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Sunday, January 24, 2016

"War on _______"

We've all heard about the...

...War on Poverty

...War on Drugs

...and now, after the President's state of the union speech, the...

...War on Cancer.

I have a problem with all of these (and other, similar "Wars").

Now having grown up in relative poverty, I am not advocating it for anyone.  Also, I don't take drugs, mostly because I like having my wits about me (what little I possess).  Last but not least, I certainly know that cancer is a horrible affliction that takes far too many lives before their time.

My problem specifically is with the whole notion of the United States declaring "War" on something other than another nation.  Another nation can be fought and actually defeated in a war, and there is a certain concrete nature to the idea of an adversary that will engage with you in a way that is similar to how you will engage with them.  Wars have rules, even if those rules are broken.  Mostly though, those kinds of "Wars" can actually be won.

How do you defeat a state of living poverty?  What exactly would victory look like, anyway?  No one being poor any more?  By that definition a "War on Poverty" is doomed from the start, as it simply can't be won.  There is barely consensus on what poverty means.

How do you defeat a desire of some people to want to use illegal (and abuse legal) drugs?  Heck, given that learned folks on this topic (including the United States Federal Government and most researchers...see HERE and HERE) believe that drug addiction is a disease, how does our main weapon in this conflict, namely putting people in jail for mostly selling (but sometimes using) drugs help to win the war?  It's just not realistic or practical to use jail as the primary tool to win this fake "War", although we are certainly trying...


...without much success, as drug abuse continues to get worse, not better.  We're left with another unwinnable "War".

Then we have the "War on Cancer".  Like the other two "Wars" I've mentioned, there isn't a single adversary to fight in this fake conflict.  Cancer can be caused by lifestyle choices, by environmental factors, by genetics and even by biological agents (see HERE).  Who or what are we fighting in this "War"?  What would victory look like, by the way?  No cancers at all, ever?

Look, in the end it could be argued that I'm getting all worked up about semantics, and that's a fair criticism.  However...and this is a big however...words do matter.  Politicians like to use phrases like "War on _____" in part because they think the population is basically stupid and will fall for just about anything that relies on a patriotic or emotional appeal.  "War on Cancer" simply sounds better coming out of a politicians mouth than "the deployment of significantly more resources to identify and develop solutions for the causes of many forms of cancer".  It's also easier than saying "All of us need to get healthier in order to prevent some forms of cancer" as well.

I want less poverty.

I want fewer addicts.

I want cancer to strike less often.

I also know that we can do all of those things, but it will be result of smart people working together to come up with solutions that will be tried, adjusted and tried again.  It will require effort and money, not cheap sloganeering designed for the lowest common denominator of American intelligence.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Rules for Life

Blogger Vanessa Leigh writes some good stuff, and her blog is worth checking out.  You can find it HERE.

In a recent posting she listed "My Rules for Life", which sounds like a good idea to me for a topic, so in the truest spirit of the Internet I'll steal borrow it.

Without any further explanation, here are My Rules for Life.

1.  We Are All Different And Yet The Same
Growing up I always thought I was abhorrently different.  Somehow defective.  What I've learned, mostly later in life I'll add, is that barring serial killers, the truly mentally ill and politicians, we are all in fact equally dysfunctional.  That goes for priests, car mechanics, engineers, corporate trainers, garbage collectors, doctors, tech support staff, CEO's, teachers, Popes, firefighters and everyone else.

2.  Be Present In The Moment
The present moment is all we really ever have; the past is nothing more than an already spent "present" and the future will be the present soon enough on its own without any effort on our part.  I'm still learning this by the way.  I'll probably be learning this for the rest of my life actually.

3.  Redemption
We all...all of us...have a shot at redemption, up until the our last breath.  Never assume that you or I is ever beyond saving.

4.  Curiosity
I am curious about everything.  I never want to stop exploring.

5.  Honesty
Lies require too much effort for too little reward.

6.  Practice Forgiveness
Holding onto anger is a poison for the soul.  I can proudly look myself in the mirror and honestly say that I am not angry at a single soul.  Annoyed?  Well maybe.

7.  Embrace Change
We are never too old to change and adapt to our circumstances.

8.  Absolutes
I am wary of anyone or anything that preaches longs lists of moral, practical or other absolutes.  Yes, it's important to have rules (such as these, at least for me), but in fact I think there are very few absolutes in life.  I am especially wary of anyone who talks about "follow these sixteen steps and you will spend an eternity in Heaven", mostly because I can't picture God being the creator some kind of cosmic paint by numbers set.

9.  Be Kind
I try to be kind to everyone, but especially to those who can do nothing for me in return.

10.  Laugh
I try to laugh often and heartily.  If holding onto grudges is poisonous to your soul, then laughter is a kind of cosmic antibiotic.

11.  Read
I read, a lot.

12.  Ego
Ego serves virtually no useful purpose in life, other than to mess with the head and make ourselves feel temporarily better...usually at the expense of others.  I've learned to avoid both myself and in others...and I inherently don't trust those who don't keep their own in check.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Living in my personal data stream

(Me, a co-presenter & an audience of 200+)

I was contemplating at work last week, as I am often fond of doing, specifically about why I sometimes get this feeling of being over-whelmed.  Now it's not over-whelmed with work, and in fairness, my time management skills are pretty good.  It's not over-whelmed by work either.  My work challenges me, but it's not beyond me.  No, this is more of a over-whelmed at work.

I think it comes down to data.

I notice just about everything.  For for the record, I've only told one other person this before, and maybe I'm like everyone else in to world.  Maybe I'm not.  I have no real point of reference.  I just know that I've always been this way.  I think it has to do with how I grew up.  It's a kind of survival thing, if you will, in growing up under somewhat difficult circumstances.  It was always important to notice how my mother was, and what she as doing, in order to avoid trouble.  That's a different post for a different day though.

Anyway, things do escape me, and I am more than capable of zoning out, but especially at work I tend to be very attuned to the environment around me.

Who is around me at all times.

The sounds.

The expressions on people's faces (to the extent that I can make them out).

The tone people use when they are speaking.

Eye contact.

Body language.

The specific word choices people use when speaking.

How people are dressed.  Not in a critical way, but in an observational way.

How people walk.


Smells.  Constantly, smells.  Mostly good smells, thank God.

Where people sit in meetings.

How people sit in chairs.  Slouched?  Pushed back?  Leaning forward?

How co-workers compose emails.  What words they choose.  The size of responses.

And the list goes on.

(I don't notice shoes.  Hear that ladies?)

It's all the above data, and more, that almost constantly bombards me at work.  It's like the ultimate news crawl at the bottom of a television screen playing inside my head.  I'll note that, at times, I don't tell the truth about what I notice.  It's just easier than explaining why I noticed something, and quite frankly far less creepy to boot.

It has its benefits.  For example, when I am speaking in front of a group of people, it's relatively easy for me to see whether or not I have the audience engaged.  I can also zero in on people who I think might not "get" what I am talking about in order to use them as a kind of lowest common denominator of comprehension.

Anyway, I've learned, or more correctly taught myself over the years, to not notice some things.  I routinely miss what is for sale in the cafeteria at work, for example.  That's mostly because I work very, very hard at getting in and out of the cafeteria as quickly as possible.  Why?  There's just too much data there.  It's gets over-whelming quickly for me.  I only actually eat in the cafeteria at work maybe 2 or 3 times a year; most of the time I eat at my desk.

This also explains my aversion to parties.

Remediation:  I've been using headphone at work for a decade or more.  Even though I have an office, with a real, functioning door (a rarity in our office, and I am truly grateful to have one), I still use the headphones.  I thought it was just because I like music.  Well I do like music, but it occurs to me that I do this, much to the chagrin of my co-workers, because it's a way for me to overwhelm and/or interupt the data stream.  Having George Harrison sing "What Is Life" at high-volume through Sony over-ear headphones is a way to do just that.  Music allows me to move some of that mental RAM away from the data-stream and towards a task at hand.

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie: Concert for New York

I have this concert DVD, and I recommend that anyone who loves well played live music buy it as well.  I watched the concert on television as it was happening, and while all of the musical acts were terrific, David Bowie's set really, truly stands out.

I can think of no better tribute to the late David Bowie than these two songs.


Rest in Peace.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The First Week

I did something this past week that I've never done before:  Taken the first week in January off.  I know, hardly a *newsflash*, but it was a good idea never the less.

December was a difficult month.  As I've noted before, I had a lot going on at work, which coupled with finishing a graduate class on Information Technology and holiday preparations made for a storm-o-stress.  I am glad it is now part of the history books.

Now normally I only take longer stretches of time off maybe twice a year.  The rest of the time it's a day here or there, so taking this first week off was somewhat out of character.  I'll also confess to the following:  Often (as in more than about three quarters of the time) having a single day off is actually stressful for me.  I have grand plans on what I want to accomplish, but more often than not I'm either unmotivated and/or too tired to act on them, which makes me feel less than great.  I also typically end up checking work email as well.  Not good.

This past week was different.

I had an outline in my head of what I wanted to accomplish, but no real and firm plans.

I also made the conscious decision to not check email. Not once.  My cell phone number is on my away voicemail message, and I also let the others on my team know they can contact me if needed, so I figure that any real emergencies would come to me.  Otherwise, well it could wait.

The result was that I actually found this week to be relaxing.  I really feel better.  I also accomplished some stuff.  For example...home office storage.

One of things that we liked when we made the decision to buy our home is the fact that it had a second floor office.  It was just a bare room (well not technically correct, as it has its own covered porch), and rather small, but the space works well for us.

(The original space.)

One problem has been storage.  Specifically, I have a TON of books, so after we bought the place I put up some shelving brackets just to create some additional book shelf space.

(With temporary shelving...that lasted two years.)

That worked for about 6 months, so it's been on my radar screen for a long time now to add shelving space. I planned out what I wanted, and with the help of a great stud sensor for plaster walls and about $175 worth of material, the shelving was upgraded.

(In progress.)

(The finished product.)

I also got in five days worth of workouts in the gym.  Granted that I continue to eat horribly, but I was glad at least for the 40+ minutes per day of dedicated exercise I got in Monday-Friday.

Alas now, it's Sunday evening, and work approaches quickly.  Time to say goodbye to an actually restful week off and check some work email.  The new week is coming, whether I am ready for it or now, but at least this time I feel somewhat better (mentally) prepared.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Scranton's Fiscal Pickle: The Heart of the Matter & 8 Recommendations

The following story from The Scranton Times...

...reminded me of something important relative to the fiscal plight of Scranton.  Specifically, saying that Scranton "needs revenue" in order to solve its fiscal problems is a bit like saying that a drunk "needs" just one more drink in order to feel better.  

In point of fact, Scranton already has significant and regressive revenue sources in place.

Wage Tax
3.4% of earned income, one of the highest in Pennsylvania.  2.4% of this tax goes to the city government, with the remaining 1% going to the Scranton School District.  By way of comparison, here are a few other city wage tax rates:

- Philadelphia...3.92% (for residents, 3.4915% for non-residents)
- Reading...3.60%
- Scranton...3.40%
- Pittsburgh...3.00%
- Wilkes-Barre...3.00%
- Altoona...1.45%
- Allentown...1.33%
- York...1.25%
- Erie...1.18%
- Lancaster...1.10%
- Bethlehem...1.00%

You can read more about local tax rates HERE.

Business Privilege Tax
"Any for-profit, Scranton-based business that provides a service or receives payment for an exchange of talent must pay a business privilege tax at a rate of 6.13 mils, which amounts to $6.13 for every $1,000 of gross receipts. This is based on the previous year’s gross sales."  Citation HERE.

Mercantile Tax
Retailers = $1.68 per $1,000 of gross receipts
Wholesalers = $1.43 per $1,000 of gross receipts
Citation HERE.

Note that these taxes (Business Privilege & Mercantile) are levied on gross receipts, not on profit, meaning that even if the business were to lose money it would still owe the tax.

I'm not going to add property taxes into the mix, mainly because it gets difficult to explain (since it is often times composed of taxes going to the city, county and school district).  Suffice to say, Scranton once had fairly low property taxes, but those days have long gone.  In fact, residents will likely be seeing a further increase in property taxes over the next year or so (see the article from The Scranton Times).

It comes down to this:  I don't think there is any amount of revenue that would solve Scranton's fiscal problems, simply because Scranton doesn't have a revenue problem.  Don't believe me?  Well why then do other cities of similar size manage to run their affairs with less in the way of tax revenue?    

Simply put, Scranton has an expense problem.  It simply spends far more than it can reasonable ever expect to collect in taxes and fees.  What's more, the city is eventually going to run out of big assets to sell and/or leverage.  City residents have already been through the "sell stuff and it will all be better" charade in the past, and the net result has been where the city is now.  

What to do?  The solutions are not easy, but they exist.  Here are mine.

A. First and foremost, the city needs to make it clear to all of its constituencies, including unionized city employees, that it is prepared to declare bankruptcy if it is unable to reduce expenses through structural changes to city operations.  And it has to be prepared to actually act on that intention, if needed.  Now the state politicians in Harrisburg may not allow Scranton to declare bankruptcy, but even if they don't they will impose fairly harsh measures in place of declaration.  Yes, bankruptcy will effectively destroy the city's ability to borrow, but that is already happening through a slow decline without the opportunities that bankruptcy would provide (such as opening up contracts).

B. Second, all employee compensation and benefit packages need to be open for discussion and potential adjustment.  The city should baseline salary and benefits against an average of similar sized municipalities in Pennsylvania.  The city must also become much more aggressive in evaluating disability claims made by city employees.  This process should be undertaken with the city leadership, union leadership and a neutral third party.

C. Third, mandatory manning clauses need to be open for discussion and potential adjustment.  City police and fire department staffing levels need to be evaluated on a comparative, per capita basis against similar Pennsylvania municipalities.  This process should be undertaken with the city leadership, union leadership and a neutral third party.

D. Fourth, the city needs to evaluate its overall organizational structure, including ratios of staff to managers.  With very rare exception, no manager should be supervising any fewer than five employees.  Departments with similar functions should be consolidated.  Common resources, such as supplies, should be centralized.  The city should look to consolidate some services, possibly such as Human Resources, procurement and information technology, with the Scranton School District.

E. Fifth, the city should engage in a partnership with the University of Scranton or other institution/group ("strategic partners") to undertake a "soup to nuts" evaluation of every service offered and provided by the city.  The evaluation would involve three steps:

1) Is this something that the city alone must provide in the first place?

2) If the answer to #1 is "no", then the city should seek out private business(es) to undertake the service for residents.  One that might be on the "no" list, for example, is refuse collection, as there are many private businesses that can collect refuse.  Scranton's current refuse collection system actually harms senior citizens and others that generate small amounts of garbage by charging them the same amount for refuse collection that large families pay (yes, your elderly grandmother and a family of 10 pay the same amount); words like "grossly inefficient" and "unfair" come to mind.

3) If the answer to #1 is "yes", then ascertain how efficient the service delivery is being performed and implement best practices to improve efficiency.  The strategic partners would help with the process.  

F. Sixth, every expense needs to be justified, authorized and approved...including overtime.  All contracts need to undergo a competitive bidding process.  

G. Seventh, a cost-benefit analysis should be completed for every open city position; unless the position serves to reduce expenses (such as a single new position that replaces two old positions), make city operations more efficient or directly and positively impacts public safety (within the framework of revised manning guidelines, see "Third") it should not be filled.  All approved vacancies should be publicly advertised.  The city should have strict anti-nepotism and ethics policies that preclude the hiring of relatives and all contributors to political campaigns of city council members and the mayor.

H. Finally, every budget every year for every department needs to be constructed from a baseline of zero (see zero-based budgeting).  This will force city leaders to focus on expenses on an on-going basis.  The budgeting process needs to include required city payments into pension and other long-term obligations (see "Second").  The city should financially reward employees who develop more efficient processes or find other ways to save money.  For example, provide a bonus equal to 10% of the first year realized savings to the employee.

Of course items B-H are null and void if the city actually has to declare bankruptcy.

When all is said and done, Scranton has been floundering for decades under a distressed city designation that will not go away until radical changes are made.  What I've seen and read over the years from city leaders have been far from radical.

(Scranton's leaders need to memorize this quote.)

Monday, January 4, 2016

Donald Trump...protecting Morocco from Africans

Donald Trump's first TV ad shows migrants 'at the southern border,' but they're actually in Morocco

The above is worth five minutes of anyone's time.

Unexpected?  Not really.  Trump has never really been about facts or reality; no, his campaign is more about "the show" and pandering to the lowest common denominator of GOP primary voters than anything else.

Now I do get it:  Plenty of campaigns use stock footage in commercials.  But what Trump has done here is far more interesting in that the commercial is about inciting voters to be fearful, and the fact is that no amount of real footage, relative to this issue, can deliver what he needs.  So what's he to to?  See above...fake it.

Had he consulted with me, I personally would have suggested the following:

Anyway, the show must go on.

Here's my bottom line:  You can't have more than two functioning brain cells AND be a Donald Trump for President supporter.  Sorry.  You can't.

"But, but, but, what about Hillary?"

This isn't about Hillary Clinton, and I personally love it when people who, in the absence of any kind of factual basis for a rebuttal, somehow believe that an effective strategy is to simply change the subject.  I think that worked third grade.

Oh, and I don't even like Hillary Clinton, for the record.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Some spoilers)

(from Wikipedia)

Here's my take.
(Warning:  Mild spoilers below)

The Good:
  • No Jar-Jar Binks.
  • No lens flare.
  • Han Solo & Chewbacca were great and completely within character.
  • Princess Leia was a tough as ever...and forget all that crap about her looking old...hello...she is old.  It's about 35 years from the last movie.  People need to get over that stuff.
  • I liked the Kylo Ren character (and Adam Driver did a great job with it).  The fact that he was a kinda "pretty boy" under the mask worked really well.  

The Bad:
  • The 80 or so "kinda just like the old movie" references & parallels (old guy killed by Darth Vader-esque character, all starting on a desert planet...I guess all desert planets in the Star Wars universe are $hit holes to boot, "not quite but almost" death star, the kinda-sorta emperor character, etc.).
  • Funny, but Luke had to learn the ways of the force from Obi Wan and then Yoda.  Rey just seemed to pick her skills up by osmosis I guess.
  • 95% of the movie consisted of action scenes.  I think it needed a bit more back story.  For example, who actually ran the galaxy?  Was the First Order some kind of officially sanctioned outfit, or were they actually more like rebels?
  • There was no sense as to where these planets were in relation to each other.  
  • I missed the traditional 20th Century Fox introduction.

The Indifferent:
  • The Poe Dameron character was interesting...I just wish they made better use of him.
  • Ditto on Captain Phasma.  I hope she appears in a future movie.
  • Obligatory cute droid.
  • They didn't modernize the technology too much.
  • Seriously, Luke Skywalker?  Mark Hamill is the smartest guy in the galaxy for getting paid what he likely did for what he actually contributed to the movie.

Overall?  I'd give it a solid "B" grade.  
Not my favorite Star Wars movie (those are the original and the Return of the Jedi) nor was it anywhere near my least favorite (Revenge of the Sith...outside of the first sequence I hate* that movie).

(*) Two words:  Murdered children.