Our unwavering defense of Israel

Predictably, Jay Carney defended Israel’s recent strikes against Syria. The defense was the usual one:

“The transfer of sophisticated weapons to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah is certainly a concern and a threat to Israel, and they have the right to act in their own sovereign interest on … in response to those concerns.”

I like to play the universality game, applying our governments foreign-policy standards uniformly. So let’s pose a hypothetical: Advanced firearms being exported across the border to Mexico are a clear threat to Mexico, arming the drug cartels to the extent of being a threat to both the Mexican people and the Mexican state.

What would Carney say if Mexico started bombing firearm stores in Texas that are known to be providing weaponry to the drug cartels?

If anyone ever runs into him at a party, let me know what he says.

Slow Food

There’s a fantastic interview with Micheal Pollan about the Slow Food movement, that is completely worth watching:

I found the entire thing fascinating, but I was especially inspired by the protest organized by Carlo Petrini’s fantastic protest against McDonalds.  I think we should try to make a protest like that a tradition — once a year organize a pot luck against fast food.

gnu global, getting gtags to treat .h files as C++

I’m still experimenting with tagging in Emacs.  I think my current favorite is using gnu-global.

Unfortunately I just joined a team where all their c++ header files start with .h.  By default gnu-global treats these as c, and results are poor.  While I think there’s a more sophisticated way to handle the problem, I just use:


Sponsor a Walmart Striker

I can’t think of a worse example of the failings of our economic system than Walmart.  Virtually everything that’s wrong with our economy is wrong with Walmart, typically to an extreme degree.

Walmart rules the “price is everything” universe, often by selling poor quality merchandise, poorly suited to its purpose.  Other times by selling the same merchandise available elsewhere, made cheaper by virtue of mass purchasing power, and exploitation of its workers.

In the eighties and Nineties Walmart spread like a cancer from small town to small town.  At first towns rejoiced at the arrival of Walmart with their huge stores, huge selections and cheap prices.  Gradually people awakened to a disturbing pattern however:  where Walmart went, small locally owned businesses died.  Once a town had a Walmart, your only job opportunities were Walmart jobs, which pay so poorly you can barely afford to shop at Walmart, let alone at a small locally owned business.

Now Walmart workers are fed up, and they are organizing.  They are planning a walk out on Black Friday, which is simply a brilliant idea.  The thing is, Walmart workers lead precarious lives, economically speaking.  Missing out on a day’s pay hurts.  That’s where we can all help.  You can sponsor a Walmart striker.    The organization page is here, and the donation page is here.

The Romney Video

I try not to follow the presidential race too closely, as I consider it the junk food of democracy:  addictive, but not very nourishing.  I was delighted to see the video of Mitt Romney showing his disdain for the working class get some traction in the mainstream press though.

Some months ago, Switzerland had a popular vote whether to increase the mandatory vacation time large firms offer their employees from 4 to 6 weeks.  One would think that such a bill would have been an easy win, but there was a very successful, well funded fear campaign against the initiative, which was based on the threat that longer vacation times would mean Swiss companies would become less competitive,  leading to more unemployment.

I was sitting in our employee cafeteria listening to one of my fellow working-class schlubs parrot this particular line of thought.  I told him that his analysis was based on poor assumptions.    The primary false assumption here is that employees who work less are, by definition, going to be less productive.  This is of course a false assumption.  Research has shown that stressed, overworked employees make mistakes and are less productive than well rested employees.   There are relevant and perhaps important debates which should be had on this subject, such as:

  • Do the Swiss labor laws create conditions of maximum productivity for employees (i.e. finding the perfect balance between stress and productivity)?
  • Should our legal system strive to create conditions of maximum productivity, or should we be striving for other goals, like work/life balance, or a healthy, happy society which has time to care for its health, children, culture, the elderly, and the environment?

I went on to tell him that the fact that the advertising campaign relies on fear, instead of a rational assessment of causes and effects, is a pretty good sign he should be skeptical.  Further, it’s well known that inside Europe, the Swiss relatively poor conditions:  longer working weeks and fewer vacations.  It’s also a common theme that stress-related illnesses cost the Swiss society and the Swiss economy enormously, and are considered a real problem.  Given these facts, there is reasonable evidence to think that a little extra holiday time might actually be good for the Swiss economy.

His response to this was the following question:  “If that’s true, why is every other country working to decrease holiday time and increase working hours?”.  I told him that that was precisely the question he should be asking.  If only the Romney video were available at that point, I could have pointed to it as evidence of the obvious answer:  because those countries are being run by wealthy people who feel like they should make a living simply by owning things, and those people have nothing but contempt for working people.



Penny-wise, pound-foolish

One of my frequent frustrations working for a large corporation is penny-wise, pound-foolish policies. Examples abound, but one annoys me at sufficient frequency and intensity to comment on it.

I have to print documents for reading or reference on occasion.  Often I would prefer to read them on my tablet, but my companies various security policies prevent me from doing so.  Working around the security policies would put me at risk (in terms of breaking company policy, not in terms of actual security), and would be time-consuming.  So I wind up printing them out.

Being an environmentally conscious guy I do so double sided, and generally 2 pages per side, so as to save on resources.  Typically the stuff I have to print out has some syntax-highlighted stuff, and maybe some figures with a little color in them.  Typically the color is sufficiently valuable that is worth reading it in color — The increased efficiency in understanding the content easily pays for the costs of the color.

But printing in color is more expensive than printing in  black-and-white.  Managerial classes do a lot of printing, and work with a lot of superfluous color: Big bold headers in color for visual style, pie charts, shit like that.  So in their wisdom, they have reasoned  that making all printing have the default to print to grayscale will save the company money.  As a result, whenever I need to print something in color (the usual case), I have to go through an annoying series of clicks to enable color printing.  Each time costs me a a minute or two.   When I haven’t done it in a while I lose a few minutes going over the gui trying to find the relevant fields to click.  Being a large corporation, this waste of time and energy is occuring hundreds of times a day.  That’s hundreds of minutes of time being lost.

The worst part is the psychological impact.  The company went to extra-expense to make it inconvenient to manually select color or b/w, because they don’t trust us enough to do it for ourselves.    Our time and concentration are disparaged as being worth less than the cost of a small amount of color toner.

Because we we can measure  the cost of printing supplies, we register cost-reduction.    The decreased productivity, reduction in employee satisfaction, and the ensuing increased turnover are puzzled over, but occur with a time-lag so connection are not made.    This pattern reveals itself again and again.

Collaborative work

I’m currently designing a fairly complex piece of software at work, and have to collaborate intensely with 2 colleagues about all decisions, and a number of colleagues about various subsets of the project.

In the process of design, I had a small, very obvious realization that profoundly affects the productivity and pace of our discussions:  start with what’s good.

I notice that when our meetings devolve into bickering, nitpicking, distraction, or one of the myriad of antiproductive patterns that meetings and discussions are prone to, there is generally a great deal of overlap in our apparently oppositional stances, but people are focusing on the contentious points rather than the what they all agree on.

Consider:  Colleague 1 proposes a design pattern (P1) for use for a particular pattern.  Another Colleage 2 says “no that’s the wrong pattern for this because of bla bla bla”.    C2 is technically correct.  There are a number of flaws in how C1 has expressed his suggestion, but if one takes the time to sketch out the class diagrams and write out what will actually happen during thread execution, one sees that the class-structure imposed by the pattern is indeed a good fit, even if it doesn’t fit all the characteristics the pattern implies. 

If you nitpick about everything that’s wrong about the idea you get away from the productive part of the discussion, you’re likely to raise the other colleague’s temper and it rapidly becomes unlikely that any productive work gets done.  If you start out with a discussion like “okay, what are you thinking of here, how would it work, okay yeah I see what you mean… but you know the term <whatever> is maybe not completely accurate here because of <whatever>, but who cares, the idea is a good one” then you can switch the detail points that you want to fix, but you’ve established some common ground, you’ve made your colleague feel like you appreciate their input and their intellect, and you’ve established a productive, friendly tone that makes the colleague receptive to constructive criticism.

Further, if you are actually wrong in your nitpicking, you come across as less of an asshole.

All this seems really trivial, but it’s amazing how rarely it actually gets practiced.

A Teachable Moment

I had a teachable moment this morning. I was on my way to work. On the train I was working on my laptop, writing a rebutall to the asinine, wrong, and wrong headed coding policies some of my colleagues are trying to get accepted as coding standards within the company. This is a stressful activity to me, and gets me fairly
tense and agitated internally.

As the train halted at my stop, I stood back and waited for a man to help a woman get her baby carriage off the train. I was slightly miffed when someone standing next to me took this as an opportunity to shoulder between me and said carriage in order to et off the train faster. In this tense, agitated and slightly miffed frame of mine I took the first stair off the train. A young man was trying to shoulder his way up the train despite the fact that there were
still a number of people debarking the train.

Because of my frame of mind, I guess I was feeling a little confrontational. I certainly felt some anger well up in my chest as I put my hand on his chest and said (in english) “you should wait until everyone is finished getting off the train”. I was tensed and ready for a confrontation.

Instead, the young man said “Oh entschuldigung, thank you” and stepped back off the train. My first reaction was guilt and shame for being so angry at such a nice man. My second was relief that I hadn’t been ruder or more confrontational. If he has a generous heart (and evidence would indicate that this is the case), he might interpret my actions as firm but polite, even if I was being an confrontational asshole on the insde.

My final reaction was a warm feeling of gratitude. The gentleman in question behaved exactly as I strive to behave (even though I was behaving badly). Often when I preach that kind of behavior, I’m told I’m naiive or idealistic. So it was
nice to have an encounter where another person to behave exemplary.

They only call it class warfare when we fight back.

Obama suggests (I paraphrase of course) “ok, let’s cut Medicare and Social Security to get rid of the deficit, but at the same time let’s start taxing the millionaires at the same levels we did before Bush”.  The Republicans cry out “It’s class warfare!”.  Obama strikes back:  “It’s not class warfare, it’s common sense”.   Mitt Romney thinks the wall-street occupation is “dangerous”.  He calls it “class warfare”.

Of course it’s class warfare.  Somewhere, probably on a sign at a labor rally in the 20’s or 30’s, I have seen a sign saying “They only call it class warfare when we fight back.”.  Finally, after some 30 years of brutal class warfare, America’s beleaguered and beaten working class has begun to awaken and react.   In a desperate attempt to rally the fear of communism Republicans are crying out class warfare.  Both Republicans and Democrats pay lip-service to some ephemeral concept they call the “middle class”, which has all but disappeared from the American landscape.  If you look at their actions however, both the Republicans and Democrats are defending the interests of the ownership classes.  Obama just wants them to make small gesture of compromise, so he can effectively convince us (the working classes) that it is not class warfare.

To properly understand the battle-lines here, we need to understand that the class lines are not between the middle class, upper class, and lower class.  These are disgusting terms on principle, and aren’t helpful in framing discussions and solutions.  The true class lines are between the working class and the owning class.   While there is some merit to using terms like “moneyed elites” to describe the principle antagonists in this conflict, I prefer the ownership class.  This is the group of people who believe they should make their income, their living, by virtue of owning things.   Once the owning classes owned slaves.  Then they owned factories and businesses.  In both these cases there was at least a minimal interest in protecting the value of their capital:  keeping their slaves, and later their factories and wage slaves alive and healthy enough to provide them with lifestyles and prestige they enjoyed.   Now they own capital, and in today’s age of mobile capital, there is little to no interest in protecting these working classes, and boy does it show.

We need to construct a society in which managers are recognized as another form of working class, working to keep social structures and industries functioning.  They should be payed their worth, which might be a little more than a good janitor (10 times?  12 times?) — but certainly not 500 times the value of the work done by the scientists, engineers, and skilled laborers producing the actual products resulting from their labors.

Through a happy accident of history, we in America have a relatively democratic form of government, which gives us, the citizenry a certain amount of power to control how our society has been organized.  For many years our country became more and more democratic, thanks to the hard work and sometimes bloody sacrifices of working classes.  It’s been all downhill since Reagan though, whether Democrats or Republicans were steering things.  There have always been at least two mechanisms of decision making in America, the democratic principle (one person one vote), and the capitalist one (one dollar one vote).  Since Reagan the nation has moved, sometimes faster sometimes slower, in the direction of capitalism and away from democracy.  Things have gotten so critical now that we have taken inspiration from Egypt, and attempt to bring democracy to the USA.

So I say bravo.  Yes it’s class warfare.  Yes we are fighting back.  It’s those of us who work for a living — whether we sit at a desk or stand at a workbench, against those who collect dividends off the labor of others.  We are fighting for the principle of democratic processes, over the principle of financial processes deciding the course of human progress.  The political class is far too allied with the owning classes.  Capital plays far too large a role in our electoral processes, which have never been sufficiently democratic in the first place.  In our workplaces (for those of us fortunate enough to have work) where we spend the majority of our waking hours, democratic principles scarcely play a role.  Wall street however plays a very large and direct role, regardless of where you live.

I live in Switzerland, where I enjoy the fruits of a democracy much stronger and more direct than America has enjoyed since the white man wiped out the Iroquois.   If my heart and courage were strong enough to follow my convictions, I would fly to New York and at least stay till my vacation time ran out (which is 5 weeks a year, imagine that!).  Thus far however I am too much of a coward.  I am afraid of losing the comfort and privilege I enjoy, even though I know you, not the owners of my employers, are the ones defending that comfort.  So I apologize for my cowardice.

All of you participating in the American spring, my hat is off to you.  I feel guilt and shame that I am not with you in body, but I am with you in spirit.

What you should undestand about American policies towards “illegal aliens”

There is a simple and vital aspect of America’s strategies regarding undocumented workers, which is scarcely reported on but should be understood by anyone attempting to form an opinion on the subject. 

Nearly all legislation, and indeed nearly all debate on undocumented workers in America focuses on how to handle the undocumented workers themselves.  Employers of undocumented workers face scarcely any sanction for doing this.  This results in an incentive for employers to hire undocumented workers, as well as leverage for them to exploit those workers.  The harder the punishment for undocumented workers in America, the more leverage the employers have.  This gives employers power to drive wages down, violate worker safety laws, and engage in unfair practices.  It takes power from the working classes, whether they are documented or not.

All members of the working classes should fight for stronger punishment for companies or individuals hiring undocumented workers.  This is the policy, for example, which Switzerland follows.  It makes it extremely difficult to get work illegally as it simply is not worth the risk for the companies or individuals who might otherwise consider hiring an undocumented worker.    It’s cheaper than all the ridiculous crap the U.S. does to keep Mexicans out, and infringes less on our human and constitutional rights.

If you are wondering why American politicians don’t consider such solutions, you should ask yourself whose interests they are actually fighting for.