2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Learn to Manage Your Health

Here is a link to an excellent article by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.

Upon reading this article, I found myself recalling the many quarrels I have had with the medical profession over the years. Somewhat more realistically than stated by Maureen Dowd, doctors are often more like members of a priesthood than gods; witness the furor throughout the medical profession when Barry Marshall proved that peptic ulcers were caused by helicobacter pylori, it was as though he was preaching some heretical doctrine.

My own experiences with doctors date from childhood bouts with tonsilitis, when my family physician and the school physician offered opposing views of what the proper treatment should be. “Medicate!” said one, “No! Have the tonsils removed.” protested the other. Then there were the three doctors who, when fully informed by me of the etiology of a problem that I was having, took three subsequent visits to arrive at the diagnosis I suggested on my very first visit, meanwhile prescribing medication — NSAIDS — that had no effect; and if I had continued taking the NSAIDS, they could very well have caused additional problems. Eventually, we all agreed on my original self-diagnosis, and the problem was healed by taking a one-week vacation and ramping up the therapy that I had begun before ever consulting any doctors.

In more recent years, I have experienced intermittent problems with an irritable bowel, with a herniated disc and with rheumatoid arthritis. I didn’t consult any physicians for any of these problems because I understood what they were and how to deal with them. The irritable bowel was tamed by varying bulky and granular foods. The herniated disc was healed by careful exercise, increased food intake and more bed rest. And the arthritis was handled with careful exercise and the addition of a bit of honey to my diet.

Think of the body as a vehicle and the brain as a navigator. If we had to pass a “driving test” to operate our bodies, too many of us would fail. Instead, we try to use physicians like chauffers, and expect them to do the navigating for us. We need to improve public school education in the areas of health and wellness. But we also need to rethink the uses and abuses of health insurance. People who can afford to hire chauffeurs to drive them around do not use insurance to pay for that privilege. Insurance was devised to cover extraordinary losses of ships, cargo and buildings, due to things like fires, floods or maritime mishaps.

In my own case, I have worn corrective lenses since adolescence. But even when replacement of my glasses or contacts has been covered by my health insurance, I have paid the costs out of pocket; I considered such replacement a “standard living expense,” one I could easily plan for and afford, and I no more considered using insurance to cover those costs than a business should consider using insurance to buy replacement laser cartridges or copy paper. And on the few occasions when I have been involved in auto accidents, bitten by a dog, etc., I have strongly opposed compensation by insurers of the people who felt responsible, insisting that I would prefer to sign a quitclaim absolving the insurer and the insured of any responsibility, and in every case but one, that is precisely what I did; in the exceptional case, the insurer sent me a check to reimburse $10.50 in doctor’s fees.
 When I was a child, many people seemed to believe that exposure to cold air, standing in front of an open refrigerator door or going out in the cold improperly dressed, could cause you to catch cold.  But as an active member of a Boy Scout troop that often went pup tent camping in late fall or winter I learned that was nonsense. 
If I had a cold at the beginning of the weekend, when I returned home the cold would be gone.  I thought that the cold air made it difficult for germs to survive, but that was not the reason — at least not entirely — for the cold symptoms disappearing.  Today I have a more complete, better reasoned and imperically verified picture of what it takes to control cold symptoms or symptoms of chronic bronchitis and it is quite against conventional “wisdom” on the subject.   

 So what is the answer, more bed rest?  No, that is precisely the wrong thing to do.  When you are resting, your breathing is diminished and irritants in the nose, lungs and bronchial passages tend to remain pretty much in place, perhaps even accumulate.  Suppose that something on the stove was burning and pouring smoke into the kitchen.  You would get rid of the smoke and odorous material by turning on an exhaust fan.  And so it is with congestion and mucus in your body.  To expel the irritants that cause them, you should get more exercise to increase breathing activity.  When my cold symptoms disappeared on camping weekends, it was because of my increased activity and the corresponding increase in breathing — much like turning on the fan in the kitchen. 

 As a smoker, I occasionally experience bronchitis, and when I do, I take a brisk walk for a couple of miles and the bronchia quckly clear up.  If I don’t do that, mucus builds up and I find myself trying to cough up phlegm.

 

If you wish to learn more about managing your own health, there are a limited number of free online classes available at ALISON.com.

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Toward a More Effective Congress

As a result of the grandstanding and squabbling in Congress, the latest polls reveal that more than eighty percent of Americans disapprove of the performance of Congress and believe that Congress doesn’t care about the welfare of Americans in general (a stated goal of the Constitution which Congressmen swear to uphold). And it has become increasingly clear that Washington has become so remote from what is happening in the rest of the country that it might as well be located on some desert island.

What could make Congress more aware of and more attentive to the needs of the country as a whole and their voting constituencies in particular? Perhaps we need an amendment to the Constitution which would forever fix Congressional salaries at a level equivalent to the median income of all Americans. Then, when Congress votes for something which causes economic decline, the Congressmen themselves would be forced to share the pain experienced by Americans as a whole. In other words, they would no longer be able to ignore the undesirable consequences of their actions. Then if Congressmen want a pay raise, they will have to vote for things which will benefit the rest of the country and create a rising tide which will raise their boat with everyone else’s.

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Pig in a poke

“Pig in a poke” is an expression dating back to the middle ages that is as applicable to today’s world as it was back then. It referred to various practices of substituting less-than-satisfactory products for what people thought they were buying. And when crass marketing enjoys a higher place in the priorities of any company than the quality of their products, that is precisely how their products should be described: “Pig in a poke.”

Paradox vs Access vs dBase

Back in the early nineties, I was a consultant for an insurance company that was owned by a much larger insurance company. This company needed a good database package to handle a large volume of data, but the owning company had a hard and fast rule that dBase would be the only database package. Not knowing that fact, I brought Paradox into my client’s offices, installed it on a PC and demonstrated the remarkable intuitive nature of Paradox, its ease of use, and other features and benefits. When my clients saw how easily it could handle their data and how versatile it was, they immediately opted to use Paradox.

A bit later, the head of their local data center revealed the company policy mandating dBase for such applications. I cautioned him that it was a bit foolish to put so many eggs in one basket and that dBase had so many inherent bugs and problems that it would not be surprising to see it disappear from the marketplace within a year. Six months later, while that fellow was attending a corporate conference in West Virginia, it was announced that Ashton-Tate, the owners of dBase were disappearing (they were acquired by Borland, the owners of Paradox. Weeks after returning to Pittsburgh, the data processing manager came to visit me in my office. He expressed both appreciation and admiration that I hadn’t descended on him to gloat about the accuracy of my prediction.

If Ashton-Tate had been as effective managing the technical nature of their product as they were at marketing it, the end result might have been totally different. But there is more to the story than Borland and Ashton-Tate. One of the accountants who worked for my client left to work at another company, and asked for my advice about an appropriate database package. Of course I recommended Paradox, but his new employers opted for Microsoft’s Access. Eventually, in 1999, I received a call from my former client seeking help with a serious problem: his new employer’s database simply would not open. When I investigated, I found that the size of their database file had exceeded what was then the maximum file size supported by Microsoft operating systems.

Pending a revision to the operating system to enable larger files to be handled, I recommended that they revert to a previous version of their database and move older data to a “historical” database to reduce the size of their current database. Eventually, Microsoft did improve the operating system, but the incident created a lot of additional work for the customer in the interim. I pointed out that the problem was not just the size of files that could be handled by the Microsoft OS, it was the propensity for Access to put all elements of a database into a single file (tables, forms, reports, indexes, etc.). If they had been using Paradox, they would never have experienced the problem because Paradox placed each type of element into a separate file.

Sprint vs WordPerfect

Around the same time, WordPerfect was rapidly gaining ground in the marketplace as the wordprocessing program of choice. But what I found occurring at my client’s sites was that far from providing the ease of use and flexibility one might wish from an application, WordPerfect required extensive training and experience to use and was riddled with bugs. In those days, I had chosen a product called Sprint (another Borland product), and I recommended it to many clients. Almost all of them initially objected, claiming “We know how to use WordPerfect.” (which wasn’t true, many of them couldn’t even find WordPerfect’s elusive menus). Today, WordPerfect is owned by Corel, and Corel has significantly cleaned up the product. In the interest of disclosure, I have been using Corel’s version of WordPerfect for years. It is far superior to the original product.

In those days, a friend of mine was working on her dissertation for a doctorate in anthropology. When she indicated to her faculty advisors that she wished to include tables of words in the language and vernaculars of the people she had studied, they tried to discourage her, telling her that it simply wasn’t possible to print such tables in a readable form. I bought a copy of the Sprint wordprocessor for her and helped her learn how to use it. Admittedly, it was a bit more complex than the standard word processors of the day, but it could do so much more, because it could be modified by a simple macro language to produce very impressive formatting, and it could also send its contents to a printer in the PostScript format, and the university had many PostScript printers available. Needless to say, her faculty advisors were astounded by the professional appearance of her finished dissertation.

So how did WordPerfect become such a marketing force in spite of its numerous flaws? WordPerfect Corporation, the originators of the product hired people all over the country to go into prospective customers’ offices and make all kinds of promises for training and support. If they had spent more money on product maintenance and development than they spent on sales, it might still have been as successful. But they didn’t do that and it took a company like Corel, with its meticulous attention to detail, to ultimately deliver on WordPerfect’s promises.

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The Quiet Man

Taking a cue from his “top generals,” in her recent article in the New York Times Maureen Dowd likens President Obama to Cool Hand Luke, a role played by Paul Newman in Stuart Rosenberg’s movie of the same title. Then she goes on to mention Michael Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather.”

But I humbly suggest that a more appropriate comparison would be found in John Ford’s movie, “The Quiet Man” (starring John Wayne as Sean Thornton — the quiet man). For “quiet” is largely what President Obama has been; more like a producer than a movie star, he has not been mouthing off like the typical politician, but he has been quietly and earnestly working behind the scenes to address arguably the largest slate of serious problems the U.S. has had to face since the Great Depression. And while those of us watching quietly and objectively from the center have understood what he was doing, others from both the right and left extremes have been hypercritical, those on the left expressing disappointment with his relative silence and those on the right taking advantage of the silence to shout partisan bigotry to the rafters. And while Sean Thornton lived in Pittsburgh and Barack Obama never did, he has nevertheless expressed a high regard for this city on numerous occasions.

Political rants are not constructive. No business could survive — much less thrive — if its employees were constantly bickering. And in spite of the adamant and largely nonconstructive opposition from the right wing, President Obama’s diligent attention to his responsibilities to our nation as a whole have produced remarkable results where previous presidents have failed. And as a result of his labors, we are stronger today than we were when he took office. His repeated invitations to the political right wing for constructive input have been consistently rejected. It is time for those who were elected to serve our interests to get on board and perform or to join those who they’ve failed to serve in the unemployment lines.

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Mind-sets

I went to a local convenience store recently, to deliver a gift to a young Pakistani fellow who works there. A man walked into the store and bought some lottery tickets, and then started complaining, “We have things too good in this country. The unemployment rate is so high, but I can’t even find someone to hire to carry some heavy packages.”

When I challenged him on that, statement, he asked if I knew what the national unemployment rate was. I answered, “A little less than 9%.” Then he asked if the unemployment rate in Pittsburgh was higher or lower than the national average. “Lower.” I answered. “Wrong!” he retorted. Later, when I returned home, I checked the actual data. I had given the correct answer, as I always try to do. He quoted figures that were either outdated (they would have been true at one point during the Bush administration), or simply what he wanted to believe.

In the course of further discussion, he praised the U.S. and cast aspersions on European countries and cities, saying we were headed toward resembling those “socialist” countries. I asked him if he had ever been to Europe, and he answered “Yes.” Then I shared with him my own experiences in France and Germany over twenty years ago, where I witnessed technological innovations that were ahead of the U.S. at that time. I also pointed out that other countries had a higher percentage of cell phone users and better internet access than we have in the U.S. And I mentioned that public education in the U.S. did not compare favorably with many of those countries. He denied all of that, preferring to express what he wanted to believe rather than face facts.

If I could have kept him standing there for just ten more minutes, we would have been able to watch a UPS driver back his truck up to the store and deliver a dozen packages so bulky that it took him four trips from truck to store to complete his mission. It would have been interesting to see how the fellow I had been talking to might have handled the reality of that situation. It would have been reminiscent of Samuel Johnson kicking the stone and saying, “Thus, I refute Bishop Berkeley!” Might I have been able to point out to him that if UPS, Fedex and the US Postal Service could hire people to handle heavy loads, perhaps the problem lay within himself? I could have, but it is doubtful that he would have listened.

The lesson here is that dogmatic and doctrinaire thinking may be useful for finding excuses for one’s shortcomings, but it is useless in solving problems in the real world.

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Immigration

In a recent New York Times article, Jason DeParle details the efforts by John Tanton, a native of Michigan and a liberal to crusade against immigration over the past three decades. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/us/17immig.html?hp

How can anyone doubt the significant contributions to America’s greatness and prosperity made by immigrants over the entire course of our history? Indeed, this nation was founded by immigrants. And ever since, we have reaped benefits from the slaves who were brought over from Africa to the contributions of labor and innovation by immigrants from around the globe.

Andrew Carnegie was an immigrant, and so was Walt Disney, as were many of the most prominent people in our movie industry. And many of our most prominent politicians, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Sununu were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. And there are also men like Ralph Alvarez, CEO of McDonalds and Carlos Gutierrez, CEO of Kellogg.

My own experiences with immigrants confirm the importance of their contributions, beginning with my father, who was a Cuban immigrant and was honored for his engineering contributions, to Jesse Aweida, who started the best company I ever worked for, which yielded many innovations in the computer industry. And along the way, I was privileged to meet Lafti Zadeh, a brilliant mathematician and engineer of Iranian descent who was born in Russia, and many fine university professors, doctors and surgeons, engineers and business people who immigrated from India, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Africa. And dare I mention Roberto Clemente, since Puerto Rico is an “unincorporated territory” of the US?

And it is extremely important that we do not allow prejudice and fear to influence our immigration policies. An important lesson can be learned from the story of Tsien Hsue-shen, a chinese immigrant who was one of our most prominent aerospace engineers and a consultant to NASA, Boeing and other aerospace companies in the 1050’s. Tsien wanted to pursue American citizenship, but was accused of being a member of the Communist Party. So his security clearance was revoked, and he was restricted to a very small radius of movement, which constrained his ability to consult with important clients. So Tsien returned to China, and is credited with China’s subsequent extraordinary growth in aviation, computer and aerospace technology. If we forced all the people who are opposed to immigration or who wish to restrain immigration, to emigrate from the US, it is doubtful that any of those people would have a similar effect on their new countries.

But Dr. Tanton’s initial concerns were based primarily on his concerns about nature conservancy and an apparently limited experience with the primarily white, rural area of Michigan where he spent his life. If he had traveled to Asia and Europe, as I have done, where immigration has been occurring for at least as long as America has existed, he would have seen remarkably clean cities as well as rural areas, and buildings that have been continually occupied for hundreds of years. Then, rather than railing against immigration, he might have been inspired to pursue a change in Americans’ attitudes toward preserving infrastructure and the environment instead.

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Taxes in the USA

I received an email which listed income tax, property tax and other taxes and stated that “Not one of these taxes existed 100 years ago…” but that is not not only historically inaccurate, it is simply not true.

One can go back into the archives of government records and find that all kinds of taxes were levied by states, counties, municipalities and the federal government going all the way back to the beginning.

But maybe the commentary was drafted by a former slave or a descendant of a slave, because slaves did not have to pay taxes since they didn’t own property or receive pay. Slave owners, however, had to declare the value of their slaves, which were classified
as “chattel,”and were duly taxed. And the first federal income tax in the U.S. was enacted in 1862. In fact, historically, the only countries that never had taxes were communist countries.

While I share the disdain for politicians that the originator declares, I cannot help but wonder what anyone who could write such a thing thinks about Americans. Apparently, he or she thinks Americans are quite stupid and ignorant of our own history and willing to accept any lies — and that suggests that the text was written by a politician.

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Federal Deficits

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wisconsin Republican) has been much in the news recently. Most recently in a column by Paul Krugman in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/08/opinion/08krugman.html?hp But Ryan’s notoriety raises many issues that should be publicly addressed, and here are some additional observations for you to consider.

First and foremost, Mr. Ryan was part of the Republican majority in both houses of Congress that created the huge debt that we “enjoy” today, he voted with George W. Bush to give away the surpluses in the U.S. Treasury, to spend billions of dollars in
Iraq and Afghanistan and to reduce taxes for the wealthiest Americans (which caused the debt). And he also voted for TARP. In other words, far from being part of the solution, Congressman Ryan was and continues to be part of the problem.

When Washington politicians talk against welfare, let us not forget for one moment that the biggest welfare program in the world can be found in the U.S. Congress. Men who might never hope to be truly successful in private enterprise enjoy salaries in excess of $170,000.00/year, and they also benefit from political donations as well. Nobody receiving welfare payments or unemployment compensation enjoys that much luxury. If we eliminated elections and drafted Congressmen from our welfare and unemployment rolls, we could double the size of Congress, cut the individual salaries in half, and save a bundle, and there is no reason to believe the quality of government would be any worse because we would eliminate the possibility of corruptive influence from campaign donors. Note that the original Constitution stated that members of the House of Representatives “shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand” citizens. We are far from getting the representation called for in the Constitution.

If you are inclined to listen to those who rail against taxing the wealthy, saying things like “Why should the wealthy pay more taxes than the rest of us?” Just consider how the wealthy live. They don’t eat at Wendy’s or MacDonald’s. When the wealthy eat hamburgers, they pay much more for them than most other people do. They consume the same beef, tomatoes, lettuce, etc., but pay much more for it, and they don’t complain. They also pay more for their automobiles, their homes their clothes and memberships in private clubs than most of us can afford. They generally drive longer distances and therefore consume more gasoline (and generate more wear and tear on public roads with their heavier vehicles). So why should they object to paying more taxes for “membership” in a society that provides them with such opportunity? It simply doesn’t make sense, “does not compute.”

And the wealthy do not become wealthy on their own merits. Nobody working alone, not even Warren Buffet, could amass great wealth; they are aided and abetted by many people who work with them and for them. Without people working on his assembly lines, Henry Ford would never have achieved his wealth. Without people working in steel mills, coal mines and oil fields, people like Dale Carnegie and Winthrop Rockefeller would never have achieved their wealth.  And in the same sense that paying dues to the country club entitles members to enjoy the services of kitchen staff, waiters and other employees of the club, the paying of taxes results in much the same benefits. Think of how different our problems and our nation would be if congressional lobbies were restricted by the taxes contributed by the lobbyists and those they represent, and not by political contributions.

In approaching our future, our most important issues must be addressed, and those are and always will be: public health, education and infrastructure and none of those issues can be adequately addressed without reasonable taxation.

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Free Enterprise

Free enterprise cannot exist when a government owns all businesses, but it also cannot exist when one or more companies control the government.

The heart and soul of free enterprise is competition. And we have witnessed how well this works when huge corporations like AT&T and IBM were forced to divest much of their growing monopolies over their respective segments of the U.S. economy. Growth of competition was spurred which caused massive reductions in the cost of computing power and telecommunications as well as remarkable innovations in both of those areas.

Just as competitive sporting events require rules, referees and umpires, competitition in business also requires regulation and oversight. That is the role of government. And it makes no more sense for businesses to control politicians than it makes for a team to control the referees or umpires. When one or more companies exert too much influence on a presumably capitalist government, that government becomes indistinguishable from a communist government.

It is remarkable that some people express great fear of government growing too large but fail to recognize the dangers inherent in corporations growing too large. Such growth tends to place a company out of touch with the consumer and stifles innovation.

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