Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Time to Call the Bluff

(written early last month on Facebook, pasting here for posterity.)

The government's fiscal problems is actually pretty simple math. It spends a certain amount, and takes in via taxes a certain amount. If tax revenue is less than spending, there are only three solutions:

One, raise taxes. In reality, this is not impossible. A family that makes $100,000 can pay an additional $1,000 in taxes. This is about the size of a cable TV bill, and is not a tremendous sacrifice if you believe in the programs you are funding. (A very big if.)

Two, borrow. This of course adds to the deficit, which the future generation not only has to pay back, it has to pay back with interest. Unless you're investing in something that will increase future revenue greatly, borrowing is not usually a good idea. Note, however, that interest rates are really low right now, so it's relatively easy to make good on the investments.

Three: cut spending. You can't talk about cutting spending without first looking at where the money has been going. About three-fourths of the federal budget goes to Social Security, Defense, Unemployment, Medicare, and Medicaid, and even if you cut the rest of the government (which includes everything from NASA to meat inspectors to veteran affairs, by the way), the government will still be in deficit. Thus, it is factually impossible and therefore irresponsible to talk about spending cuts without touching the top five.

Now, the reasonable thing to do might be to do a bit of all three, so that you don't borrow so much, raise taxes by too much, or have to cut spending (and therefore services) too much. To refuse one of the three solutions means you have to rely more on the other two, this is just simple math.

Unfortunately, Republicans in the House will refuse to raise taxes or borrow more, which leaves heavy cuts in spending as the only option on the table. On the other hand, I don't think they dare to cut any of those popular programs, particularly the ones that benefit the older voters who support them.

President Obama should propose a balanced budget that includes severe cuts in all five areas. We are engaged in a war and a half, not to mention a financial crisis that hasn't really ended yet. It's time for some pain. Democrats need to face up to the fact that they cannot fund all these programs without the Republican votes that they can't get, and cut as intelligently as possible. There isn't another option*, until voters allow the government to choose at least one of the other two. It is futile for Democrats to try to make ends meet with both hands tied behind their backs, thanklessly trying to save people from themselves, so the lesser of two evils is to cut them while you have the White House and Senate.

Or, perhaps, the Republicans are just bluffing. If they don't like Obama's balanced budget, they can propose an alternate balanced budget.

* No, tax cuts will probably not increase revenue. There's not even any guarantee that the tax savings will be spent by its beneficiaries in the US (or even spent at all), much less result in future revenue. Remember, lowering the tax rate means the corporations need to do fabulously well for the government to collect the same taxes back.

A Hierarchy of Sins

Pope Benedict XVI recently stated that while prostitution is immoral, there is something of a first step to respecting life if a prostitute who is HIV-positive uses a condom to avoid infecting another person. The Catholic Church quickly issued a clarification that this does not mean condoms are okay for contraception.

The important thing is actually not condoms here, but the understanding that not all sins are equal. Prostitution is seen as a sin, sure, but when compared to knowingly infecting somebody else with a fatal disease, the Pope made a moral decision. This is, believe it or not, somewhat extraordinary for this painfully rigid institution. Usually they just make a list of things that are immoral, and never bother themselves with the implementation details. The Church typically would've just said "don't be a prostitute" without wondering how one who had to enter that profession might stop being one. Instead, what the Pope said was essentially, "if you must be a prostitute, at least wear a condom."

This has remarkable parallels in other issues. For example, the Church considers abortion and contraception (in general) to be immoral. That's a fine stance in abstract, but the result is unwanted children, poverty, even crime. If a teenaged girl becomes pregnant, having the baby will usually change her life in a pretty devastating way, which is why people are tempted to abort.

While a sensible approach might be to preach abstinence, but teach the sinful option of contraception in order to avoid the even more sinful option of abortion, the Church is anything but sensible. It fears any sin so much that it immobilizes itself into impracticality. As such, the Church is part of the problem instead of the solution. Imagine if the police prevented you from saving a drowning child, because the pool is closed and you'd be trespassing.

Now, I don't know if this reflects a new understanding of the world, but one can hope. The Philippines is one country that would benefit greatly if the Church applied this principle.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Finally read all of iWoz, the autobiography of Steve Wozniak, designer of the Apple ][ personal computer. Many of the anecdotes in his life were already familiar to me, but what stood out for me was how several of his proudest hacks were completed under extreme time pressure. It seems like the human brain has something akin to adrenaline that lets us think quickly and clearly when pressured, and I think all experienced engineers would've called upon this well at one point or another.

I do envy those who were in the Valley during those heady days, though. While there are still wildly innovative things to be done in this industry (I think the era of intensely-personal computers like the iPhone is just beginning), it's nearly impossible for a couple of friends to pull it off from nothing. Just a few years after 2000, the main goal of many start-ups already shifted from striking it rich by invention to getting bought out by a Yahoo! or Google. The iPhone App Store briefly brought back the excitement that a one-person outfit could hit it big, but bigger companies are no longer as lumbering as those of Woz's day.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bye, Floppies

Sony is apparently one of a few remaining manufacturers of the 3.5" floppy disk, and they'll stop production next year. Floppies were an important file transfer mechanism when I was in college, and I remember my copy of Windows 95 was in floppies. CD-ROMs overtook the floppy as a delivery mechanism in the late 90's, so it was relegated to transferring small files from computer to computer. The PowerMac G4 that we bought in 2002 or so no longer had a floppy drive, as networking took that final use case. I think USB flash drives served that purpose for some, but I don't even have one of those in the house.

Of course, no discussion of the 3.5" floppy would be complete without mentioning AOL, which shipped out tons of those before they switched to CD-ROMs.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Challenging the iPhone, Part II

A little over a year ago, I predicted that 2010 would be an interesting one for iPhone competitors. The year's not over yet, but let's revisit anyway.

Google's first strike, the G1, doesn't seem to be talked about much anymore. These days it seems to be all about the Nexus One or the HTC Incredible. Aside from hardware fragmentation I predicted, we're seeing some signs that manufacturers are not really interested in updating already-sold phones to the latest Android releases, and Google is releasing them rapidly. According to a GSM Arena article, there are only about 18% of users running version 2.0+, while 54% are running 1.6 and and another 28% are running 1.5. This is a big headache for developers, and the open nature of Android hurts Google here. Worse, brand new phones are still being sold with version 1.5 on it, which can disappoint less tech-savvy customers.

Palm was, simply put, squished between Apple and Google, and may not last the year. There are still good people working there, and I imagine they'll be lapped up by Google. What happens to Palm's patent portfolio as a mobile device pioneer will be interesting, but I don't think we'll see an angel investor pump more money to let Palm keep pushing. I think either they'll be purchased and repurposed, or have to close down. I think WebOS is dead.

I identified the iPhone App Store as a strength, and it continues to be, with I think some 180,000+ apps. In fact, it's beginning to be the opposite problem of separating the wheat from the chaff. What is debunked beyond any doubt is that Objective-C would be a significant obstacle. iPhones continue to sell very well, and whether the iPad will spread developers thin or attract even more developers remains to be seen.

Microsoft has announced that it will ship Windows Phone 7 later this year, supposedly a rewrite to support multi-touch and other features now expected of smartphones. But in a typically-Microsoft fashion, they first will ship a couple of Danger phones called the KIN, which I'm guessing will not be compatible with Windows Phone 7. It's hard to know what they're thinking, but I'll predict that the KIN will be a footnote.

Blackberries continue to sell well, which is one area where I seem to be quite mistaken. I had predicted that they'll be forced into a massive software rewrite, but they have resisted that so far. However, some surveys show that over 70% of Blackberry users want an iPhone or Android phone next, which should make RIM very nervous.

Nokia seems to have done well recently, but frankly I don't even know what their marquee phone is. I think I'll remain skeptical until they just hop on Android and concentrate instead on hardware.

I think what we'll see for the rest of the year is Apple maintaining a good lead as Google consolidates the "others" in the pie chart to close the gap. I'm going to predict that RIM will not have a happy 2011, and we'll see what Windows Phone 7 will bring.

[Palm has indeed found an angel, and lives to fight another day! HP has announced that it will purchase Palm for US$1.2 billion and continue work on WebOS. This is excellent news, and I'm quite happy for them!]

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Praise for the iPad

"Has any other company ever demonstrated a restlessness to stray from the safe and proven, and actually invent things?"

- Andy Ihnatko, Chicago Sun-Times

"One melancholy thought occurs as my fingers glide and flow over the surface of this astonishing object: Douglas Adams is not alive to see the closest thing to his Hitchhiker's Guide that humankind has yet devised."

- Stephen Fry, Time Magazine

"At the very least, the iPad will likely drum up mass-market interest in tablet computing in ways that longtime tablet visionary and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates could only dream of."

- Edward C. Baig, USA Today

"I found the iPad a pleasure to use, and had less and less interest in cracking open my heavier ThinkPad or MacBook."

- Walt Mossberg, Wall Street Journal

"a greater leap into a new user experience than the sum of its parts suggests."

- Xeni Jardin,

"the Apple iPad is a very convincing debut. And it will undoubtedly be a driving force in shaping the emerging tablet landscape."

- Tim Gideon, PC Magazine

"The bottom line is that the iPad has been designed and built by a bunch of perfectionists. If you like the concept, you’ll love the machine."

- David Pogue, The New York Times

"What can the iPad do? In a word, it can simplify computing."

- Noah Kravitz, The Huffington Post

"prior to our iPad's arrival she said she didn't understand why anyone would want or need an iPad. Now she just keeps saying, 'No, you can't have it back.'"

- Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus, Houston Chronicle

"After playing with the sleek tablet for much of the last week, I have no doubt that the techies were wrong and Steve Jobs was right."

- Omar Wasow, the Root

"the experience was stunning. It’s a nearly flawless device. And the iPad beats even my most optimistic expectations."

- Michael Arrington, TechCrunch

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two Possibilities

I have to come to one of two conclusions about Republicans, based on their incredibly solid opposition to every major policy initiative from the Democrats in the recent years, but particularly after Obama took office.

The first one is they are unpatriotic. This conclusion supposes that at least some Republicans actually agree with the Democrats enough to vote for those bills, but do not because they are more willing to see Obama fail, even if it means the country fails along with him. Or, they are more afraid of their party leadership than they want to see the country move in the right direction. It is otherwise impossible for 41 Republican senators to always vote "no" on important issues, when even they would admit the status quo is unbearable. If they were patriotic and reasonable, surely they would rather accept an imperfect bill to inaction. Although I cite this as the first conclusion, I don't actually believe it to be true.

The second one is that they are without exception politically quite a bit to the Right of the country as a whole. In the Senate, which is already a body that gives disproportionate weight to the more conservative inner states, 59 Senators can still be found to support the Health Care Reform Bill. This number is conclusive proof that the political center of the country must be somewhere among those 59, and not among the 41 Republicans. (Put another way, Republicans represent only the most conservative 20 states, which have relatively small populations.) One would've expected that the most right-wing Democrat would be somewhat to the right of the most left-wing Republican, if both parties are to have some claim to the political center.

It is the second conclusion that seems more plausible. The Republicans do not only lean Right, they have left the center entirely. When Senator Reid watered down the HCR bill to pacify the right wing of his party, the resulting bill satisfied no Republican enough to defect. So if we are to reject the conclusion above that Republican Senators are all unpatriotic, then they must sincerely believe that Reid's concessions are not enough. If they do, however, then all 41 of them are to the right of Senator Nelson, who is pro-life, endorsed by the NRA, supported Justice Alito's nomination, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, and voted with Republicans on bankruptcy reform, environmental protection, stem cell research, and so on.

If so, it means that the two major parties are politically disjoint, which is a dangerous situation. It is increasingly hard for Obama to believe that any Republican will sincerely work with him, rather than set a trap to embarrass him. If none of them can be brought over either because they are unpatriotic or because they are ideologically too far away, the country is going to suffer.