biomass means living creatures, plants and microbes and animals, and the organic materials that are left behind when the creatures die and decay. We don't know how big a fraction of our emissions is absorbed by the land, since we have not measured the increase or decrease of the biomass. The number that I ask you to remember is the increase in thickness, averaged over one half of the land area of the planet, of the biomass that would result if all the carbon that we are emitting by burning fossil fuels were absorbed. The average increase in thickness is one hundredth of an inch per year.

The point of this calculation is the very favorable rate of exchange between carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the soil. To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, [Schlesinger, 1977], so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere. If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil. I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.

If you are at all interested in global warming and climate change, read what this unique mind has to say and then judge for yourself whether his views are credible.

-- Jack Krupansky

Global-Warming Deniers

There was an interesting article in Newsweek by Sharon Begley entitled "Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine" or alternatively "The Truth About Denial" that provides us with the "scoop" about the intensive efforts of a number of vested business interests to discredit the global warming/climate change movement. I have no doubt that a high percentage of the quoted facts are in fact true (or at least roughly plausible), but the article is infused with such a high degree of yellow journalism and bias that goes far beyond simply objectively reporting facts on both sides of what is still a legitimate debate and remaining neutral on the subject matter at hand. It certainly read more like an editorial or something for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times than strict reporting of the news or even a legitimate "analysis" story.

Besides, even if one side of a grand debate does have ulterior motives that are less than "sterling" that taints their "evidence" as being "suspect", that does not in any way automatically render any of their arguments or data or science as absolutely invalid.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what the real point of the article was. I suspect that maybe the intention was to be a wake up call for lazy people who may be treating the whole matter of global warming and climate change as a two-way debate or a matter for somebody else to worry about when maybe they should be treating it as some sort of grand conspiracy of business interests again the people that they need to rise up and fight against.

The article did give a number of specific details and a lot of "color" for the "well-funded machine", but ultimately I did not find that it actually tells the public anything that in principle they didn't already know about the oil companies, the car companies, and lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

In fact, what I find amusing is that Newsweek missed the really big picture which is the extent to which all of these special interests are now on a path to completely co-opt the global warming/climate change political and social movement and turn it into a financial boondoggle for all of those big vested business interests.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatim

I found The Bourne Ultimatum thoroughly entertaining. I'm not nominally a Matt Damon fan, but this role does work very well for him. There were actually an interesting number of great one-liners, great cat and mouse chases and evasions, not to mention the general theme of of the CIA being somewhat less than competent.

I do have to admit that I am biased in favor of any movie which is at least partially set in New York City.

I am doubly biased in favor of any movie that has even a single shot of my old apartment building.

I am triply biased in favor of any movie that actually has a scene shot near my old apartment building.

So, how could I not love a movie in which a cell phone text message with the exact location of my old apartment building is displayed up on the silver screen, much bigger than real life. Excellent.

OTOH, I don't expect that many people will get so excited about my old apartment building. It wasn't such a great building anyway, but it did allow me to live in Manhattan relatively cheaply with a convenient and safe location. And as a side effect, a number of major movies have been filmed (at least in part) in the neighborhood.

But even if my old neighborhood hadn't been in the movie and even if the movie had not been partially set in Manhattan, it still would have been worth seeing, assuming that you are into spy thriller movies that have a significant psychological "mind bending" component. The "action" is simply the icing and not the cake itself. OTOH, some fans of action would see it the other way around. Either way, it works.

-- Jack Krupansky