Saturday, February 17, 2018

Free money for all — Not!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, socialism, welfare

It was reported in passing in a National Geographic article that people in some Third World country were being paid an ordinary daily wage for working to clear the way for a road. The work was being funded privately, and the on-site managers decided to "do their bit" to improve the lot of the local people. They raised their daily pay by 35%. Four days later hardly anyone showed up to work. It took a lot of questioning to find out the reason: The workers had been very pleased and surprised to get about another third of a day's pay every day. At the end of three days, they had the money they used to earn in four days. Their daily needs had not changed, so they took the day off! The few who had showed up to work were mostly the local drunks who had used their extra cash to go an a roaring bender and needed the ready money.

This story came to mind the minute I saw the title of Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. In a book of 247 pages plus an enormous number of notes (another 74 pages), they seek to convince a primarily American audience of the necessity for, efficacy of, and liberty to result from implementation of an unconditional national income, to be distributed by dividing around one quarter of a country's GDP amongst all the citizens and legal residents of this country. It would be paid for by eliminating nearly all social welfare programs, which it would replace.

Here's the nuts and bolts for Americans. U.S. GDP per capita in 2016 was about $52,200, so a quarter of that is $13,050 or a little under $1,100 monthly, to be paid to everyone from babies to billionaires. The total U.S. GDP was $18.7 Trillion that year. Non-"entitlement" social programs cost about $1 Trillion (both Federal and state spending); Social Security was slightly less, nearly $900 Billion; and Medicare spending is pushing $750 Billion. These total more than $2.6 Trillion, or 14% of GDP. On the face of it, if all three segments of the U.S. "social safety net" were replaced by a basic income program, the total cost would be $4.6 Trillion, and we'd need an increase in taxes sufficient to generate another 9% of the GDP.

The math gets a little trickier at this point, because the basic income would not be taxed. If that is all you received, you would pay no income taxes. But all earned income anyone received would need to be taxed at about 12% above whatever is needed to fund other programs such as the military, infrastructure projects, the running of government itself, and so forth. Some savings would be realized because of one huge fact: There would be no means test. That is, everyone would get a check for about $1,100 monthly, from the homeless woman sleeping under the bridge to Warren Buffet, tax free. Then, whoever earned "their own money" above that would pay taxes on it. Perhaps some progressive taxation method would be used, but to be clear, some kind of tax would be needed to gather the required $4.7 Trillion. But—here is the savings item—there would be no need to employ some large number of people to check if people are working, or are looking for work, and to run all the other intrusive mechanisms needed to run programs such as Unemployment Insurance or AFDC. I wonder how many officers they'll need to employ to make sure people don't keep getting checks after they die! The authors hardly mention the impact of fraud, nor how to make a person's basic income unstealable.

The authors do their best to tout the added freedom experienced by someone who has a guaranteed, if modest, stipend. Someone working a dead-end job could afford to find more congenial work, even if it pays less. Many other examples are described. But here is the question to ask yourself: Would you keep working if you could afford to "live the leisure life"? How many would prefer to spend their days fishing, surfing, hunting, beach combing, painting, sculpting, composing, and other pastimes that many wage earners dream of doing full time if they could? Would enough people desire to work, at jobs sufficiently well compensated, to support all the "preferentially unemployed"?

Were such a program initiated tomorrow, I suspect that people now in the early-to-middle years of a career, who are used to working and who have developed a kind of identification with their work, would tend to keep working because that is what they know how to do. What would their children do? The story in the first paragraph is my guess. It is not without reason that one passage in the Bible exhorts, "If anyone is unwilling to work, let him not eat." We are not as "good" as we'd like to think we are.

I don't remember the author, nor an exact quote, but I recall reading that once a large segment of the population figures out how to extract largesse from the public purse, the downfall of the republic is unavoidable. In the U.S.A., that point was probably reached during the Johnson administration with the "War on Poverty", and for 50 years the downhill slide has continued almost unabated. The authors of Basic Income have a European viewpoint, and are accustomed to a lot more Socialism than U.S. citizens in general. I think we ought to just sit back and wait for some country or group of nations actually implements a basic income program, then give it a generation and see in what form the collapse comes…but be sure, collapse is certain.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Getting well plus cabin fever equals fixing a chair

kw: photo essays, home maintenance, repairs, diy

I was sick with a bad cough and recurring fever for about a week, the longest bout of "cold" I can remember. I needed lots of "horizontal time" in bed. A visit to the doctor three days ago brought the cheery news that I had a sinus infection and middle ear infection tagging along, which bought me antibiotics and steroids. Oh Joy! By yesterday morning I had too much energy to sleep all day, but I was still coughing too much for public consumption, so I took apart a wobbly dining room chair and re-glued it. Just for fun, here is the process.

Disclaimer: I am no pro, as you'll easily see. But I've done this enough over the years to be able to get it done in a couple of hours (of my work time, not total time) instead of several days. The glue I use is Titebond II Premium Wood Glue. All these photos are either 800 or 1024 pixels in the long dimension. Click on a photo to see it that size. (There are two pairs that I montaged.)

1) The seat (bottom right, upside down) attaches with 4 screws. The corners of the main frame have 8 more screws holding 4 corner braces. I started by removing all those.

2) Then I used the tip of a chisel to pry open joints that were loose, starting at the front of the chair.

All the pegs holding the joints were firmly glued at one end and loose at the other, except for the two holding the lower brace (the "H" shape at upper right), which was solidly together. At top left are the two front legs; below them the sides and front of the seat support frame. The three bits scattered inside the "H" are corner braces. One corner brace was very firmly attached on one side and I left it alone.

3) This closeup shows that the first gluing needs to be done to close cracks in the structural members. I started by applying some force to open the cracks a little more and then taking a finger-ful of glue and rubbing it into each crack. Then it is ready to clamp and wipe clean.
This shows a joint in the clamp, with glue being squeezed out, ready to wipe up. If the clamp must press onto a crack that will leak glue, I pre-squeeze it by hand and wipe what I can, and use wax paper between the piece and the clamp. The next two photos show various clamps and a vise holding these pieces while they dry. It takes about an hour. With the metal C-clamp I use pine wood blocks to protect the work piece.

4) Once all three seat frame were solid, I assembled the two side supports to the chair back, and also added the "H" strut. This entailed putting glue on all the pieces for one side at a time. In the case of the glue for the corner braces, I was careful not to get glue in the screw holes, so in the future the screws can be removed. After spreading the glue, I tightened the screws and those were set. I looked along them from the side to be sure they were lined up.

For the "H" brace, I just spread glue on the mating surfaces and the pins and pressed them into place, also sighting to get it square.
5) I assembled the front next, the front legs and the front seat support. There was a little wrinkle in getting the legs on, which I'll get into in a moment. But first, I was clamping them with a furniture clamp when one of the legs twisted and cracks opened in its top. So I put glue in the cracks and used the vise to hold that while all the joints dried. I made sure the legs were parallel. Note the blocks of wood in the vise, holding the leg being clamped. Pine blocks are softer than oak so they won't bruise the wood or mar the finish (though that is pretty beat up already from decades of use).
6) Once the front assembly was set, I put glue on all remaining joints and pressed it into place. Then I put the chair on the floor and used a furniture clamp to clamp the seat support, and a rope, looped four times, to clamp at the bottom to hold the "H" brace and provide added support while everything dried. I used a section of floor that I already know is flat so I could press down the chair every-which-way so it would not rock when it was finished.

7) Now to the wrinkle I mentioned. In one end of the front assembly there was glue at the bottom of the holes the pegs go into, that held them back from seating fully. Yeah, I know they came out of there, but wood can subtly shift, and in the two pictures below the one on the left shows a gap that I could not close. Trying to close it caused the cracks in the leg I mentioned in step 5.

I made thin shims by splitting veneer from scraps of paneling and glued them into place all around to fill the gaps and strengthen the joint.

8) Finally, I glued the corner braces and screwed them into place. And now, voila! The finished chair, ready for the seat to be screwed on.

Another week of Russian spider activity

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Just for the record: somebody/ies in Russia has kicked up blog scanning for about a week now.

Friday, February 09, 2018

I guess it is boring in Russia just now

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

The net spiders sourced in Russia have been quite for about a year. Over the past day or so, they've ramped up again. During the calm, this blog had few readers, 40 or so daily. Now I see that just in the 7:00 am hour today (7:00 pm in Novisibirsk), there were 90 hits. It's too bad this doesn't indicate actual popularity.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Some random members of family Orthalicidae

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

I have been in the midst of inventory of terrestrial snails of a large family that is popular with shell collectors, the Orthalicidae. The family is named for the genus Orthalicus, but the family contains numerous species in many genera. In recent years taxonomy professionals have split certain genera out into new families. But we tend to call all these species "Orthalicids". Today I just present a few that I ran across recently, showing some of the breadth of attractive shell forms in these families. Each image is followed by a caption.
These are two species in the genus Placostylus, P. scarabus (Albers, 1854) and P. seemani (Dohrn, 1861). They are found on the islands of the south Pacific: the former in New Caledonia and the latter in Fiji. These island nations are about 850 miles apart (~1,350 km), so there is little natural opportunity for these species to encounter one another. The Fijian shells are visibly narrower than the Caledonian.
These are two more species of Placostylus, P. strangei (Pfeiffer, 1858) and P. stutchburyi (Pfeiffer, 1860). Both are found on the Solomon Islands. The third row consists of five lots of shells that have been identified as Placostylus, but no species is yet assigned. I am particularly intrigued by the one shell with aperture showing, that is bright orange inside.

This closeup shows one lot of P. scarabus. I purposely turned one shell to show the aperture, which shows a pale orange inside, less prominent than the one in the former picture. This also shows the variety of coloration to be seen in a single species, from quite mottled and brownish to smoothly creamy.

I turned two of these shells, of the more distantly related species Auris melastoma (Swainson, 1820), to show the nearly black interior. "Melastoma" means "black mouth". These inhabit Brazil.

Finally, this is a closeup into the plastic box containing one lot of Berendtia taylori (Pfeiffer, 1861). These are from a little closer to home, for us Americans at least: on the Baja peninsula of Mexico. I wanted a closeup of these, to show the fine ridges that cover the shells. You can also see a relic of museum practice in three of the shells: Munroe Walton had written his own number inside the apertures, and these have been crossed out and the DMNH catalog number written there.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Yeah, somebody is looking - should you care?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, privacy, surveys

At a very early age we learn that the things people like and dislike differ. We learn that what some approve, others disapprove. When we find that what we like—any object, food, behavior, hobby, or whatever—is disliked or disapproved by someone who is powerful, or by large numbers of others we must spend time with, we begin to keep secrets. I remember, in second grade, excitedly telling a classmate of something I saw while watching The Mickey Mouse Club on TV. He said, scornfully, "That's for two-year-olds!" After that I never disclosed that I continued to watch the show.

I didn't have that episode in mind when I began to read Privacy: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Leslie P. Francis and John G. Francis (Nowhere in the book could I find why the subtitle is trademarked). I was simply interested in the subject, one so very popular today. Once I dug in, I found the ride rather difficult. Why?

The authors write well, but the subject is difficult. It is also so broad and all-pervasive that no treatise containing a mere 100,000 words can do more than touch on its many facets. Thus the book is composed of a few paragraphs each about some 130 topics, grouped into 10 chapters. It is actually a pretty good ontology of the subject to two levels. But it is a resource or reference, and don't think it is intended to be read through. So I treated it as such, reading the opening section of each chapter, and then dipping into topics that most interested me. My interests are rather broad, so I still read through a lot of the book, but this is my disclaimer that I did not read every word.

The older I become, the more I realize how exceedingly diverse the human race is. I suspect that for  every choice I make, were I to broadcast it on FaceBook and invite comment, someone would object or blame or scold me for it. In America, at least (and how often do I consider whether it is really OK to write "America" to mean the United States of America, rather than using "The U.S" or some other locution and thus avoid slighting the other 20 or 21 nations that constitute The Americas?), the climate of Political Correctness that has been a-building for some 50 years makes us all paranoid about "offending" a nation full of hair-triggered people.

A side note here, folks: Political Correctness has become a pervasive form of Censorship, and all the idiots out there who moan or scream, "Oh, I am so offended!" a few dozen times a day really need to find a more productive hobby, and grow a useful thickness of skin. So there.

OK, I'm back. Given the current cultural climate, a strong dose of paranoia is entirely justified. You can get shot at for honking your horn at the wrong time. Nobody accepts an apology if they think they can wring out an abject apology or even get you fired. American culture as it now stands constitutes an assault on the privacy of our own thoughts.

The subject of the novel 1984 was pervasive surveillance by the State. These days, that is just the beginning of our worries. My computer-jock colleagues and I used to joke that, if a company like Seagate were to develop a hard disk with infinite capacity, the government would order two of them. To me and my colleagues in the 1980's, a disk drive holding a few hundred Mbytes was a big (and costly) device. Now for $50 I can get a pocket-size Tbyte or two (and I have an "old" 2-Tbyte drive; it is as big as the book I just read). The big data center the NSA keeps in the Utah desert has a capacity of millions of Tbytes (the unit is called an Exabyte, or Xbyte). But it is not just the government. Data-hungry commercial enterprises store similar quantities of data…about us. About you and me, their customers (or critics, or whatever we are to them). George Orwell might be astonished, or he might say, "Why didn't I think of that?" And just you wait: Moore's Law for storage devices isn't slowing down yet, so a pocket Xbyte for $50 or so is probably just a few years away. And with network speeds pushing Gbyte/sec speeds and beyond, plus cameras everywhere, just everywhere, we live in a social surveillance environment. The primary difference between you and me, and the big actors—governments and large corporations—is that they can afford to employ programmers to write software to actually sort, scan, and analyze these massive data stores and create useful intelligence.

Is privacy dead? The authors, the Francises, don't think so. But many aspects of privacy are indeed dead. They are about to get deader. Some things are still humorous. If I neglect to go into InPrivate mode when I search for products and product reviews, or when I buy what I've researched, I'll see ads for such products appearing in all kinds of places for the following several months, in spite of the fact that I already bought it. But I fully expect the day to come that Google and FaceBook and everybody will know I bought it, and the ads will instead target follow-ons. If I begin using cooking or recipe web sites a lot, will the sudden up-tick trigger ads for cookware and blenders and spatulas and toaster ovens? Maybe. And after a couple more years, "they" will likely know I am thinking about upgrading my kitchen range before I even begin my research.

What is there, in your life, that you most keenly desire to be known to nobody, but nobody, except perhaps your partner? What if your pattern of purchases—even if you never, ever buy anything online—reveals your deepest secret to "somebody" whom you'd rather didn't know it? Or, if not purchases, just the streets you drive down or walk along, tracked by the phone in your pocket? What if the traces of DNA you leave on the paper from the table in the doctor's exam room lead to a pre-diagnosis of an embarrassing or dangerous condition you didn't know you were prone to having? … but that information somehow made it to your insurance company before you even knew it? Will technology eventually make it an almost all-revealing act to simply walk through a certain doorway while breathing? Yet you have no idea which doorway it might be? The current trend in DNA sequencing can be projected to the point where doing a total genome sequence will cost a dollar. Then what? Do you really want to know you might not have the same Y chromosome as your "father"? Or your…son?

The last chapter, the final 10 vignettes of the book, consider privacy and democracy. How much secrecy is required for a democracy to function? Conversely, how much transparency is also required? (Would it change your vote to learn that a certain political candidate has a large collection of antique torture devices? or reads 2-3 romance novels every single week (or writes one every 2 months)? or never buys meat, preferring to shoot it personally? or has raw eggs for breakfast every day? or is a total Vegan? Come up with your own list.) We have had a society that functioned, oh, reasonably well, having a certain mix of privacy and transparency. That mix is being forcibly shifted. Like it or not, more transparency is in our future. And the PC culture is accompanied by a trend that asks, "If you are so hell-bent on privacy, what're you trying to hide?"

I, for one, am glad that I have reached curmudgeonhood and will not likely live long enough to see, for example, the $1 genome sequence. There is a point beyond which we can no longer adapt. I am an introvert, with no more than the average amount of paranoia (so I tell myself - 😁!). I'd hate to be pushed until I "go postal" just because of societal nosiness. It is not entirely out of the question, folks. How about you?

So hey, that was a bunch of good riffs from a book that does no more than discuss a hundred-odd questions we will find ourselves asking more and more in the years ahead. Read it only if you can withstand a boost to your paranoia quotient!