Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Martha Friend and Sagel Friendsmith at Somerville Open Studios

[I'm committed to blogging at least once every 3 years.]

My friend Martha Friend and her daughter Sagel Friendsmith are showing at the Somerville Open Studios this weekend. Martha makes art from found objects. IMHO, she does great work with rust. I haven't seen Sagel's work before but I'm looking forward to doing so. Check it out!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Strangely familiar

The person pseudo-named (is that a word?) Malcolm in this column sounds strangely familiar, except for the pesto-making part.

Monday, October 31, 2005

In praise of the cover-up

If you search Google today for the words "it's the cover-up Plame" you will get about 1.2 million hits. There are thousands of articles that either imply or state explicitly that the mistake that the Bush administration made was trying to cover up the crime, which made things much worse than the crime itself. This makes no sense to me at all. Perhaps in the case of Clinton, where having sex with an intern was not a crime, that would make sense, but in the Plame case, the crime is a felony. If they hadn't covered it up, Bush probably would have lost the 2004 election.

Moreover, what all these pundits neglect to consider is that in the case of the Bush administration, for every cover-up for which they got caught, there are probably 30 cover-ups that they got away with. These guys simply don't have any compunction about violating the law in order to enrich their friends and clobber their enemies. If they hadn't been covering up all of their transgressions, we would have seen the whole lot of them doing the perp walk by now.

Just imagine the sight of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove in orange jumpsuits. That would be a beautiful thing.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Rim shot department, Part Deux

I was watching sports on television this weekend, and the sportscaster went to the well for one too many metaphors.

Sorry, that was bad but I can't help myself.

Friday, August 19, 2005

My compass in the digital wilderness

I'm a good programmer. Unfortunately, I'm not very good on the "vision thing." I don't stay informed about new technology very well, and I often don't grok the long-term ramifications of new stuff. E.g., when I worked at a search-engine company in the late 90's (Northern Light) I couldn't figure out how anyone was going to make any money on search. How blind I was.

Fortunately, I have a friend to turn to when I'm trying to make sense of the digital marketplace, or when I'm frustrated by how inconvenient something is, and need someone to tell me about the latest free software that solves my problem perfectly. His name is John Sequeira, and he is a software consultant & architect.

He has a couple of blogs that are very worth reading - one to which he posts frequently about the latest technology developments, and one with longer, more detailed articles. Check 'em out.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Yellow-ribbon Jesus-fish convergence

I spent untold hours buring $2.50-per-gallon gas on our nation's interstate traffic jam this weekend (taking my mother to a friend's 65th wedding anniversary). While in one of the innumerable stop-and-go situations, I saw something on the back of the car in front of me that brought it all together: a support-our-troops yellow ribbon, in which the yellow ribbon was in the shape of a jesus fish. I only wish I had a camera handy.

I haven't been able to track down a picture of one of these beauties on the web. If one of my reader(s) finds one, please send it along!

Monday, July 04, 2005

I should have gotten another Tip o' the Pin!

In a previous post, I mentioned the Tip o' the Pin that I got from Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, for sending him photos of the now-famous Quebec Coke-and-Hotdog Man. Now I discover that C-and-H Man is actually one of Claude's alter egos. But do I get another Tip o' the Pin? Apparently not - it went instead to Carter Harris, whoever he is. I don't mean to be greedy, but as my father used to say, "what's fair is fair."

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Can somebody please explain this to me?

I was making a salad last night and I noticed the label on the container of tomatoes I had bought the week before.

What is the deal here? Why would these tomatoes be officially licensed by NASCAR? Does NASCAR get paid for licensing tomatoes, or does the tomato grower?

Do you think I could get NASCAR to officially license my blog? Would they pay me?

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Do good and save a little money

A couple of months ago I heard about the Better World Club while listening to Car Talk. The company provides roadside assistance and travel services like AAA does. However, instead of lobbying for more highways like AAA does, they support all sort of environmentally friendly things. They don't cost any more than AAA, and for the first year they give you coupons that you can use to get reimbursed for $40 of gasoline purchases.

Another money-saving, eco-friendly thing I discovered are some ways of purchasing auto insurance in Massachusetts. You can get a discount on your auto insurance (I think it is 6-8%)in Mass if you get your insurance through Better World Club, or through the Environmental Insurance Agency, which is affiliated with the Conservation Law Foundation. You get a 10% discount with CLF, but you need to be a member of one of a short list of organizations (CLF, AMC, Audobon Society). Both of these insurance agencies are actually selling Plymouth Rock insurance.

Tell 'em Alec sent you.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Magnetic yellow ribbon update

Sunday, May 22, 2005

I get a Tip o' the Pin!

Make sure to check out the "Zippy the Pinhead" comic strip next Sunday, May 29th. My photographs of a giant Canadian roadside Coke and hotdog vendor are featured, along with someone else's photo of a pensive Einstein who looks like he is reclining poolside. In color, and Bill Griffith even spelled my name right, ferchrissake! As you would expect, the hotdog man is actually channeling Kierkegaard.

Note the tiny writing along the right edge of the second panel. I never realized my 15 minutes of fame were going to come in 2-second intervals.

P.S. If anyone wants to buy me the $155 hand-colored signed print of this strip, just click on the strip above. I won't stand in your way!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Buy your gas at Citgo

Looking for an easy way to protest Bush foreign policy week after week? And an easy way to help alleviate global poverty? Buy your gasoline at Citgo stations.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Do Agile Methods Marginalize Problem Solvers?

I've always felt uncomfortable with agile programming. I've often felt guilty about that. Is it because I'm too lazy or that agile programming pushes me out of my comfort zone?

This article articulates some of the things that I've felt about agile programming. Little did I know I had so much in common with Isaac Newton :-)

This passage in particular rings true to me:

Problem solvers tend to be concerned with things, how they work, why they don’t work, and how they can work better. Since software engineers must solve problems that are more concerned with things than people, generally a concern for things is an advantage. Even when the problems appear to be more about people, such as a graphical user interface design, the software engineers can best analyze and solve them if they think of these problems as involving things—cognitive psychology, for example—rather than people.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Humiliated in print

In addition to spelling my name wrong, I'm not that tall, nor nearly that beastly.

The column is refuted in his own inimitable fashion by Steve Nadis here.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Guest Blog - In defense of taxes

I haven't had much time to blog recently, so I'm posting an article written by a friend, Bart Wright, who is far more thoughtful and persuasive than I could ever dream of being. -Alec

Consider how many times have you read or heard this basic message:

Taxes are too high. The government is a bungling if not crooked bureaucracy that takes our money and wastes it. The government can't do anything right.

I think taxes are great. They're wonderful. We need taxes. We need to pay more taxes, not less. Everybody with me so far?

Of course everybody hates taxes. Why not keep the money for yourself? It's convenient to forget, when thinking about your own wallet, that taxes pay for things. They pay for government services. When forced to think about it, everyone admits that courts, police, firefighters, airports and highways are worth their taxes. But taxes do pay for a great deal more.

Sure, there's corruption and inefficiency in government, but compared to other places and other times in history, it is very low. (Many of those who ridicule government waste suddenly fall silent on the subject when the military is under discussion.) Inefficiency seems to be a necessary part of large organizations run by fallible humans, a few of whom are always dishonest and unethical. The other large organizations in our world are corporations, and there is no end of inefficiency and waste there. Their employees see this all the time. It only occasionally comes to the attention of the public when some corporate giant fails or some little clump of executives is prosecuted for wrongdoing.

If you want highways and not potholes, someone has to pay for it. If you want decent health care available to everyone in society, someone has to pay for it. If you want a cleaner environment, someone has to pay for it. The same goes for national parks, safe food and drugs, and some protection for the unemployed, the old, and the sick. And, if you want a huge military whose best justification is to allow us to get into quagmires like Iraq (I certainly don't), someone has to pay for that too.

Taxes need to be progressive, and they need to be more progressive than they are. I don't understand how anyone can swallow Bush's offhand sound-bite "argument" that taxing the rich more heavily is class warfare. Class warfare would be if the poorer classes were uniting to violently seize the economy from the rich with the goal of owning it themselves, and only the tiniest fringe in this country wants that. Asking that the rich get rich a little less quickly is hardly class warfare.

I found an article on the web a while ago, though it seems to have disappeared. This is the old URL:

It explores tax issues in depth and contains a great deal of data. What I really liked in this article is Figure 6, which tells us that there is a big difference between how income taxes were levied in the period from 1944 through 1980 on the one hand, and the period since 1986 on the other. In the 1944-80 period --
a period which was generally marked by great prosperity in this country -- taxes were notably progressive. The more you earned, the greater percentage of what you earned was owed in taxes. Today, as then, if you earn $25,000 and get a $1000 bonus, you pay something like 33% of that bonus in tax. Today, if you earn a very handsome $1,000,000 and get a $1000 bonus, you pay the same 33%, but back then you paid about 70% of your bonus. Whether that's fair or not (I will argue its fairness below), our society was prosperous. The idea that raising taxes on the rich will somehow ruin the economy is just a self-serving lie by the rich. Returning to the tax structure of 1980 would raise a great deal of revenue which could be used for various good purposes.

Moving back from the current political picture to look at our basic values, here are some thoughts on why progressive taxation is a good idea and a fair one too.

Pure free-market capitalism is all about dollars being the basic unit of power. Through investment, dollars make more dollars, and if you own those dollars, you can become fabulously wealthy and wield enormous power. If you can do useful work, and trade your work for dollars, you can live. However, if you have no dollars and cannot earn any, you have no place in the system, which is perfectly content to let you die. The Irish potato famine of 1847 was close to this, since throughout the period of mass starvation the landowners of Ireland were exporting grain for a profit.

At the other extreme from pure capitalism is the idea that all wealth and income should be divided equally among everyone, regardless of how much they work. Most of us think this is not fair, since hard work deserves to be rewarded. It has most certainly proven to be a disaster in practical terms, since societies that come anywhere near this system fail because there is not enough incentive to work (the USSR comes to mind). People need to be able to see that their work benefits them directly.

Each person is a mixture of things they can control, such as their willingness to work hard, character, a positive attitude and determination; and traits they cannot control, such as genetic endowment, family structure, early experiences, prejudice, accidents and illness. Both parts weigh heavily in one's ability to work in a way that society values.

Since we cannot tell for each individual how to separate these controllable and uncontrollable factors, the best society can do is to let people have things/money/care partly based on how much they contribute effectively to our economy to make money and partly on their status as human beings. Their direct contributions come to them in money. Their status as human beings produces not only "welfare" but social security, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and unemployment insurance.

The rule in private life in general is that people pay for what they get. It's part of our basic ideas of fairness. The same idea carries over to government programs like social security and unemployment insurance. If you take from the government at some point, it's because you paid your dues earlier. But when we are dealing with those struggling to get by, they can't afford to pay for what they need. As people go up the scale in income, they need less and less of the extra money as they move from just getting by to living comfortably to living opulently. This is the idea behind the progressive income tax. The rich are always allowed to keep a whole lot of money, including a significant proportion of their excess income (excess in the sense of being more than other people earn). I don't think fair-minded people assume rich people have done something wrong and deserve high taxes -- it's just that the money has to come from somewhere, and the richer you are, the more you can afford to part with.

A basic argument of the anti-tax position is "I earned the money, therefore I deserve it and it's mine." The assumption is that whatever you were able to trade your labor for in the marketplace is in some fundamental God-given sense what you deserve. Aside from ignoring the significant factors in earning potential that people have no control over, and ignoring luck (did you happen to pick the right stock?), and ignoring unethical practices (did your grandfather swindle someone?), it assumes the present system is the only way things could be (or should be).

Suppose you didn't inherit wealth or have many early advantages, but you through your own efforts have made yourself successful. Even so, your success started with the innate underpinnings of the skills that are valued in today's economy. Intellectual gifts and the power of persuasion are good examples. Not long ago, the strength required for manual labor was valued much more. In other times, the ability to persist in agricultural work in cold conditions may have been what brought you success. In others, it might have been acute vision to help with hunting or finding the scarce wild plants that could yield food, or in others, military skill. Is intellectual prowess inherently worth more than any of these? I say it's not; it's a function of the society and economy of which you are a part. Successful people are not islands unto themselves; they benefit from and are part of an entire system. Part of their success they owe to the system which happens to value their skills. It is fair that they pay more to keep that system running.

It's a natural tendency for people to take a position which benefits them. Rich people are likely to find rationalizations for why they should pay as little as possible in taxes. What I find more perplexing and sad is how many poorer people and working people do not see the bigger picture, but also accept that their income reflects a divine decree on what they deserve.

We must never forget the other side of the issue. People who are successful have done better than many others who started with the same native abilities because they have forgone pleasures of the moment, persisted through adversity, worked harder, and worked longer. We should honor and respect them and what they have done. Their desire for more money, perhaps a great deal more money, may have been what motivated them. They should be able to enjoy it, even to be fabulously rich. All progressive taxation asks is that they be a little less rich for the sake of all.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Arab Report Sees Little Reform, Faults U.S. Action

I've been too busy to blog lately, but this U.N. study was priceless. Note, however, that it only covers the period from October 2003 to October 2004.

Monday, March 21, 2005

A blogging primer for my less tech-savvy friends

Blog is short for web log. A blog is a website that a person creates to publish articles, short or long, called blog posts. This person is called a blogger. The subculture of bloggers in the world has been labelled the blogosphere. Blogs generally have a facility for readers of the blog to write comments that can be viewed along with the blog post.

You can read a blog just by visiting the blog's website, in my case. People who read multiple blogs often use a blog reader. In the blog reader, you subscribe to the blogs you are interested in, and when you open the blog reader, it shows you the new blog posts on the blogs to which you have subscribed. I use the blog reader. At bloglines, you can also download a notifier program that sits in the corner of your screen and lets you know when one of the blogs you have subscribed to has a new post.

To read the comments that have been written about a blog post, click the link labelled "comments" below the article you are interested in. You can also add your own comment. If you clicked on the "comments" link, you should see a text window titled "Leave your comment." Type your comment in this text box. Where it asks you to Choose an Identity, pick either Other, if you want to leave your name, or Anonymous, if you don't. Then press the "Publish Your Comment" button, and your comment should appear!

Rim shot department

True story, only slightly embellished...

A friend of mine had brain surgery recently. It went well and he is doing fine. Before the operation, he was extremely worried about it. I said to him, "What's the big deal? It's not rocket science."

Friday, March 18, 2005

Can a software developer survive as a luddite?

I'm a computer programmer. I'm also a bit of a luddite. I don't have a cell phone. I don't watch much TV, so I don't have TiVo or a DVD player. (I admit, I watch the occasional DVD on my computer, and get bootleg copies of The Sopranos.) I don't have an iPod, nor do I listen to much music on my computer, which is particularly strange since I'm developing software for people who listen to music on their computers. I was about 15 years late in getting a CD player. I admit that I am hooked on my Palm Pilot, but I resist getting the latest one, and resist adding more software on it, for fear of the frustration when it inevitably breaks.

Moreover, with the exception of this excursion into the world of blogging, I'm having a lot of trouble getting into the online lifestyle. I surf the web when I need something, but I can't get into recreational surfing. Sometimes when I'm at my computer and bored I think that I should do some surfing, but I can't think of and/or find much of interest. I don't care much instant messaging, although I need to use it professionally.

I'm a very good computer programmer, but I'm starting to worry -- will my aversion to most things cyber make me professionally obsolete?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The death penalty - you can't make this stuff up

Juan Manuel Alvarez, the mercurially suicidal guy who parked his SUV on the train tracks in Glendale, CA, killing 11 people, was placed on a suicide watch. There is no decision yet about whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

Do we live in a great country or what?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The meaning of those magnetic yellow ribbons

It finally dawned on me why those magnetic yellow ribbons are so popular, more popular than any other display of support for the troops and/or the war. Those ribbons appear on many a vehicle that has no other message emblazoned on its backside. The reason: they're magnetic. You don't have to sully your ride with a sticker that will ruin the finish and look ugly 6 months from now. And if you change your mind, no problemo! You can just peel the magnet off. In short, the magnetic yellow magnet requires no commitment.

Those ribbons are a metaphor for the character of many Americans' support for the war in Iraq. They support the war, but aren't willing to make any sacrifices to support it. They won't pay higher taxes. They won't stop driving giant gas-guzzling SUVs. They won't even tarnish their vehicles with some bumper-sticker glue.

Here is one idea about what you can do with those yellow ribbons.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Anybody listening?

Me, with my own blog? Hard to believe. But where else to articulate the opinions that no flesh-and-blood person wants to listen to?