Friday, February 26, 2010

Photo Friday, now on Friday!

I guess winter weather is something of a theme for these photo days, as I've got a few more from around the neighborhood to show you today. We saw some more snow Wed. evening, and as I was shoveling it I noticed the sky was pretty dramatic. So camera in hand, I set about to document the landscape as the clock spun into the next day. 

I set white balance off the snow and directly under a sodium vapor street lamp, so things got a bit on the blue side. A little more dramatic than what I'm usually about, but I like these all the same. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Department of War

Prior to 1947, the United States Government divided military duties between the Department of the Navy and the Department of War. That year, the two Departments were consolidated into the National Military Establishment, and the Cabinet positions were merged into the Secretary of Defense. 

Two years later, and in part due to the pronunciation of the NME acronym, it was changed again to the Department of Defense. 


Think about how you feel when discussing a "Department of Defense", or perhaps the even more anodyne "DoD". Consider how the word "Defense" positions itself in your mind. For me, it conjures a primarily benign image, somewhat passive, deliberate. It feels more ponderous, like something you need to thwack with a stick a couple of times to get its full attention. 

Now rally up a thought or two on a "Department of War". Again, for me, it's aggressive, menacing, focused, waiting to pounce. Not a child's toy, and certainly a Cabinet-level Department that requires close watch. A dangerous weapon.

And just for fun, what does the "Department of Homeland Security" feel like? Slight undertones of Nazi-era rhetoric along with peak notes of strangled bureaucratic mess and pure committee hell. 

Defense => War.
Homeland Security => Defense. 

Let's be honest with ourselves, especially in matters of our Nation's safety, and the lives and deaths of her citizens and soldiers. We have a standing military that is the world's most powerful and lethal war-making machine. It consumes nearly 1 out of every 5 Dollars our government spends. Let's call it by its true name, the Department of War, and let's deal with the fundamentally serious task of how to maintain and use it with extreme candor. 

No more armed conflicts, no more resolutions on the use of force. Only Congress has the Constitutional authority to declare war on a foreign entity, and that's where that power shall reside. 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Photo Friday

A few years back I was saddened to hear that Delicatessen Meyer in Lincoln Square was closing up shop. Mainly because, though I did not live a significant distance from the store, I had not sufficiently taken advantage of this historic institution, and felt it an opportunity wasted.

Now there is no longer reason for sadness. Gene's Sausage Shop has opened a branch in the old Meyer location, and, well, you can actually walk throughout the store! The old sign is now inside, and it's a great capstone to a great addition to the neighborhood. Makes for a fun photo too...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Income Inequality, an Introduction

From 1979 to 2005, the poorest 24 million American households have only experienced nine years of positive real income growth. Most of that growth was short-lived, and in 2005 their real average income is only 1.3% higher than it was in 1979, now at $15,900. 

Conversely, during that same time period the richest 0.01% of American households experienced 23 uninterrupted years of real income growth when compared to 1979. Much of that growth was consecutive, and in 2005 their real average income is 383.7% higher than what it was in 1979, now at $35,473,200. 

The richest 11,000 households combined earn slightly more than the poorest 24,116,000 households combined. 

The richest 400 taxpayers in the country, approximately .00013% of the population, earn 1.59% of the nation's income. In 2007, 289 of the top 400 highest grossers paid an effective federal tax rate that was below the national average of 20.4%. From 1992 to 2007, the top 400's share of the nation's Adjusted Gross Income more than tripled, while their share of the nation's tax receipts didn't quite double. 

An ever increasing share of our nation's income is being stovepiped to the top earners. And while their paychecks have seen tremendous increases, their tax rates over the past several years have actually fallen in lockstep. How this effects the financial health of our nation is to come.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"An Abusive Use of a Historic Vehicle"

I read little bits of thoughts and things throughout my days; it's the world of blogs that I live in, and that's ok, good even. Occasionally though, a tiny little snippet sets off an avalanche of thought in my wee brain, and a logjam of those snippets then starts rolling in concert. That happened yesterday, when I saw a quote from Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) concerning the workings of the Senate.

“I’m saddened in a way… the reason the Senate works is because the chemistry of the membership makes it work. That’s why it takes unanimous consent to do almost anything. And the essence of the Senate was basically a longer, slower look at things. ...we’re frustrated right now over an abusive use of a historic vehicle (ed. - the filibuster) that led to the essence of what the Senate is, we’re about to abandon the essence of the Senate.”

What he says has resonance. The Senate places great emphasis on comity and the requirement for its members to behave with respect toward one another. The rules of the Senate reflect this, but also accord a great deal of discretion to each member in directing the progress of business at hand. In return, Senators are expected to abdicate this authority in all but the most extreme of circumstances, allowing established process and majority rule to bring legislation to a full chamber vote. This is the rightful place for each Senator to have his or her say.

In recent times, procedural holds and the modern filibuster have prevented a good deal of Senate business from reaching the floor. Members are exercising their powers in tantrum-like fashion, and it's keeping the body from doing the People's Work. Many left-wing pundits have chastised President Obama for not taking a harsher stand on this behavior, and have suggested he use recess appointments to get his nominations through the Senate. They also want him to advocate loudly for passing Health Care Reform through a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. And honestly, there's many frustrating days that I'd agree.

But while I might just be a starry-eyed optimist, I think Obama is playing a longer game here. For four years he worked across the aisle in the Senate, and I think he has a deep respect for the chamber's traditions and deliberative style. He knows that the country is better off with a fully functioning and respectful Senate. And he's working from his position in the executive to give it space, but also to cajole it into again behaving like an adult. Right now that's delaying HCR from becoming law, and it's keeping a number of important appointments from being filled. But if he can successfully bring the Senate back from its idiotic scorched-earth methodologies, then I'm more than willing to wait a bit longer. 

But only a bit...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Photo Friday

None too thrilling this week, I must admit. But after a considerable snowfall, these meters made me think of lawn gnomes, and I felt a photo was in order. Enjoy, or not, at your own risk.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I have a confession to make: I have a pay-as-you-go cellphone. And I have a further confession: I had never owned a cell phone prior to April of 2009. This amazes people when I talk about it. They wonder, "How did you ever survive without it?" I often hear, "I could never live without my phone." When I eventually got mine, my friends were shocked. And yes, for a little while toward the end I milked it a bit for the attention. But my reasoning went deeper than that.

Now just to set the stage a bit, I am very far from what you might consider an anti-technologist. I am an engineer, I love understanding how things work, I made my living off computers for several years, and the latest and greatest in gadgetry fascinates me. I'm a geek, even a nerd, and I'm ok with it. 

But (and this is huge, perhaps even colossal) I know that, for me, there are things in this world more important than stuff. And there are social mores more important to me than having the latest news / gossip. I feel that one of the most precious things I can give to another person is my attention. I am susceptible to distraction, especially when it involves information and learning on topics I'm interested in. And I know that I cannot live in the moment, with the people that surround me, if an easy distraction is simply a few button presses away. 

Story time:

1) Many years back I spent an evening with friends, when we made a home-cooked dinner and actually sat around the table. This was around the time when a majority of people were obtaining cell phones. Polyphonic ringtones were in vogue, and someone's phone went off at the table. They picked it up and proceeded to have a conversation while the rest of us paused. Then, once they were finished, the table talk  turned to what each person had as their ringtone. For nearly 15 minutes, in 5-30 second bursts, I endured my own personal hell. Beeps and blips played Mozart and Sir Mix-A-Lot and who knows what else, but the pleasant evening of conversation had just been drowned in inane pre-teen-like techno-giggling. I was nearly physically ill.

2) Just last week we went to see a series of plays at Steppenwolf over the course of two nights. During a particularly poignant and quiet moment in the first show, someone's obnoxious ringer went off for 5 seconds. And during the third show, with all the lights low and just after intermission, a person two rows in front of us pulled out his bright touchscreen smartphone to listen to his voice mail. When an usher sitting behind him quietly told him to put it away, his aghast look made me want to kick him in the face.

Cellphones enable rude and sometimes dangerous behavior "In Real Life". They easily suck attention away from things that are actually important, like face to face conversations, intimate performances, and even driving. Blackberries and iPhones take this even further, allowing a person access to their online world regardless of what's going on in their physical presence. I try to use these devices with caution in any environment, and give due deference to those people I'm actually with. If for no other reason, it's hard to be punched by someone on the other end of the line...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pigs in Space

From its inception, NASA's Constellation Program (CxP) has been an ungainly mess. Tasked with making lemonade from the remaining gnarled lemon bits of the Space Shuttle, the CxP was President Bush's crack at doing something memorable (Moon, Mars, and Beyond). But like all rocket plumes and a good deal of political rhetoric, this plan was full of hot air from the start.

When Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, US human spaceflight policy was thrown for a loss. With two Shuttle disasters in the first 113 missions, the system was a demonstrable failure in many respects. Over budget, unable to meet mission readiness requirements, and now known to be fragile and lethally unreliable, calls for Shuttle's retirement became too obvious to ignore. Thus, concurrent to preparations for Shuttle's Return to Flight, NASA and the Bush Administration set about developing their Vision for Space Exploration. This program was unveiled in January of 2004, and called for completion of Space Station and retirement of Shuttle by 2010, development of a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) by 2008, a new rocket for ISS resupply by 2012, and a return to human US space exploration by 2014. 

By 2006, the Vision established in 2004 became the Constellation Program, and consisted of several interdependent parts. The CEV became the Orion "capsule", to be used for crew transport and support. Ares I was the launch vehicle for Orion, and its design  concept had moved further away from the Shuttle-derived hardware of the original Vision. Ares V was the new heavy launch vehicle, intended for launching the new Altair lunar module into low Earth orbit (LEO).

Fast-forward to now, and Constellation has accomplished the completion of its Systems Requirements Review (SRR) phase, and launch of the Ares I-X technology demonstrator. Certain flight-ready hardware is built, but there isn't a major aspect of the program in the beginning of 2010 that is beyond the development stage and into flight test. The Augustine Commission's view has the program schedule moving to the right to the tune of 2017-2019 before Human rating on Ares I is achieved and flown. With Shuttle retirement planned for the end of 2010, that's seven to nine years without a man-rated launch capability in the US inventory.

The sad fact is that, despite the skill and determination of NASA's employees, there has not been sufficient resolve on the part of the US Government (and hence, the US people) to create and then fully fund a rational human spaceflight capability since the Apollo era. We have time and again lurched from the new and shiny to the less-new and less-shiny, and have left a whole host of half-baked technology laying about unused. In my lifetime the X-30 National AeroSpace Plane, the X-33 / VentureStar, the Space Launch Initiative, the X-37 / Orbital Space Plane, and now Constellation were the intended Shuttle replacements, and each has burned through a pile of cash on the way to obsolescence. Now we look like we're going back to SLI-like commercial contracting, probably piggy-backing on COTS, for the LEO stuff. And who knows about the future for heavy lift?

The one good thing about this time around is an admitted focus on developing capabilities and technology first instead of establishing missions and then figuring out how to get there. As NASA's predecessor, NACA worked first to establish and then to further the state of the art in aeronautics through research. NASA has tinkered in human spaceflight development from countless directions over the past four decades. But with some overarching and constantly shifting (Mars! No, Space Station! No, Hypersonics! No, Space Station again! No, the Moon again!) destination throwing the whole plan into disarray with every new administration, there's been no way to focus on significant long-term goals. Buckle down and focus on the big research problems. Develop solutions. Partner with industry. And then plan some kick-ass trips to new and interesting places, and get back to where we've never been before.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Return of Photo Friday

I had some business to attend to in the River West area near downtown and snapped a couple shots of the surroundings, though not to great affect. I also stopped by the Tesla Store, since they're now open and have vehicles on display. Being a bit of an electric car buff I've been by it many times, and I'm glad to see that they finally got the place open. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blinking 12:00

I'm pretty far from OCD, but there are a few things in this world that I get a bit obsessive about. I can't pass a CRT monitor set on 60 Hz refresh rate without either suggesting a settings change or simply doing it myself. I am very picky about pens, and try not to lend out my good ones (not necessarily the expensive ones) since they often come back not working as well. And back in the days of VCRs, I had a hard time leaving an unset clock blinking, regardless of where I was. 

These clocks were usually of a vein; either a multiple-button press or a multi-second press of a single button would enter you into the "clock set" mode. The select button would move you from field to field (day of the week, hour, tens of minutes, minutes, AM/PM), and the set button would change the value of the field. When done, you either had to press select until everything was finished blinking, or you repeated the entry sequence to get out of "clock set". It was similar to setting a basic digital watch, stopwatch, car clock, or countless other limited input digital devices of the era. Kinda like the Konami Code, once known it was used on everything as a first pass at solving the problem, and more often than not a variant of it worked.

This was not the case for the Broksonic 2-head VCR. My parents bought this as a component of our shadow entertainment system in the basement. It was cheap, it did its job, but it pissed me off to no end. And as silly as it sounds, its clock made me value good design for perhaps the first time in my life. 

I was, and still am, the geek of our family. Technology has always been more of a puzzle than an obstacle to me, and I typically enjoy sussing out the thought patterns that go into the design of an object. But this damnable VCR had me beat for days, well after the rest of my family had given up hope that its clock could ever be set. I spent literally hours trying to figure it out. And while at first I was relieved when I finally succeeded, I then grew angry, very angry.

Because I realized, perhaps for the first time, that there was an engineer with the responsibility to design this clock. He or she was tasked with making it functional, and then with making it useable. For mere mortals. This person had over a decade of working precedent to follow, and I doubt there were patent issues to concern them. They had the same buttons available that the other VCRs had, the same display capabilities, but they made this clock needlessly complicated. They simply didn't care.

And thus there was another object in this world that made people I care about feel inadequate. Which makes me sad. It's enough to feel beaten up by everything else in this world, but to suffer defeat at the virtual hands of a blinking clock is pathetic. That engineer, probably unknowingly, inflicted psychological pain on thousands of people through their lack of design thought. And I saw glimpses of that behavior practically every day in my previous job. 

A good design takes more than simply fulfilling the requirements set forth. It needs to understand its user, and accommodate for their abilities in a graceful manner. It needs to take into account what came before it, and embrace or discard that evolution of thought in a purposeful fashion. It needs to "grok" its place in the world and adjust accordingly. Anything less is just that.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Thoughts on Not Working

Today, a bit of an aside. The Ms. and I went to see "Up in the Air" last night, and it brought out a number of thoughts, emotions, and memories of my own recent experience. I was "Impacted by Workforce Management", and over nine months later I've yet to sign on for another round of full-time employment. 

The simple action of being laid off from a corporation is so anti-climatic, and it seems these days so routinized, that it's almost clinical. The movie depicts this well, and shows how little power the now-former employee has in their relationship with their now-former employer. I had over six years of personal relationships, work product, routine, and intellectual investment in my job, and all of that was severed in a minute-long interaction with my boss. 

From that point on I was simply cattle to be discarded with as promptly as practicable. Herded into the cafeteria while the still-employed were sent home, brought back to my cube to pack up my belongings, and then escorted out to my car and sent along on my not-so-merry way. No real explanation, no chance to say good-bye, just a few pithy platitudes and a "personalized" severance packet handed to me in assembly-line fashion when I returned my ID badge. Less than 2 hours start to finish. WooHoo.

It's the corporate world version of "Shock and Awe": Bring on so much change so fast that the hapless employee has no real means of recourse. I felt enough subtle warning signs ahead of time that I had kinda prepped myself to deal with it. But in reality I'm still dealing with it, or failing to deal with it. 

And I know exactly why. I was told in that brief minute with my boss of 6 years that it was "not personal or performance", but I was explicitly not told what it was. Thus it's hard to have confidence in my footing when I can't look back and see what caused me to fall. 

When I saw it coming I hoped, really hard, that it would be a personal interaction, something that had more than a touch of humanity associated with it. Unfortunately, and probably rationalized away for "legal reasons", my corporation took the route of the weak, and de-personalized this highly intimate matter into a milquetoast affair with only boilerplate-speak to regurgitate in my face. Even when walking back to box up my belongings, the managers and directors that I worked with side-by-side for years kept their eyes averted and couldn't muster up a word or two in my direction. It was as if I no longer existed in their world, and I guess that was essentially true.

I might be the equivalent of 2080 labor hours a year. But a human being is never a commodity. To make believe otherwise is simply sad.