Going dark – part 1

Since I started working from home, I have a little less time to listen to podcasts. DOn’t get me wrong, I am way happier saving a 90 minute (both ways) commute every day – but I do listen less than I used to. The one change to that is when I have to drive to Detroit for work meetings.  It’s a little over 4 hours each way and at least one way each time I go, is outside of working hours, so instead of being on calls, I get 4+ hours of podcast time in.  That was fortunate, since the Peace Revolution recently published one of their epic 10+ hour podcasts, this one on the topic of the surveillance state.  I’ve only listened to the first 6 hours of it or so and am slowly working through the rest on my much shorter commutes to get my daughter to school each day.  So far I have learned that the Binney, Drake and Snowden stories are more connected than I thought – they are actually all the same story.  What’s more I learned that the NSA had an option to get the job done after 9-11 that would have protected people’s privacy (relative to what they did anyway) but chose to remove those protections.  Its a double whammy when you not only do the wrong thing, but the right(er) thing was already done for you.

The net effect of the parts I have listened to so far have me once again thinking about privacy and security This isn’t the first time I’ve spent some brain cycles thinking about these issues this year.  There was Heartbleed, the seemingly continual drip of the Snowden docs, a data break every other month or more at a major retailer and most recently a hullabaloo over the terms and conditions of the Facebook Messenger terms and conditions.  However, the interviews with Binney and then Drake have me thinking about things a bit more seriously.  I’m pondering if I should and if I can “go dark“.

I started writing this post in outline form with just some bullets of the major points I wanted to cover.  The outline was 700 words.  I’ve been posting longer form items here lately, but even I don’t believe that anyone will sit around and read 5K words from me, especially on this topic, so I’ve broken things up into at least 4 parts (there may be more as I write the other 3):

  • why I am motivated to do spend time thinking about whether I should and whether I can go dark (part 1 = this post)
  • An evaluation of what I can do from a desktop / laptop computing perspective to mute or mask my signals
  • An evaluation of what I can do from a mobile (phone /tablet) perspective to mute or mask my signals
  • An evaluation of what I can do for other things that give off signals

You’ll note that I make explicit mention of signals a few times. It’s hard for me to de-tangle security from privacy, but in general I think about it this way: digital security is all about protecting yourself from people that clearly want to do you or your property harm.  Digital privacy is about protecting yourself from people that say they want to help you and may or may not be telling the truth.  While I am concerned about my security relative to the first group, its my privacy relative to the second that has me writing this and the subsequent posts.  That second group, which consists of governments and marketers, live on the digital signals we send out to either run a “tyranny for the good of its victims” or something worse.

Everyone online sends out digital signals every second they are online.  Some are obvious and we are aware of (this blog post for example), some are less so (your entire inbox if you use Gmail for example) and some are downright obscure (Facebook reportedly keeps track of how you self censor edit your posts as you compose them, before you post them).  Governments and marketers consume these signals, tie them back to your “profile”, store them forever, run any sort of analysis they can and draw any conclusions they want.

I’ve heard the argument that you do the same in the “real” world – you have body language and facial expressions that give away far more away about what you’re thinking than the words that are coming out of your mouth and that’s true enough.  The difference is in the scale.  What we do in the real world is available to those in the immediate vicinity at the time we are doing it.  It’s not recorded and made available to anyone as an accumulation over your whole life.  What if when you met someone the first thing they asked you was why you smirked when your 6th grade math teacher asked you a question?  What’s more, most people have a basic concept (if not necessarily a control) of their non verbal communications in person.  Most of the same people have no idea about the signals that they are sending and what’s being done with them.

So, on to some of the arguments that have occurred to me in support of the idea that I should go dark:

  • The first up is the axiom that a right not exercised is lost.  I’m not exactly a fan of the constitution(the DoI is more my speed), but the bill of rights is at least a good starter list to reference. I regularly exercise my 1st and 2nd amendment rights, but I have been pretty lax exercising my 4th amendment rights.  If someone wanted to search my house I am pretty sure I would ask for a warrant, but the Snowden documents have shown that the rules are different in the digital domain. I can’t be reactive if I want to exercise my 4th amendment rights for my digital signals – I have to take proactive steps.
  • Then there is the reverse of argument that is trotted out by those that want us to be OK with living in a panopticon: “you don’t have anything to worry about if you aren’t doing anything wrong”.  Well how about this, since I am not doing anything wrong I don’t need to be watched.  What’s more, I’m would actually helping the folks trying to find the terrorists become more efficient by removing myself from the pool that they had to analyze.
  • Then there is the logical analysis of that same statement (you don’t have to worry, if you aren’t doing anything wrong).  I am neophyte logician, but it seems to me that is a classic example of an enthymeme (a logical statement where one premise, usually the most important one, is unstated).  In this case the unstated premise not stated: the government defines whats wrong and can redefine it at any point in the future.
  • Lastly their is the issue of avoiding manipulation.  While the first three are mainly focused on the potential for the government to violate my privacy, this last one is focused squarely on marketers.  While I don’t consider my self even a neophyte psychologist, I have read enough history lately to understand the impact of Pavlov and Skinner on the way modern marketing works.  As marketers driven by those ideas get to know us better than we know ourselves based on our digital profiles, what chance will we have to say no?

A few other thoughts before I wrap up this first installment:

  • I’ve focused on one of the questions I said I would in this post: should I go dark.  I’ve skipped the issue of can I,until now.  For one reason, the answer to that question will be found as I write out the next few posts, specifically what do I know to do, what are the limits and what am I willing to trade off.  But even more importantly, I really don’t care if I can be successful. Anyone that reads this blog knows that I am more often than not armed.  I do that, not expecting to be able to win any fight that I might find myself in – I pray that I never am in a fight in the first place, but rather because its a way I remind myself every day that I am responsible for me and those around me.  To me trying to dark is the same: its the effort and the recognition of what it means that matters.
  • The irony of this whole conversation when put into the context of one of the major parts of my JOB is not lost on me.  I spend 8-10 hours every day that I am working coming up with digital marketing strategies for the things the company I work for sells.  You may be thinking that if everyone thought about this issue the same way I am and did any of the things I am thinking about doing, it would make that part of my job, much harder and maybe even impossible.  But I think you are assuming that I am going to go Amish, rather than go dark.  This isn’t about cutting off all connections, rather its about being much more deliberate about my signal footprint and only creating signal when (a) I know the extent of how it will be captured and used and (b) what I get back is worth it.
  • Last, what really bothers me most of all is that I have no idea how I will ever help my kids understand any of this.  My signal footprint goes back to the mid 90s when I was in my mid 20s.  In theory their’s could have existed for almost a decade and they are both in their early teens.  I’m not kicking them off technology, but I worry that they don’t value or appreciate what they are giving up in exchange for all the “magic” and they have no idea how it all is and will be used against them.

Stay tuned for part 2 – an evaluation of what I can do to go dark in my desktop / laptop computing. (PS – I find it a strange coincidence that my MacBook crashed hard right in the middle of writing this ;-)

Another run at 3 gun

I went back for another beating this weekend at the BGSL 3 Gun match, and didn’t come away quite as scarred as last time, when I finished dead last.  This time I was 2nd in my squad, 5th in my division out of 15 and 32nd overall out of 56.  Still not where I want to be, but way better than last.

The big improvement this time was the shotgun, specifically the loading.  I somehow lost track of the caddy I had been using, so resorted to loading out of a dump pouch on my strong side.  I had planned to switch from weak hand reloads to strong hand anyway, so I am not sure if the improvement was due to the change in hands or that for some reason I am just better out of a bag than a caddy.  Whatever it was, I didn’t find myself ever thinking, “Geez, this is taking forever” when I was reloading my shotgun.  My shotgun marksmanship was also better this time around.  I faced the Texas star in the very first stage again and was able to knock off all 5 plates in 7 or 8 shots (unfortunately its the one stage I forgot to video so you’ll have to take my word for it).  I had one double feed in the speed stage which cost me some time, but I am pretty happy with how quickly I cleared it and moved on.  Other than that, the shotgun went from being a boat anchor to something I felt competitive with.  Pretty good for just a few dry fire and reloading practice sessions.  I may still end up getting a load-2 (not sure my hands are big enough to do a load 4) rig, but if I do I am definitely getting it setup for strong hand reloads.

For rifle, I think I improved slightly, but not much.  This was my second match with my Tavor, but the first since I installed the Shooting Sight trigger.  Last match I had one slam fire and this time I had two (you can see both in the video below).  Not sure if its the trigger or the ammo – I am using wolf primers, which are supposed to be pretty hard.  There weren’t any headshot only stages this time (which is what screwed me up last time, specifically miscalculating the mechanical offset) and I did remember the reload on the classification corse of fire, which was a good thing.

Pistol, which I should be good at since its what I practice the most was mostly good, except for stage 1 (3rd stage in the video sequence below).  I COULD NOT HIT THOSE DAMN 4 INCH PLATES to save my life.  I will have to do a little more live fire practice, I think I still may have a case of pushing shots with recoil.

Another help this time around was my cart.  I finally spent a little time in the shop to fully convert the jogging stroller into a 3 gun cart, with a dedicated rack for the guns and a platform for my bag and cooler.  I used mostly scrap wood and stuff lying around the shop to prototype and field test it.  I have a few tweaks to make, but generally I was happy with the design. It let me keep all my gear better organized and have a good place to keep all my stuff moving from stage to stage as well as to prep at the stage.

Only one more chance to shoot 3 gun this year if I can get a spot in the match.  I will probably use this coming weekend’s IDPA match to help improve my pistol a bit for the next 3 gun match.  It’s nice to be match director sometimes! ;-)

Quick stage breakdown notes (leave a comment if you see anything else I didn’t notice):

  • On stage 6 (first in video sequence)
    • I scanned past a steel shotgun target and had to go back for it.
    • I also brought the shotgun back up for some reason after hitting the last target – not sure if I thought I needed to take another shot or what.  Then I bobbled getting the safety on.  At that point, I should have just dumped the last round into the berm so I could drop the shotgun into the barrel without worrying about the safety.
    • I bobbled the rifle reload a bit – I was trying to hit the bolt hold open button on the Tavor, not remembering that it was already closed since it was a tactical reload.
  • On stage 5 (second in video sequence)
    • I should have known I was going to be in trouble with pistol after this stage and slowed down on the next one some more.  Not too bad, but those first pistol shots are hits I should have made.  (I did end up winning this stage in my squad…by .317 seconds ;-).
  • On stage 1 (third in video sequence)
    • This stage cost me a better finish. I should have known it was not going to be my best when right out of the gate I had a failure to fire.  The rest of the rifle component was OK (I think I did have one target with only one on paper – the other hitting a little low in the hard cover…mechanical offset bites me again).  At the end, not only did I eat up all kinds of time missing the 4″ steels at the end, I ran through all of my pistol ammo and didn’t have enough left to even engage the very last target, taking a 15 second penalty right there.  What really burns is that this was a memorization stage and I remembered to engage (and actually got hits on) all the “hidden” targets.
  • On stage 2 (fourth in video sequence)
    • Not too much to say about this one.  I had the double feed after my second shot, which I think I cleared pretty well that then caused me to have to add one more to take my last shot.  I guess I could have been a little bit faster on that last reload and just thrown the shell into the ejection port instead of loading the tube and cranking it into the chamber.
  • On stage 3 (last in video sequence)
    • Nothing much here either.  This is my second slam fire, causing a feed issue that I had to clear out at the second rifle position.  I ran through the stage plan exactly how I had it mapped out in my head,with the exception of an ever so brief pause at an opening I knew I didn’t have to stop at, so that’s always a bonus.

Here’s to hoping that the third time really is the charm.

Next weekend is homecoming at my college alma mater and also my graduating class’ 20th reunion. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it (life is full choices).  I will miss hanging out at the frat house, riding the firetruck and pretending I’m 20 something again (even though I was teen something most of my time there).

A few days ago though I was reminded of a different frat house memory. Early in 1991, I was just getting used to the college thing.  Due to the incredibly long rush and pledging period, I was initiated sometime in November or December, so had just started regularly at the house. The night of January 17th was much like any other (homework, pizza, beer – only for those of age of course!) with the TV running in the background of the common room.  The response to the news breaking in and informing us that Desert Shield had transmogrified into Desert Storm was met with what you would expect from a group of 17-21 year old males: Hell Yeah!  The pictures of cruise missiles launching from the decks of  ships only served to rile us up more.  I was just starting college and had just joined a fraternity and I didn’t think too much about the start of the war.

A few weeks of continued air strikes followed a short ground offensive and the US UN were victorious.  Some said we should have gone all the way to Baghdad, but nonetheless the general feeling was we had accomplished what we set out to do.  The Kuwaiti babies were safely back in their incubators, the Kurds were protected by our air force and sanctions were in place to make sure Saddam couldn’t be bad any more.   It was a short war, but the outcome seemed decisive, so I didn’t think to deeply about its end.

Flash forward to March of 2003.  My wife and I had been married for almost 8 years and we were celebrating the 2nd and 4th birthdays of our son and daughter respectively. With the headlines full of stories about yellow cake and a newly formed axis of evil that was both harboring terrorists and committing human rights violations against its own people, we went back to war in Iraq.  The start of the war looked very much like the last one, with US allied troops “finishing the job” and reaching Baghdad in a handful of weeks.  With the trauma from 9/11 still fresh on my mind (I was in the air that morning) and a young family to raise, I didn’t pay too much attention to the start of a second war in Iraq.

A couple of months later, our commander in chief declared the end of combat operations and it looked like Iraq War 2 would end much like Iraq war 1.  Looks would prove to be deceiving.  Over the next 9 years bases got built, former dictators were tried and hanged and an insurgency was formed and fought against.  When the second war in Iraq ended in December of 2011, I was paying more attention.  The justifications had become shaky, the outcomes were not nearly so decisive and the costs seemed too high.

While it appeared that the drums of war might go silent, they had already started to beat again in Africa a full year before the official end of the second Iraq war.  The Arab Spring lead to some new bosses (some not much different than the old) in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt (twice).  US forces didn’t get as involved in any of those conflicts as they had in Iraq, with some air strikes in Libya and propaganda support for the rest.

The Arab Spring “contagion” continued to spread and found its way north to Syria.  A combination of events and interests, that I will admit to not fully comprehending, eventually lead to the US Government looking for ways to support the rebels. A red line was drawn and the search for an excuse to go back to war commenced.  An excuse presented itself in the form of a chemical weapons attack a little over a year ago, in August of 2013.  Although the source (and therefore motive?) of that attack would later come in to question, the dogs of war thought they had their bone, but the American people said no, myself included.

While a large minority of Americans celebrated a victory for peace, the hawks went back to work.  They almost got something going in the Ukraine, but couldn’t quite make it happen.  It was a good try, but honestly if there is anything good about the start of Iraq war 3, its that it makes the hawks a little less likely to start something that will get us all nuked.  Then again, maybe Ukraine was just a diversion while enough space and time developed to allow ISIL ISIS IS The Islamic Extremist group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq to metastasize in Syria and then bleed (back) over into Iraq.

With a different villain established, the first PR campaign to get us back into a war focused on the plight of the Yazidis, an ethnic group in Northern Iraq that IS was chasing around and killing  (side note: do a google image search for yazidi…how is it that they are so fair complected living in the desert?  Must have great sun screen!).  Another militia that we have labeled as being terrorist actually saved some of them before we could get whipped into a frenzy.  Then there was the news that ISIS might be trying to attack us at home through an alliance with Mexican drug cartels, an interesting historical parallel to one of the story lines used to get us into WWI.  Then there were the beheadings.

Between all of these and I’m sure a few other lines of “reasoning”, we started Iraq war 3 this past Tuesday, this time throwing Syria in for good measure (and despite what the American people thought they had said no to a year ago).  This time I am really paying attention.  What stands out to me the most is the rather apparent inconsistency between what the hawks say they want, what they then do to try to get it and what the results they are likely to get.  Let’s look at these in turn:

  • What they say: we want to degrade and destroy isis.
  • What we do: bomb them back to the stone age (or to the gates of hell).
  • What that will actually get them: there are four ways I can think of to answer this: from a consequential standpoint, from expert opinion, from a purely practical standpoint, and from what previous experience (aka history) tells us.
    • Consequential: To stop ISIS from trying to kill us, the hawks are going to kill them first.  A few days into the bombing, ISIS will not form up in camps out in the desert (that are easy to blow up with cruise missiles) but will fade away and blend into the cities (this is no doubt already in progress if not already done). The hawks will then start bombing the cities and in the process they will create 5 new ISIS fighters for every one they kill.  This happens every time a bomb goes astray or is mis-targeted and kills a civilian.  Every fighting age male relative of that civilian has just that much more incentive to join up with ISIS.  Unfortunately this is already happening too.
    • Expert Opinion: I think this quote (hat tip to the Scott Horton Show for the quote) from a September 2014 report on the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that has never seen a war it didn’t like, sums up the fact that we don’t know how we are going to get what we want:”The situation is so bad and the momentum is so much in the wrong direction that it is impossible to articulate a clear path to the desired end state.” (Side note: this stunning conclusion didn’t prevent them from making a “recommendation to deploy U.S. forces and significant enablers into Iraq and Syria” in the very same report…as I said, they’ve never seen a war they didn’t like.)
    • Practical: There is strong evidence that the core of ISIS is the same group that was leading the insurgency in Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq.  We put 33,000 extra troops into Iraq to deal with this group in 2008.  We didn’t defeat them then with that size of force (they are still around after all), but we think we that we are going to send in a 5,000 man force that will get a year of training that can no only defeat ISIS, but then pivot and also defeat Assad?
    • Then there is what history tells us: Is Iraq better off now than it was before the first two wars?  What about Libya?  Afghanistan? Somalia?

The inconsistency is apparent.  The actions they are taking won’t can’t get them what they want.  There are things they could do to get what they want.  They could stay out completely.  ISIS is surrounded by groups that hate them.  Assad would have them cleaned out in a month if we’d let him.  The Iranians would probably pitch in, not to mention the Turks.  They could go to the other end of the spectrum too, and go biblical (new or old testament – take your pick) killing every fighting age male that has any potential to ever be interested in ISIS (note: my claim is simply that this would be effective in reaching their stated aims, not moral).  So they are choosing to take a course of action that consequences, experts, practicality and history all tell them will not get them what they say they want.

There are only two conclusions I cam make from this: either those leading us back into another war are unable to see this inconsistency, making them too incompetent to lead, or they see it plainly and are simply lying to us about what they want, making them perhaps too evil to lead.  It’s time to look at what’s being done in your name.  It’s no longer OK to stand by and let those who say they know better to kill people in your name (in the process creating more people that want to kill you).  Doing nothing is the same as telling them its OK.

Its easy to get lost with the who, what, when, where, why and how when the venues and villains keep changing, but the 3rd Iraq war in less than a quarter century is a tremendous opportunity.  It strips away some of the complications of learning new geographies, new histories, and new ethnic/religious/tribal lines that come along with new wars in new countries.  The third time really could be the charm.  The charm that makes enough people see the inconsistencies and decide to do something about it.

A proof of why war chickens come home to roost.

A few weeks ago my daughter asked me to help her come up with topics for a persuasive speech she had to write and deliver in her sophomore English class.  After she dismissed all the good ones (“Why the war on drugs is a scam”…she thought that would get her kicked out…”Why all Catholics would be happier if they were Episcopalians”…it’s a Catholic school – guess what we are? ;-)) she settled on a case against police militarization.

We worked on the outline yesterday and in a stunning case of syncronicity, this is what I listened to on my way home from dropping her off at school this morning.  In this interview, Scott Horton talks to Abigail Hall about the article she contributed to appearing in the most recent issue of The Independent, titled “Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control“.  It might as well be called “A model based definition of why war chickens come home to roost”.

The article lays out the case and the mechanism of what the authors call “the boomerang effect” by which the tools of social control developed in coercive foreign interventions (see the article for what they mean by this if its not clear) make their way back to the originating country of the tool and the intervention (aka war chickens roosting).  Why the idea may be an old one (aren’t all allegories involving chickens some form of ancient wisdom?), the structure backing the argument is what’s news here.  The authors layout four “channels” by which the war chickens find their way home tools of social control developed in foreign wars make their way home (in my own words):

  1. During war time, government power tends to become more centralized.
  2. The people involved in foreign wars learn some things about making people do what they want…usually without the restrictions that would be in place in the home country.
  3. Some of those people end up in charge of things and they make changes in procedures that align with what they learned.
  4. We build a bunch of stuff to go to war and we have to use it somewhere when the war ends pauses.

The conclude with a few examples of how this model has played out in the creation of the surveillance state and a militarized police force, both of which supply ample evidence to validate the model.  Here’s to hoping that “enhanced interrogation techniques” don’t make it on that list of examples.

At 26 pages its not something you can skim through, but I got through it over lunch so you can read it in the time it would take you to watch the local and national news – and you’ll be way smarter for it.

Every target matters – this weekend’s IDPA match GoPro video

We had about 20 show up for this weekend’s IDPA match. I think I’m finally (18 months in) starting to get into a groove for planning, setup and administration to the point that I can actually enjoy the match and shoot well without being all stressed out about being the RSO.  Time and a few additional SO volunteers has certainly helped.  I’ve also been using my SIRT trainer a lot more and I think that may be changing some muscle memory for the better as well.

The GoPro video from all but the first stage (only forgot to film one this time – see I am less stressed out!) is below.  Let’s see how closely you al can watch: do you see the stage and even the target where I dropped 12.5 seconds on score alone?

Other than the one match blowing target, the rest of the stages went really well, with the exception of a procedural (you can hear me call it on myself…) on the last stage – I didn’t scan wide enough when coming to the window to actually pickup the target I was supposed to be engaging and picked one  up out of order.  In the end (with the added 12.5 second penalty…one on target) I finished 4th out of 18.

Ah well, back to the practice range.  Doing the classifier in October trying to inch myself closer to Expert.

 

Learning from the past on 9/11

Three years ago, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I shared my 9/11 story.  I wasn’t in New York or DC on that day, nor did I know anyone that was killed, but 9/11 is very personal for me nonetheless.  However, on this anniversary my mind is not focused on the events of that day, but rather what has been done since that day that is in some way related to the attacks.

We’re admonished to “Never Forget”.  Like most bumper sticker slogans, I think there is some wisdom there, but you have to get beyond the initial emotional (conditioned) response and think more deeply about what is worth remembering and also examine what we are doing based on what we remember.

I try to never forget that 13 years ago today, 2,977 people woke up with no idea they would never see the sun set ever again.  Based on that remembrance, I try to make sure to get as much as I can out of each day without pushing too hard – what’s the point of living if you can’t enjoy it?  This sort of remembrance builds up.

But I see and hear far too many that try to never forget the fear of terrorism they felt that day and anger at the religion shared by the 19 terrorists and those that supported them. Based on this fear and anger we’ve done some things and had some things done in our name that have diminished us, individually, as Americans, as “the West” and as human beings.

Going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq (twice three times as of last night) and committing acts of war (i.e. droning people to death) in many other countries in the Middle East is at the top of this list.  Thirteen years into it, we have to ask ourselves has the human cost of these wars been worth it – have we achieved what we set out to do?  There is no clear sign that these wars have given us any less to fear from terrorism – in fact they may have created even more of a terrorist threat by our actions.

The anger and fear that drove these wars have resulted in all sorts of other, secondary negative actions:

  • we’ve increased our debt to levels nearly beyond our ability to pay
  • we’ve collectivized (or stereotyped) and entire class of people based on their religion.  (side note: what’s odd to me about this is that the people that are most apt to call our current administration “collectivists” have no problem doing them same thing to Muslims…or Mexicans.  We have to recognize and avoid collectivism in all its forms).
  • we’ve created the surplus of military equipment that is fueling the police arms race we saw demonstrated in Ferguson (coming to a city near you)
  • we’ve allowed government agencies to violate our basic human rights as they construct a surveillance and security state that watches our every move.
  • we’ve condoned torture, which not only dehumanizes those that do it, but also creates a precedent for those that order it to be done – that they are “above the law”
  • we’ve allowed new supply channels to be opened for heroin, which in turn feeds additional terrorism (additional funds) and police militarization (additional justification).

I do believe its true that those that forget the past are doomed to repeat it, so I am not arguing for throwing the history and events on 9/11 down the memory hole.  Rather, I think its time we pack up the fear and anger of that day, because I also believe its equally true that those that don’t take the time to learn from the past are also equally doomed to repeat it.

iWatch needs to cut the apron strings before it’s really going to be useful

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I watched the tech crunch live blog of the Apple presser today on the side on my screen while I was working. My short take: I will finally pull the trigger (and sign away another two years of my life to ATT) and upgrade my aging and broken iPhone 4 to one of the two new iPhone 6 models. Not sure I can pocket the plus, but I’ll take a look once both are in stores and see which one fits.

One more thing. I can’t see an iWatch gracing my wrist any time soon. I’ve been mildly interested in the smart watch idea and was really hoping that Apple would innovate here. I don’t see it. I think it’s going to be kind of like the iPod was before it grew a WAN radio – a neat toy that interests some. You have to start somewhere, but I think when the iWatch doesn’t need an iPhone around to connect to the net then it will get interesting. Until then, I need to buy some pants with bigger pockets.

Starting today: home education

The Kelley Family home school education center officially opened for business today.  After a long period of discussion, investigation and thinking, today we officially withdrew my son from the private K-12 school he had been attending since first grade.  The motivations were numerous:

  • First and foremost its something that our son wanted to do.  He asked about it and did everything we asked over the past few months to prove to us that he understood what it would and wouldn’t be and that he was up to the task.
  • Although he had been doing much better both in terms of grades and hours of homework every night, it was still the case that most school systems treat boys like broken little girls.
  • Both my wife and I did a lot of reading about education: what it is, how you get it, what the system we have today actually does, etc.  If you want to have your eyes opened to some things you wish you could unsee, look at the real history of the Prussian American education system.
  • I spent some time thinking about the skills and knowledge I use on a day to day basis both at work and at home and compared that to what I learned in school and what my son is learning.  I also took a look at the skills and talents of candidates for intern positions I was interviewing at work vs. what I wanted them to have.  Lots of mismatches to say the least.

Although we did (do?) have a few reservations:

  • Of course “socialization” always comes up (it’s the homeschool equivalent of the Libertarian question “but who will build the roads?”) and it was a concern for us as well.  He is pretty involved in the church youth group and has a emerging group of friends in the neighborhood that I think will help here.  He has also continued to regularly talk with the friends he met at Porcfest, thanks to Skype.  So its something we’ll have to watch, but I think it will be OK.
  • The big question was whether we (me, my wife and most importantly my son) could “do” it.  Could we effectively educate?  There are a few things that got us past this one.  First, the realization that education is not something you can make anyone do – they have to want to (the old you can lead a horse to water saying comes to mind).  I think home education could actually be more productive since he will be able to study what he is interested in and interest means a lot for desire.  Next was an understanding of what 8th grade is really all about: review.  I skipped 8th grade and my daughter really coasted through her 8th grade year at the same school.  If we were going to try home education, this was the year.  Then there was the (almost overwhelming) amount of materials that are available.  Kahn Academy, Ron Paul Curriculum, iTunes University will all be making appearances in our home this fall in addition to some plain old physical books (“real” books mostly – not text books).  Last was the realization that it doesn’t have to be forever.  We’re doing home education for this academic year and evaluate how it goes at the end of the year.  If it’s working and we want to continue, we will.  If its not or if we think the best option is to go back to school, we’ll do that.

My son will be setting up a blog to document his adventure and I will post the link when its live.  All in all I think we made a well considered decision and I am excited about the discovery and conversations that will happen in the next 9 months.  I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, but I know for sure it won’t be anything like this:

The work – money – consumption cycle (or “I had a dream”)

I composed this post almost entirely in a dream the night before last. Seriously.  I wrote most of it up in the hour or so after I woke up, finishing it up this morning (busy day yesterday…). Since my dreams usually consist of the physically impossible and discontinuous as a metaphor for something my sub conscious needs to express , a more or less fully formed logical thought is somewhat remarkable.  Here it goes:

Almost everyone I know would say that they work too much, or more precisely spend too much time working.  The success of a book like “The 4 hour work week” is a testament to this. The reason most people give for continuing to work when they say they do it too much, is that they need money.  They need money to be able to consume, both necessities as well as desires (needs and wants).  You need water, food and shelter. You want a nice car, nice clothes and the newest gadget. You need money for all of it.

With everyone working so much, it would seem logical to conclude that it should be easy and cheap to consume, since a large portion of that work would increase the supply of things to consume.  Increased supply equals lower prices.

The reality for most people today, however, is that the things they consume are actually getting harder to find and more expensive. This drives them to work more in order to make more money to be able to afford what they both need and want to consume.

It seems to me that there are three drivers for this contradiction:

  1. Labor is not being efficiently allocated to the areas where it will be most valued, specifically creating the things that people need and or want the most.  The reasons behind this vary from the “everyone needs to go to college” meme (which is increasingly looking to be driven by similar motivations and will have similar results to the “everyone needs to have a house” meme) to all sorts of market distortions (corn subsidies, tax credits for electric vehicles, etc).  Regardless of the causes, the net result of inefficient labor allocation is that people don’t make as much money as they could and things get made that people don’t need (which creates the the need for the third issue listed below).
  2. The supply of money is increasing faster than the supply of stuff to buy with it. Much has been written about the evils and causes of monetary inflation that I will do no better trying to explain here.  Regardless of what you think about inflation, the fact is that by the time you get the money you work for its worth just a little bit less than when you actually earned it.  The same thing that works for goods works for money – the more of it there is, the less each unit is worth. Whether this is a grand plan by cigar smoking, back slapping businessmen or simply the result of a series of poor choices, doesn’t matter. The result is doubly good for producers and doubly bad for consumers. Consumers are driven to consume now rather than later since their purchasing power is continually decreasing – they won’t be able to buy as much tomorrow as they can today. This is an obvious benefit to producers: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The second benefit to producers is that because of this continual source of consumption, producers can afford to make the capital investments required to get bigger. As they get bigger, they will of course produce more, but as long as inflation keeps going they have a guarantee that increased production will not lead to lower prices.
  3. The use of marketing to create demand rather than awareness. As a consequence of the mis allocation of labor and capital surpluses are created. Goods that the market didn’t want and couldn’t consume get made. The modern professional marketer rode in on his white horse with full psychological profiles and neuro-linguistic programming in hand (images of Don Draper should be flashing through your mind). The modern marketer changed the playing field from simply telling people about his product to making people want things they wouldn’t have otherwise. This artificial demand helps producers off load the surplus by filling peoples houses and garages with things they don’t need and over time don’t even want.

So, how about some redemption in the third act? All is not lost. There are (at least) three things you can do to break the cycle:

  1. Engage in production to meet some of your own needs. I can’t emphasis enough how important this is. To be clear, I am not saying you need to make all your own clothes, grow all your own food and build your own house. Even supplying 5% of your own needs, or event wants, in one area will confer all of the benefits. You will start to understand the true cost of things and therefore be wary when you have a chance to buy something that is cheaper than it should be (see externalized costs). Also, you will build self esteem because you will realize that you are not completely dependent on others for your existence.
  2. When you do consume, do so mindfully. Develop a series of questions that you can ask and answer quickly before making a purchase. The bigger the purchase, the more questions you should ask yourself and the longer you should give yourself to answer them. Evaluate the true costs – not only what does it costs in monetary terms, but what else could I do with that money or even more importantly with the time I will have to use to are that money? Is it something a I want or need? The needs of a human are surprisingly consistent over time, so if it didn’t exist 100 years ago, you probably don’t need it (this is not an argument for becoming a Luddite – wants are fine to fulfill as long as they are understood as such). These are just examples – you should come up with your own that make sense to you.
  3. Learn the lost art of barter. Despite all the best intentions of the former congressman of the great state of Texas, the inflationary monetary system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Many have predicted its demise, and although it won’t (can’t?) go on for ever, it seems to be so well tuned now that it will go on longer than is good for anyone, including producers (that may be what started to happen in 2008).  The simple realization that people will take things other than paper/digital money in exchange for goods is extremely powerful.  The idea that you can take things in exchange other than paper/digital money can be even more powerful.  Trade some of what you make yourself or pay someone in silver.  Take bitcoin for something you are selling.  It takes some practice, but with a few reps you can get good at trading value for value, where both parties come out as winners.

Not sure what triggered all of this (maybe something I ate?), but I think the work – money – consumption cycle is something that deserves a little more conscious reflection.

Reading some St. Augustine

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Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.

From City of God