Monday, November 17, 2014

Why doesn't work

No one should be surprised that the federal government can't do database interfaces very well. Their computers are obsolete, of course, as are the development platforms they use. They require their programmers to use obscure programming languages that they are not allowed to fix. But the worst barrier between you and the database of your choice is the rigid hierarchy that infects the halls of power.

We know how to develop good technology. Silicon Valley has numerous companies that do it quite well. Google and Facebook come to mind. But the federal government pays absolutely no attention to the rules of program development, among which are the following:

1. Hire the best engineers you can find. Forget about Ivy League credentials and teacher recommendations. My company once hired a high school student who had been helping them with user testing. They waited until he got out of high school, though.

2. Give your developers their head. These developers are like spirited racehorses. If you tell them they must wear a suit and tie and be in the office at 9 am, they will bolt for the nearest exit, where they will find project managers eager to hire them. 

3. Make sure your engineers are creative and flaky. Encourage them to stay at the office by giving them whatever they need. Google gives them espresso and food. There are also game rooms (see below).

4. Let them goof off. My favorite software company developed video games. Anyone in the company could play video games at any time. That was part of the culture. In other companies, the department snitch spies on you and tells the manager you are goofing off. The Roman philosopher Seneca explained it this way: Reading and writing are opposites. You must do both, like breathing in and breathing out. Programming and playing are opposites. You can't have one without the other. One company I worked at had a big red nerf bat. The project manager came to your cube and hit you with it if you were late with your code. The same company had super-soakers (squirt guns). Members of the development team would sneak up on someone and spray him with water.

5. Pay them time-activated bonuses. These usually take the form of stock options that don't vest until a person works for the company for several years. This keeps them working for the company and gives them an incentive to keep producing.

These are just a few of the effective practices used in the computer industry to produce  high-quality software. Here, by way of contrast, are some of the practices of the federal government:

1. Always hire graduates of top Universities. Federalistas believe that they should hire people with good grades who are skilled at pleasing their professors. These people should fit in well in a federal system that prizes pleasing your boss above all other virtues.

2. Always give preferential treatment to veterans. Unfortunately, this hiring practice works against finding good programmers. Veterans learn how to follow orders. Good programmers learn to disregard orders whenever necessary. Their attitude is different. They know that managers can't code, so they don't pay attention when managers tell them how to do something. Good managers, on the other hand, don't give explicit orders to programmers, because they know programmers like to figure things out on their own.

3. Hire stable workers who will stay on the job for many years. This works well when you are looking for people who need to fit in to a hierarchy to be happy. Such people make terrible programmers. Good programmers find problems in other people's code and tell them about it. Good programmers abandon a structured design when it isn't working. Good programmers find new and innovative ways to solve problems.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Since the Republicans refuse to act on immigration, Obama will

Obama's proposal, as released, contains several different options, which he is evidently inviting the Republicans to accept. The Republicans, of course, will reject all of them, so immigrants to this country will have the first real breathing room since 1986, when President Reagan granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented workers then living--and working--in the US.

Today there are 11 million undocumented workers. Many of them have American children and relatives who would like to join them, like aged parents, but cannot. Major corporations that hire these people would like to keep the system the way it is, because it saves them money.

I know one undocumented worker who works cleaning up operating theaters in a hospital, a dirty, difficult job. She makes $10 an hour from the company the hospital hires to do the job, The hospital also hires people directly to do the same job and pays them $14 an hour, but the hospital requires those direct hires to be validated citizens. So the entire US economy is based on a discriminatory system as unjust as any Jim Crow Laws, where some people can be paid less than others because of the chance of their birth.

There is no chance that corporate-ruled America will expel immigrant laborers from this country. The corporate system uses immigrant labor to pad its bottom line. Our corporate masters make too much money off the current unjust and immoral system for them ever to question it.

The worker of whom I speak has been the sole support for 2 children and works 2 jobs. She is just the sort of person the Republicans are always extolling as exemplary citizens: hard-working, law-abiding, receiving no government benefits. But instead of rewarding her efforts, the Republicans propose to expel her and her child who was born in this country, thus punishing a child for the transgressions of her mother.

There is no excuse for such immorality. The Republican party must be rejected utterly by every thinking, feeling American. Though the Republicans use every conniving trick to stay in power, no one party can stay in power forever. We will remember your excesses whenever evil deeds are mentioned.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sierra Club sues US to stop new tar sands pipeline

A number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, have sued the State Department over its failure to protect the US from Canadian tar sands oil. At issue is a pipeline, called the Alberta Clipper, currently bringing oil across the border at a rate of 450,000 barrels a day. Enbridge Energy wants to increase the volume of oil to 800,000 barrels per day.

The State Department has ruled that the new pipeline does not need its approval, despite nearly doubling the amount of tar sands oil entering the US. The Sierra Club suit disagrees with their assessment.

The State Department is clearly at odds with President Obama's public statements on this. Obama promised he would not permit more tar sands into the country if the project would increase greenhouse gas production. The State Department study claimed it would not. But practical considerations prove that it would.

The State Department study claimed that the tar sands oil could be transported by rail if the Keystone XL Pipeline is not built. But attempts to use railroads have proven costly. Instead of earning $40 per barrel of oil shipped by rail as it predicted, Southern Pacific Resources is earning less than one dollar per barrel. The failure of its oil-by-rail strategy has driven Southern Pacific to the edge of bankruptcy.

Since the State Department's study relied on the viability of the oil-by-rail strategy to reach its conclusion that Keystone XL would have no effect on greenhouse gas production, the entire study must now be rejected as false. Instead of proving that the Keystone XL pipeline would not harm the environment, the State Department has proved that it will. And President Obama has promised he would not approve the Keystone XL under these conditions.

Democratic Senators have completely caved in to Oil Industry demands. They are proposing to approve the Keystone XL despite the State Department's fiasco. The Senators say they are acting to save Senator Mary Landrieu's seat for the Democrats. What they are really doing is the bidding of the oil industry.

The oil industry is getting desperate. The tar sands in Alberta are the third largest proven oil deposit in the world. But tar sands are expensive to refine and destructive to the environment. The oil industry needs Keystone XL to extract this poisonous wealth. Right now they are losing their battle.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

States where it's hard for African Americans and Latinos to vote

Here are the states (red) and counties (blue) that formerly required preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. Notice these are among the same states that passed voter ID legislation that resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being denied the vote, including 600,000 in Texas alone.

During the Jim Crow era, these states had similar laws that were used to prevent African-Americans from voting. Favorites were a poll tax which was small enough for whites to pay but to much for A-As to afford; and a literacy test, which varied from a simple test for whites (such as reciting the alphabet) to a much more difficult test for A-As (such as reciting the Declaration of Independence)

Votes of African-Americans and Latinos will continue to be suppressed in these states so long as Republicans control Congress, which is likely to be a long time. Thank the US Supreme Court for this latest injustice due to their repeal of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.

Since when do 5 unelected judges get to decide who becomes president (as in 2001) or who wins the Senate? Thus canceling out the votes of millions of American citizens.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Michael Brown homicide: Ferguson Prosecutor Prepares to Cut Wilson Loose

Grand Jury testimony is supposed to be secret, but the Ferguson DA's Grand Jury has so many leaks it might set some kind of record. Grand Juries are supposed to be secret because they are completely opposed to the adversarial system that is supposed to make our justice system fair. 

In a normal court, a prosecutor for the state is allowed to attack a defendant, but the defendant is supposed to be represented by an equally able attorney. The defendant cannot be compelled to testify against himself. There is a judge whose duty is to see that the lawyers for each side argue fairly. It's called the adversarial trial system and it has its roots in English law back before the Magna Carta. 

But the Grand Jury has none of those protections for the defendant. In fact, Grand Juries are considered so unfair to the defendant that the US is the only country in the world that still uses them. Grand Juries are not run by the courts, but by the prosecutor, so there is not even a judge to help the jury persons understand the law.

The defendant does not need to be present and may not have defense council in any event. The prosecutor holds all the cards. The grand jury itself is composed of ordinary citizens, so the prosecutor acts in place of the judge, as well as the prosecuting attorney, by informing jurors about points of law.

Out of a recognition that Grand Juries are inherently unjust and prejudicial to the prosecutor's opponents, precautions have been taken with regard to their use. In the first place, they are supposed to be absolutely secret.

Precautions are taken to prevent leaks. Releasing testimony from a grand jury constitutes contempt of court. Violators are liable to fines and imprisonment, as well as the charge of obstruction of justice. Nevertheless, and despite the seriousness of leaking information, leaks have been coming from the Ferguson grand jury steadily. Protesters and county officials both see a pattern in these leaks.

Protesters believe the prosecution is leaking information to affect public opinion in favor of Officer Wilson. Someone tweeted early in October announcing that the case against Wilson was weak  It said:

"I know someone sitting on the grand jury. There isn't enough at this point to warrant an arrest. #Ferguson."

Prosecutors claimed that the owner of the twitter account had no connection with the prosecutor's office. Protesters pointed out that the same twitter account had been used to spread rumors about the Trayvon Martin trial a year earlier, tweets that were critical of the African-American community and supportive of Zimmerman. Regardless of the source of the tweet, its effect was to prejudice the public in favor of Wilson.

Instead of investigating whether the leak was real or not, the Ferguson prosecutor's office ignored it. They found the person who owned the twitter account and examined his computer. They concluded that the tweet was not sent from that computer. And that was the end of it.

Another intentional leak which may have come from the prosecutor's office was the autopsy report, also supposed to be confidential. None of the grand jurors had access to that document. The St. Louis Dispatch report quoted a forensic pathologist, Judith Melinek, as saying that the report supported officer Wilson's version of the incident. But Melinek says she was quoted out of context, and in fact she had told the reporter for the St. Louis Dispatch that the autopsy could support several interpretations, not just Wilson's version.

The official autopsy revealed that the victim had been taking marijuana. The reports of the autopsy said there was enough marijuana in Brown's system to cause hallucinations. This statement is extremely prejudicial, since it presents as factual something that can't be known. Additionally, even the idea that marijuana causes hallucinations is disputed, so stating it in a newspaper article misinforms the public about the truth.

All of the leaks favored the officer, Wilson, who was investigated in the first place only because demonstrators from the community demanded it. But we're looking at what was released. The leak said that 6 witnesses backed up Wilson's story. This only helps the prosecutor. If it were leaked by a jury member, it would be diffuse, not concentrated on one point. As it is, it releases information helpful to Wilson's defense in the way a lawyer would make an argument.

I found it incredible that African-American witnesses would be so well-organized that they would all have the same version of an incident. If they were that well-organized, all the accounts would be identical, the way all Fox News accounts are identical, no matter which of the talking heads is speaking. But that is not the case.

A St. Louis Dispatch article published soon after the shooting took place reported several witnesses telling their account of the events. There was no agreement among the witnesses on exactly what had happened. There was also no single version of events that every witness agreed on. This contradicts the information in the leak that stated that six or seven of the witnesses supported Wilson's version of the incident, but were afraid of reprisals if they spoke out publicly. 

In addition, the reporter interviewed two workers who did not know Michael Brown. One of the workers said that Brown had his hands up and was trying to surrender when Wilson shot him several times, killing him. This account, given by an eye-witness with no reason to fear reprisals shortly after the event, does not support Wilson's version of the incident.

All of the leaks have favored Wilson, but in such a way that a prosecutor, organizing his case, would present them to a jury. Circumstantial evidence points to the prosecutor's office as the ones who leaked the information. If true, they are engaged in the worst kind of injustice, convicting Michael Brown in the public press.

Ruben Carter, a boxer who was convicted of murder and served 19 years in prison before being exonerated, described the actions of the U.S. justice system like this: 
“The criminal justice system is not about justice. It is about success. Successful police officers are promoted. Successful prosecuting attorneys become judges. A successful judge goes to a higher court. … A successful our system of jurisprudence, is a careful judge, and not necessarily a wise one.”
I would be very surprised if the Grand Jury fails to exonerate Wilson in its decision. I would be surprised because the prosecution has already released to the public all the prejudicial testimony it can get its hands on and nothing that favors Michael Brown. The prosecutor in the Michael Brown case gives every evidence of being a successful prosecutor, but not a just one. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why we didn't vote for anyone

Bernie Sanders at least has a coherent philosophy. But when he claims that the voters were fooled by Republican slander, he isn't giving voters enough credit for their intelligence. Sure, the country has lost faith in its government, but if they really want health care, they know they haven't a prayer with the republicans. I think people failed to vote because they couldn't see any difference between the Democrat and the Republican in their local elections. Obama has talked a good show, but major constituencies have doubts about his sincerity.

Obama has courted the Latino vote, but he is known in the Latino community as the guy who deported more Latinos than any other president. Deportation of a friend or loved one is a personal affront and a deep injustice. So Latinos look at him as someone who failed to keep his promises.

African-Americans look at our prisons and see their young men in chains. In the streets, they see their young men shot down with impunity by violent, heavily-armed cops or any other white man with a gun. They have no great vote for Democrats while cops were still assaulting African-Americans in Ferguson.

The progressives look at Obama as the guy who gave us half a national health plan and didn't fight hard enough for a one-payer system, which is the only way the system will work. Obama also ran on an anti-war platform, but actually escalated the war in Afghanistan. He killed Osama bin Laden, but anti-war voters did not buy into the Bush doctrine that we should fight terrorism around the world. Progressives understand war itself is terrorism, and we do not like to see our president pounding the drums for war. Progressives didn't like to see tax cuts as the major stimulus program. Bush gave us that. Finally, progressives saw Wall Street and the neocons from the Bush administration walking away unpunished from the disasters they caused.

So Republicans should not take comfort that the election was a referendum against Obama. Many of the people who dislike Obama do so, not because he is too liberal, but because he is not liberal enough.

The man in the middle will take fire from both sides.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

No, Obama is not the worst president ever: The Big Lie and Republican politics

The big lie of the Republican party is that Obama is the worst president ever. Anyone with any critical faculties left recognizes this would be difficult to prove, even if true. Yet Republicans keep repeating the lie over and over again, never giving any facts to back it up. Or, if they do give facts, they turn out to be minor failures to fulfill campaign promises, such as when he said that if you like your health insurance you can keep it. I'm sorry, but no politician has ever kept all his or her campaign promises. 

Obama has kept most of his promises, and most of the ones he hasn't kept have been blocked by the Republicans. But Republicans never admit their complicity. They practice the propaganda tactic known as the "Big Lie", which maintains that people will believe a big lie if they hear it over and over again.

There are other, similar tactics used by Republicans to get people to follow them mindlessly.

Wikipedia discusses these practices in its article on "Big lie".

The primary rules are: 

  • never allow the public to cool off 
Keep on cooking up new scandals, or repeating the old ones. Don't let the public forget "Benghazi", even if they don't know what it is. Keep forming new committees and hold hearings to rehash the old accusations.

  • never admit a fault or wrong;
Never admit that Congress could have passed an immigration bill if the Republicans had joined with the Democrats. The Senate passed a bill, but the Republicans refused to bring it to a vote. It would have passed had they done so. Yet the Republicans claim it was the Democrats, specifically President Obama, who failed to pass an immigration bill. They also claim that it is Senator Harry Reid who is blocking legislation in the Senate, even though it is the Republican House of Representatives that has been blocking every Obama initiative for 4 years. 

  • never concede that there may be some good in your enemy;
Be sure you mention that Obama is the worst president ever as much as possible. Use name-calling whenever you can. Call the Democrats "socialists", or "race-baiters". Call Obama "weak" and say that he needs to "grow a pair". Recall that Obama's stimulus package didn't work, though most of the spending items in it had been included in Republican bills, including G.W. Bush's stimulus package of 2008. Recall that Obama refused to compromise on the Affordable Care Act, although its basic idea was a Republican idea proposed by the Heritage Foundation and passed in Massachusetts by a Republican governor, Mitt Romney.

  • never leave room for alternatives;
There were several issues, like immigration and paycheck fairness, where compromise might have produced agreement. But Republicans would rather have government fail, even though the failure causes hardship for everyone except the very wealthy.

  • never accept blame;
For example, when Romney was asked about the firing of workers by Bane Capital, he said it happened after he left the company so he had no responsibility for it. When it was discovered that he employed undocumented workers as gardeners, he denied knowing about the problem. He said he fired them as soon as he found out they were undocumented, but in fact he fired them when the press found out about them.

  • concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong;
Republicans pretend that Obama can be blamed for everything, even things that took place during the Bush administration.

  • people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one;
I'm not so sure this is true. It would appear the Republicans will believe any lie as long as it favors Republicans. Another definition of the Big Lie may be closer to the truth: During WWII it was claimed that 
The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.
That sounds more like the way the Republicans practice the Big Lie than the original definition. 

  • and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
Yep. That's what Fox News and Republican talking points are for.