Sunday, July 20, 2014

That's the news July 20, 2014

Here are some news stories that have caught my eye over the last few days, along with a bit of my own commentary.

Maryland Tested Kids on Material It No Longer Teaches, Guess What Happened?

Um, they didn't score so well.  Duh.  But what I find troubling about this is the following quote, originally posted here:
"Students’ scores had been steadily inching up until 2013, when there were sharp declines in reading and math scores, a slide that continued this year."
So, I guess they aren't teaching reading and math any more.  I don't know, but it seems to me that this is, perhaps, somebody trying to blame declining reading and math scores on common core testing.  If our education system were doing its job, then it wouldn't matter what questions were on the test; our educators would be teaching the subjects, and if they were doing a good job of it, the test results would reflect that.  Instead, it seems they are teaching the test.  Not a good idea at all.  If I were hiring someone, I wouldn't care how they did on any test.  I don't really care how the local schools do on any core testing.  What I care about is that kids know less and less about the subjects they are taking, while learning more and more about how to get a good test score.  Well, it probably won't take educators long to figure out how to teach the new tests well enough so that students can get really good scores so that everyone can feel good about how much they know.

States that workers want to escape from the most

This headline assumes, probably wrongly, that if an individual looks for a job in a different state, then they are trying to "escape" from their current state of residence.  Of course, there could be lots of other explanations for people looking outside of their current state.  Maybe they just want a change of scenery.  Or, maybe, as in the case of Washington, D.C., their states are so small that it is less of a commute to go out of state than it is to try to stay in state.  Or, perhaps, it's more to do with how a state is changing, as might be the case with North Dakota.  I don't know, but I suspect that there has been a large influx of oil workers there, while people who already live there might be looking to cash in on the oil boom before it goes bust.  I would be.  It might have been more informative if this article had addressed the net effect of people looking for work in a particular state versus those who are looking to leave.  But that didn't happen.

NASA scientists say they're closer than ever to finding life beyond Earth

This is just plain silly.  One doesn't have to be a scientist to arrive at the conclusion that we are, with every day that passes by, closer to finding life beyond Earth.  That is, of course, assuming that there will be a day when we actually do find life beyond Earth.
"But as the space telescopes launched by NASA get bigger and bigger, the odds of finding life will get better and better."
Yeah, if, and only if, there is life to be found, something that is, as yet, unknown.  But even if there is life out there somewhere, how will we know if we have found it?  It may not be anything at all like life here.

77% in developed world are happy but wish life was simpler, says poll

I'm getting just a little bit tired of headlines saying how happy we all say we are.  I don't think that's true at all.  Following a link provided in the article itself, provided me with exactly what I thought was the truth about how happy we are.
"The use of antidepressants has surged across the rich world over the past decade, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, raising concerns among doctors that pills are being overprescribed."
So, we're increasingly happy, but we also take increasing amounts of antidepressants.  Awesome.  The thing is, people don't think they are inherently unhappy just because they're taking antidepressants.  For example, I listened to an individual taking Zoloft, which was originally prescribed to treat a skin disorder.  Of course, the skin disorder was probably linked to some psychological issues, but never mind the details.  The problem is that Zoloft treats the symptoms, but doesn't deal with the underlying problem.  But at least this one individual has no interest in treating the real problem; they are "happy" to take increasing amounts of Zoloft to control their skin condition, as well as manage their anger.  It's a friggin' miracle cure, well, as long as you're willing to take the pill for the rest of your life.  Of course, it's entirely possible that this same person could experience the same benefit from some other drug, like alcohol, but somehow that would be different, since alcohol is available without a prescription.  I don't really see the fundamental difference between the two.  They both make people "happy."

The second part of the article says that the majority of people wish their lives were simpler.  These same people insist that technology is the solution.  I had to laugh at that.  Technological advances do everything but simplify one's life.  I have yet to see a single example of how technology advances have simplified anything for individuals.  If you have one, let me know in the comments.  I'd love to hear from you.

A third part of the linked article talks about how people feel about globalization:
"People in emerging economic powers overwhelmingly agreed that globalisation was good for them (China 81%, India 71%, Brazil 68%). But in the richest nations there was a very different view: in France, only 24% of people approved of globalisation, a rate that inched up to 37% in the US and 41% in Britain."
Not terribly surprising.  The places where the masses see the greatest benefits of globalization, i.e. emerging economies, is where people think globalization is good for them.  At least their view of the world matches with their actions.  In the "richest" nations, people are less inclined to feel that way, and yet, nobody wants to cut off the supply of cheap imports.  Rich countries, it seems, want to have their cake and eat it too.  They seem to want to buy cheap stuff produced from the sweat of cheap labor elsewhere, and then get paid for relatively nothing in order to buy that cheap stuff.  I don't see any way that this can turn out anything but bad, although it may take a long time for that to happen.

The 'Biggest Fiscal Development' Of The Last 3 Decades Is The Stunning Slow Down In Healthcare Spending

Okay, this is probably one of the most misleading headlines ever.  First, the headline doesn't mention that the article is talking about federal spending, although I suppose that could be inferred from the use of the word "fiscal," even though fiscal doesn't just mean government.  Speaking of inferring, though, I would not infer that the article was really about the slow down in the growth of federal spending, which is slowing, while the actual spending is still growing.

Still, it seems as if a slowdown in the growth of spending must be a good thing, right?  Perhaps, but it isn't really good news at all.  According to the article:
"The CBO's new projections say federal spending on major healthcare programs — Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and federal subsidies for people buying insurance on the new Obamacare-established exchanges — will rise from about 4.9% of GDP this year to about 7.5% in 2035. The latter number is 2.2 percentage points lower than the CBO projected five years ago."
So, it's still growing at a rate faster then GDP growth, and that is still expected to continue.  All I can say about that is that people need to get way more productive than they supposedly are getting.  Of course, that in itself doesn't mean anything because if we become more productive, then healthcare costs will rise in direct proportion.  So really, this appears to be bad news, actually.  The slowing rise in healthcare costs is more a reflection of the slowing growth in GDP than anything good.  Of course, the article states that "experts" agree that Obamacare has contributed to this decrease, presumably because of the correlation of the slowdown in growth of medical care expenses and the rollout of Obamacare.  But, correlation does not equal causation, as I always say.  But if it does, then why on earth doesn't anyone else think that the healthcare expense trend has more to do with the weak economic growth we've been experiencing?  After all, there's some correlation there too.

Millennials Don’t Know What "Socialism" Means

No, they don't.  But, is the headline fair?  No, it isn't.  I have to wonder how well other generations would have fared when they were young and foolish.  I suspect not so differently.  I do have to say, though, that this new generation acts in a more overconfident way than previous generations, but that could be my own bias being that I'm from a previous, and clearly better, generation.  I do know I was overconfident when I was young; I thought I knew a lot more than I really did.  But, it also seems that I was more willing to listen when I was younger.  Millennials in general seem to be much more closed-minded than their predecessors, which I think is a bad thing.  That is, of course, unless one of their friends thinks of something, in which case, they'll gladly ditch their previous notions of the world.  I've lost count of the times that I've said something about the world repeatedly and been argued with, only to be told later, "I just figured out…" or, "I learned…" because a friend told them the same thing that I've been saying for years.  Well, perhaps it doesn't much matter; at least they eventually learned something, even if it wasn't from me.

New York Tries to Regulate Bitcoin Businesses Right Out of the State

I'm no expert on bitcoins, but I do know a thing or two about finance and economics, which doesn't really mean anything when it comes to virtual currencies.  At this point, I'm not sure I would even classify Bitcoins as a currency.  It's more like a commodity, and not a very useful one in everyday life since to spend Bitcoins, you need to find someone who will accept them in payment for something else, like bartering.  And the purpose of a currency is to create an efficiency in the market where buyers don't have to spend time looking for sellers who will accept what they have to trade.  And it seems that every transaction has to take into account the exchange value of the bitcoins into some other, more traditional currency.  I mean, how many bitcoins should I be willing to spend to buy, say, a car?  I don't know unless I know how many dollars I would spend on that car, and how many dollars I can get for my bitcoins.

But, let's just consider for a moment a world in which virtual currencies are the only currencies.  I use the plural since if bitcoins became that popular in use then someone else, probably lots of someone elses, would devise their own virtual currency.  From a market perspective, this might not be so bad since it would introduce competition where there doesn't seem to be much competition at all at the moment.  The system that is more secure, more anonymous, and more widely accepted wins.  But then, we aren't that much better off if there are a lot of choices for which currency to use.  Choices are normally considered good, but probably not so much when it comes to currency.

Anonymous transactions sound great, from an individual standpoint, since it may allow for tax free purchases, and even income tax free paychecks.  I'm all for tax cuts.  But, how does the government keep running?  Some people might think that it would be great if they didn't, or that it certainly wouldn't hurt much.  But, I suspect that there might be at least some good to keeping the government intact.  I'm just not going to go that far into it here.

In the end, bitcoin isn't really all that much different from gold, or some other commodity or currency for that matter that depends on someone else giving me at least the same value for whatever I'm giving them.  There is no "intrinsic value" to bitcoins just like there isn't an intrinsic value to any other currency.  It's value lies in the belief that someone else will give me a bitcoin of value for my bitcoin.  It is, in effect, fiat money, much like the dollar.  The only difference is that the government isn't in control of the supply.  Instead, it's business people who control it.  That somehow doesn't make me feel particularly good about it.

So, while I'm not a big fan of bitcoins, I'll be watching for new developments, for sure.  I really expect that government regulation is inevitable.  I don't care so much about that, though.  I just wish the government would butt out of my everyday life.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

That's the news July 15, 2014

Here are some news stories that have caught my eye over the last few days, along with a bit of my own commentary.

Pamplona bull runner wanted by police for 'taking selfie'

And why is he wanted?  "Vadillo wrote that the photo was "one of the best examples of human stupidity I've ever seen", pointing out that he had put other runners in tremendous danger."  Silly me.  I thought it was the bulls that put the runners in tremendous danger.  Still… something does need to be done about the selfie menace.  At least this beats the selfie in the bathroom mirror.

Here's Why Simply Going To School Makes Some Brilliant Kids Think They're Not At All Smart

This video covers way too much for me to cover here, but I do want to say that I actually agree with a lot of what the speaker says.  But, a couple of comments: The speaker asks, "Why would you lower standards?"  A question to which the answer seems to be self-evidently "You wouldn't."  But, as is the case with most self-evident statements, the answer isn't as clear as all that.  In higher education today, we do lower standards so that everyone has a good chance to pass.  The more people we push through college, the lower the standards become so that schools can maintain a high pass rate, even as we are pushing people into college that probably don't belong in college.

I also have to agree with his comments about the ADHD epidemic.  I don't think there is one, but enough drugs are prescribed to lead one to believe there is.  This is a problem that extends beyond ADHD, though.  I think the same thing about depression and other problems.  Pills offer a too quick and easy "fix" for the problem, and often produce even bigger problems than they supposedly solve.

FLYING CARS PREDICTED IN TWO YEARS: WHAT THEN?

This article caught my attention as I was actually looking for some investment ideas.  Unfortunately, the business is privately held, and in order to invest currently, one has to be an SEC accredited investor http://www.sec.gov/answers/accred.htm, which I am not.  Also, unfortunately, I can't even look to see if it is a good investment, being that I'm not an accredited investor, so don't go off thinking that I said it was a good deal.  I don't know.  They do claim that people are already putting money down and these new cars, and apparently the FAA has already approved the design as a "light sport aircraft."  It perhaps sounds a little too futuristic until you realize that you would still have to drive it to the airport to take off and land, at which point I begin to wonder why no one ever made these before?

Well, if you like what you read here, and you'd like to help me out on my quest toward becoming an accredited investor, just click the Amazon banner on the right side of the page and shop for stuff you already were considering buying.  You'll be getting your shopping done, and helping me to keep writing.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

How Technology Closes Our Minds

The other day, I was just fooling around with Google , and I typed into the search box "I love my" to see what Google suggested for completion.  The first choice was "hair."  So, I went to the first page on the search results, and perhaps not so surprisingly it was a video of a Muppet singing "I Love My Hair."   Well, it was cute and all, but not really my thing.  It had been a long time since I had been on YouTube though, so I decided to check out my home page and see what other stuff there was to see.  And, to my horror, the suggestions for what I should watch were ALL Sesame Street Videos.  It took some serious effort to get YouTube to forget that I watched that video.

I guess the point is that Google seems to know an awful lot about what I've been doing on the internet, and perhaps worst of all, assumes that I really wouldn't be interested in much of anything else.  I'm constantly being served ads for places I do business with, and worse, places where I've done no business but visited the web site.  If I "like" a page on Facebook, I get all sorts of suggestions for similar things.  I can send friend requests to people who think like me, and I can block those that don't.  Twitter is pretty much the same story as Facebook.  I can "favorite" web sites in my browser so I never have to look beyond my circle of similar-thinking people.

And this extends well beyond the internet.  My television remote has a "favorites" button, so I can quickly flip to those channels that have programming I like, remaining unaware of whatever else there might be on television.  Music services that either stream music (like Pandora) or that allow downloads (like iTunes) also have mechanisms to make sure that you don't have to ever listen to anything you're pretty sure you won't like.  Even college courses tend to foster a closed-minded attitude, since most classes seemed to suggest that I should first formulate an opinion and then find information to back up my opinion.  I never did that; I generally used a question for my thesis, at least until I could form an educated opinion and not an opinion based on feelings.  I have, however, watched others form an opinion and then proceed to look for sources that appeared to back-up what they already thought.

By now, you may be wondering what's wrong with all that?  Why should I have to spend time sifting through a virtually unlimited amount of information every time I want to be entertained, learn, or find the truth about something?  To answer that, all you really need to do is look at the comments following most news and commentary.  It never takes long for the "discussion" to degrade into nothing more than name-calling.  This is a sign of how closed-minded we are becoming, and in my opinion, it will only get worse.

The unfortunate reality is that our society actually rewards closed-mindedness.  Many people seem to think that having an open mind means indecisiveness.  I've been told that I always "hedge" my opinions, when in fact I'm actually just acknowledging that mine is not the only opinion in the world, and may not be any more right than anyone else's opinion.  Here's an example, right from this post.  Earlier, I said that the comment sections following news and commentaries quickly degrades into nothing more than name-calling, and that this was a sign of how closed-minded we are becoming.  I could be wrong about that; after all, this sort of interaction hasn't been around for long, and perhaps it's just the ease with which we can interact, and publicly as well as anonymously at that, that gives the appearance of increasing intolerance.  But I truly believe that there is far more to what's happening than that.  And so, I'm going to try and make a regular series of posts on this subject in the future.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear your comments!  And feel free to look me up on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Well, it made my blood boil after all


I read quite a bit on the internet, and most of what I read is, well, useless.  The internet has become, unfortunately, a world of trolls, people who only write things to get a rise out of their readers.  And unfortunately, a lot of people think this sort of drivel is news.  The above-linked article is as good an example as any.

The title of the article tells us that after reading this article our blood should be boiling.  And it appears that most of the readers, at least the readers who comment, agree.  But, I'm not so sure that whatever the author is going to say is worth getting all worked-up over.  And it doesn't take long before I see that I'm right.

From the first paragraph:
"In the past 20 years, the US economy has grown nearly 60 percent. This huge increase in productivity is partly due to automation, the internet, and other improvements in efficiency. But it's also the result of Americans working harder—often without a big boost to their bottom lines. Oh, and meanwhile, corporate profits are up 20 percent."
So, wow, huh.  There's some real data in there, and luckily for us, not too much, cuz numbers make for some dull reading.  Just enough to start getting our blood to simmer.  Too bad they left out a key data point: how much does the author think would be a "big boost" to a worker's bottom line?

Well, it doesn't much matter what the author thinks.  First, think about this: If the economy grew by 60 percent, and corporate profits grew by 20 percent, where did the rest of the economic growth go?

As it turns-out, I may have a sort of answer.  The government, vile as it is, does offer a wealth of economic data these days.  I don't necessarily trust them, but I also don't think they're smart enough to completely pull the wool over everyone's eyes for long, so I'm going to use some of that questionable government data to see if I can find where all that money went.

Here's part of a table from the Census.gov website:


Granted, the top 5 percent have seen greater gains than the rest of us, which almost makes my blood boil since, as far as I can tell, they really haven't done anything to warrant getting a bigger piece of the pie.  Still, even the lowest fifth of households saw their incomes increase by far more than corporate profits have.  And one thing to note here: the author doesn't say whether the figures they used are adjusted for inflation in any way; these figures are in constant dollars.  If they were in nominal dollars, the changes would be greater.

Then there's the bit about increasing GDP being some sort of measure for increasing productivity.  Hmm.  Well, as it turns out, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has some data relevant to that topic.  Here's a graph showing how the labor force has grown over the last twenty years:




Screen clipping taken: 6/25/2014 4:47 AM

So, over the twenty years in question, the actual size of the workforce has increased substantially, to the tune of right about 20 percent.  The author mentions somewhat offhandedly that this "huge increase in productivity is partly due to automation, the internet, and other improvements in efficiency."  While not explicitly stated, this statement leads people to believe that these things are a small part of the huge increase in productivity.  I beg to differ.

To put the technology advances in perspective, let's look at some things about tech in 1994.  Netscape and Yahoo were founded that year.  Prodigy began pioneering dialup connections, which were, as I recall, at the blazing speed of 14k baud, or some such thing as that (does it show I'm not a real computer geek?).  Commodore 64s were still selling, although the company did go bankrupt that year.  It was called 64 because it had 64k of memory.  How much memory is in your phone today?  Probably about 32,000 times that much, or more.  The processor ran at about 1 Mhz.  Compare that to today's processors.

The point is, that technological advances over this period have been remarkable to say the least, and I think, if anything, they show that Americans don't work as hard as they did 20 years ago, although I'm sure I could do a survey and find that everyone works way harder than they did back then.  I know I do.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm happy with the way things are here in the U.S., but that's not the point of this post.  One thing we don't really need more of these days is internet trolls, and yeah, I think the author of the linked article is just a troll, and probably too busy playing with his phone and calling it work related communication to be bothered actually finding some real stuff for the rest of us to get angry over.  And Mother Jones has the gall to ask me for money to read that stuff.  Maybe I should send them a donation, cuz after all, they provided me with the target of this post.  Then again, I'm not getting paid for this, so, as it turns out, I am, in fact, sharing the wealth I have derived from their article.

Well, mission accomplished, Mother Jones.  My blood is boiling, just not for the reason that you think it should be.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Crazy

Quite a few years ago I went to see a psychiatrist.  When he asked why I came to see him, I said, "I think I'm going crazy."  His response was that I wasn't going crazy since crazy people never think they are crazy.  I left his office hugely relieved that I wasn't crazy after all.

It didn't take long before I then realized that since I didn't think I was crazy, I might very well be crazy.  But then I realized that thinking I might be crazy because I thought I wasn't crazy meant that I in fact wasn't crazy because I thought that I might be crazy.

Still later, I started thinking I might be going crazy, which then lead to the idea that I might just be thinking that so that then I could convince myself that I wasn't going crazy because, since I thought I was going crazy, I clearly was not.  Which lead inevitably to think that therefore I was crazy and just playing mind games with myself to convince myself that I wasn't crazy, but since I thought that last bit, I was not crazy.

Well, to cut to the chase, I just want to thank that psychiatrist from decades ago for virtually assuring that I would never be totally convinced of my own sanity, and through doubting my own sanity, I can rest assured that I am, in fact sane.  That is, unless I am only telling myself that I think I may be crazy in order to reaffirm my hope that I am, in fact, not crazy.  Either way, I'm probably okay.  Unless I'm not, that is.


Thursday, June 05, 2014

Unquotable: Nietzsche

For my second post on this subject, I've chosen a well-known, and apparently hated, quote from Nietzsche: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

First, let me say this: I've never read anything at all by Nietzsche, so it's entirely possible that I've got it all wrong.  I did download Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, but haven't managed to get past the Introduction.  Some things are too dry even for me.

I'm not sure why, but this quote appears to be hated, maybe even loathed, by a lot of people on the internet.  In looking around, I didn't see anyone who quoted it for it's intended purpose, which I take to be some kind of motivational thing to get people to do something they don't really want to do, but which will somehow make them stronger.  Something like doing homework, or going to the gym, that sort of thing.  And, of course, most of the time doing that stuff doesn't make one feel particularly strong, and so we get resentful of the fool that first uttered those words.  I actually like it though, as it gives me an excuse to eat another Twinkie.  I guess in that regard, it might actually be making me stronger, as in, it is empowering me to do something I want to do, but think I shouldn't.

So, if your intent is to actually motivate someone, this is probably not a good choice.  It seems that everyone has already heard it, and will either: 1) argue the senselessness of the quote, or 2) twist the meaning to empower themselves to do what they really want to do.  

So, I was thinking about making this into a much more intellectual discourse, but while searching the internets, I found these two articles:

So Nietzsche WAS right: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, scientists find

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Weaker

Strangely, both of these articles say similar things, but according to the titles, arrive a opposite conclusions, which convinced me that there really wasn't much point in trying to intellectualize this at all.  And then, I happened on another Nietzsche quote that pretty much made any discussion of this quote moot: "There are no facts, only interpretations."  I really got the impression that the first quote was supposed to be, in some way, a fact, and yet Nietzsche himself said there are none.  But wait, if there are no facts then isn't that in itself a fact?

Okay, so I don't really buy the whole "There are no facts" thing.  I think there is at least one fact, and possibly around four or five.  The other millions of "facts" that you think you know are not really facts at all.  But what I do like about "no facts" is that it validates my own twisted interpretation of the original quote.  And so, feeling thus empowered, I think I'll end this and have another Twinkie.  Thanks, Mr. Nietzsche!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Unquotable: Hitchens

One of the more annoying behaviors I've noticed is an increasing number of people quoting other well-known, and possibly intelligent people in an effort to appear intelligent themselves.  Unfortunately, it seems to work, at least among other not-so-intelligent people.  Well, at least until someone with enough intelligence comes along and asks, "What does that mean?"  And the answer is, "I don't know… I just thought it sounded cool."  Or something similar.  One of my personal favorites is, "I can't think how to explain it," which really means "I don't understand it myself."  So, in an effort to stem the tide of false intelligence on the internet, this post marks the beginning of a series of posts to 1) explain the quote, and 2) explain what's wrong with the quote.

This first quote comes from Christopher Hitchens.  I actually had never heard of him until he died, which probably just shows how sheltered of a life I've lived.  I heard of him then only because someone decided to quote Mr. Hitchens as follows: "We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid."

I first saw this quote on someone's Facebook status, and hence was actually how I found out about Christopher Hitchens.  It was posted on or around Mr. Hitchens' death, when a lot of pseudo-intellects were running around mourning his death.  Of course, the status got a lot of "likes," at least until I happened on it, and responded with something like: "There is no such conclusive evidence at all.  There is only conclusive evidence that people are mean, selfish and stupid.  Religion just gives many of them an excuse."

I was summarily unfriended by this person.  The reason that I felt compelled to respond to this post was that the person who posted the status has never read the bible, and yet professes to be an atheist.  Indeed cannot even answer relatively simple questions such as why he believes in the nonexistence of God over the existence of God.  I personally think he has chosen atheism simply because not believing requires less effort, not to mention that atheism is seen by many as being much more awesome than believing in God.  After all, it appears to be way more brave when one is defying the almighty.

Now, in retrospect, I may have been a bit hasty in my response, because I see that the second part of the quote refers not to religion, but to faith, and in that regard the quote may have more truth to it than I originally thought.  Of course, faith can be defined in terms of religion and is often used that way, and this quote appears to imply that definition.  But, if we look at the more general definition of faith, the quote becomes something different, and in fact, becomes a statement of what I actually said in my response.  Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.  The very act of acting out of faith will often lead to mean, selfish, and yes stupid actions because faith comes from emotional thought processes rather than rational thoughts.

So, there you have it.  What's wrong with the quote is that it's used as an argument against religious faith, but it is really a comment on humanity in general.  If there were no religion, people would find something new to hate each other for.