Thursday, January 26, 2012

Class wars

Getting rather annoyed about the use of the phrase "class war" to describe those arguing that the wealthy should pay more in taxes. Leaving aside the motives of those spreading it as a meme - a rather transparent yet successful attempt to discredit the argument by pretending it's something else - it's also wrong.

As an ex-Brit, I know what classes are, and being rich or poor doesn't determine the class you're in. Being a member of a privileged class though tends to mean you have power, which usually implies you're given wealth as part of the deal.

The US has classes, but it also has a number of other social structures that undermine the class system and make it less of an issue than it is (or to some extent was) in the UK. The rich and powerful do what they can to remain rich and powerful, and ensure their children are rich and powerful, and that makes it harder for those who aren't rich and powerful to move forward, but you can't really point at the rich and say they make up a unified establishment linked socially and economically. The wealthy's use of power tends to be through bribes - sorry, lobbying - and control of the media, not through sitting in a House of Lords or having friends who do.

You can argue that there's similarities, but in reality, the similarities are only in the sense that the powerful have the power to remain powerful.

Arguing that the wealthy should pay more in taxes is not "class war", even if, as those who promote the "class war" meme, the argument is because we're at war with rich people. Rich people are not a class.

And, just to make it clear to my right wing friends who slavishly repeat this stuff, nobody's arguing you shouldn't be rich. We just don't see it as good policy to tax those who benefit the most from a society - by definition - at the same or a lower rate than everyone else. And right now we know that we're in a state where there's a chronic lack of demand, which isn't going to be solved until money starts to flow into the pockets of the majority.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rethinking abortion

I'm going to preface this with a summary because this is such a hot button issue, that it's likely to get misunderstood. The position described by this blog entry is this:

I am pro-choice, despite misgivings about the morality of abortion. I consider the legalization of choice important, but there are issues I care much more deeply about, that are more black and white, and my support for those latter issues overrides my support for the first.


There aren't many reasons for a liberal to support the Democrats these days. The Democrats have anti-liberal policies in most spheres. They're pro-war. They're pro-torture. The TSA has continued to grow and become more draconian under Obama's watch. They support the war on the drugs, even going so far as to undermine state initiatives to curb the excesses of that war. They care little, or not at all, about the unemployed until it's a year or so before the next election and realize that lots of unemployed people equals lots of votes for the other guy. And I get into arguments with like minded liberals online, and usually, after a large number of statements like:

  • Yeah, but they ended the war in Iraq
  • You mean they kept to the timetable Bush agreed to? And they attacked Libya, illegally!
  • But... they passed healthcare reform!
  • Yes, but the reform they went for was anti-liberal. Now we're forced to buy insurance from the same abusive assholes who caused the problem in the first place, and with one or two exceptions, the same crap still exists. How is this better?
  • But, uh, Bush!
  • Can you point at a Bush policy of importance that Obama hasn't ultimately continued, or even extended?
the issue of the Supreme Court comes up. If we allow a Republican to win, says the reluctant Democrat, they'll appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court, tipping the balance and causing abortion to be banned!

And because I'm a liberal, and I support choice, that's usually the point at which I sigh and get frustrated. If the Democrats can always rely upon liberals to support them, even when they're anti-liberal, then how do we get the Democrats to actually stop being anti-liberal?

But as I've thought about it, I've become more and more convinced it's a bad argument anyway. Abortion is an important issue, but there are a hell of a lot of important issues. And for some reason, it's OK to throw our children under the bus in pointless wars, our dissenting voices and whistle-blowers under the torture bus, our cancer patients and other people in severe pain under the drugs war bus, our unemployed under the foreclosure bus, and our general freedoms under the bus, but it's not OK to "throw women under the bus" - or rather, a small number of women who, rightly or wrongly, end up in the doctor's chair wanting to end an unwanted pregnancy.

What's wrong with that picture?

Does it do liberalism any good if only one issue is fought for? And wouldn't it take care of the choice issue long term if there was a major political party willing to fight for liberal principles - that was scared of losing the liberal vote?

And, hold on a moment, but is this really the most important issue liberals should be fighting for, to the exclusion of everything else? Those Democrats who are considered liberals rarely spend as much effort fighting, say, the war on drugs, as they do the war on abortion, and yet there are significant similarities between the two, obscured in some ways because the war on drugs is current and criminalized by definition, and the war on abortion is not.

The war on drugs causes both "good" and "bad" uses of proscribed drugs to be banned. So both dope using cancer patients and stoners both end up criminalized. It's not entirely clear that many states would ban abortions in all circumstances, but despite that I'd agree with most assessments that both rape victims and "abortion as contraception" users would end up suffering under the ban.

The war on drugs makes matters worse for those who plan to take drugs anyway. Supplies become unreliable and unregulated, making them dangerous. Those who sell the drugs are criminals by definition, which means an above average interest by the criminal element in managing the distribution chain. Sellers have reasons to push overly addictive drugs, knowing there are no sanctions for doing so that don't apply to other drugs. Likewise, a cynic would probably wonder how many anti-choice advocates have shares in companies that sell wire coat-hangers.

Both the war on drugs and war on abortion are ultimately wars on the body, a belief that government has the right to intrude upon an individual's ultimate right to decide what their body can and cannot do. Governments have every right to help individuals make the right decisions - and obviously has every right to minimize the danger of one person's choices to others - but there are lines that should not be crossed. But, actually, in many ways the government has a stronger right to regulate abortion than it does drugs. At some point - the religious might argue around two weeks after the LMP, others would look at the development of the zygote, embryo or fetus and point at something significant such as brain development or a heartbeat - one has to come to the conclusion there's another body involved.

In our zeal to protect a woman's right to choose, it's become obvious that equal or greater principles have been thrown under the bus. More-over, it's not clear to me that simply the addition of a conservative to the Supreme Court would cause permanent, irreversible, damage to the cause. A conservative might overturn Roe vs Wade, but it would still be necessary for states to take the next step, and it's not immediately clear many would be successful. Free movement would also make it difficult for such laws to be effective. This is not to argue that a state could not cause hardship in its zeal to ban abortion, but a Republican winning an election does not mean an immediate, draconian, nationwide abortion ban.

Liberals should not focus on one issue to the exclusion of every other issue at each election, and especially not on this one. The Democratic party should not be allowed to think that its support for one issue - and the Republican's polar opposite opinion - should guarantee support for it from the liberal bloc. If the Democrats are ultimately an anti-liberal party, they shouldn't have our support.

Monday, January 16, 2012

New laptop, and Ubuntu Ocelot comments

Some news about my finances made me buy a laptop just after Christmas, not because they're good, but because this'll probably be the last time I get the chance to buy one for the next five years or so. Don't worry, the news is good news. I'll share more in a few weeks.

What I got was a Dell. Yes, I voluntarily went out and bought a Dell. Nobody buys Dells except (1) corporate IT departments and (2) "PC owners" in the fevered imagination of Mac zealots, until now. And in classic Dell style, the machine looks and feels boring. Corporate. Depressing. Urgh.

So why Dell? Well, because the alternative was Lenovo, and quite honestly, my last few experiences with Lenovo have not been good. I was thinking HP, but for some reason they refuse to include nipples on their laptops unless they cost four digits, which is a shame because I'd have gone in that direction given the budget PC I bought from them is excellent. And it gets harder to get nipples on your laptop with other brands. As it is, the Dell nipple could be a lot better, I'm on the look out for a better nub because it's actually quite painful to use.

What did I get? Well: It's a Latitude E6420, which is a Toyota Camry of the laptop world I guess. It has a Core i7, albeit a low end version (ie just the two cores, made to look like four using hyperthreading). The screen is a 1600x900 14" thing, which is very nice indeed, and there's a low end nVidia in there that, even under Wine, does a pretty good job on everything I've thrown at it, although GTA 4 is wanting. There's a (fairly crappy) webcam, an SD card reader, and a few things Ubuntu doesn't have drivers for like an RFID reader, finger print reader, etc. I've upgraded it to have a 750G disk, and 8G of RAM (which maxes it out unfortunately. With 4G being the standard today I'm bothered 8G will look pretty crappy in five years.)

I put Ubuntu 11.10 on it. Now, I'll be honest with you, while I like the direction Unity is going in, I do think - fairly strongly - that it was released too early. It's still not ready for prime time, in my opinion. There are major and minor complaints I have with it:

  • Running an app that isn't on the dock is a PITA.
  • The dock doesn't really understand/respect the "multiple workspaces" thing.
  • The single menu thing is a great idea, but the whole "Move the mouse to it to see it" thing is bad. I'm a fan of Apple's solution here, change the "File" menu to have the same of the app and otherwise show the menu all the time. Or go the Commodore Amiga route and use the right mouse button. And, just showing the menu and not trying to id the app is OK in practice too (see below.) But however you do it, understand Fitts Law doesn't work well if you don't know where to send the mouse.
Some of these may seem minor, and it may not be a long list, but honestly, it's enough for me to not be able to stand the system for any great length of time. What I did instead was:
  • Use the GNOME 3 "fallback" system
  • Install the third party GNOME 3 panel applets that implement the Ubuntu menus (including the single menu) and that thing on the right with all the icons and your name and so on.
  • Installed "Docky" and had that be the bottom panel. Docky isn't perfect, but it's slightly better at the multiple workspaces thing, and I prefer that style of window management - slightly - to the Windows 95 taskbar thing.
The third party PPA that includes Ubuntu panel applets for GNOME 3 is described by this article. The menu thing actually shows the menu at all times (no hiding it when the mouse isn't near it), and that works for me.

People are switching in droves to alternatives to Ubuntu because of Unity. I'm not convinced that it's quite as high as some of the claims - many people are citing figures from ISO distribution sites for instance, but most people upgrading from Ubuntu X to Ubuntu Y will never be in those figures. But still, Canonical does need to be a little more careful when releasing their new technologies. It's hard seeing giants of the Open Source/Free Software world fall not because their technologies are bad, but because they're willing to release unfinished crap as production code when they should sit on it and make it work properly before releasing it. Unity is getting there though. And from my brief testing of GNOME 3's Shell, I'm of the opinion Canonical are slightly ahead, although the GNOME 3 people have some great ideas too.

On that note, would it be too much to ask for Ubuntu to put Firefox 3.6 back in the repositories?

Also: Thunderbird is OK, but it's not Evolution, and quite honestly, I think Evolution is a much better product. It's much faster, and does more without the need for extensions. It's a little annoying that Ubuntu is supporting the former over the latter because even if you install the latter, it doesn't automatically integrate with Ubuntu's notification bar, while Thunderbird just sits there thumbing its nose at you.

Here's what I think Canonical needs to do for Ubuntu 12.04 (or 12.10, it's probably too late for 12.04.)
  • Bring back hierarchical menus as a way to launch applications. Big translucent panels with huge icons that leave most apps hidden and with it being confusing as to whether an app is even on your computer or not doesn't work. It really doesn't. If you must do something like that, make the icons smaller.
  • The dock really needs a lot of fixing. There's not enough space to show everything on most PCs which leads to awkward hacks involving scrolling. And it doesn't respect multiple workspaces. So, to that end:
    • Make the dock thinner
    • Let the user place the dock on the bottom of the screen if they so wish
    • Only show icons for apps on the current workspace (plus launchers, widgets, etc), and if the same app has windows open on multiple workspaces, pretend those windows don't exist.
    • Disable multiple workspaces by default (but make it easy for us to enable.)
    • Reduce the number of circumstances in which the dock is hidden.
  • The single menu needs to be implemented in all Ubuntu supported apps, including LibreOffice. It should not be hidden with the current window's name.
  • Replace Thunderbird with Evolution.
  • Replace Banshee (OMG. You know that thing causes the fan to start running, and both memory and CPU to be maxed out, immediately upon starting on my Netbook?) with RhythmBox. As a general rule, avoid replacing working software in the future just because it's imperfect and something else looks like it's going in the right direction - wait until that other app is proven first.
So, those are my opinions.

Finally, when did Wine get so good? With some minor exceptions, pretty much everything I've got on Steam that I tried has worked perfectly right out of the box. GTA IV needed some tweaking, and a third party DLL to disable Windows Live (which unfortunately disables all multiplayer, including LAN, alas) but once it works it's hard to believe it's not running natively. Awesome job.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Romney, Bain, and layoffs

Losing your job is a terrible thing. I should know. I've been laid off twice in the last two years. I wasn't fired, I remained on good terms with both companies, and the first, an automotive business consultancy, even contracted me to do work for them while I was looking for work.

But it still sucked. And so you might expect me to join the chorus of those attacking Mitt Romney for his stint at Bain Capital, during which time companies he was in some way responsible for laid off workers left and right. But I'm not going to. I don't think it's that simple.

The last few years have given layoffs a very bad name. This is in part because corporations have laid off workers when they've still been cash rich, and when there was no evidence that they couldn't afford to keep the workers on. By laying off people, they've reduced demand, which in turn, collectively, has damaged their own interests. This is a classic tragedy of the commons, or race to the bottom. It's in each corporation's best interests to lay off people if it can do the same work with fewer people, but collectively, the corporations end up with less work to do (and less income) because they've laid off all these people.

Of the two companies that laid me off, one fits the above description, the other doesn't.

The other laid me off because it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It's arguable it shouldn't have hired me in the first place, and even more arguably (because I'm me!) that it should have hired me a year earlier, because one of the problems the company was facing was it needed its IT infrastructure drastically upgraded, and that's the job I was brought in to do. But that said, actually primarily its problem was that it operated in the health field, and insurance companies were being bloody minded at the time because they didn't like HCR, and so a company that already had problems was suddenly fast-forwarded to bankruptcy many years too early.

Unhealthy businesses do need restructuring from time to time. When Bain bought companies, many companies it bought were in bad shape. Those companies needed to be restructured. It would be nice to claim that each company could have found some way to increase business 500% so that they could live with the same number of employees, but realistically, by the time its noticed that a business is doing badly, it's usually too late to do anything other than cut costs.

I have a second reason for knowing this. It relates to the first company that laid me off. As I said, we were an automotive business consultancy. To be specific, we collected information about the performance of our client's dealer networks (our clients were the manufacturers.) Car dealers are independent businesses, but they must operate efficiently and profitably in order for car manufacturers to stay in shape. We had one, and only one, client in Detroit. Guess which one?

If you said "Ford", and answered that because it was the only car manufacturer that survived 2008, then congratulations. You get the cookie.

Now, to be clear, I'm not arguing I saved Ford! Indeed, I have no idea what impact I had, although I'm 99% sure we helped them. What I do know is what Ford was doing at the time.

What differed Ford from GM and Chrysler was that Ford was on the ball well before the recession. It recognized it was unhealthy, that it needed to become healthy, and it enlisted a lot of help to make sure it did. Ford went through a restructuring without going bankrupt first. That restructuring left more of Ford and more of Ford's dealer network alive, and proportionally more people working directly and indirectly for Ford, than the bankruptcies did for GM and Chrysler.

It was hell for everyone involved at the time, of course, but we knew Ford didn't have much choice. There were hushed silences when we discussed the situation. We personally knew many of the people affected. We felt bad for them. We knew that some of the data we were supplying would affect the jobs of people we knew.

And because Ford did those painful things at the time, Ford is healthy today. People have jobs at Ford that wouldn't do today if it wasn't for the pain everyone went through a few years before the recession.

I never worked for Bain Capital. I can't say for sure whether Bain always made the right decisions. But I can say that there's nothing wrong with taking a company that has problems, and making sensible job cuts a part of fixing it if that's what's necessary to get the company working again.

And as such, I don't believe it's right to attack Romney for his Bain associations on this issue.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ron Paul

One of the people I read who generally tends to be fairly on the ball about things (Glenn Greenwald) is insisting we should take Ron Paul seriously purely because he says some good things on the subject of foreign policy. The argument goes "Sure, he says some stupid stuff too, but why aren't you saying the same thing about Obama?"

Well, with respect, I am, which is why Obama isn't going to get my vote at this election, come what may.

I understand there's no perfect candidate at any Presidential election, but the reality is Ron Paul's worldview is not good. I can't support someone simply because he agrees with me on, say, the drug war and that current US government foreign policies are bad if the overall package is bad too. Obama and I probably agree on a few things too, but overall, the man is a monster. Here are my problems with Ron Paul.
  • Economically he's a kook. He believes in the gold standard and a view of currency that's caused financial disasters everywhere it's been deployed since in the world became capitalist enough for currency to matter.
  • I'm not convinced that he is much of a libertarian at heart. Paul's always advocated State's Rights when given the opportunity to, something I have severe problems with. When you're thinking about giving rights to a government, even at the expense of another, you're doing libertarianism wrong.
  • If there's a major problem with the US at the moment that's causing havoc and likely to cause even more, it's that a small wealthy elite are wielding a disproportionate amount of power. It's hard for me to see how the "libertarian" policies Ron Paul does espouse are going to help that. I do want to see businesses regulated, I want to see playing fields leveled, and I want to have social programs that ensure the "99%" don't live in fear.
  • I really am bothered by the Newsletter fiascos. Paul's defenders have come up with a lot of "explanations" for this in efforts to distance him from the newsletters in question, but the racism went on for years and somehow Paul didn't seek to stop his name being slapped on this garbage at any time during this time. Did he really not read his own newsletter?
  • Paul advocates a different foreign policy, one that might be "better" but I believe is bad too. I don't see how complete isolation can be positive for the US, even if it would be preferable to us invading any country that some on the extreme right have a hard on over.
All of these are major problems for me. At this point, the only argument for Paul is "Well, isolation better than war war war, and economy can't possibly get worse", but I don't necessarily agree. Isolation might be as bad as war war war, and efforts to destroy our independent central bank, which is the one agency that's had the freedom and power to try to mitigate the effects of our disastrous contractionary fiscal policies over the Obama years, would unquestionably be worse, especially coupled with the dismantling of the remaining Federal agencies that work to keep money flowing into the economy.

We need a better Presidential candidate, but Ron Paul isn't it.