Friday, December 31, 2010

Painted entryway to dance space of Presents Studio

One of the places I like to dance. Free form jam session. Too bad nothing is planned for New Year's Eve at that studio, but looking forward to things next year. See you next year.

Evolution of car phones to cell phones

Back in the 1980s, cell phones were new, but they were usually called car phones. Now they are called cell phones which is better since the car is not the best place for them; especially the moving car.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Last bastion of the middle class - public employment

The gap between high income elite and low income masses is more pronounced in private sector. A larger percentage of public sector employees seem to be middle class. Not wealthy, but still having pretty nice benefits like health insurance that's more likely to be missing in private sector employment.

As the middle class disappears in private sector, it will get harder to sustain it in the public sector as well. Following leads from Facebook friends, this video from CBS News 60 Minutes came to my attention. Sure points out how far in the hole so many state governments have gone borrowing from their own pension funds and so forth. Looks like a lot of the pensions that were negotiated by state employee unions were unsustainable. Some are generous by private sector standards, except for the golden parachutes near the top of private sector. One governor was quoted saying that if he talked about needs to trim state employee pensions, many of his constituents would say, you mean there are still people who have pensions?

Yes, it's hard to justify middle class living in the public sector when many of the taxpayers are no longer living in the middle class. Part of the energy behind the Tea Party movement; no doubt.

As the gap between wealthy and low income becomes wider, in private sector, it's harder to maintain an economic "middle ground." in the public sector.

On another note, I remember how the middle class was derided during hippie movements of the late 60s and early 70s. Middle class was seen as materialistic, stuffy, the suburbs, conservative, mainstream and living in little boxes made of ticky tacky.

Now, the middle class is being missed by quite a few folks on the left. Folks are holding protest signs for "family wage" jobs. Even Lawrence Welk (a pastime in many middle class homes of the 1960s and 70s) is now remembered with fondness and nostalgia by folks who often derided the show in it's day.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Farthest artificial object from Earth

Launched September 5th 1977, while Jimmy Carter was still president. Voyager 1 spacecraft has traveled more than 10 billion miles in space. It's now well past the orbit of Pluto and still sending data back to Earth about the boundary area between solar wind and interstellar space.

Artist's rendition of Voyager from NASA and Wikipedia.

Traveling at 10.5 miles per second (that's from around downtown Bellingham to Ferndale every second!) it's moving. The universe is so large that it would still take this craft over 80,000 years to get to the nearest star.

Why is it making news now?

Scientists are confirming that it has reached another goal in it's long journey. A region where the outward motion of solar wind stops. Probably just a few more years till this probe reaches the environment of interstellar space.

What does that mean? Lot's to astronomers. Instruments on board the craft are still measuring the nature of charged particles. Learning about the energy and magnetic environment farther and farther away from the sun.

33 years of science from one spacecraft launched when I was in college and more to come. On it's way out of the solar system, Voyager 1 passed Jupiter and Saturn returning lots of photos.

There's also a sister ship named Voyager 2. After also taking pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 sped past Uranus and Neptune getting the only close up images we've had of those distant planets. Neptune in 1989. Voyager 2 is also headed out of the solar system, but on a different route so it isn't as far out as Voyager 1. It went the "scenic route" past Neptune; so to speak.

That's a lot of scientific "bang for the buck."

How are these spacecrafts powered?

Well, they are just coasting out into space. Without air resistance, they can just coast once being revved up to speed. The electric power to run their radios and instruments comes from plutonium generators. Like little nuclear reactors, the plutonium in their "RTG" units keeps giving off energy. Eventually the heat will run out, but NASA expects these spacecraft to have several more years of life.

Several more years of learning about the outer reaches of our solar system.

When launched in 1977, scientists put some information on a plaque and I think even a CD (new technology back then) which was placed on board the spacecrafts. This is an "information brochure;" so to speak in case its ever found by some alien civilization. It's basically a "hello" and introduction to Earth as it was in 1977.

Kind of a cosmic version for "chamber of commerce brochure."

That's catering to a possible audience which may not read the brochure for thousands, or even millions, of years.

It's called long range planning. Thousands of years beyond the next quarter's profit statement. Now that's human thinking at it's finest.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Don't ask don't tell victory for Obama's strategy

With the filibuster finally breaking and DADT passing the Senate, it looks like victory in the lame duck session of Congress. The White House's strategy, which just a few weeks ago got some flack from us "liberals," did pay off.

Congress worked. Amazing.

Actually it wasn't just liberals that were skeptical that Congress would act. It was Log Cabin Republicans, the gay Republican organization that was leading a court challenge against DADT. When the justice department of the Obama administration temporarily defended DADT against that court ruling, many wondered what was wrong with the Obama. If Obama opposes DADT, why didn't he just go with the court ruling that tossed it out instead of waiting for Congress to act? It didn't look like Congress would do anything; especially in light of Republican sweep of the 2010 elections, but Obama held out.

Obama held out hope that the lame duck session of Congress would do something and it looks like he was right.

Now all that wrangling over strategy seems like "water under the bridge."

There are several ways to "skin a cat" as the old saying goes. Court challenges is one strategy, Congress is another. It looks like the Congressional strategy finally worked for Obama and DADT will be repealed.

There's still some life in the Obama Presidency.

DADT isn't one of my biggest issues, even though I am more attracted to men than women. Personally, I wouldn't have desire to serve in the military, but I do support basic fairness for those who do. DADT wasn't one of my top issues.

Still, I've tried to not become too cynical about President Obama. It's frustrating at times, and compromise tends to rule most often in just about any politics. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I see why they say that following the process of legislation is like watching the making of sausage.

Hopefully it's now water under the bridge and another step forward. Time to take a deep breath and do some cautious celebration.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Not enough healthy people paying into America's health insurance pools

Broadening the base toward universal coverage; that's one way other industrialized nations bring down their health insurance costs. Getting more people to pay in, so when someone is sick, a larger pool can cushion the blow.

That's what insurance is supposed to be about and President Obama has tried to work toward that goal, but a federal judge has ruled against him.

Judge Hudson's recent ruling tossed out the part of Obama Care that would go into effect by 2014 requiring most Americans to buy insurance; a provision known as "the individual mandate." If this ruling stands up to appeal, it's likely to cripple the whole bill since lots of healthy people need to pay into insurance to cover the sick people taking money out of insurance.

In light of this ruling, it looks like the "Obama compromise" between private health insurance and government "single payer stile" plans is dead.

Single payer "government based" insurance may be the way to go.

Maybe it's unconstitutional to require Americans to buy a particular product, or service, but it isn't unconstitutional to levy taxes. If we want coverage, especially for those sicker than average, we all will have to pay, if not premiums then taxes.

One good thing about taxes is that they can be put on a sliding scale. "To each, according to ability to pay, from each according to need." Sorry for quoting Marx, but that's what insurance is about.

Private enterprise is great, but there isn't profit in caring for the needy.

In the past, private insurance models worked somewhat well, but that was when there wasn't such a wide disparity of income between different groups of Americans. Today, the costs are higher and large segments of the population can no longer afford the premiums. This means lots of folks are left out of the system, including healthy people that could pay in more than they take out, but they can't afford the premiums.

Obama's plan attempted to put more folks into insurance pools, but subsidize the costs for lower income folks. At best, this plan was held together with duct tape and bailing wire.

Trying to maintain everything from the spirit of universal coverage to the current system of private corporations to the idea of not raising taxes is an improbable act of juggling.

No one wants to give ground.

There are a lot of people making good livings in the health insurance industry. Lobbyists on Capital Hill, for instance, but there's more to it than just that.

Some fear that government based insurance would be too much of a "one size fits all" solution. It could threaten marketplace innovation.

Yes, innovation is good, especially when the goal is healthier people in a healthier society. That's what healthcare should be about; healthier people.

Private companies have done some innovation. Offering free free gym memberships, for instance, to promote healthier lifestyles among members of their insurance pool. The goal: more healthy people paying in, less sick folks taking out.

One problem with private companies is the fact that public health is such a large picture that one company's efforts is just a mere "drop in the bucket" when it comes to improving the health of the nation. Governments are larger so when it's in their interest to invest in healthier societies, they can make a difference.

Sure, a private firm can buy gym memberships for it's policyholders, but usually we look to government to fund such things as a bike path system all over town. Governments tend to do a better job investing in things like public parks, education and sanitation.

Private insurance can innovate, but it seems like it's biggest skill is "risk assessment." That's figuring out how to cut off sicker people and target healthy folks for inclusion in the pool.

I'm sure a lot of talented people are employed in risk assessment. Figuring out how to deny care to folks with preexisting conditions. Learning how to steer around the "gauntlet of regulations" so as to "target market" your insurance pool to healthy folks. This brings down average costs.

I think there's even a term called "risk corridor."

Imagine that. Probably work for lots of demographers.

It's figuring out which demographics to target your insurance company toward and how to write your rules to keep out folks that would drive up your costs. Driving up costs, that is, not counting the money you pay your own bloated corporate executives.

Lots of innovation and energy goes into risk assessment. It may help to keep people on their toes. Keep folks working out at the gym so as not to fall outside the preferred "risk corridor."

Still, there's a problem. What do we do with folks who's care costs more than they could ever hope to pay in. Do we slam the door in their faces? Tell them to die early? Dump their care onto the taxpayers?

Maybe the taxpayers just need to be part of the solution all along.

Without government to prop it up, home prices keep falling

Hardship for some current owners, but could also be good news as the home market seeks balance with the job market thus setting the groundwork for increasing affordability. One line says, "buyer tax credit that expired in July is sorely missed." That means Without government to prop it up, home prices keep falling. Article.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Relative prices for various things. Yahoo finance article about are Americans as poor as they feel

I found an interesting article on Yahoo about what I've been thinking a long time. Inflation rates vary widely depending on what is being measured. Housing and health care costs have gone up, but prices for many products as well as food and energy have gone down relative to average incomes.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Public sector ivory tower?

Part of the Obama stimulus plan went to state and local governments to keep them from having to layoff as many folks as would have been laid off given their dwindling budgets. This kept more teachers, police and so forth on the payroll so their services could remain mostly intact while those incomes could continue to provide customers to local business. It was partially a strategy to keep pumping life into consumer spending so the business downturn would be less sharp.

What made sense economically didn't work politically, however.

This plan may have backfired leading to part of the Republican sweep of 2010 elections. It looked like public employees were exempt from the belt tightening of this recession. The old "ivory tower" issue. People grumbling that government workers are exempt from the needed belt tightening that is happening across other parts of our economy.

Politics of the ivory tower has been around for a long time. When I was a student at Western Washington State College, back in the mid 1970s (changed to WWU my last year), there was something called "Reduction in Force." Layoffs of campus personnel during lean times and also adjusting to what was then a drop in student enrollment.

Reduction in force had the acronym "R.I.F" which folks picked up and called "Ripoff in Force."

By the mid 1980s, mindsets were changing. Education funding was getting strong champions in high places. In spite of the Reagan and Bush Sr. presidencies, large pay raises were being proposed for university faculty by (here in Washington state, if I remember correctly) an advisory body called the Council For Post Secondary Education. Our Democratic governor, at the time, was a man named Booth Gardner. He joined the call of these advisory committees with proposals for large teacher and faculty pay hikes.

I don't know if all of that pay raise ever actually materialized, but the suggestions were circulating in media back then. It was an era of "brain drain worry." Government and public sector pay scales trying to catch up with what was perceived as much higher salaries in the private sector. Also competition with pay scales in other states. Fear that talent was being "brain drained" away to higher paying positions elsewhere.

The grass is always greener on the other side.

Back then, even Reagan administration officials were testifying before Congress about the need to increase salaries for key government officials. They feared loosing staff to the likes of such things as "mega Washington, DC law firms" with starting salaries higher than even Supreme Court justices were making at the time.

Congressional salaries were going up also, pegged to various government pay scales that were recommended for raises in order to keep up with comparable jobs in the private sector.

Ironic for the Reagan administration being champions of "small government."

I remember, at that time, wondering why these pay scales needed to be raised. Here in Bellingham, jobs in the public sector and at the university were much sought after. They were among "cream of the crop" in local job offerings.

There seemed to be a disconnect. Part of the problem was that Bellingham was not Seattle. State employees looked well off in Bellingham's economy, but thinking about the bigger picture includes Seattle; a somewhat different world. In Seattle's metro area, large corporations like Microsoft were getting started and Boeing was paying "big time." State pay scales looked real good in Bellingham, but not so good in Seattle.

There's the disconnect between urban economies and much of rural America. This is related to another phrase called "inside the beltway;" meaning reality inside Washington, DC and government is different than in the hinterlands.

Bellingham is mid sized and kind of borderline between urban and rural mindset.

During the technology boom of the 1990s, incomes in many sectors of the economy were on the rise again. Government pay seemed to be loosing ground a bit as everything is relative. Also rising health care costs continued to take their toll. I would read about teachers getting raises, but not seeing much of the money as it went into rising health insurance costs before they saw their paycheck.

Other folks would say to the teachers, "at least be glad you've got health insurance."

The housing bubble got going, big time, in the 90s as well. After the tech boom subsided, the housing bubble extended well into this decade. Around 2005, it looked like the best paid job was just being a homeowner. Sitting back and allowing one's house to go up in value without even necessarily working. That eventually had to come to an end as a lot of chickens came home to roost by 2008.

"Chickens coming home to roost" from the "rising tide to lift all boats."

House values went up, but so did the cost of living. Tuitions have been making big jumps also as more of the cost of running state supported schools was falling on the students. Back when I was in school, the state paid a much larger percent of the bill. This becomes a double whammy for students caught between state budget tightening and rising costs of running schools.

Then there's the folks leaving school with large student loans demanding higher salaries so they can pay back their loans.

It seems like no one is satisfied with how much they make relative to someone else. This is especially true when salaries for corporate executives rise so high that everyone else feels poor by comparison. It poisons the stew and politics keeps getting nastier and nastier.

The constant comparing of pay scales has caused a lot of hard feelings over the years. Corporate executives certainly set bad role models to follow.

Hopefully some new thinking can emerge going forward. Looking at life from a slightly less economic perspective.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Frosty sunset by Lake Padden ball field

With two jackets, I was plenty warm for my bike ride around the lake on Saturday.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Being a janitor can turn Facebook privacy issue upside down

Some folks worry that things they confess to on Facebook can leak out onto the open web where, for instance, future employers might see it.

This is not a worry for me.

If I had a post I thought would be somewhat embarrassing, I would rather share it on my blog which is on the open web than my Facebook wall. Who looks at this blog? Yes there are a handful of folks around the world that stumble upon it in various searches.

On the other hand, things on my Facebook wall automatically go in front of my friends in their "news" or "most recent" feeds. More folks, especially folks I know, see things inside Facebook than on this blog even though this blog is available to the whole web. Why worry about things leaking to the open web from Facebook?

As for employers doing searches on the web, it seems unlikely that I'll apply for another job before I reach retirement age. What else would I do in this economy besides being a custodian?

My main web site is selling some text link ads. Maybe I should be careful what I put on my main web site, rather than this blog as it does have more volume of readership.

As for my current boss finding what I write here, he'd rather use the vacuum cleaner than a computer.

Update on this topic I wrote 11/26/12.