Archive for January, 2011

Why Enron happened

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

So every now and again, I watch documentaries I know are going to upset me. Yesterday, it was on how the bottled water industry is destroying this country’s ground water supplies to local municipalities (but I had to turn that one off because of how angry it made me – and boycott yet another corporation). Today, I watched a bit of “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, which I’ve seen many times before. Let me share some of my reasons for why Enron happened, because it angers me and I feel like ranting. Nothing will change, but I’ll feel better.

First, this country (the US) is too often regulation-averse. Reagan (the religious leader of modern Conservatism) told people “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem”. This, coupled with “free market” thinking tells people everything will be magically ok, that the government is the big bad wolf, and that if we’d only let people decide their own fate without any rules whatsoever then the “invisible hand” will take care of everything. This is the biggest bunch of miss-guided horse excrement I’ve ever heard in my life. What’s worse, it’s somehow (historically) blurred with confusing critique of the current implementation of the capitalist system with being a commie or whatever other nonsense totally unrelated to the discussion (I’m a “Capitalist”, but of the sensible and sane variety).

Without any regulation, people with a high moral compass and sense of ethics (perhaps the kind of people Reagan imagined the world outside the confines of the bubble of the Oval Office to be filled with), coupled with wider thinking about the world might act only for the greater good. But don’t count on it. In reality, in the real world that actually exists (outside of Washington and Hollywood, as well as within), there are bad actors, people out only for themselves (who don’t give a crap about destroying the country in the process – and I don’t mean this as an indirect political slur, people abusing the system are from many different political backgrounds), and the rest. Regulation employs rules and principles that are designed to prevent abuse. It allows people to play games, but within the bounds of having some actual upper limits on how insane they are allowed to be with other people’s lives. Regulation is also far from perfect. Situations arise that were never considered, ways are found to abuse any system, etc. But when regulation fails, is insufficient, or excessive, the solution is to fix the regulation, not remove it entirely.

Second, we’re too reactionary. Rather than thinking ahead, “gee, we haven’t done anything with our infrastructure in 50 years, do you think that bridge is going to fail any time soon? What about that tunnel?”, we just wait until bad stuff happens and then spend billions of dollars more than necessary to correct for it afterward (see also, Healthcare). We tend to consider all kinds of (irrational) new rules and regulations in the wake of giant scandals, rather than introducing a few simple rules beforehand, and empowering our government and regulators to track down these impending disasters years before they happen. In a similar vain, we will probably wait until the water is around our feet before we wake up to climate change, because it’s not such a huge giant scandal yet (unlike bridges and tunnels, billions of dollars won’t be sufficient this time around, nor all the hot air Congress can generate).

There are other problems, such as an unwillingness to introduce additional necessary taxes in order to pay for new infrastructure, or government programs that can actually make people’s lives better, but the main problems are a lack of regulation and a need to react to everything years after it happens, rather than years before. I want to make it clear, I love this country, which is why I’m very saddened by these realities. I’m also a believer in Capitalism, and of the value in market-driven innovation, etc. But I’m a more touchy-feely, friendly kind Capitalist in which everyone has an even playing field, starts at the same point, and plays by the same (sane) rules.


New England Driving Q&A

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Living in Boston (well, Cambridge), one eventually comes to realize that there are some issues with driver education in this State. Here are a few Q&As to help those facing intellectual challenges on the road. I wish I could hand these out to people I see violating the rules of the road (yes, I’ve read Chapter 90 of the M.G.L.s and the drivers manual, as well as the rules for my own town…have you?). All of these Q&As would have applied in the space of the 2 hours I was on the road (on and off) today, except for the cop with the radar gun, which was a couple of weeks ago (at night, with his lights off, in the middle of the Mass. Ave bridge…like that’s not going to end horribly badly as some distracted driver fails to notice the obstruction one day).

Q). I love reading people’s bumper stickers and I can’t read at a distance.
A). Buy some glasses, or have a passenger read the bumper stickers for you. When you drive less than a safe distance from someone, you create a safety hazard and cause undue stress for other drivers around you.

Q). Why do people get angry when I use my horn? It’s the New England way!
A). Your horn is intended to convey safety concerns, and indicate your presence. Yes, even in the US. It is not a generic signal used to harass other drivers. When you use it at other times, it says “I’m a giant moron”. In CAPS.

Q). What are these sticks or levers on my steering wheel intended for?
A). These are called turn signals. You use them to indicate your intended direction of travel before making a manoeuvre. It allows other vehicles to avoid colliding with you, and is not a sign of weakness.

Q). Is it ever acceptable to wave someone across the street at a green light?
A). No. This is incredibly dangerous. It pre-supposes that oncoming traffic will not plough straight into the person crossing. Any decent driver education program would teach this, but Massachusetts fails horribly.

Q). I’m in law enforcement and like obstructing traffic so I can catch people speeding with my radar gun! Yeah!
A). You also create a safety hazard and should be suspended, and prosecuted.

Q). I don’t like concentrating on driving, I prefer to use my phone, read a magazine or a book, etc.
A). You should have your license revoked and be banned from driving.

Q). I think everyone should drive in the bike lane, it’s a whole new lane!
A). You should have your license revoked pending re-education. You should learn that you are a danger to others on the road, especially cyclists.

Q). I don’t like finding parking. I prefer to use the magic lights with the orange triangle symbol.
A). These are intended for emergency use to indicate your vehicle is disabled or that you are in need of assistance. When you use them to park in the middle of the road, you create a safety hazard and should have your license revoked.

I love my car, and I love driving. But driving in Massachusetts is a constant struggle of outwitting intellectually challenged morons who should not have a driver’s license to begin with, let alone be allowed to drive an SUV on the road, in winter. Driving (even in the US) is not a fundamental right. It’s a privilege that you get for following the rules. That’s not to say everyone is a bad driver, but it is saying that MA has a problem and does not do enough to solve it. Have a few cops out there actually enforcing the rules…and don’t forget to tell them that signals, traffic signals, and the rules of the road in general apply to them and everyone else equally in civilized society, not just to you and me.

Q). Hey Jon, didn’t you have an accident recently?
A). Yes. Someone hit me as I was making a left turn (at a left turn signal). Under MA rules, I am presumed to be at fault even though I was not the one in the wrong. The other driver had just had his car repaired from the previous accident, and was sitting on the plastic sheeting following an interior detailing. So, sorry, I’m not a bad driving example in this situation. I’m just the stiff who gets lumped with the insurance hike. And this post isn’t even about that, it’s about people not engaging their brains. There is also a difference between an accident and willingly ignoring sensible rules of the road, as in the above.


Free Software Predictions for 2011

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

So I was thinking over the holiday about what I expect to see in the coming year. I’ll write a more optimistic post about some of the great improvements I expect to see another time, but meanwhile here are some of the things I think will continue to suck this year, in many of the non-Enterprise Linux distributions.

1). People will care even less about UNIX and where we came from.

2). Churn rate of intrusive software updates will be too high.

3). Standards will be shunned and sidelined too often as unimportant.

4). The trend toward dumbed-down “User Experiences” will continue.

5). The wheel will be re-invented at least twice, probably more.

Meanwhile, my Mac running OS X will (sadly) remain compatible with itself, retain a similar user interface that works well for technical users, and will only receive tested, appropriate updates that work well under all situations.