Category Archives: commentary

the good, the bad, and the ugly

I have had many teachers through the course of my life, and expect to have many more as time goes on. But something I have been able to identify very quickly about every teacher I’ve ever had, are their strengths and weaknesses of teaching the topic at hand.

My favorite college professor is Dale Bryant, the long-time computer science teacher at Hudson Valley Community College. Dale’s approach to teaching was fun, energetic, and engaging. And he was under the impression that if you wanted to learn, any way you could was great. If the way he discussed and presented material didn’t click with you, he didn’t mind if you went searching elsewhere for an explanation that worked for you. This happened many times with my friend John Deignan who would routinely ask me questions about programming concepts in general: object-oriented issues, library questions, the ‘how does this work’, and the ‘why do it this way instead of that way’ questions.

For John, Dale’s explanation of template classes and functions in C++ didn’t gel. But with both more time available, and an understanding of his personality, I was able to come up with a metaphor that worked for him.

I have been fortunate to have very few teachers who were bad, and even fewer who were ugly. One of my first-semester instructors at HVCC, in trying to teach us Excel and Access discovered that she didn’t know how to do the assignments in the book. And her idea of teaching was to ask questions of the class, and then practically shout the answer out if no one spoke up within about 10 seconds.

Contrast that approach with my calculus teacher who had (either on his own, or discovered) come up with little songs and ditties to help us remember how to do derivatives – including his famous quotient derivative rule song to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it”. Or my discrete structures professor who would crack jokes about having an 8AM class full of computer science folks who don’t start cogitating until lunch time.

Unfortunately, this semester I have had the experience of having another bad teacher. The first day of class sounded promising, and I was actually looking forward to his approach, but he quickly showed an inability to teach. He may know the material, and be able to perform the tasks required in database consulting and administration, but he can’t teach it. I had a leg-up on the rest of the class in having taken a couple database classes in the past, and of designing and implementing several on my own for either other classes, or personal projects. But when even the folks who have been to every class aren’t “getting it” (not just those who have missed half the classes), I have to wonder whether or not he knows what he’s doing.

The common trait across all the good teachers I’ve had has been interest in the subject. Whether it’s literature, composition, programming, terrorism, or something else, good teachers are interested in the material. The common trait I’ve seen across those few excellent teachers I’ve had has been the ability to connect with students, and not hold themselves above the student, but rather to remember what it’s like to not know yet.

The bad and ugly teachers I’ve had have shared something too, they’ve all been unable to communicate – and they’ve all forgotten what it’s like to not know. Some of them haven’t known the material, or have not cared. But they’ve all been unable to connect with their students.

I don’t know how good teachers appear. It might be by birth, upbringing, discipline, predisposition, personality, or because they had a great teacher who inspired them. Maybe it’s a combination of all of those factors. To those who are just blasé, I hope you can become better. To you who plain suck – please quit: you’re doing more harm than good.

But to those great teachers out there, thank you for your efforts – we notice.

beware the fury of a patient man

John Dryden was right.

A single, dedicated man is nearly impossible to stop. And one who waits a long time before exacting revenge is even harder – the target never knows that it’s coming.

I took an introduction to terrorism class during the spring 2000 semester at Hudson Valley Community College. The class served as a presentation of the causal factors behind terrorism, and how defenses against it are developed. As part of the class we were broken up into groups and given the task of picking a target, and then installing defenses against threats we thought to be most probable.

My group picked an embassy (using floor plans of a structure in downtown Troy NY). We decided that we could defend against anything other than kamikaze-style missions and nuclear weapons, but that it would be incredibly expensive to do so. In order to provide round-the-clock guards, we decided to station about 30 Marines at the embassy, install 30+ security cameras, maintain an extensive armory, and put metal detectors and X-ray machines at each entrance.

We had planned three routes of escape/attack for our building: the roof, the river (which was conveniently a few feet from the back door), and the front door. While we didn’t decide to station a helicopter permanently at the embassy, we were prepared for up to three to land on the roof and cart away refugees. To beef-up our external defenses, we installed 4 guard towers on the corners of the building, and put a Phalanx CIWS unit on the roof. We also armored the dock doors (which shielded our planned boat from the outside world) so an attack would not be likely to destroy one of our escape routes.

But the real issue we were most worried about was someone who didn’t bring a metallic weapon with him to the embassy, and yet was still dangerous. A rope, ceramic knife, cane, or any of a thousand other items could be easily smuggled inside the embassy, perhaps even in plain view, and there was nothing we could do about it. That dedicated individual, who may be operating under a shroud of not caring about his own life, would be practically impossible to stop – or even identify.

Even after that class, I have spent a lot of free time noting problems with physical security at various locations. The primary point I noted, due to my employer’s proximity, was the airport. I realized that taking-out the entire fuel supply for the airport would be a trivially-simple task for anyone who could shoot well at long ranges, and who acquired a few incendiary or tracer rounds. Positioning himself back a few hundred yards, and firing a handful of incendiary rounds into the large fuel tanks at the airport wouldn’t be hard – especially considering the fact that they are only typically behind chain-link fencing. And if shooting wasn’t his strong suit, he could just rent a moving truck, and slam through the fence into the tanks.

While performing my more-or-less mindless job of cleaning rental cars, I thought about how those tanks could be protected better. I designed several soft-armored ‘curtain’ arrangements made from layers of Kevlar and thin Lexan sheeting which could be suspended around the tanks from simple frames, and would provide a great deal of bullet resistance.

Stopping a kamikaze driver wouldn’t be too hard, either: just put in place some concrete or steel posts/barriers, and any civilian vehicle would be stopped from getting too close. Stopping a suicide pilot would be difficult, if not impossible, but defense has to stop somewhere.

From both my class experience and further personal reading, I am convinced we spend a lot of money on securing the wrong things. Yes, preventing some nut-job from hijacking a plane is a good thing. However, I think it would be a boon to airline security if people with legitimate carry permits were allowed to bring personal firearms onboard – in the passenger cabin, not just the baggage area.

A primary deterrent to crime is the thought that maybe the person about to be attacked will defend himself. In areas where legally carrying weapons is either inhibited or prohibited, criminals have a much easier time than where carrying weapons is allowed or encouraged.

It would seem to me that it would be a more effective use of security dollars to invest in real physical security and intelligence rather than what Bruce Schneier refers to as ‘movie-plot security’. We’ve spent money to make cockpit doors more-or-less invulnerable, but pull 84-year-old grandmothers out of line to be screened more thoroughly. Security is about identifying the most likely threats, and responding to them. It’s not about coming up with a possible attack, and defending against it alone.

When I worked on the embassy protection project, I kept trying to come up with other attacks that the proposed defenses would be able to handle. And if something we were proposing was really only useful against one highly improbable action, it was listed as discardable if it couldn’t be afforded.

We need more people coming up with real security devices, like my proposed curtains, rather than coming up with movie-plot scenarios.

government excess

According to Wikipedia, either a senator or a representative to the United States House of Representatives is paid an annual salary of $165,200. This year, the United States Senate was scheduled to be out of session for over 5 months. Even assuming they worked an above-average number of hours each week (and we’ve all seen C-SPAN, so I don’t think they can reliably say they do) – say 50 – they are only working about 1500 hours per year, not counting time spent on vacation, campaigning, giving speeches, attending rallies, and building dedications.

Being generous, it could be said they work 1500 hours per year, and are paid approximately $110 per hour. They also get preferential benefits, retirement packages, assistants, and the ability to spend other people’s money (they do control the nation’s purse, which is funded by taxes on our wages). They typically get free transport to and from home (via car and plane).

The United States has 435 representatives, and 100 senators (just for the states). So, we spend $88,382,000 on just raw salaries for those in congress annually! I find this appalling, personally. I think everyone should be entitled to whatever pay they can legitimately claim, but only when contributing to the profitability of their employer. The government’s job, though is not to be profitable, but to provide a legal system under which the citizenry can live, work, learn, and play. The government is supposed to be in the business of protecting its citizens. This means punishing crime, maintaining a military, and opposing oppressive activity. Beyond these, it should stay out of the way, and let its citizenry go about their business.

Unfortunately, governments also view themselves to be in the position of furthering their own power – even to the detriment of legitimate activity on the part if their citizens. Overall, I believe our government is among the better ones on this planet, but it still seems to go out of its way to impose more restrictions on its citizens than encouraging freedoms and liberties. In general, we have enough laws – we don’t need more, though we could probably use fewer. Our elected lawmakers, though, seem to think that if they don’t enact some form of legislation, that they’re not doing their job.

But spending tax dollars on pet projects, funding social programs, and attacking each other (and the citizens) is ridiculous. A cursory inspection of the federal budget shows a large number of programs and projects which could be better-run, -executed, and -managed by private industry. The same is true of state budgets. Beyond providing for basic services like police, military, roads, courts, and setting basic rules for those activities, I think the US federal government, and the state governments to large extent, waste fantastic amount of taxpayer money.

Several months ago, I wrote an article outlining a way of replacing our current, progressive tax system with a flat tax. What I left out of that article was a more focused reduction in spending. Especially the federal government, but states are guilty, too, funds projects that have no business belonging to the government. I’m all for funding research, the military, courts, police, and basic services like keeping roadways in good shape. But I think we spend far to much on other things that should be handled by private organizations – either mostly or entirely.

I think that most of the medicare and medicaid system should be turned over to private insurance companies, with an accompanying reduction in medical lawsuit fines and awards through capping and deauthorizing medical professionals from practicing medicine with too many formally-filed complaints and censures.

I think that airline passenger screening – the job that was federalized following September 11, should be returned to private contractors who report to the airlines, not the government. The airlines have a large vested interest in their passengers not being crazy, and paying for screeners, already being (I think exorbitantly) funded out of ticket costs ($5 per flight), should be passed-on to passengers directly from the airlines. I find it hard to believe that each of my flights really costs $5 to screen me – it only takes three tickets to pay one screener for an hour. Factor in some overhead for equipment, and I think we’re being overcharged.

My previous thoughts about social security, as outlined in my article on the flat tax, still stand. I think we’re paying into a system that can not provide for its users in a sustainable fashion. We should be able to leave social security and invest our own money for ourselves – or not. America was built on strong individualism, and if someone won’t provide for themselves, I think they shouldn’t be mollycoddled by the government. Those who can’t provide for themselves should be taken care of by their families when possible, charitable organizations, and only by the government as a last resort.

Before I am accused of being a military fanboy, I do want to say that I think the military has excesses, too. I believe soldiers are underpaid for their service, but that the military encourages a wasteful approach to using supplies. Training is very important, as is proficiency in a soldier’s occupational specialty. But the famous $20,000 coffee pot on the C-5A Galaxy is nuts. Put a Mr Coffee in there for $30 from Walmart. Some things have to cost a lot of money, like airplanes and tanks, but firearms don’t necessarily have to. In the quantities the US military purchases rifles, an M16 should be a couple hundred bucks at most. They could even switch to using something like the ubiquitous AK-47 which can be manufactured for less than $200.

Closing the loop, I think elected officials who are only scheduled to work 7 months out of the year need to start thinking about how much benefit they can bring to those who elected them. Not by building some bridge, or monument, or rail yard in their district, but by encouraging those who voted for them to help themselves. If they’re going to continue to be paid $165,200 per year, they can afford to buy their own plane tickets – they don’t need taxpayers to subsidize government VIP transports. Senators, representatives, judges, etc are civil servants – not masters. They’re supposed to be serving us, and I’d like to see them start doing it.

a day without immigrants?

Yesterday was the self-proclaimed ‘Day Without Immigrants’ – in which many immigrants, especially of the hispanic and latin persuasion, marched to show support for immigration reform.

I have met many immigrants, all of whom have come to this country legally, and they are all working hard to make a living for themselves, and to get ahead in the world. I wonder, though, how many of those who marched yesterday (many with police escorts!) were legally in this country? I hope it was most or all of them. If not, the INS lost a fantastic opportunity to arrest and extradite those who are here illegally.

But the real issue is not immigration reform: it’s enforcing laws we already have. We already have laws to handle becoming a citizen – and I know several people personally who have been naturalized to the United States. It was a fairly simple process, too, at least from what they’ve told me. They applied for green cards, work visas, resident visas, and whatever else they had to to complete the process of relinquishing their previous allegiances, and declaring themselves, before witnesses and with an oath, to be citizens of the United States of America.

America is a nation of immigrants – some of us have ancestors going back to the Mayflower, while others took the oath last Wednesday. But we’re all here – as Americans. Whatever the reason people have for leaving their former country in favor of the United States, I’m happy they’re here. As long as they follow our laws, and come here via legitimate channels, our country will continue to grow and prosper.

But those folks to sneak in and work for slave wages under fear of being extradited, I want them gone. Ship them home – they’re breaking our laws, and are criminals here. People who hire them, knowing they are here illegally, for whatever reason, should be punished: they’re criminals, too.

It’s really not that hard to become a US citizen, or to get permission to be here legally. I just want everyone who wants to be here to follow those rules.

God bless the racists

At least they’re honest. They don’t care if they offend anyone. Political correctness has no place in their minds – beyond ridicule. They’re not African-American or black, they’re niggers. They’re not Caucasian or white, they’re crackers. Racists will talk about slant-eyes, towel-heads, white trash, blackanese, honkies, red necks, wops, guineas, polacks, red men, 8 balls, Africoons, porch monkeys, gator bait, spics, beefshacks, bird turds, blanketass, branch managers, brews, frogs, bubbas, camel jockeys, etc.

And I barely touched on terms from countries other than the US – and missed a lot of terms used in the US.

I would be inclined to think, based on what is shown in the main-stream media, that most of America is racist. Hopefully that just comes from the fact that most ‘news-worthy’ discussions and events are all bad.

I despise politically-correct terminology because it is a softening and beguiling of language. I despise using hyphenated American terms when discussing people. If you’re a citizen of the United States, you’re an American. You may be black, white, yellow, red, brown, chartreuse, or purple, but you’re an American. You may have Italian, Polish, Chinese, Kenyan, Egyptian, Scots, Brazilian, or Cherokee ancestors, but you’re an American. In America, you might even have all of the above.

The United States claims to be a ‘melting pot’ of other cultures, races, beliefs, and ideals that have stewed about and congealed into the culture we have today. But in today’s politically- and media-driven environment, we’re actually encouraged to maintain racist, elitist views of anyone who isn’t exactly like us. By using terms like ‘African-American’ or ‘Italian-American’, we are encouraged to keep thinking about someone’s ancestry (and maybe something bad that happened in their ancestry’s past) instead of their current status.

I do not consider myself racist. I have friends who are black, white, hispanic, italian, and asian. But I do not refer to my black friends as African-American because they’re not. They didn’t immigrate. Their parents didn’t immigrate. Their families have been in this country for a long time, and no longer have the right to call themselves ‘African’. I do not have a problem with first-generation citizens (ie naturalized, or the children of law-abiding, greencard-carrying immigrants) hyphenating their ethnicity – they can still legitimately claim that other culture. But by the time they’re having kids, those American citizens have no business continuing to refer to their family’s former national/ethnic ties when referring to themselves as [identity]-Americans.

Go ahead and celebrate your family’s heritage – I’m all for it. But continuing to call yourself a hyphenated American will only encourage people to not accept you as an American.

What we need in America is not ‘racial understanding’. We are a nation of immigrants – with very few exceptions, we all came here from other countries. Some of us have families who can trace their American-ness to the Mayflower, while others were naturalized last week. Some of America was brought here under force and against their will, but when given the option to leave, chose to stay. We don’t need understanding, we need to stop calling ourselves anything other than what we are.

We are Americans, plain and simple.

here and now – monopoly updated

From CNN: “Monopoly rolls dice, changes look. The legendary game, out since 1935, will have a new, contemporary version this fall.” [original story | related site]

Apparently, Hasbro has gotten tired of all the special editions, the collector’s sets, agreements with Franklin Mint, and just making a bundle of money on a popular, fun, and addicting game. The costs of property, taxes, fines, and rents in the game happen to be very delicately balanced. Knock-off ‘opoly’ games (and there are at least dozens), all use different prices around the board, different placements of hazards, and different ‘boardly’ incomes so they don’t infringe too heavily upon the original. But all those knock-off games have capital balance issues that don’t tend to manifest themselves in the original.

For over 70 years, Monopoly has been a stand-by in game collections, family rooms, dorms, and even some business lounges. It’s fun because it works. With a fortuitous roll of the dice, the first person in the game can be half-way (or more) around the board with 3 properties before the next guy has a chance to roll. Or they could have landed on Chance and been sent straight to jail to start the game.

Property values, salaries, fines, and bank errors are all tightly arranged to make sure the game starts off balanced. And you’re better off owning the dark purple, orange, and red streets (with the railroads and a couple other random properties) than almost any other combination of streets (beyond the obvious end-game scenario of ‘Monopoly’ :)).

Statistical analysis done by computer models has shown that the Chance deck’s ‘Go back 3 spaces’ (anecdotal evidence joins this chorus) is most likely to be incurred at the chance square right after Free Parking. (Don’t know why, but with thousands of runs, it keeps popping out there.) In combination with 3 (or more) houses on New York Avenue, the owner of the orange street can bankrupt his opponents very fast.

Ok, so maybe Atlantic City’s streets don’t resonate with people the way they once did – but they do because of the game. Hasbro has already churned-out National Parks, Spongebob Squarepants, Coke, NASCAR, Looney Tunes, Simpsons, Millenium, Football, and myriad other special editions. I don’t see why they need to update the game to ‘Here and Now’. The formula that has worked for 70 years doesn’t need fixing.

Will I buy a copy of the new edition? Yeah. I like Monopoly, and know several collectors. Will it take over for the original in my gameplay? I seriously doubt it. I don’t like people messing with things that work – and especially not with things that work really well.

standing room only?

From CNN: “Airbus offers standing room ‘seats’ Report: Airbus in discussion with Asian airlines to offer padded backboards to have flyers stand, increasing capacity of largest jet to 853 passengers.” [original story]

Here’s an interesting idea from our European friends: take a plane that will hold 500+ people seated, and install them all in a standing orientation instead. This would increase capacity to about 850 passengers. Fantastic. The only problem? Such standing arrangements could only be done on “short-haul flights like an island-hopping route in Japan”. The Airbus A380 is a super jumbo jet designed for carrying lots of stuff a long ways – not for short-haul routes.

Like Boeing’s 747 series, Airbus plans to use its newest jet to handle large passenger and cargo loads on inter-continental routes. You don’t see many 747s flying from Atlanta to Tallahassee – it’s overkill, and inefficient. Large planes take a lot more energy (ie fuel) to get into the air than small planes, so using them on short-haul routes is not efficient. An airline would be better-off flying a pair of 757s than one 747 generally for short distances (besides the fact that using more smaller planes allows greater schedule flexibility).

On those London-Tokyo routes, sure using a big plane makes sense – they have the range, and can carry a lot. But I wouldn’t want to have to ‘stand’ for 14 hours.

I think Airbus is grasping at straws in trying to find uses for the new jet.